What makes a place special? This is a question I have asked myself so many times during our travels. Is it a place where you can party through the night, a place where you can meet new people or a place where you can escape people?
We always find ourselves traveling to places without any phone signal, gravel roads and no people. Scary right? Nope, our special place is a place where we can admire mother nature, a place with minimal human footprint or let’s rather say “tourist footprint”. Sapa was just not it…
The glossy photo’s of Sapa were displayed all over Hanoi. Stretches of rice terraces, the perfect place to explore. Super excited we got into the half empty bus to Sapa where we could become one with nature. Peace and tranquility in the mountains were awaiting us. As the bus pulled into the Sapa bus station hours later, we were awakened to reality. We were surrounded by others…scattering around…tourists…and lots of them!
Let’s get to the quick facts first before I give my honest and humble opinion about Sapa and why I didn’t like it…
Where Is Sapa?
Sapa is located in northwestern Vietnam, high up in the mountains and close to the Chinese border. It is situated 380km northwest of Hanoi.
How To Get To Sapa?
You can reach Sapa from Hanoi by an 8 hour train trip to Lao Cai Railway Station. From Lao Cai it is another 1 hour drive with a minibus. There are lots of minibuses waiting at the railway station. If you are not in the mood for negotiating prices, then it’s best to let your hotel in Sapa arrange transportation from the railway station to the hotel. Book your Train Tickets here.
The less expensive but also more dreadful option – The Sleeper Bus. Maybe it’s because we are traveling with young kids, but this form of transport is my least favourite. The bus honks every minute and drives at quite a speed. Getting a good night’s rest is out of the question. Book your Bus Tickets here.
Where To Stay in Sapa?
We stayed at a lovely hotel, Sapa Glory Hotel. It is within walking distance to restaurants, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Sapa lake and the main route to Cat Cat village where you can explore the rice fields.
How To Travel Sapa?
It is quite easy to walk around in town and everything is fairly close to each other.
You can trek to the surrounding villages where all the rice fields are. This is done in a group with a guide. Book here. Be sure to have the correct trekking gear – wear proper shoes to take on the mud and don’t forget your walking stick!
During our time in Sapa the groups that passed us were quite crowded. It’s also a hefty distance to walk to the villages. We opted to rather rent scooters and explore at our own pace.
The roads are full of potholes and in a very bad condition. Drive with caution and remember to announce your presence by honking, especially when going around a bend in the road.
Why I Was Not Impressed With Sapa?
Don’t get me wrong, we are also tourists. It is as if tourism spoiled the natural habitat of a once very special place. This is why:
- Street vendors followed us and begged of us to buy souvenirs at crazy prices. No matter how many times you politely refuse, the desperation just gets more intense.
- It is a challenge finding a local restaurant serving local food at local prices. Here they cater for the “tourist” at inflated prices.
- You will have to pay entrance fees to Ham Rong Mountain where you can have a view from the top overlooking the rush below in town. The entrance fees and bad reviews convinced us to give this mountain a skip.
- Don’t think you won’t be charged when traveling on a scooter. Think twice! All tourists will have to pay to use the road leading to the villages and may I add that these roads are in such a bad condition.
- The villages are swarmed with tourists. I honestly wonder how the elderly local people can not get annoyed with their privacy being invaded each and every day.
- Ask permission before taking a photo of any of the local people. Be warned that they might charge you for taking a photo.
- The road to Sapa is very curvy and the bus drivers drive like formula one drivers. Take medication if you are prone to motion sickness. My 5-year old got extremely sick!
- The train back to Hanoi arrives in the very early morning hours. Arrange beforehand with your hotel that you will arrive early (5am). If check-in at these times are not possible, kill some time at the Hoan Kiem Lake where the locals do their early morning aerobics. It is very entertaining to watch!
- If you travel as a family in the sleeper bus, be sure to take the seats right at the back. These are the most comfortable and perfect for a family bed.
- Let the hotels arrange your bus / train trips from and to Sapa. The language barrier in some parts of Vietnam is quite a challenge and by the looks and laughs we get from Google Translate, I’m sure Google is also sometimes lost in translation. The hotels will arrange someone to pick you up from the hotel and guide you all the way to the correct bus / train.
- Try to visit Sapa in summer and also before harvesting season else you will be freezing whilst staring at brown muddy fields.
I can imagine that Sapa was once a very special place to visit, a picturesque little town with the most breathtaking rice terraces. Unfortunately the influx of tourists has created a sense of greed, a rushed town to get all the ants in a row and lead them to the bait.
Watch our video and let us know what you think about Sapa.
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