Located in the province of Lào Cai, Sa Pa is a mountain town home to many ethnic minorities. Getting there may not be easy if you’re afraid of narrow, winding roads, but if you want to discover another side of Vietnam, you might be tempted to spend a few days (or more) there.

How to get to Sa Pa

  • By train: from Hanoi to Sa Pa Lào Cai > duration: 8h30min to 9 hours
    (more details here)
    Notice that you will have to take a bus from Lào Cai to Sa Pa to arrive in the city.
  • By bus : from Hanoi > duration: at least 5 hours
    (more details here)
  • By motorbike > bonus: you can sightsee and take your time

The city

After at least 5 hours by bus on mountainous roads (better sleep or take medicine if you get car sick), I finally arrived in Sa Pa. And I must confess that I wasn’t at all convinced by what I first saw.

I was really expecting something different after what I’d seen on the road; no rice fields and no nature here, just a city with traffic jams and everything else.

Sa Pa
Photo by Jeff on Unsplash

What you need to know is that if people tell you to go to Sa Pa, it’s usually not for the city itself, but for what you’ll see around it. Because, yes, after a bit of research, you can indeed enjoy breathtaking scenery and a pleasant experience. You just have to get off the beaten track.

Another thing: you’ll find a lot of child beggars in the city compared to other parts of Vietnam, which can be a bit disturbing if you’ve never been exposed to it before. And the city’s atmosphere can quickly become stifling with all the street vendors.

Best way to enjoy your stay

If you’re planning a trip to Sa Pa, I’d advise you to leave the city behind and go hiking or trekking if you have more time.

You can even book a home-stay to get closer to the locals and learn more about their culture and the different ethnic groups living in Sa Pa.

The best way to discover a place is always to go on an adventure, isn’t it?

The Hits

Despite my disappointment, I still enjoyed my stay in Sa Pa by exploring its surroundings. The landscapes and the hospitality of the villagers were a pleasant surprise too.

1- Hiking or trekking

One of the best-known things to do in Sa Pa: hiking. Waterfalls, caves, flora and fauna – you’ll have the chance to see a lot just by using your legs.

With this in mind, a few friends and I headed to the waterfalls and got more than we bargained for. From meeting the locals to the buffalo and the scenery, our expedition was more than interesting.

Sa Pa's buffaloes

The first 3 hours were filled with wonder at nature and the tranquility of the places we passed through. I still think this one was easier than the hike we did in Van Vieng, and less dangerous too. What’s more, the coolness of the mountains made it more pleasant to spend hours discovering the many gems to be found there.

How can you fail to fall in love with the country when, wherever you look, your eyes encounter a landscape even more beautiful than the last?

Sa Pa's local in the nature

2- Fan Si Pan

9 km south-west of Sa Pa, nicknamed “the roof of Indochina”, here’s Fan Si Pan mountain. There are many options open to you. You can choose to climb the mountain and its 3,143m if you’re experienced, or simply take the cable car to the summit.

Whether you choose one or the other, the view you’ll get is well worth it!

Sa Pa mountains
Photo by Remi Moebs on Unsplash

3- Mường Hoa Valley

Did you ask for verdant rice terraces and thousand-year-old rocks? If so, you need to head straight for the Muong Hoa Valley.

Just follow the river and you’ll find yourself in the villages of Lao Chai, Ta Van, Hâu Thào and Ban Hô.

You should also take a look at the mysterious rock formations that are a national relic of Vietnam. The carvings and various engraved symbols remain unexplained to this day.

The Misses

What may be a highlight for some may turn out to be something of a disappointment for others. This is what happened to me. I’d heard a lot about must-see places during my stay in Sa Pa and obviously didn’t want to miss them. But in fact, I found them to be very different from what I’d been told.

1- Cat Cat Village

It’s no longer a village, but rather a major tourist attraction. You won’t find much authenticity here, as everything has been turned into a store.

Too many people, oppressive atmosphere, it’s a place I recommend you avoid if you’re expecting to see a village lost in the mountains.

Everything is done to make you buy, there’s no sense of sharing and learning about the H’Mong people here.

Sa Pa is renowned for its unspoilt natural beauty, which is why locals and tourists alike have started to flock there. But some places like this have quickly become more of a theme park than an immersive experience.

2- The trash-strewn streets

I know this can be a problem in Southeast Asia, and tourism doesn’t really help sometimes. But when I traveled to Vietnam, I thought Sa Pa was probably the most polluted city.

Far from the peaceful, clean mountain town you’d imagine, it’s actually a city. Noise pollution, streets full of garbage, it was really a disappointment, especially when I think of what it must have been before: a picturesque, authentic and quiet place where life was good.

Sometimes tourism does more harm than good, unfortunately.

Final Thoughts

I heard so many stories about Sa Pa before I went there that it was a bit frustrating to discover a city completely the opposite of what I thought it would be.

I’ve never been as harassed here as in any other part of Vietnam. I understand that they make money this way, but in the city I felt a bit uncomfortable…

That’s why I think staying in Sa Pa might not be the best option; it would be better to spend some time outside the city, and see some of the places that are still preserved.

In Sa Pa, tourism has unfortunately negatively altered the nature and way of life of the local community.

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