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, Sa Pa made it be the most popular destination in Northern Vietnam.
THE LOCAL PEOPLE (TRIBES OF SA PA)
Sa Pa unites 9 ethnic minorities, the tribes of Sa Pa including the Kinh, Hmong, Dao, Giay, Pho Lu, Giay, Thai, Hoa, and Tay, with a total population of around 35.000 inhabitants. These are all fascinating highland tribes and the reason for Sa Pa being one of the most visited places in Vietnam.
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 handicraft or convincing you to hike with them to their hill tribe villages.
Some tourists don`t mind 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 MARKETS AND FOOD
As town`s tourism is rapidly blooming there is a great range of accommodation options, from the cheapest hostels to the luxurious grand hotels. It teems with Western restaurants as well as many local taverns, shops and travel agencies selling all kind of services even for those more demanding ones.
Sa Pa is an old market town and indeed it boasts fairs, street food markets and all kinds of strange delicacies. If you are not a fan of bizarre food or a vegetarian, then you might struggle. The rest of the folks, feel free to try the local grilled Turtle Dove or Sparrow, Pig steals 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 the Sa Pa`s famous food market at the bus station and try the regional specialty if you dare – the whole smoked dog.
SA PA AND 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.
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 organize a tour with a local agent or at your guesthouse. Remember to negotiate the package price!
ESSENTIAL EXPERIENCES IN SA PA
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 to 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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