Sapa is a market town in the Northwest region of Vietnam, near the border of China. Its proximity to Mount Fansipan (the highest mountain in Vietnam) makes it one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam. It’s become so popular in recent years that the town has also become famous for over-tourism.
There is a lot written about Sapa, but it’s almost always to do with things to do around Sapa, such as trekking to the nearby ethnic minority hill-tribe villages. The internet already has enough guides to trekking in Sapa, so I wanted to see what Sapa the town is like.
For this trip I had planned to get the train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (the nearest train station to Sapa), and also check out the funicular and cable car to Fansipan. While the funicular is a tourist train, I still wanted to experience it as part of my quest to ride all the railways of Southeast Asia.
Unfortunately I booked my trip at the wrong time of the week, as the train was running on a limited service due to the pandemic. I have previously cancelled two trips to Sapa due to scheduling issues, so I wasn’t going to cancel for a third time. I also read that September is one of the best times to visit Sapa, so I was committed to going – train or not.
Sapa is situated on a plateau that faces Mount Fansipan. Geographically it’s an obvious place for a market town where people from nearby villages can converge to meet and trade. And now it’s is a major tourist hub where travellers can stay and then visit smaller villages.
In the middle of the town is a lake, and on the north bank are a row of government administrative buildings.
Northeast of the lake is the impressive Truc Lam Dai Giac Zen Monastery.
To the east of the lake, Sapa resembles a typical Vietnamese provincial town.
A familiar face looking down from an electronic billboard.
There are some small temples here and there to reward you for your urban wanders.
There is a central market here where you can see regular life in a Vietnamese town.
The market includes a large market hall for tourist items, but it was quiet during my visit.
On the south side of the lake are many hotels and restaurants.
Between the lake and the viewpoint for Mt Fansipan is the intersection that I refer to as “The Times Square of Sapa”. Four roads converge here, and at night the cafes and restaurants are lit up like a Christmas tree.
It is especially atmospheric on a foggy night.
To the west of the lake is the view towards Fansipan. There is a big public square here, which is the last piece of flat land before descending into the valley.
Next to the public square is the monolithic Sun Plaza. This is the entrance to the funicular railway and cable car to Fansipan.
The building is home to the Hôtel de la Coupole – MGallery.
The plateau drops down into the Muong Hoa valley, where buildings cling to the side of the mountain as the road descends steeply.
As you descend into the valley, you can see all the hotels that have been built on the side of the mountain facing Fansipan.
And this is the view that all those hotels are fighting for. Even if Fansipan is hiding behind clouds there is still this amazing view of the valley.
Sapa during the pandemic
While I wasn’t able to get the train due to tourism numbers being down, it turned out to be an ideal time to visit Sapa if you don’t like crowds. I was happy to not be wandering around without big crowds, but I felt bad for the closed hotels and bored-looking shop owners who hadn’t made a sale all day.
As with most of the tourist towns in Vietnam I’ve visited in 2020, I arrived in a town that has been crushed by the pandemic. Even though Vietnam has controlled the pandemic and domestic tourism is fully functional, the absence of international tourists has taken its toll.
I arrived at my first hotel to find no one there. Eventually, a cleaner emerged who then called the owner. I was the only person staying there. I moved to another hotel the next day where I was also the only guest. It was weird to go downstairs for breakfast to find the staff waiting for me.
Sapa is well known for hilltribe touts who come into the town selling trinkets. With the lack of tourists, there were very few sellers on the street. There was one lady who I kept seeing every day, and we ended up just saying hi to each other whenever we crossed paths.
Next to the lake, there is a big parking lot that had a few buses parked in the corner. I wondered what this would look like when the park was full of buses.
This billboard hints at a different time when the town was awash with Instagrammers.
Random notes and observations
Sapa probably has the best town logo in the world. The word SAPA forms mountains and clouds, which was pretty much the experience of my trip.
I stayed for four nights in order to give myself a chance for a clear day to summit Mt Fansipan. This plan was also thwarted as the funicular and cable car had been closed since March when international borders closed. Even if it was open, most of my days were shrouded in fog.
There was one afternoon where the sun came out, and I briefly saw the mountain summit. With a bit of blue sky, I made my way down into the valley where you could see the last remaining terraced rice fields that had not been harvested.
You always hear about foreigners motorbike touring around Vietnam, but rarely about Vietnamese. It was good to see a Vietnamese group on big bikes (ie not scooters) doing a tour of the north.
There was a lot of road works going on when I was there. Fansipan road was being dug up to lay a new drainage system. A good thing to do while the crowds have been thinned out.
There was also a lot of hotel construction going on, despite the pandemic. Maybe these places have already been funded so they are building anyway. I would hate to be opening a new hotel at this point in history.
Even before I got here I wondered what the logistics were of bringing building supplies up the mountain. Everything would have to come from Lao Cai, and throughout the day you would see trucks hauling up the mountain. Here is a lit of what is planned to be built in Sapa.
There is some serious excavation works on the side of the mountain as well, as new hotels looking for the best view of Fansipan continue to be built.
I was most curious to see what kind of cafe scene was here. I was expecting something like Dalat in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, where there is a flourishing hipster cafe scene. This movement hasn’t arrived in Sapa yet.
There are no national or international chains here yet (no Highlands or Starbucks for example), so the big cafes here are some of the familiar names that can be found in Hanoi (like KAFA Cafe and Cong Caphe).
The best coffee I found was a Le Gecko, and I ended up going there every day.
One thing I didn’t expect to see was a vending machine for coffee. Vending machine culture hasn’t taken off in Vietnam (perhaps because there are no dong coins). This was the first time I’ve seen a coffee vending machine in Vietnam.
Prices are in line with Vietnam prices as well. I was too coffeed out to try one at this point.
I was bracing myself for overpriced food, but most places were reasonably priced here. With such a large domestic tourism market there are the usual Vietnamese staples.
When I visit a new place in Vietnam I look around on local food blogs for famous places. Sometimes Google Maps is helpful for finding such places as well. I didn’t uncover anything that was extraordinary. It was just cheap and reliable fare.
When looking for a cheap meal it’s hard to beat a com binh dan (economic rice meal).
Each place varies, and you can see what is on offer at the front. This is the same variation of rice-based meals across Southeast Asia. I like to go to these places to get a vegetable fix.
As with the cafes, there are no big restaurant chains here. I saw a Pho Ly Quoc Su, which is a famous pho restaurant from Hanoi. Even though Sapa feels big, it only has a population of 10,000 people, so of course there are no chains here.
And then there comes a time when you’ve eaten enough pho for a week and all you want is a burger.
Even with the tourist numbers down there were plenty of western restaurants open. Nothing stood out as being recommendable, but part of Sapa’s appeal for travellers is for having something other than noodles and rice after touring around the remote Northwest.
Something I had always wondered was if there were many old buildings here. French colonialists set up a summer residence for the Governor-General of Indochina, and by the 1940s the town had established hotels and villas for those looking to escape the heat of Hanoi.
Most of Sapa’s historic buildings were lost during the First Indochina War (1946 – 1954) from Viet Minh attacks and then later French air force bombing.
There are some old villas around the old church which hint at what “Old Sapa” might have looked like. apart from that, most of Sapa is new.
I wanted to get the train as I didn’t fancy taking a bus ride through the mountains from Hanoi to Sapa. It turns out though that the road trip is very easy from Hanoi, which partly explains why there are so many tourists. The road from Hanoi to Lao Cai follows the path of the Red River in a valley, and it’s mostly a straight and flat road with no traffic lights.
I got a limo van to Sapa, which is my preferred road transport in Vietnam. The seats are like sitting in lounge chairs. The trip was under 5 hours from Hanoi, and they drop you off at your hotel.
On the way back I got a bus, most of which are now bed buses. I try not to ride these things, so for this trip I got the luxury bus which only has 2 rows instead of 3. The compartments are longer as well, so a 6-foot person like myself can fit inside comfortably.
Search here for Hanoi to Sapa transport.
In Sapa there is a long-distance bus terminal next to the main market for buses to Hanoi, Ha Long, and major towns in the north such as Dien Bien Phu.
For buses to Lao Cai there is a local bus with regular departures near the old church.
If you are getting the train, there are two overnight services from Hanoi to Lao Cai. The local bus to Sapa is in front of Lao Cai station. Train services usually run every night, though as I previously mentioned it was running on a limited schedule when I visited.
At Lao Cai it’s possible to cross the Vietnam-China border by foot into Hekou, and then get a train to Kunming.
In the future I want to get the train from Hanoi to Kunming, so I will stop in Sapa again to try my luck at visiting Mt Fansipan.
John Pangilinan says
Great post James, seeing this makes me miss my 2012 trip there… and also it seems it hasn’t changed too much either since my visit there.
It also makes me want to visit again now that I’m better with my photography, it looks really atmospheric, and I remember the days shrouded in fog only to be broken by a brief peek of sun through the clouds…
James Clark says
Thanks John, yes the town looks normal but I bet there are more hotel than you remember. I liked wandering around in the fog, it was a nice change of pace from coastal tropical weather.
Tom Byrne says
Thank you for the interesting post on Sapa.I have convinced myself I need to visit Sapa and Lao Cai.My partner wants to see the snow.I am not keen on the cold when in Vietnam! But I’ll cry when back HCMC! The food and beer and scenery will keep me happy.
James Clark says
Thanks, Tom! Yes I’m not sure I’m ready to revisit somewhere cold, especially as I don’t have the wardrobe for it.