When traveling out of Kunming there are places more remote, or higher up in the mountains, or where booze flows like a river, but few of them offer the calm serenity of Sapa (沙巴), Vietnam. It is not that Sapa is an undiscovered or untouched paradise — it is squarely on the tourist map. However, the town is an idyllic mountain getaway where peace and quiet is not far away and creature comforts are there for those in need.
Sapa sits nestled in the steep Hoang Lien Mountains of northwest Vietnam. The town is perched about halfway up the mountain and below the city proper plunge dazzlingly green rice paddies while peaks perpetually shrouded in clouds loom above.
The once-sleepy hamlet first became known to the outside world when the French established an outpost and sanitarium there in 1922. Then, as now, Sapa was an important meeting place for trade between hill tribes, including the Hmong and Dzao minorities. The village is still host to a street market most days that culminates in a bustling bazaar on Saturdays.
The town is small enough to walk around and stretches no more than half a kilometer in any direction. Locals congregate around a fountain in the center of town smoking long bamboo pipes, selling handmade trinkets or competing in non-stop singing competitions.
The winding lanes branching off the main square are full of both Western-style cafes and local restaurants. The locals sell piles of steamed buns, fried dough sticks, salads, fresh fruits and vegetables. Further up the hill are the market streets. Minorities from the surrounding mountains sell hand embroidered indigo jackets and local crafts including bracelets, jewelry and purses.
Most people in and around Sapa speak at least a smattering of English — especially if they have something to sell. GoKunming recommends eschewing guided tours. They are an informative way to explore the area but are also budgeted for time and restrict independent exploration of the nearby villages, waterfalls and scenic areas.
Although travelers can easily spend their time eating, drinking and shopping, getting out of town and hiking in the mountains is equally rewarding. We trekked from village to village and collected quite an entourage of village women selling umbrellas and handmade trinkets. Extroverted travelers will appreciate the conversation, particularly if they are in the mood to learn about local life or purchase souvenirs at the end of a long walk.
We found some of the merchants were particularly aggressive in trying to usher tourists into their houses. Do not enter a house unless you are serious about making a purchase.
Also, village homes often have fresh-cut boughs from the forest hanging over their entrances. This is a sign requesting privacy, a bit like a 'come back later' sign in the West. Keep in mind that the most popular villages with tourists — such as Catcat and Ta Phin — have 1.5 yuan (5,000 Vietnamese dong) entry fees.
The paths between villages have many trails leading off the beaten track and into the forest. Exploring these is a quiet experience that can lead to one of the area's ubiquitous waterfalls.
Feel free to explore on your own or ask the proprietor of your guesthouse how to get to the best scenic spots, but be prepared for a hike. Alternatively, bicycles and motorcycles can be rented almost anywhere in town. If you do rent a bicycle, get ready for some serious pedaling.
Today Sapa is a still verdant paradise where butterflies the size of a person's palm flutter through the air and where the views are spectacular. It isn't a particularly hectic or energetic place, but that could well be the reason for going there.
Buses from Kunming to Hekou depart from the city's East Bus Station (东部汽车客运站). There are 11 buses running daily from 9am to 8pm that take between eight and ten hours. Buses departing in the evening are sleeper-style and GoKunming highly recommends avoiding them due numerous run-ins with thieves.
Once in Hekou, walk across the bridge into Vietnam and pass through immigration before entering the city of Lao Cai. Visas can be obtained beforehand from the Vietnamese consulate in Kunming for 400 yuan. From Lao Cai the trip to Sapa is roughly an hour by bus or taxi that should cost 15 yuan (50,000 dong).
For those already in Vietnam, Sapa is roughly 300 kilometers northwest of Hanoi and can be reached by an eight-hour train that actually ends in Lao Cai. Tickets for overnight sleeper berths cost 130-160 yuan (430,000-525,000 dong). From the train station in Lao Cai, catch a bus or taxi to Sapa.
When to go
Travel to Sapa can be enjoyed at any time of year. If you plan to visit over the winter months (November to February), pack accordingly as the temperature dips in the evenings. Fog is worst during winter as well. The rainy season usually lasts from June to August. Now is the perfect time to visit.
Top image: Jean-Marie Hullot
All other images: Shalene Gupta