Sa Pa (or Sapa) is the crown jewel of North Vietnam in our opinion. Nestled in the Vietnam mountains near the northern border is this natural wonderland. Sa Pa is known as the home of the Vietnam rice fields, but it is so much more than that. It is a place for both reflection & adventure, food & culture, nature & people. Sa Pa is an incredible destination for anyone and everyone around the world. Here is why.
In Sa Pa we felt completely immersed in Northern Vietnamese culture. We were surrounded by jaw-dropping Vietnam mountains covered in rice terraces and dotted with villages. The views left us in awe as we sat and stared at the beautiful rice terraces from our mountainside cottage.
The only thing better than the views in Sa Pa are the locals in Sa Pa. The people there were so incredibly friendly that our interactions stay with us to this day. Our friends we hiked with and stayed with told us so many amazing stories and showed us all of the secret adventures Sa Pa has to explore.
There is a lot to do in Sa Pa, so on your own trip you’d better get at least 3 or 4 days, hopefully more. Here are our tips and secrets we learned on our own adventure in the home of the Vietnam rice fields: Sa Pa
Getting To Sa Pa
The closest big city to Sa Pa is Hanoi. Since Sa Pa is located back in the Vietnam Mountains, it is not exactly an easy place to get to, however that has benefits.
- First, there are fewer tourists that make the journey to Sa Pa
- Second, you’ll be in the natural beauty of North Vietnam versus the industrial city center of Hanoi
- Third, you will get to have an incredible adventure! An adventure that will leave you with countless memories and stories to tell your friends and family.
There are a few transportation options to get from Hanoi to Sa Pa. There is the night bus, the train, and rental cars. Let’s go over each option:
The Night Bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa
We took the night bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa, and oh boy we have some things to say about it. Let’s start with what the night bus is. The night bus picks you up from Hanoi at around 10 pm and brings you to Sa Pa overnight, dropping you off right before dawn.
Side Note: If you plan on visiting Ho Chi Minh during your time in Vietnam, here is an awesome 3 day itinerary!
Why take the night bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa? Well, it is cheap. And when you are traveling overnight it means that you need one less night booked at a hotel! We chose the night bus for the cost savings. Now let’s talk about how it went.
Number one, the night bus got us there. The bus driver did his job and took us from Hanoi to Sa Pa. That was about the only good part.
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Number two, our sleep on the night bus was probably the worst night’s ‘sleep‘ we’ve ever gotten. In Vietnam drivers are not shy about honking. You might think the honking dies down in the middle of the night, but you have another thing coming! Even our driver was honking every ten minutes as we cruised the highway North.
Number three, no bathroom breaks. The following story is 100% true.
Story Time (written by Zach):
On the night bus up to Sa Pa from Hanoi (6 hours overnight sleeper bus) I got woken up from two people at the same time: the driver demanding (money even though we prepaid) and Julie demanding a bathroom. Being the multi-tasker I am, I whipped up an empty water bottle for Jules while I fired up a Google translate argument with this fella.
It is 3 am, I haven’t gotten a wink of sleep, and I am trying to ignore the sound of pee hitting the seat (Julie has some bad aim) while I am fumbling with a translator hoping this guy doesn’t boot us off the bus right then and there in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully I was able to figure out the discrepancy with the driver and he didn’t notice Julie’s puddle of pee in her seat. We made it to our home-stay, but unfortunately for Julie and anyone in her vicinity, we couldn’t grab a shower until later that afternoon…
If you take the night bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa, go to the bathroom before getting on! And don’t plan on being able to take any pee breaks throughout the night.
Number four, you get to Sa Pa very early in the day, at around 4 am. There is not much to do in Sa Pa at 4 am, and unless you can check-in at that time you are out of luck! Thankfully, our friend at Eco Palms (more on that later) was a lifesaver.
Needless to say, we do not recommend the night bus. We did love the price, though, and looking back if we had known what to expect things might have been better. If you use the night bus, more power to you! If you’d rather skip it, there are a few other forms of transportation you can use.
Train from Hanoi to Lao Cai and Cab to Sa Pa
The Vietnam Railway system has a train that takes you the distance from Hanoi to Lao Cai, which is just under 40 miles away from Sa Pa. Sa Pa itself doesn’t have a train station, and Lao Cai is the closest you’ll be able to get on the rails.
Luckily, taxi cabs are relatively cheap in Northern Vietnam. You can get a cab from the Lao Cai railway station and head straight to Sa Pa. In addition, there are buses that drive this route as well if you would like to save a few bucks.
Rent a Car in Hanoi
The final way to get from Hanoi to Sa Pa, and definitely most convenient, is to rent a car! There are numerous car rental options in Hanoi, and you can get a rental for the period of time that you will be adventuring in Sa Pa!
Additionally, you could look into local scooter rentals. Scooters and mopeds are everywhere in Vietnam, and if you feel comfortable driving one then this could be a great option. Remember that the drive is long, so you’ll be on that moped for an extended period of time if this is what you choose!
Stay at Eco Palms House
On our trip to Sapa we stayed at the Eco Palms House, and would HIGHLY recommend it. You can book your own bungalow or grab a bed in the friendly house. We tried both!
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The private bungalow is epic, the porches look out over the Vietnam rice fields and, depending on which one you get, you’ll have a perfect view of sunrise or sunset. The private bungalows are also perfect for a family, as you can bunk up with more than two people in many of them!
If you would rather save some money, then bunking up in the friendly room worked just fine too. You do get a privacy curtain making it more private than a typical hostel would be. Remember, you aren’t in Sa Pa just to hang out at the place anyways, it is just somewhere to sleep!
The owner/manager of Eco Palms House is the friendliest person we’ve ever met. Ever. After our treacherous night bus experience, he fielded our call at 4 am and directed us to the Eco Palms House, which we of course had ZERO idea how to find. We would have been completely out of luck for 4 hours in the rain without him!
The best part about this place is the food. The attached restaurant has UNBELIEVABLY good pho. We got it every day twice a day while we were here. We also shared some rice wine with the owner and mingled with the other tourists. All in all, Eco Palms House was right up at the top of the best places we stayed in Southeast Asia!
Trek the Sapa Rice Terraces
Hiking is our favorite thing to do, so we of course had to hike as much as we could in the Vietnam mountains. We woke up on day 1 ready to go! After booking a local guide (at a very reasonable price) through Eco Palms House, and eating some delicious morning pho, we got moving.
We trekked through Lao Chai and Ta Van, and had a day full of stunning scenery and immersion in the Hmong culture. We walked and talked with our guide for a full 10 miles through the village, and the time flew by.
A nice friendly buffalo even stopped to take a few selfies with us! If you head to Sa Pa, you have got to go on a trek. If you don’t, then we’re not friends.
Hiking advice from thatbackpacker.com:
There are full-day hikes and even half-day hikes (like Cat Cat Village) which you may want to attempt on your own, however, if you want to spend a few days experiencing the hillside I would recommend hiring a local guide who is familiar with the terrain, the changes in weather, and the best lookout spots.
Treks are easy to arrange once you arrive in Sapa, so don’t bother making bookings in advance as it’ll be cheaper to do so in person. I booked my guided tour through my hotel in Sapa, but you can also book tours through the main tourism office or the various tour operators found in town. Most of the guides are local and they speak great English, so know that you’re giving back to the local community when you book a trekking guide.
See The Waterfall of Love
Love Waterfall AKA The Waterfall of Love is quite a beaut! The water flows over an enormous cliff with the North Vietnamese greenery all around you. Definitely a must on your adventure in Sa Pa.
You’ll need to take a taxi cab to get there, unless of course you rented a car, but the cabs are extremely inexpensive and it is definitely worth the trip. Plus you get a short hike to get to the waterfall!
To be honest we did not know about Fansipan Outdoors before getting to Sapa. We asked a few locals what we should do with our time, and literally every one told us to head to Fansipan, and OH MY GOODNESS we are glad we listened.
Clothing We Love
You need clothes to travel. Heck, maybe you don’t. We don’t judge. If you want to hop around the world in your birthday suit then go right ahead! But if you want to cover up, here are a few of our favorite clothing items we love, and we think you’ll love too!
This place is literally on top of the world. A temple above the clouds. The pictures look fake, but believe me they are not! We are not good enough at Photoshop to make these photographs look like this…
You can take the Fansipan cable car all the way from the base of the mountain to the top. This is relatively inexpensive, but if you would like to save that money AND get a workout in, there is a way: hike!
Fansipan is a great place to strap on your hiking shoes for the ascent. We recommend hiking if you have the time, but you better dedicate the entire day to it! The hike up is no joke.
There were animals EVERYWHERE in Sa Pa. Literally just walking around the villages. Cats and dogs all over the place, buffalo roaming the streets, goat and chicken gangs here and there, even a tortoise if you’re lucky!
More from Christina’s Blog:
Apart from the rocky mountain ranges, the verdant fields and never-ending rice paddies will make you fall in love with Sapa. Home to countless local species of birds, animals, and plants, this is every nature lover’s paradise.
Get up early in the morning to witness the sun rising from the clouds and watch small villages appear from the mist as if by magic. Wander through dense forests and hear only the sounds of the flora and fauna, and travel through small villages where kids will come to greet you with a high-five and a huge smile.
More Pics From The Jewel of Vietnam
Sa Pa was a wildly wonderful adventure. No matter what time of year, you will have the time of your life exploring the Vietnam rice fields to the mountains of Fansipan. You will eat the best food you’ve ever had in front of the best views you’ve ever seen!
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