Located in the northwest of Vietnam, not far from China, Sapa is an incredible natural treat to explore. While being well-known for its stunning scenery - from the brilliant green terraced rice fields to the marvelous Fansipan peak - Sapa is also renowned for its captivating cultural diversity. The tiny villages dotting the slopes are homes of ethnic minorities, creating rich cultures and traditions for each minority.
As the breathtaking beauty of nature and the unique culture are combined into one enticing package, Sapa is definitely worth visiting on your vacation in Vietnam. However, to avoid the difficulties you might face when entering this remote location, read this travel guide to Sapa Vietnam to equip things you need to know before exploring Sapa Vietnam!
Riding a bicycle around the village of Sapa to admire its breathtaking beauty
Culture of the Sapa people
Rich cultural heritage
Vietnam is well-known for the ethnic minorities that reside in the northern region, especially Sapa. These hill tribes are responsible for the town's distinct personality and atmosphere; wherever you visit, you can surely admire their rich cultural heritage.
In this regard, Sapa is unique compared to other parts of the nation. While the H'Mong and Dao make up the majority of Sapa's population, other ethnic minorities including the Tay, Giay, and Xa Pho are also present and each has its own distinctive traits. This is essentially what makes it such a unique location to visit. You can see locals from many tribes selling handmade artisan things at the Sapa Market, for example, while dressed in traditional costumes. You might come across a wedding or community event every now and then.
The hill tribes also produce some lovely hand-made ethnic clothes, textiles, and artisanal products. Purchasing some is a great way to support the local culture while coming away with a memento of Sapa Vietnam. At the sight of a sale, however, you may be surrounded by more vendors, and children will often approach you selling small items and trinkets.
Traditional clothes of sapa people
Not only diverse in cultural customs, but the ethnic groups also have particular costumes with individual patterns. Almost all of the clothing worn by minority ethnic groups in Sapa is made of hemp, colored deep indigo blue, and adorned with embroidery. Women always wear the turban of their ethnic group and wrap their long hair along their heads. Due to the widespread integration with the Vietnamese community and foreign tourists, also for convenience, many people wear Vietnamese or Western clothing today. But don’t worry; you can still see those unique costumes when they go to Cho Phien (Regular Markets) and on special occasions. Try to tell apart the distinctions among different traditional ethnic clothes!
Tourists try traditional clothes
One of Sapa's greatest draws is unquestionably the breathtaking scenery, but the region's cultural diversity is also really appealing - that’s why trekking becomes a popular way to immerse yourself fully in this combination of Sapa. Trekking through some of Sapa's picturesque surrounding communities and you will see. If you want to learn more about the history and customs of the area, you must go to some of the adjacent villages in Sapa that are picturesquely situated among paddy fields or hugging hillsides, such as Muong Hoa Village, Cat Cat Village, and so on.
Most residents in Sapa and its surrounding villages work in agriculture, so you’ll see lots of people working in the rice fields while hiking through the rugged hills.
Trekking to Fansipan of Sapa
Some might think they will face problems in communicating when spending vacations in Sapa, as the region is remote and it looks like the education is not developed well in the mountainous area. Guess what? Locals in Sapa Lao Cai can be surprisingly good at English, even some other popular languages as well! The reasons behind this are mainly because Sapa is getting to be an attractive destination for foreign languages, and many households earn their livings from tourism. Besides, the growing number of international visitors drawing to Sapa creates a fantastic chance for Sapa young and adults to enhance their communication skills. So don’t be too shocked when you see a kid speaking English a minute ago and then switch right to Chinese a few seconds later.
Sapa's children can speak to foreign tourists in English
Transit from Hanoi to Sapa
Unfortunately, there is no local airport in Lao Cai, so the nearest airport to Sapa is Noi Bai International (HAN).
Almost 300 km from Hanoi Airport with an arduous path, Sapa can still be reached easily as the transportation system was developed well to support tourism.
This is common transportation for domestic travelers as for its affordable price and enough convenience. The only minus points of open sleeping buses are that you will take 5 hours to arrive at Sapa, and the limited luggage storage might be a problem if you are going to bring large baggage.
Train systems in Northern Vietnam spread widely and connect to major destinations, including Lao Cai.
It will take you 8 hours to transit from Hanoi Railways Station to Lao Cai Station. Then, you have to take a bus/taxi for about 1 hour to reach Sapa.
Traveling by train, you can appreciate the sightseeing along the railways and enjoy the nostalgic vibe of each carriage. Experience this traveling type if you have time to spare and want to enjoy the old-fashion way to get to Sapa!
One more option for you on the way to Sapa: you can choose to transit from Hanoi International Airport or the city center with private car services. The traveling time is shortened to 4 - 4.5 hours, and if you don’t mind spending a little more of your budget for a comfortable yet private car ride, this transport is for you. Vietnam Airport Car provides various types of seats, luggage storage, and car models and the pick-up & drop-off are also flexible based on your preference.
Vietnam Airport Car
Besides all the majestic scenery and amazing weather, Sapa is also distinctive for its culinary heaven, which features many dishes that can not be found anywhere else. Explore the special cuisine culture of this highland and you’ll understand yet another trait that makes it outstanding.
Thang Co (Horse Meat Soup) must be the most curious dish in Sapa for its extremely unpleasant odor and ingredients. But don’t you judge by its appearance! Many travelers favor this traditional dish of the H'Mong people in Sapa, that’s why it isn’t only served for special occasions anymore. It can be found on the menus of any restaurant in Sapa. Try eating Thang Co and sip on Assam apple wine to take in all the uniqueness of Sapa.
Enjoy Thang Co in Sapa
As Sapa Lao Cai is a remote area with a tough winter, local people prefer dishes that have low humidity and can be stored for a long time. Thit Trau Gac Bep (Dried Buffalo Meat) is one of them. Locals marinate and then dry the buffalo meat, hanging it in their kitchens for about eight months to a year. The buffalo meat is then lowered down to be grilled, stewed, and cooked into many dishes. The smoke from the kitchen gives the meat a distinct smell.
Apart from those, Sapa has many other unique dishes such as Xoi Bay Mau (Seven-color Sticky Rice), Com Lam (Rice in bamboo tube), and grilled food (local vegetables, pork, fish,...)
Steamed glutinous rice with seven colors
Sapa by Night
Due to the far distance from Hanoi, overnight Sapa tours are much more common when it comes to Sapa travel. Indeed, a Sapa Day Tour from Hanoi can be enough to see a few famous places in Sapa, but you will lose the chance to explore the vivid nightlife in this mountainous area.
Sapa night overview
The nightlife in Sapa owns its unique beauty. It’s the perfect combination of noise and quietness, natural romance, and deeply imbued ethnic cultures, together with the simplicity and hospitality of the locals, which all help turn your trip into an unforgettable experience.
If you are not only looking for some places to meet the locals in their traditional costumes but also something to eat and buy as souvenirs, the Sapa night market should undoubtedly be on your list.
Most people there belong to Red Dao or H’Mong Ethnic group. They sell their handmade purses, handkerchief, key chains, or clothes that you can bring home as souvenirs or gifts. You will be attracted right away by the fragrant odor from food stalls and then, within a minute, those mouth-watering stuff that you have never seen before will be served to you.
If you are lucky to join on a weekend tour or unintentionally get here on Saturday night, you can join in one of the most unique and romantic occasions in mountainous areas of Vietnam - Love Market. You must be curious about the unique name of this place, the name indicates that love can begin from this market. To be clearer, it is a huge stage welcoming performances of boys and girls from surrounding hamlets. They all wear their traditional clothes representing which ethnic groups they come from, and are encouraged to get to know people from other groups.
Night market in Sapa
Sapa 2-day-2-night Tour
As the attractions and ethnic villages in Sapa lie quite far from each other, you will need more than a day to discover all the cultural features and observe a slice of local life. Usually, tourists will prefer multiday tours and stay at hotels or homestays in the city center of Sapa. Joining this kind of tour, you can learn about the cultures of the ethnic minorities living in the little villages while admiring the mountainous landscapes en route to different parts of Sapa. Some other activities you can consider are trekking to Cat Cat Villages, Lao Chai Ta Van, and Sky Gate,... Based on the activities you want to take part in, the overnight tours can range from 2 days 1 night to 3 days 2 nights, or even more.
Cat Cat village
This is also a common tour when you go to Sapa, as the adventure to Fansipan peak is one of the must-do things in Sapa. From a height of 3.147 meters, the top of Mt. Fansipan is considered “the roof of Indochina,” and the scenery looking down from the viewpoint is gorgeous with swirling clouds and forested slopes. Joining the Fansipan tour, you will have a chance to go on the Muong Hoa Moutain Train, which will give you a 5-minute ride yet a spectacular view of farms and hamlets below. Before you reach the peak, you need to take a cable car which runs daily to the Fansipan Legend. Experience the feeling to float high above the rice terraces and rocky cliffs below. The safe and tranquil ride will give you an unforgettable memory on the way to the towering tip above the clouds.
Fansipan overview sapa tour
After so many short rides, you will reach Fansipan peak with a series of stairs or a funicular rail. The reward is the incredible sight of cloud-covered peaks stretching all the way to the horizon, the cloud changing every few seconds to reveal newly shaped sceneries of nature. The weather here is much colder than the ground, and at the coldest point, it can have some snow. Make sure that you listen to weather forecasts before coming here to have the best experience.
Sapa Trekking Day Tours
Besides full tour packages, visitors can have the option of staying in hotels, homestays with local families, and joining Trekking Day Tours. On these tours, you will be guided by experienced guides and travel to the ethnic tribes and learn about their local rural life. There are some sewing or handicraft classes so you can learn how to reproduce the local textiles and many other unique artworks. Making new acquaintances while also learning about the local culture makes this an enjoyable experience.
Conquer Fansipan in Sapa tour
Sapa and vicinity tours
Instead of transiting right from Hanoi to Sapa, you can have the option to explore one more marvelous destination on the way to explore Northern Vietnam. Ninh Binh province is only 2,5 hour's drive from Hanoi. Upon arrival at Trang An Heritage Complex, you will enjoy a sampan boat ride along the river winding in between towering limestone karst mountains. Besides, an easy bicycling tour around the area will give you a closer look at local activities and the picturesque beauty of the vast rice fields. Hang Mua Mountain in Ninh Binh city is also a must to visit, take in the whole panoramic view of Trang An Ninh Binh before we set off to Sapa on the highway Noi Bai - Lao Cai. Get ready to trek through many remote parts of this beautiful highland such as Sa Xeng, Cat Cat Village, and Muong Hoa Valley.
Visit Ninh Binh to admire both the long river and the majestic mountains
What is more amazing than a journey to the most gorgeous bay of Vietnam and the roof of Indochina? This tour is really common among tourists as they can spend around a week enjoying both the coastal and mountainous beauty of Northern Vietnam. Departing from Hanoi, you can visit some highlighted spots of the capital before joining a scenic drive to Sapa through the highway Noi Bai - Lao Cai. You will have whole 2 - 3 days to discover all the ethnic villages in Sapa, even the Fansipan peak, which is the pride of Sapa locals and Vietnamese in general.
Go kayaking in Halong bay
The rest of the tour will leave the stage for Halong Bay - the descending dragon of Vietnam nature. You will have the chance to embark on a fancy boat and cruise in between the Limestone Karst islands featuring this bay. Enjoy your relaxing cruise and water activities after trekking time in the mountains in Sapa.
Bac Ha Market
Also a remote area in Northeast Vietnam, Bac town attracts tourists for its rustic local daily life and the unique culture featured in each market. Get on a car and ride along the Noi Bai - Lao Cai highway; you will arrive at Bac Town after 6 hours of driving. Take a short boat ride on the Chay River, then walk to Trung Do village of the Tay ethnic minority group. Visiting the famous markets in Bac Ha, you will understand why it has become a popular tourist attraction in recent years. The local trading is extremely bustling even if the weather is nothing comfortable. Witnessing the locals purchase the colorful products, you will absolutely go wow at the sounds, the smells, and the colors. Don’t forget to take photographs with the locals; they will be happy and smile at tourists. After that, you will be transited back to Lao Cai City and onward up to Sapa. Continue your mountainous adventure by trekking through the picturesque villages of Sapa and the interesting long-standing cultural heritages of locals.
Experience the Bac Ha market in Lao Cai
There are many other tours to Vietnam’s significant tourist attractions that can be departed from Sapa, such as the Ha Giang loop tour, Mu Cang Chai Tour, and Cao Bang Tour,... After the journey to remote areas of mountainous regions, try tours to other parts of Vietnam, such as the Danang - Hoian tour, Ho Chi Minh tour, and Mekong delta tours, etc.
We hope that the quick guide will help you equip the necessary information you need to know before visiting Sapa. Plan your journey well to have the best trip!