Visiting the small mountain town of Sapa while backpacking Vietnam? A quaint little bustling place situated in the north, Sapa is unlike any other destination in the country. But you need to know a few things before you go. Like where you should stay (hint: it’s not the actually town itself) and what good — and bad — things to expect while here. Keep reading to find out my best Sapa travel tips every Vietnam backpacker needs to know before visiting.
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After backpacking Vietnam twice (both times using my 30-day Vietnam itinerary), I’ve come to realize my favorite place to visit in this strange, yet magical country is without a doubt Sapa.
Hands down. No question about it.
With wildly gorgeous views of surrounding mountains and lush rice fields, friendly locals with quaint homestays, incredible hikes and treks, cute kids that’ll show you around the area, and a unique environment and aura that makes Sapa feel like it’s completely separated from the rest of the world, it’s a magical place to explore and relax for a few days.
To me, there’s nothing better than chilling out in a hammock, reading a good book, surrounded by breathtaking views of mountains and a million different shades of green that makes you question whether you’ve died and gone to heaven.
Sounds like something you’d be into? (Obviously, who wouldn’t be?)
Anyways, if you’re heading out to Sapa soon — or just thinking of visiting — here are my 17 Sapa travel tips every Vietnam backpacker needs to know before going.
SAPA TRAVEL TIPS EVERY VIETNAM BACKPACKER NEEDS TO KNOW
Getting to Sapa: Bus or Train?
First things first: how are you going to get to Sapa?
You’ll want to depart from Hanoi (which is the starting point of my Vietnam itinerary) and can either opt for the train or the overnight bus.
Personally, I prefer traveling Vietnam by bus, as it’s super duper cheap and they’re pretty darn comfortable. The overnight bus from Hanoi to Sapa takes around 6-7 hours, which means you’ll likely depart Hanoi later at night and arrive bright and early.
Not to mention, buses are typically cheaper than trains and the Hanoi-Sapa bus arrives in the center of town, where as the train arrives to Lao Cai Railway Station and then you have to take a shuttle bus the rest of the way.
The cost of the bus typically ranges from $11 to $20 and the train cost ranges anywhere from $18 for the lowest class to $100 for your own cabin, plus the cost of the shuttle bus to Sapa town (~50,000 VND // $.21 USD).
You Won’t Stay in Sapa Town
So while you’ll arrive in Sapa town, you won’t actually be staying in the town itself (or, at least, you shouldn’t).
Instead, you’ll stay at a homestay managed by locals in the Sapa hillside. This means that once you arrive in Sapa, you’ll have to grab a taxi from the town to your homestay, which typically takes anywhere from around a half hour to an hour.
Or alternatively, you can also rent a motorbike for the duration of your Sapa stay, which can get you from Sapa town to your homestay. I did this on my first Vietnam backpacking trip and it worked out great!
Though my bike wasn’t the best quality (are they ever?), it got me from point A to point B and everywhere in between.
Nonetheless, believe me when I tell you, you’re going to want to stay outside Sapa town and in the hillsides! The views are SO much better and it’s much more relaxed.
Personally, I stayed at both The Little Hmong House and Hoa’s Homestay Sapa. Both were awesome but The Little Hmong House family went above and beyond when catering for Dan and I as vegans! So so wonderful.
Take Out Enough Cash
Holy moly, I wish someone would have told me this Sapa travel tip before I visited!
Both times I didn’t take out enough money and ended up having to borrow some from friends. Not fun.
Unless you want to make the treacherous journey back to Sapa town from your homestay to have access to an ATM, I recommend taking out at least 2,000,000 VND before you head to the hillside, if not more.
If you’re like me, you’ll end up staying an extra day or two because you’ll fall in love with Sapa so damn much (happened both times for my entire travel group!). Which means you need to account for that extra time without access to an ATM.
Just prepare by bringing more cash than you think you’ll need.
Sapa Village “Entrance” Fee
So, the first time I visited Sapa, I didn’t have to pay this so-called entrance fee but I for sure did the second time — mainly because my group and I were staying somewhere near Cat Cat village, which requires a 50,000 VND entrance fee.
If you’re staying in the town of Sapa (which, again, is a huge mistake, as you’ll miss out on actually seeing the gorgeous Vietnam / Sapa countryside), you won’t have to pay this.
But, as you’ll likely be shacking up a homestay outside of Sapa town, you’ll be stopped just as you leave town to pay the fee to some not-so-nice looking men.
Prepare for Swarms of Saleswomen
Aka the local women who will literally surround you in packs when you get off the bus in Sapa town.
From their local souvenirs to their own homestay and trekking services, these ladies (who are actually really nice) will hound you until you say no about ten thousand times.
Just stand your ground and politely say no, you have a place to stay and a trekking trip already booked (even if you don’t). Also, don’t tell them where you’re staying when they ask, because they will.
You Will Be Followed
…but not in a creepy or stalkerish sort of way.
Going off the swarms of local sales ladies, you will also likely be followed by the local children who will eventually try to sell you something, whether it be a handmade souvenir or simply asking for a tip if they’ve shown you a place.
On my first visit, a group of local children showed my group and I a waterfall and afterwards asked for a tip (even though we never asked to be shown around).
On my second visit, my group and I had to strategically ignore a group of local girls who were following us and strategically attempted to give us a tour of the area.
While none of these things are bad, just be prepared to get asked many, many times if you want a tour or to buy a homemade souvenir from kids.
Bumps and Bouncing Galore
As I mentioned earlier, you’ll need to hire a taxi to take you from Sapa town to your hillside homestay (or rent a motorbike). But I just want to prepare you for the treacherous roads!
They are SO unbelievably bumpy. You’ll only come across a few paved roads in the area of Sapa and the one heading out of town is currently not one of them.
Rent a Motorbike and Explore the Area
One of my top 10 experiences to have in Vietnam, you must rent a motorbike and explore the region of Sapa.
Seriously, the views around Sapa are absolutely mind-blowing and unless you hire a driver for the day (which is rather expensive and won’t get to all the places a motorbike can go), renting a motorbike is the way to do it.
Just remember to ALWAYS wear a helmet and go slow on the sh*tty roads!
Psst, if you are one of those people who disregard safety and don’t wear a helmet, make sure to at least get travel insurance! I recommend World Nomads or a cheaper, but also great option, SafetyWing.
Unless you’re actually staying in Sapa, there are virtually zero restaurants to eat at.
For most meals, unless you’re motorbiking around during the day, you will probably end up eating at your homestay. Which is great, as many make delicious food!
Also, the food at a homestay tends to be really cheap! So great for budget backpackers.
Bring Good Shoes
Whether you’re doing a multi-day trek or not, I highly recommend bringing good shoes. Sapa is a dusty place when dry and a muddy place when wet, so comfortable, supportive shoes are a must.
Not to mention, it’s very, very hilly!
Personally, I traveled with a fantastic pair of light, supportive trainers and they worked well for the dry season (January — June).
Here are some shoe brands I recommend:
- Saucony Tennis Shoes (this is the brand I brought with me).
- ASICS Women Running Shoes.
- Salomon Women Running Shoes (I also use this brand for my hiking boots).
Plan for 2 Nights Minimum
You’ll want at least one full day to really get the full Sapa experience. Especially if you plan on doing some hiking in the area, which is a must.
Although, 3 nights is even better. Then you get two full days; one day for hiking and one day for simply chilling out and admiring the good f*cking views.
Click HERE to check out all the awesome Sapa homestays and find one that’s right for you!
Trekking Guides: Yay or Nay?
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a guide to hike the mountains of Sapa. You only need one if you’re doing a multi-day trek into the hillside villages!
My group and I did our own ~9 mile hike around the area of our homestay, walking across the Su pan Hydro Plant bridge, visiting the Cau May Waterfall, and trekking up to the Bamboo Forest.
While I think it’s easy to do just a day hike yourself (especially with the help of Google Maps, which we had), there’s no chance of you going off on a multi-day trek by yourself. Hire a professional for that shit.
Multi-Day Treks I recommend:
- From Hanoi: 2-Day Sapa Homestay Adventure + Trekking (AWESOME reviews!)
- Sapa 3-Night Trek & Homestay with Overnight Train
- From Sapa: Waterfalls, Trekking and Tribal Villages Tour
Pack Warm Clothes for Cold Sapa Weather
Sapa is notoriously chilly at night — even during the “summer” season.
I have visited Sapa at vastly different times of the year — dry season in March, rainy season in August — and both trips were very, very chilly in the evening and at night.
In fact, during my last trip, we even received a heated blanket to stay warm at night!
Prepare to See Some Things
And when I say things, I mean some very very cute things and some very very not cute things.
My personal sightings ranged from an adorable family of pigs — including some brand new ones who were still just the size of a cantaloupe — to a full-on decaying dog corpse floating in a river. (Yes, I’m scarred for life.)
While this is under the category of Sapa, this travel tip pertains to the whole country. In fact, it’s one of my remarkably useful tips you should know before traveling Vietnam! Go check that out.
Participate in “Family Dinners”
One of the BEST parts about staying in a Sapa homestay is that many do this thing call “family dinners” where many (or all) travelers and backpackers staying there eat dinner together.
It’s a great way to get to know people, as well as fill up on a ton of food, which is served in a sort of pass-the-plate buffet style.
Although you don’t eat with the actually family running the homestay, it’s still a great way to engage with fellow travelers who might become good friends!
Eating Vegan is Easy
While I had some trouble eating vegan in other parts of the country, eating vegan in Sapa was a piece of cake!
If you decide to stay at a homestay, all — or most of — your meals will be made by the family living there, which means they can customize any dish to your liking!
Personally, I filled up on veggie fried rice, tofu fried noodles, fried mushrooms (one of my favorite dishes from The Little Hmong House “family dinner”!), and steamed / sauteed veggies. It was awesome!
Get Travel Insurance
No matter where you’re going in Vietnam, you’ll need travel insurance. A notorious place where backpackers tend to get hurt, Vietnam is unpredictable and, to be honest, a bit reckless.
Make sure you keep yourself safe by staying covered with genuine, dependable travel insurance.
I’ve used both World Nomads, which is a favorite amongst the backpacker community because they cover a plethora of activities, and SafetyWing, which is newer but more affordable and still has great coverage.
Stay prepared for your Sapa adventure with these 17 travel tips!
As someone who has backpacked Vietnam twice now and spent a good amount of that time in Sapa (seriously, I love the darn place!), I know these Sapa tips will help you plan your best trip there.
Are you traveling to Sapa, Vietnam, soon? Have any questions about the destination? Ask away in the comments below! Or, if these tips helped you, I’d love to know!
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