Many would surely agree that Sa Pa is the most memorable region in Northern Vietnam. This small colonial hill-town is situated on the Sa Pa Lake in Lao Chai Province. Bordering with China, the area features majestic scenery, awe-inspiring terraces of rice fields, vibrant markets, and various indigenous ethnic groups. Sa Pa lies at an altitude of about 1500 m above sea level with fairly humid climate, which results in terrific views and somehow gloomy atmosphere. What makes the whole image even more picturesque is the lake and the majestic Fan Si Pan (3143 m) in the background – the highest peak of Vietnam. Rightfully, exploring Sa Pa made it’s a must in Northern Vietnam.
WELCOME TO SA PA
Locals are well-aware of the marketability of their home. Therefore, do not let yourself be disheartened after the arrival in the town when you suddenly end up surrounded by a dozen of local ladies wearing traditional costumes, trying to sell you their handcraft or convincing you to hike with them to their hill tribe villages. Some tourists like getting caught in “Sa Pa eco-tourism” and book a comfortable Homestay or Hill-Tribe Trekking – there are myriads package tours available at every guesthouse in the town. Others would prefer hiring a scooter and explore the surrounding countryside independently – this option definitely offers much more authentic and exciting experience, but also some extra time.
Sa Pa is a tourist hot-spot and sadly, money has become a new type of drug. The ethnic minorities of Sa Pa can be persistent in trying to sell in the streets and follow visitors around the town. Often it feels quite aggressive and intrusive, but that is just part of travelling in developing countries and after you firmly say “NO, thank you” they will leave you alone. NEVER say “maybe later”, otherwise you will literally not get rid of them.
DO NOT feel sorry for the families and children who are trying to sell their embroidery (mostly fake), as it is predominantly us-Westerners who are responsible for the local people and kids begging in the streets and support growth of the local ‘mafia’. Hence DO NOT give them money or feel obliged to buy their products.
Tay ladies hustling a tourist – a typical image of Sa Pa
THE LOCAL CUISINE
Sa Pa`s tourism is rapidly blooming and there is a great range of accommodation options, from the cheapest hostels to the luxurious grand hotels. The town teems with the Western restaurants as well as many local taverns, shops and travelling agencies selling all kind of services even for those more demanding ones. If you are not a fan of bizarre food or a vegetarian, then try at least the local grilled Turtle Dove or Sparrow, Pig steal armpits or Black chicken. Also remember to taste the legendary “Egg Coffee”, it is really delicious! If you have a “strong stomach”, do not forget to visit Sa Pa`s food market at the bus station and try the regional speciality – whole smoked dog. The photograph speaks for itself..
EXPLORING THE SURROUNDS
Rent a motorcycle and explore the rural area of Sa Pa, especially driving towards the Chinese border is extremely exciting. The region presents great trekking opportunities and gives travellers a chance to interact with some of the most outlying tribal groups in Vietnam, especially the Red Dao. There will be some splendid rice terraces, deep valleys, wild rivers and waterfalls to admire, but more importantly you will find yourself in a virgin, authentic Northern Vietnamese environment that has not been devastated by tourism (yet).
If you are not confident to drive a motorbike, which is probably the easiest and most flexible sort of transport here, you can easily organise a tour with an local agent or at your guesthouse. Remember to negotiate the package price!
WHEN TO TRAVEL
Best time to visit is March-May (warmer weather) or October-November for cooler and clear days. However, for the most spectacular views of rice terraces in their full abundance visit Northern Vietnam in August and September, just before the harvest starts.
Weather in Sa Pa is often foggy, rainy and cold. It rains abundantly throughout a year and weather changes all the time. However, this is what often adds on the dramatic scenery and atmosphere. Also, the rain makes landscapes verdant and lush and paddy fields very fertile.
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly to Hanoi.
You can book a quick day trip from Hanoi to Sa Pa via a tourist agent or your hotel but it is recommended to take at least 3 days for exploring Sa Pa. The best option is to either catch a local day bus (great for the scenery and low cost/$20 USD) or travel in comfort and luxury on the overnight tourist train for $70-100 USD, depending on the class.
To move around locally, a very convenient option seems to be hiring a motorbike and searching around the region at your own pace. Those who do not feel confident to drive can book any sort of tour they wish, once in Sa Pa.
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