Attached are more photos of the town of Sapa. It is actually a very small town but very charming and relaxing even though it is touristy. A trip to northern Vietnam without visiting Sapa will not be complete somehow.
Sapa is a small town located in the mountainous area in northern Vietnam close to the border with China (Yunnan province). Sapa used to be a stronghold of the French during the colonial days but now this gives way to tourism. In fact on a busy day, there could be more tourists than locals in Sapa. Therefore this town is geared up for tourism with hotels, restaurants, cafe bars, souvenir shops etc. Sapa is actually located on a slope and you will have a good view of the town from your hotel. The main attractions in the town area are the Sapa market, ethnic minority people, Sapa church and of course the relaxing atmosphere and fresh mountain air. More photos are at part 2 of this tip as well as the travelogue section of this VT page.
Highly recommended. A nice standard trek from Sapa town, about 3km on well paved road downhill. A great introduction to see the country side of Sapa. There is a nice bridge across the fast flowing river and confluence of waterfalls at this disused small power station built by the French.
Recommend joining a tour with a guide. Of course, you can do it own your too as this is safe and clearly marked walk more than a trek and you come back the same way.
Going back is uphil and I recommend taking the motorcycle ride, xe om. Price is negotiable and reasonable. Save your legs for other longer hikes. I took the motorcycle back, the others walked back but were heavily drenched by unexpected downpour.
There is a small open air market in the centre of the town where you can sit around and eat some freshly barbequed food, or just browse around the local arts and craft. We didn't really find anything that particularly interested us, but we did enjoy just sitting at a stall and people watch.
Cat Cat village is the closest and easiest village to walk to. You don't really need a guide to do this walk. Just head through the wet market towards the Cat Cat hotel and follow the road down. An admission fee of 5,000 dong per person is charged so that the village can maintain the roads in good working order. 2km down you will come to a flight of steps that heads down through the village to a waterfall.
When you reach the end point, you will be hounded by numerous motocycle taxi operators offering to take you back up to the town. We decided to walk all the way down and back up again - completing the 6-8 km cycle in about 2.5 hours.
While the walk was good exercise, the village itself was nothing really special. Would strongly recommend that you go on one of the other tours to villages further afield, especially if you are stretched for time.
There's really an extremely wide range of goods and services available for sale at the market. You can get your metal plough custom made at the iron-mongers; restock your supplies of lethal home-brewed wine; or even buy some livestock! You should definitely try to get to the market as early as possible as the villages start making the long journey home around lunch time.
The Bac Ha market is the largest market in the region and is held every Sunday. Bac Ha however is a bum-numbing 2 hour car ride from downtown Sapa. While it was interesting seeing the kinds of produce the locals traded, you could walk through the whole market in less than half an hour, making us wonder whether the long journey was really worth the trouble. Our guide was also telling us that a lot of the goods on sale were actually all imported from China (like plastic sandals, transistors radios, and even some of the bags and garments!) and not made by the local tribe people.
The little town was also jam-packed with tourists, so the place was too commercial for my liking. There are a couple of other more traditional markets held on other days which may be more worth the time.
After leaving the villages behind, the trek came to an end when we crossed a bridge and gathered at a pick up point. A pre-arranged car then brought us back to the Mountain View hotel in just 15-20 minutes. Incredible that the 2-3 hour trek down to the village could be done in just 15 minutes by car!
The villages are extremely hospitable and will readily offer you drinks when you enter their homes. If you're adventurous enough, you can try out their water pipes - I'm told the tobacco is really strong! Homebrewed alcohol (from either rice or corn) is the other "vice" that you may be offered. Warning though - drinking their wine is almost like consuming pure alcohol, so would advise you to drink in moderation otherwise you'll never make it back to your hotel!
After lunch, Dang, our guide, took us to visit one of the local homes. The double-storey Hmong house was paved with concrete and was built of wood. We were told that it was usual for each family to have three or four generations staying together under one roof. Each house typically had two rooms, the main living area (where they even had a television set!) and the kitchen. The second storey was were you had the sleeping quarters as well as the storage area for food to last the whole family through the year after the harvest.
We finally reached the village of Lao Chai after about 2-3 hours for a much welcome pit stop. Dang, our guide, prepared a simple lunch from the hotel of bread, cheese, veggies and fruit. While eating, we observed the children and the animals in the village play and cavort with each other.
The first thing that struck me was that the humans and animals all lived in close proximity to each other. It was usual for each family to have their own livestock (chickens, dogs, pigs, buffalo, horses) all staying in the same compound. The villagers have a very practical view of animals, with all the animals reared to be consumed (yes, even the dogs!) or to help work the land.
A must do activity in Sapa is to go on a hike through the mountains and visit some of the local villages. There are several tour operators selling similar packages - half day; one day; two day trips etc. The cost of the package generally depends on the degree of use of a vehicle (i.e longer time traveling by car - the more expensive), the food served (obviously you pay more for better food), as well as the number of people in the group.
We booked the most popular one day package, a visit to the nearby villages of Lao Chai, Tavan & Giang Ta Chai, from the Mountain View Hotel which cost us US$10 a head for a group of four. Our guide Dang spoke excellent english and was a treasure-trove of interesting facts and information about the locals.
After finally reaching the valley floor, we stopped next to a picturesque river for a short break. By now the sun had emerged from the clouds and was beating down on us. The good thing was that you didn't really feel the heat in the cool climate. The bad thing is that the sun's rays are actually very strong, so would definitely recommend that liberal amounts of sun screen / lotion is applied.
Don't be surprised too to see little children herding animals up and down the paths. Most of the villages are located down on the valley floor, while the padi fields are up on the mountain slopes. During the planting season, water buffaloes have to be herded from the villages up to the fields and back again.
This fierce little girl in the photo was running, yes running, down the slippery track shouting and flailing a stick, directing three water buffaloes back to the valley floor.
Along our descent, we also met quite a number of villagers on their way up to Sapa. These amazing people do the four hour round trip trek practically everyday bringing their handicrafts to sell in the town.
The children though were the most endearing. With rosy cheeks and bold wit, it is difficult to turn them down when they try to sell you their little handmade knick-knacks. The little ones have also picked up english from the tourists, not all of it good, so be prepared to hear exclamations of "Pretty girl, you buy from me? No buy from me, you naughty!" (or alternatively, "no buy from me, you monkey!")