Overlooking the lush, green terraced rice fields, Sa Pa is a city that beckons the adventure seekers with trekking, the Instagramers with its famous views and the traveler who has the time to see the unknown parts of Vietnam.
Sa Pa is a small mountain town located in Northwestern Vietnam on the Chinese border. This quaint town is the quintessential mixture of the French and Vietnamese culture. It’s home to five tribal ethnic groups (Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho) which make up much of the population.
I visited Sa Pa in August as I had read this was the best time to visit. My husband and I departed Hanoi aboard the Fanispan Express Train not knowing we were in for quite the adventure. Fortunately, I like adventures and the unknown, but this train is not for the close-minded. The train departed the station at 9:35PM and rumbled to Lao Cai on a 10-hour ride. The train stopped so much along the way, I seriously thought I was on the train from the movie "Divergent". I’m certain at times the train didn’t come to a complete stop and people jumped off. But, when it did come to a stop, it was a screeching halt forcing us to hold onto our bunk bed railings. Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep throughout the trip between the sudden stops and the constant partying and smoking from the locals onboard.
Buy food before the trip to take on the train. They do offer a snack service, but you must track down the attendant who doesn’t speak English and the choices are sub-par.
If you can spend the extra money, buy the most expensive cabin on the local train or completely splurge on the Victoria Express Train which has a bar car, dining car and nice sleeping suites.
Once we arrived in Lao Cai, we boarded our shuttle for the 45-minute ride up a curvy, mountain road to Sa Pa. Upon ascending the mountain about 30 minutes into our drive, I began to see the beautiful rice terraces with the fog slowly descending the mountain tops. When entering the town, we witnessed throngs of tourists and tribal villagers scurrying throughout the streets.
As much as I wanted to wander the city, we had a day trek we needed to head to. Our shuttle dropped us at the office of Sapa O’Chau - Trekking and Homestay Tour Operator. I chose this company because they believe in social responsibility by giving back to the ethnic minorities. They train the youth from the various regional villages in the many facets of the hospitality industry, creating a better future for the youth and their families.
We checked-in, changed clothes, enjoyed a small breakfast and off we went on the 8-hour Ta Phin Trek with our amazing guide. He took us through villages, farms, streams, forests, and off trail through the mountain ranges. We stopped half-way through the day and had a simple but tasty lunch in one of the villages. We met many of the tribal women selling their textiles along the way. If you decide to buy from the tribal ladies, do know you will be surrounded by the whole community hoping you will buy from them as well. I did buy some cute purses and hand-made ornaments, but I did so discreetly.
Finally, around 5:00PM we made our way back down to the city. Our guide walked us back to the office and then drove us to our hotel, Sapa Unique Hotel. As soon as we got to our room, we sat on our balcony watching the fog roll in over the mountains. The view was incredible. The furnishings of the hotel room were quite simple, but we were only there for one night, so it didn’t bother us.
The next day, we set out on a half-day Grand Vistas Trek. We had a private transport to Silver Waterfall, the highest waterfall in Vietnam with a 984 foot (300 meter) drop. We hiked to the top and enjoyed being sprayed by the water floating off the falls. We continued up the road to Tram Ton Pass, the highest road in Vietnam at 6,562 feet (2000 meters) above sea level. Once I exited the car, I immediately felt the temperature drop. I forgot about my lack of warm clothes when I laid eyes upon the stunning view. As far as the eye could see was green, sloping mountains dotted with small plumes of fog on the tops.
As the tour ended, we wished we could stay longer, but our next adventure awaited in Halong Bay. Our guide transported us back to our hotel to gather our things. We were hoping to grab some snacks for our long train ride back to Hanoi, but to our surprise, the hotel made us some fresh Bánh Mì sandwiches to take with us on the train. We were so elated and couldn’t believe they were so kind to send us on our way with full bellies. That my friends, is the wonderful hospitality of Southeast Asia.
We boarded the shuttle back to Lao Cai and then the 10-hour train ride back to Hanoi. I will forever remember my adventure in Sa Pa and hope to visit again one day.