Sapa is famous for its landscapes of verdant rice paddies, rolling hills, Vietnam’s highest mountain, and trails in overgrown valleys.
Sapa – Touching the Clouds in Vietnam
Located in north-western Vietnam about 350 kilometers from Hanoi, Sapa is one of the most scenic places in the country. At 1,650 meters in height, the town of Sapa is nestled in a valley surrounded by the Hoang Lien Son mountains. The city also looks up at the country’s highest peak, the imposing Mount Fansipan. If you’re up for it, you can get a local guide to take you the top. It’s not the easiest trek but the view from the summit (3,143 meters/10,312 feet) is absolutely worth it.
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.
Sapa’s History and Background
Originally, the town we know as Sapa today was founded by the French in the very beginning of the 20th century. They used it as a hill station in the summer to escape the heat of Hanoi and enjoy the clean air and beautiful views of surrounding mountains.
Due to the independence movement in the 1940s, the city was heavily bombed and nothing was left but ruins. Only in the 1990s did Sapa st/art to see new infrastructure with the goal of attracting visitors again.
Today, these efforts are paying off. Sapa is once again the number one destination for hikers and trekkers wanting to explore Vietnam’s beautiful countryside, learn more about local culture and customs, and get to meet and interact with members of the famed hill tribes.
Ethnic Minorities in Sapa
The mountains, valleys, and hills around Sapa are home to over twenty groups of ethnic minorities. The Hmong, Dao, and Giay are the largest and most well-known groups and make up about 50% of the local population. Some of the smaller groups such as the Phula, Hani, and Latis are often only represented by one or two small villages with a few hundred individuals.
The fact that every tribe has their own language, clothing style, and set of traditions and customs makes Sapa one of the most culturally diverse areas in the country, if not in the region.
Traditionally, these groups are known for farming, growing rice as well as other crops, and raising livestock such as cows, pigs, chickens, and horses. While many hill tribes still do this kind of labor, others have started to work in the tourism sector. This includes guiding treks for visitors, hosting guests for homestays, or making and selling traditional style clothes and accessories to tourists.
When to Trek in Sapa
Weather is a very important factor during decision-making time. It is necessary to have nice weather when you embark upon your trek because it can make or break the experience. Clouds can impede your view and the mud makes it difficult and sometimes unpleasant to walk up a steep slope. The best time to visit Sapa is from March to May and from September to November. It is dry and clean with sunshine during March to May, a very comfortable climate for traveling. But if you want to enjoy the terraces, September to November is the perfect time.
If you’ve made your way to Sapa, chances are you want to go for at least a one-day trek. Since there are so many routes varying greatly in terms of difficulty, length, and beauty, it’s best to get a local guide. That way you can be sure to explore the best areas all while staying safe. The added bonus is that you will spend a lot of time with your guide, giving you the chance to learn more about the local culture, customs, and way of life.
Rules to follow in a village with ethnic inhabitants
- No drugs.
- Do not touch sacred objects.
- No noise making and alcohol drinking (rice wine in their presence is doable).
- No kissing in public.
- Ask for permission when taking photos, especially of older people and children
- Only walk into a house if you are invited. Gifts for kids are welcome but avoid money and sweets.
- Pay for your meal if you are invited for lunch or for homestay accommodation.
- I recommend buying a handmade object to show appreciation of hospitality.
What to Pack when Trekking in Sapa
- Food and water. There won’t be many stores in your path. Make sure you have enough food and water because you should only rely on yourself.
- Those stunning scenes need to be captured and saved.
- In case you want to see a certain village or stay in a specific homestay, a map will be very helpful. If you have data from the Vietel provider; there is a possibility you can access the internet here. Other than that, you should be prepared for no signal. Make sure to load the map on your phone beforehand when you still have internet.
- Sunscreen/ hat/ sunglasses. This depends on when you are trekking. If it is summer, it is necessary.
- Warm clothes. In the winter, it can get really cold in Sapa. Stay warm. Sometimes homestays have limited to no heating.
- Lightweight rain jacket.
- Bug spray.
- Good hiking shoes.
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