Up on the Northeast corner of Vietnam lies Sapa, Vietnam’s premier trekking base. This city is not short of beautiful sights or beautiful people. Get your camera ready – there will be a lot to shoot. Don’t forget extra storage.
Rest above a sea of clouds: Conquer Mt. Fansipan
Mount Fansipan stands at 3,143 metres (10,312 feet) tall and is the highest mountain in Vietnam, often referred to as the “Roof of Indochina.” Getting to the summit is an adventure, and you will be rewarded with a fluffy bed of clouds (and strong wind!). Conquering this beast by foot is not for the faint of heart – you will need to be extremely fit to reach the peak in one day. You can spread your journey over two or three days, which is more sensible, but if you’re not fit and if you are strapped for time, or just plain lazy, there’s a quicker way: taking the world’s longest non-stop cable car.
No matter which option you take, you will get unrivaled views of the majestic Muong Hoa Valley, which is known for its endless rice paddies colored in every shade of green and brown, dotted here and there with colorful tribal villages. If you hike, you may come across some of these. If you take the cable car, you will get a beautiful aerial view. With the clear cable car windows, the pictures you snap will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Once you reach the summit, the views get even better. Remember to take a picture with the Vietnamese flag and the stone that marks the highest point of Vietnam.
On the summit is also a holy place – Kim Son Bao Thang Tu Pagoda, a place of worship for locals. Taking the stairs down from the summit, you get amazing views of this pagoda – with the giant Lady Buddha statue standing tall among the surrounding mountains, bathed in clouds. You are bound to get a handful of curious souls on your Instagram asking you where on Earth you took your picture. Make sure to explore the pagoda itself and witness the religious rituals taking place.
Round trip cable car: 700,000 VND ($30,14)
Round trip train to cable car station: 150,000 VND ($6.46)
Tram from cable car station to summit: 100,000 VND ($4.31)
Get lost in the colorful terraces of the Muong Hoa Valley
Just like all the other places mentioned on this list, this is a must-visit when you’re in Sapa and the best thing is that you don’t have to get out of your way to do it. All it takes is an easy 30-minute trek down paved roads from the town. Muong Hoa Valley lies between two high ranges of mountains running parallel to one another in the southeast region of Sapa.
Everything about the valley is beautiful and picturesque – the terraced rice fields, small cool streams, hidden waterfalls, peaceful buffaloes grazing, tribal homes, locals in their colorful tribal outfits going about their day…all of these to the beautiful backdrop of mountains, one after the other. Imagine what your pictures will look like?
We suggest you do not head to Muong Hoa alone, and don’t do it in one day, even though you can if you really want to. Take a local guide with you who knows the right things to show you, and give you some cultural insight. Plus, you should spend a night or two at a local village homestay. This way you will get down and dirty with the local hill tribespeople and learn about their mountain way of life. You can also book trekking tours online – for example through the NGO Sapa O’Chau that gives opportunities for these tribespeople.
Sapa Market: a place of many colors, smells, sounds and happiness!
Sapa market is a busy hive of colourful activity where you can not only shop and eat, but also talk to the eager locals and learn about their way of life. When it comes to shopping, the most impressive products you find here will be the unique brocade products in vibrant colors and intricate patterns that are a representation of the unique tribes of the region: the H’Mong, Dao Do and Giay.
If you can not afford the bigger items such as tapestries and carpets, opt for simpler items such as headbands, scarves, handbags and bracelets. These won’t cause a dent in your wallet. You will even see some items being made then and there with a lot of love, care and patience. If you try to strike up a chat with a local, they will be kind enough to answer your curiosities. Over the years, since tourism has boomed in the region, many of these locals have picked up English and can hold a decent conversation.
Once you are done, head to the food area and enjoy a steaming hot bowl of Pho that will be extra delicious given the cool weather of Sapa. Remember to take pictures with locals and of their items on display – certainly something that will color up your Instagram feed. Snapping pictures here will show your followers a different kind of life, and help display the heritage of the people to a global audience.
Plus, the lovely vendors are extremely welcoming and will smile for as many pictures as you like. Do also get some souvenirs for your loved ones back home, and please don’t haggle the price down too much as these items take hours and a lot of skill to make.
Dinh Deo O Quy Ho Pass takes you to Heaven’s Gate
A popular activity while in Sapa is to drive through Dinh Deo O Quy Ho Pass that leads to what is known as Heaven’s Gate. While Heaven’s Gate is a spectacular sight, the journey over Dinh Deo Pass is equally spectacular, if not more. But it is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for inexperienced drivers. The pass is dangerously serpentine, wrapping around and going up and down mountains, offering you stunning views on both sides of valleys and mountains.
The pass is best tackled on a motorbike, where you are free to stop whenever you wish to snap a picture when you see a beautiful cliff. However if you have never ridden a bike before, this is not the place to learn. Hop on the back of the bike of an experienced rider and let them take you around. Make sure to stop frequently so you can get as many photos as possible! After a few hours of exploring the area on your bike, when darkness begins to approach, it’s best to head back, have some dinner and rest.
The people make the experience
The last item on this list is not a place. It’s the people.
Sapa is home to five ethnic groups: the H’Mong (Mong Den), Dao Do, Tay, Xa Pho, and Giay people. They are scattered all over the region and you will undoubtedly bump into them when you start walking around town or hiking through remote villages. It is also very likely that some will start talking to you, either just for a curious conversation or they will try to get you to buy some of the trinkets they are selling as this is how they earn their living. You may even end up talking for a while about many interesting things and perhaps you will get invited to visit their tribe and spend the night.
Many of their homes are open as homestays for you to spend a night or two. Bear in mind, these are their homes, so do not expect anything fancy, but basic lodging. Sometimes you will not even get hot water and you may end up really cold at night if you travel during winter. But it’s worth it as you’ll get to join in on their life for a bit, cook with them, drink with them, experience what it is like to live in the mountains, and explore the region using it as a base.
Despite a different and a more difficult life than what most of us are used to, a striking similarity between these tribes is how big the smiles of the people are. Something you certainly want to catch on film, and make the people sifting through your Instagram feed smile as well. It’s extremely contagious.
Sapa is one of the most picturesque locations in the world – offering you not only spectacular landscapes but interesting tribal culture to get to know. Leave behind your expectations and your comfort zone as you set foot into the mountains. It will be an amazing adventure and you will have plenty of images to remind you of your time in the city. And to convince you to visit time and time again.
Note: All photos in this post were taken by Piumi Rajapaksha