Sa Pa (or Sapa), is a frontier town in north-west Vietnam. It is the capital of Sa Pa District in Lào Cai Province. There are several ethnic minority groups living in this area, such as Hmong, Dao (Yao), Giáy, Pho Lu, and Tay, so the town is a home to one of the main markets where they come to trade.
The district is famous for the Hoàng Liên Son range of mountains, the eastern extremity of the Himalayas. Vietnam’s highest mountain, Fan Si Pan, is a part of this range, at a height of 3143 meters above sea level. Sapa town is placed at an elevation of about 1500 meters.
Immediately upon arrival, I decided I liked Sapa town. The streets are full of locals and travelers alike, with charming architecture left over from the French colonial era, and ethnic minority people in their traditional clothes.
While my backpack was trying to knock me over on my back, I followed the main busy Cau May Street towards the Green Valley hostel, where I checked in for only one night initially, but ended up booking more later on.
The rooms in the hostel are cozy and relatively clean. The beds even have electric mattresses to keep warm when it gets cold! I stayed in a dorm room that hosts up to 3 people in big beds for only 5$ per night. The hostel has a cool bar area where the backpackers can chill, eat, drink, or play pool. The bar has big blue windows with a beautiful view of Fansipan Mountain. It’s a pleasure to sit by the window sipping on your drink, even on cloudy days.
A lovely small kitty (I called her Mimi) lives in the hostel. She is the cutest creature ever and loves to hang out with the travelers.
Places to drink & eat
The town offers a great variety of hostels and hotels, cafes, bars, restaurants, and shops. There are also countless places around the town where you can get a relaxing foot or whole body massage at a great price.
The busiest street is Cau May Street, where most travelers hang around. Everywhere in town you can see ethnic minority women and children selling their handmade goods and offering trekking tours and home-stays in their villages in the mountains around Sapa town.
Some of the bars I visited are Le Petit Gecko, The Hmong Sisters, Why Not Bar, Little Vietnam, and others.
My favorite breakfast & coffee place is Le Petit Gecko, charmingly decorated and just across the street from the church.
Little Vietnam restaurant offers a variety of western and Vietnamese food. I had a Vietnamese dish – fish in garlic and lemongrass sauce – and absolutely loved it!
The best bar for drinks in the evening is The Hmong Sisters. With its awesome interior, good music, and 2-for-1 cocktail prices, it provides a really nice atmosphere for the night.
Contribute to the local community
For those who want to give back to the local communities as they travel, Sapa is full of opportunities. Visiting and staying with one of many ethnic minority groups living in the hills around the town is a great way to support the local people and see the beautiful scenery at the same time.
I organized my home-stay with a woman called May from the Hau Thao Village where the H’mong people live. May found the French girl Orane, who shared a hostel room with me, in the streets of Sapa town, so Orane and I decided to go trekking together with May and stay in her home for one night.
Another option for social engagement in the town and its surroundings is to go through Sapa O’Chau social enterprise. O’Chau means “thank you” in their language. Sapa O’Chau cozy coffee shop is situated on Thac Bac Street and that’s where you can find all the information related to trekking, home-stays, volunteering, or helping with schools and the problem of illiteracy among the ethnic minority groups.
Next to the café there is a H’mong Hendicraft Store where you can see, buy, and even learn how to make accessories in the fashion of Sapa’s ethnic minorities.
The people of Sapa use locally grown hemp to make the fabrics and they decorate them with meaningful traditional motifs. The colors in the fabric are created from leaves, roots, and barks of different plants.
By purchasing products in Sapa O’Chau, you can help create higher incomes for the craftswomen and help their children get necessary education and better job prospects.
On my second day of trekking, it was raining quite heavily and the rain continued throughout the next two days of my stay in Sapa town. Unfortunately, I came down with a cold, so the bad weather and health problems kept me in the hostel for the next two days and I didn’t get to do some of the things I had planned.
For those who don’t want to do a long trekking and home-stay, there are plenty of other things to do in Sapa and nearby. If you like shopping for handmade goods, they are easily accessible in many shops in the town.
You can visit the Sapa market every morning, but it is the busiest on Saturdays. Hill-tribe people from the surrounding villages sell their clothing and handicrafts, and the market’s food stalls are popular as well.
If you are interested in history and ethnology, Sapa Museum is a good place to go. The old Stone Church is right in the center of the town as well.
For those who want to experience a shorter trekking route, Cat Cat village is the closest to Sapa town, only 3 kilometers south. Those in good shape can access the Fansipan peak from Sapa as well. It usually takes about three days to go there and back. Although the summit is only 19 kilometers away, it should not be underestimated, especially if the weather is poor, as the terrain can be quite slippery and wet, and the visibility treacherous.