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Sapa - Trekker's Paradise, or Tourist Trap?

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AsiaReviewsSa PaViet Nam
Article author: michael
michael
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If you’re not familiar with Sapa, Vietnam, it’s a small town high up in the mountains in northwest Vietnam, close to the Chinese border.

It’s well known for its terraced rice fields, and is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, including it’s highest mountain - Fan Si Pan (or Fansipan) - whose peak sits at 3,143 meters above sea level. It’s a popular destination for backpackers thanks to it’s gorgeous green landscapes and trekking opportunities, and it’s also a great place to visit if you want to experience the culture of some of Vietnam’s ethnic tribes like the Hmong and Dao people.

Sa Pa Info

  • Official government tourism site: vietnam.travel
  • Geographical location: Northwest Vietnam
  • Average temperature: ~17°C
  • Current weather:
    Current Weather in Sa Pa
  • Dry season: Winter (December to February)
  • Best time to visit: Varies depending on what you want to do - read more below.
  • Peak travel season: September to November and March to April
  • Main economy: Tourism, agriculture

Things to Note

Sapa is high up in the mountains, and getting there can be a bit challenging. The closest airport is in Hanoi, and from there, it’s a 5-6 hour drive to Sapa. You can also take a train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, and then take a bus or taxi from Lao Cai to Sapa. The train ride is about 8 hours, and the bus/taxi ride is about 1 hour.

The roads leading to Sapa are also very winding, and can be a bit treacherous, especially in the rainy season. If you’re prone to motion sickness, then you might want to take some medication before the drive. I didn’t think I was prone to motion sickness prior to going to Sapa, but I still felt very queasy on the drive there and back.

Sa Pa or Mu Cang Chai?

Some Vietnamese friends of my wife suggested we go instead to Mu Cang Chai, which is about 4 hours and change south of Sapa, and is also known for its terraced rice fields. They told us that Sapa has become too touristy, and therefore not worth visiting anymore, but that Mu Cang Chai is still beautiful and relatively untouched.

Sapa, however, was what I was familiar with (in photos anyway), and was where I had my heart set on visiting. So I still wanted to go there anyway, and at least see for myself. Also, it was getting close to August, and my understanding was that the rice fields in Mu Cang Chai would already be harvested by then, so we stuck with my original plan and went to Sapa.

I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to check out Mu Cang Chai in the future, and see how it compares to Sapa. If/when I do, I’ll be sure to write a comparison post.

When to Visit Sa Pa

Now before I get into the title of this post, I want to talk a bit about what you can expect during the different seasons, because the experience you have in Sa Pa is largely going to depend on when you visit, and not only where in particular you visit - i.e: the town itself, or the surrounding villages and mountains.

> If you want to skip this part and head straight to my thoughts, click here <

The town itself definitely had more of that tourist-geared feel to it. There were a lot of hotels, restaurants, shops, and flashing lights on the signs of shops. It’s not as bad as some places I’ve been to, but it’s definitely not a quiet little mountain town!

Sapa Town

Sapa Town

In fact, on our way to drive to the Fansipan mountain station on one of our first days there, we got stuck in a traffic jam. A traffic jam in the mountains! I was definitely not expecting that. 😂

Traffic Jam in Sapa

On another night, due to a torrential downpour, I ended up stuck in a taxi for over an hour, as some of the streets were completely flooded, and an accident as a result of the rain caused one of the only roads leading to our hotel to be completely blocked. What should have taken at most 10 minutes, took over an hour. It was a bit of a nightmare.

Spring (March to May)

Originally, our hope was that we’d be able to visit Sapa in Spring, as that’s when you can not only catch the rice fields looking incredible with their water-filled terraces, but when the cherry blossoms are also in full bloom. I’ve seen some photos of Sapa in Spring, and it looks absolutely stunning.

If you visit in Spring, you can expect a moderate climate, with temperatures ranging from 15°C to 20°C. There’s more rainfall in Spring compared to Winter, but not nearly as much as in the Summer.

Cherry Blossoms in Spring

If you’re interested in seeing the cherry blossoms, then you’ll want to visit in March, as that’s when they’ll be in full bloom.

Rice Terraces in Spring

If you’re coming to see the rice fields in Spring, then you might catch them in the planting (sowing) stage if you come early enough, or in the beginning growing stage if you come towards the end of spring.

Rice Terraces in Spring
Image Credit: wikimedia.org

The rice fields are quite beautiful in Spring, as they’ll be a lush green (albeit sparsely filled), and the terraces will be filled with water, which can make for some stunning mirror-like reflections if you get them at the right angle.

Summer (June to August)

Summer is the wet season in Sapa, and it’s also the hottest time of the year. Temperatures can reach up to 29°C, and there’s a lot of rainfall. In June and July, it can rain almost every day, and the rain can be quite heavy, albeit for only a short period of time.

Due to the heavy rain in summer, trekking is not recommended, as the trails can become quite slippery and dangerous. The waterfalls on the other hand are at their most beautiful in summer, so if you’re interested in seeing the waterfalls, then summer is the best time to visit.

We ended up visiting in August, and while it did rain a decent amount, as we were at the tail end of summer, it wasn’t as bad as it would have been in June or July. August is also when the rice fields are getting ready for harvesting, so in my personal opinion, it’s the best time to see them if you like the terraces lush and green.

Lush Green Rice Terraces in Summer

When we were there at the beginning of August, the locals told us that the rice fields were likely to be harvested within the next week or two, so we were basically seeing them at their peak green colour.

Autumn (September to November)

Autumn is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s the end of the wet season, and start of the dry season. The weather is generally quite pleasant, with temperatures ranging from 15°C to 25°C.

However, if you’re like me and coming for the green rice terraces, then you might just miss them in full bloom, as they’re usually harvested in late August or early September, depending on weather conditions.

The rice terraces during this period will be a golden yellow, as the rice is ready for harvest. It’s still beautiful, but gives off a different vibe compared to the green terraces. So if the golden yellow terraces are you’re preference, then September/October is the best time to visit.

Golden Yellow Rice Terraces in Autumn
Image Credit: wikimedia.org

After the rice fields are harvested, the terraces will be brown and barren, but trekking will be at its best, as the weather will be cool and dry.

Winter (December to February)

Being in the northern part of Vietnam, Sapa can get quite cold in Winter, with low temperatures ranging from 1°C to -6°C. So while you won’t be catching any cherry blossoms or rice terraces in bloom, you’ll be able to experience the cold, foggy, and misty landscapes that Sapa is known for. It’s a bit of a different kind of beauty, but it’s still beautiful.

You also might get to experience something you wouldn’t anywhere else in Vietnam - snow! It doesn’t snow often in Sapa, but when it does, it’s quite a sight to see.

So, is Sapa Worth Visiting?

Alright, on to the main question - is Sapa worth visiting? Well, I think it really depends on what you’re hoping to see and experience.

The main town of Sapa is definitely a bit touristy, but I’m not sure that it’s as bad as some people make it out to be - in fact, I found it rather lively and interesting. One thing I found somewhat heartbreaking though was the amount of Hmong (and possibly other ethnic minority) children, quite dirty and dishevelled, sitting on the sidewalks and street corners trying to sell various trinkets. It’s a bit depressing.

This was even more the case in the surrounding areas than in the town itself, where the Hmong (and possibly other ethnic minorities), both old and young, follow you around trying to sell you things.

Hmong Entourage

It’s a bit of a double-edged sword… I understand that they’re just trying to make a living, but it can be a bit overwhelming at times, and as they are quite relentless, it gets really annoying after a while. Again, I do understand that they’re just trying to make a living, but it’s still a bit much at times.

Verdict

Do you like trekking or hiking? Do you enjoy beautiful, lush landscapes? Do you want to experience the culture of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities?

Rice Terraces in Sapa

If you answered yes to any of those questions, then I personally feel that Sapa is indeed still worth visiting. It’s such a beautiful place with stunning views, and so much natural beauty, that I think it’d be a shame to miss.

Basically, I’d say Sapa is part tourist trap, and part trekker’s paradise. The town itself is a bit touristy, but the surrounding areas are still very much worth experiencing.

That said, if you prefer a less travelled, more authentic experience, then you might want to consider visiting Mu Cang Chai instead. I can’t say for sure, as I haven’t been there myself, but from what I’ve heard, it’s currently less overrun with tourists and so might offer a better, more authentic experience.

Final Thoughts

I’m so glad we were able to make the trip there, as I honestly loved every minute of our time in Sapa … well, except maybe for the Hmong entourages we had following us around in the mountains. 🙄

Rice Terraces in Sapa

It’s one of the parts of Vietnam that I’ll always have really fond memories of, and I’m so glad I was able to experience it.


Have you been to Sa Pa? Do you agree/disagree with my views? Let me know in the comments below!

Until next time,
michael 😀

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