It’s about a 9-10 hour bus ride from Hanoi, north and far up a winding trail into the mountains. Although it is a major North Vietnamese tourist destination, you can still easily find nearby villages where natives still grow their own rice and raise their own livestock the old fashioned way. There’s a friendly little strip of town with restaurants, hotels, and resorts that cater to comfort-seeking westerners, as well as traditional markets on Sundays and Mondays, local food stalls, and mountain trekking expeditions. Visitors can also take self-guided hikes or motorbike trips to and through local villages.
After getting to Sapa by bus, train, or motorbike, walk around town to get a feel for it. In the center of town, the main street is Cau May, where most of the western restaurants and bars are located. You’ll also find several reasonably-priced travel agencies on this strip, which offer day trips to various markets, rent out motorbikes, and organize trekking trips and homestays in the villages. Adventurous visitors may wish to forgo in-town motels for a homestay, where the visitor lives in a villager’s real home for a couple days. Comfortable accommodations (including TV, hot water, and great views) can be found 8-10 US dollars not far from Cau May.
When you go to Sapa, there are a few things you must do. You must stroll through the markets, and appreciate the diversity of goods: produce, fresh bread, dog meat cooking on a spit, eastern herbs, and both locally made and commercially imported goods. Do a homestay, take a tour, or just take a walk to one of the villages. Cat Cat village is 3km if you take Tue Tinh to Phan Xi Pang, and Ta Phin village is 8km down Thac Son. You can go farther if you rent a motorbike for about 6 US dollars per day. Vietnam’s highest peak, Fanistan, at 3143 meters is another trip you can take.When you’re finished exploring, head into a restaurant (you may opt for one with a big fireplace) for a delicious 5 dollar multi-course meal that is advertised on the street. Later, check out the bars that attract tourists and locals. One of the major highlights of my trip was watching local girls in their 20s in traditional native dress playing pool at the Tau bar with Vietnamese and western tourists.
Finally, Sapa can be a little overwhelming for tourists. Souvenir stands are everywhere, selling traditional garments, jewelry, and handmade goods. In addition, young children and old ladies in tradition dress accost tourists on the streets, while hiking, and through restaurant windows with their wares. If you’re into the tchotchkes, they have values as souvenirs, otherwise they are pretty shoddy, and the souvenir-peddling women can be the biggest annoyance of an otherwise sleepy mountain town.