Sapa is located around 320 km northwest of Hanoi and near the border with China. It is a village in the Lao Cai province with the same name as the district.
The town has a small size of 25 km2 and a population that doesn’t exceed 10.000, although the numbers vary and depend if you count the outer parts of the district too.
Sapa lies on an altitude of 1500 mtr and has a mountain range in its district which also has the highest peak of Vietnam, Fa Si Pan with an altitude of 3143 mtr. Sapa itself lies below the Aurora & J mountain. With this geography it makes it a cold place in winter time. Actually, it is the only place in Vietnam where it snows occasionally. Beside the snow there are around 160 days of fog yearly. The place is wonderful with a lake, surrounded by hills/mountains.
The history of Sapa dates back to the French colonial times. In the late 1800’s it were mostly military parties and missionaries that gave Sapa a name on the map. From the 1920’s there were rich people who built villas. At the end of the second World War till 1954 a lot was destroyed by Viet Minh, or by French war planes. In the 1960’s it became a new economic zone and more people from the lowlands moved to the region. There was a very short occupation by Chinese troops in 1979. From 1993 things changed drastically when international tourism was allowed. That gave the town a boom thanks to the thousands of tourists visiting.
There are a lot of different ethnic minorities in the region. The largest group of them are the Hmong people. Other minorities are the Giay, Day, Dao and Xa Pho. Most of these ethnic people work on their lands. Rice and corn are the main products they are growing. When you arrive at Sapa by bus, a group of these ethnic people are waiting for you to get off the bus and offer to be your guide or take you for a home stay. The price of that can be between $10 and $25, but can easily be bargained on.
The women will guide you through the rice fields and hills to their homes, where you get traditional food and stay overnight, possibly with some local brewed rice liquor. Don’t underestimate the walking time, because it might be a 4 to 5 hr walk to their homes. Therefore you can’t go up and down in one day. There is another possibility to ask them to walk you around for an hour or two for a cheaper price and return to your hotel in town.
How to get to Sapa
There are several options to get there. Agencies in Hanoi offer organized trips to Sapa for around $50 a 3 night/2 days and $70 for 4 nights/3 days. It sounds confusing to have more nights than days, but the reason is that you spend a night in the bus. So you leave around 9 pm in a night bus and the next morning you arrive early. You will be two days in town, including one night, and you take the nightbus back again, making it total 3 nights/2 days. Maybe if you walk around in the Old Quarter in Hanoi you find places that offer the trip for a few dollar more or less than mentioned.
You can take an open ticket with Sinh Travel. They have many agencies or related agencies in Hanoi. The price for one way is around $10. The bus looks comfortable from outside, but be prepared for a 6 hr uncomfortable night. The seats are a kind of beds, the back support has a reasonable degree, somewhere between sitting and lying down. The issue is the leg space, or rather the lack of it. Tall westerners struggle with it. Bend knees for 6 hrs. I’d suggest the floor beds, as they might give the possibility to stretch one leg on the floor, which can’t be done in the upper beds.
Another option is a train to Lao Cai. From Lao Cai you take a bus to Sapa town, which isn’t far and cost you max $3 one way ticket. The train price starts at around $20 for one way. There is a variety in prices depending on the compartment, number of beds, etc.
There is a possibility to travel from Sapa to Halong Bay, the other tourist hotspot. The bus will pass Hanoi again and the price will be around $19 for one way. From Sapa the bus leaves around 6 pm while it arrives early morning in Halong.
A hotel around the lake in Sapa can be found from around 250k VND ($11) a night up to much more expensive rooms.
Sapa is certainly one of the most attractive places to visit in Vietnam!