For this article we are assuming you are not set on Traveling to Sa Pa only, but that you are already in Vietnam or are also traveling to other parts in Vietnam. If you are not in Asia already you can check the best times for flying and the most affordable flights here. It is not very practical to go from a location outside of Vietnam directly to Sa Pa. Most people will fly to Hanoi and then go to Sa Pa from there. When traveling to Sa Pa a few things are important to keep in mind which we will mention straight away. One of the most important things is the weather in Sa Pa or in the entire Lao Cai province. This province which is bordering with China is a mountainous area and usually has around a 10 – 15 degrees Celcius temperature difference with capital city Hanoi. This means it is quite a bit colder in Sa Pa. In addition, it is also more likely to rain. If you want to go to Sa Pa which you definitely should, make sure to bring warm clothes on your trip and a raincoat or poncho. Still, it is definitely worth visiting the Lao Cai Province, let us explain why.
What are the Reasons one should Travel to Sa Pa in North Vietnam?
There are many reasons to travel to Sa Pa, but of course, it depends on what you want from your travel. We are guessing you like enjoying great natural sights since you are in Vietnam or planning on traveling to Vietnam. Even though the cities can be interesting most people would come for the spectacular nature. Sa Pa and the Lao Cai province are a bit of a mix between nature and culture in the sense that the spectacular views are regularly cultivated with rice. This gives beautiful views and still seems to be very much in harmony with nature.
Furthermore, when it comes to the culture there are ethnic groups living in the Sa Pa area. These groups are a different kind of Hmong people such as the Black Hmong and the Flower Hmong. These people are kind of a stateless people since part of them live in China and part of them in Vietnam. They have their own culture and language that is totally different from Vietnamese and Chinese and looks more like an Indo European language. You will have opportunities to be taken on beautiful tours with people from these communities. This way you get to see beautiful things and learn more about their culture.
The Weather in Sa Pa and Lao Cai
Like discussed a little before it is important to keep weather conditions in mind when going to Sa Pa or the Lao Cai Province. In general, we could say temperatures here are between 20-30 % colder than in Capital Hanoi. The likelihood of a few raindrops is also quite high because of the mountains. It is good to bring a warm jumper and a raincoat or a poncho. If you did not get one you can get a poncho in Sa Pa too. There are also special poncho’s available for motorbikes which are highly recommended. They keep you nice and dry and are available for less than USD 10. This does not mean it always rains in Sa Pa. We have seen quite nice weather there over the course of our 5-day stay. The chance of staying there 5 days in a row without a single drop of rain however is very small. In the winter there is also a chance of having snow.
Good Hotels and Places to Stay
There are many places to stay in Sa Pa. It very much depends on your wishes. If you like to stay in a luxurious resort, the options are there for sure. Keep in mind that Sa Pa has become quite a big tourist attraction and prices are a little bit more expensive compared to many other places in Vietnam. You can of course also stay in a more basic and affordable hotel rather than a wonderful resort. If you are not scared easily by a little discomfort when you are normally used to sleeping in a bed, you could try a stayover in one of the hostel-like places hosted by people from the ethnic Hmong community. We have tried this last option and thought it to be a great experience.
Things to do in Sa Pa
The town of Sa Pa looks somewhat like a French Ski resort. Vietnam or Indo China as it was called back then used to be a french colony. In Sa Pa, a lot of French influence is still visible in the architecture of the buildings. The best thing to do in the town of Sa Pa itself is to score some wonderful food. The Vietnamese Kitchen is very diverse and northern and southern dishes can vary greatly in the way they are prepared. In contrast to the beliefs of some people, Vietnamese food is very different from Thai Food. A lot less rice compared to what you might expect.
After walking around and trying wonderful food, you should definitely book a hike with a tour guide. Prices are cheap, not for free, but we felt the investment was more than worth it compared to exploring on our own. We were brought to places we most likely would have never ended up on our own.
Be prepared to meet many people who will at some part join you in the hike. They will walk with you for a few minutes and try to sell you some homemade ethnic bracelets, bags and the like. Do not forget to bargain when you buy. Prices, in general, are very cheap and it is very much appreciated if you buy a little something from these local women (mostly). You will also make your own life a lot easier when you spend a couple of dollars. They will chase you for a good few minutes if you are determined not to buy any of their handmade goods.
How to get to Sa Pa and Tours from Hanoi
There are three ways to get to Sa Pa from Hanoi. You could choose to travel by train. You will then have to take the train from Hanoi and travel to Lao Cai city. After that, you will still need to grab a bus to travel up the mountain to Sa Pa. The total travel time is the same as taking a bus from Hanoi directly. This is a journey of around 6 hours.
From Hanoi to Sa Pa by Car
You could also rent a car or a motorbike and travel from Hanoi to Sa Pa on the motorway. Once on the motorway, it is pretty safe to drive. Keep in mind Vietnamese people sound their horn for everything. When they are taking over, they will honk. Also, people are not too serious about sticking to a particular side of the road. Still fairly safe I would say because most people do not speed and exceed the speed limit, which in general is quite on the slow side. Driving in Hanoi itself, however, is a completely different story and something we personally would never attempt. The journey by car is about 5 hours.
Travel to Sa Pa by Coach or Nightbus
The third way is in our opinion the best way, which is to travel by bus. The buses are very comfortable in general. You are able to lay down on the sleeping bus, so sleeping is very easy. You could also choose to travel in a normal coach. It takes around 6 hours and you will stop along the way for about 45 minutes to have some lunch. We ourselves used Sa Pa express and had great travel. For the first and last hour, we also had a very entertaining tour guide on the bus. Highly recommended. The coach will even pick you up from your hotel in the morning. When you get back to Hanoi, make sure not to use any of the taxi offerings in front of the Sapa Express building. They will scam you and make you pay 4 times the regular amount. Even though they look like official taxis. We advise using Uber the ratings there tell you all you need to know.
Our Special Tips based on Experience
When you travel to the Lao Cai province there is actually much more to see than just Sa Pa. There is Lao Cai city which is not too interesting for a whole day but interesting enough to drive through for an hour. From Sa Pa to Lao Cai is about 2 hours drive. It will give you a good impression of a Northern Vietnamese city. Notice how much space there is and how huge the roads are here with relatively little traffic. They are prepared for the future. The golden tip for us was to travel some more to the east to a little town called Bac Ha. Famous for its ancient Bac Ha Market where the ethnic Flower Hmong people come to trade mainly oxen for hundreds of years.
The Road from Sa Pa to Bac Ha
First, you will have to travel to Lao Cai city from Sa Pa. We recommend you do this by motorcycle, but you can also do so by bus. Keep in mind that you do need an international license to drive a motorcycle legally. It is also very easy to rent a motorbike for only 3-4 USD per day without a license. As long as you wear your helmet you are unlikely to run in any trouble, but of course in the case of an accident you are not insured. Sa Pa is on top of a mountain. This means the way down to Lao Cai is a bit faster than the way back up from Lao Cai to Sa Pa. The road has many turns and curves. It is definitely worth stopping a few times in the bends to enjoy some astonishing views of the mountainsides. Most of which are filled with rice terraces.
From Lao Cai, you will then continue towards Bac Ha. This will take you around 3-4 hours when you drive around 70 km/h through beautiful peaceful looking villages. Something we enjoyed a lot. On these roads, tourists are not seen regularly yet. Especially kids will look up surprised to see a tourist and they will wave and smile enthusiastically. When you stop for lunch in one of the local restaurants in a village people tend to share some of their life stories with you. A great experience to not only look at beautiful Vietnam but also get acquainted with the people and some of their culture.
Where to Stay in Bac Ha and North Vietnamese Food
When you eventually arrive in the town of Bac Ha there will not be an abundance of places to stay. There are a few hotels here in there, but there isn’t that much choice. We did not stay in a hotel ourselves but stayed in an Airbnb. We arrived after dark and it was a little bit scary to find our Airbnb in the middle of one of Bac Ha’s neighborhoods. The roads between the houses were narrow and dogs were barking everywhere while we were driving by their houses slowly to look for our Airbnb.
Our host was very friendly and a little shy at first. The next morning however he showed us around his beautiful house. He was proud to show us how he had built most of it himself. After a short tour downstairs it was time for breakfast. Together with him and his young daughter we shared the dining table, had some lovely pancakes and our host shared some of his life stories with us. After breakfast, he gave us a tour upstairs where there were some amazing views to take in. We were planning on going to the Bac Ha market and then return to Lao Cai, but the market was not on this day. Instead, he told us to go to the more authentic Simacai market and gave us the most beautiful route to get there. Here we cam across some of the best sights the North of Vietnam has to offer.
A short mention of the food in the Lao Cai province. In Hanoi we found the food to be excellent due to an abundance of choice. Of course in Lao Cai province, in Sa Pa, and in Bac Ha there are a lot fewer restaurants to choose from. Yet we find we had some of the best food in Sa Pa and Bac Ha. The fried spring rolls are excellent in this part. Compared to more southern parts of Vietnam such as Hue and Hoi An we felt you could be a lot less picky about your restaurant in the North since good food was served almost anywhere. Interesting to us was also to try some traditional Hmong dishes in Sa Pa which vary quite a bit from the more well known Vietnamese kitchen. Very enjoyable.
The Bac Ha Market and the Simacai Market
Instead of the Bac Ha market, we have been to the market in Simacai. This was more by chance because the Bac Ha market was not open on the days we were in the area. Our Airbnb host had said that the Simacai market was better in his eyes. The Bac Ha market has become a big attraction for fro tourists. Even though few tourists actually stay in Bac Ha, trips from Sa Pa to the Bac Ha market are organized regularly. This, he argued, has resulted in the majority of the people on the Bac Ha Market being tourists. On the Simacai market, we saw very little tourists indeed and it felt like an authentic experience. The drive their on the motorcycle was one of the most beautiful rides of our lives.
The Simacai market has a lot to offer but mainly revolves around the buffalo trade. In Northern Vietnam, the buffalo is still used as a kind of tractor and is very valuable to most people’s way of life in this area. The buffalo or oxen are used as a form of transport when they pull an oxcart or to plow rice fields.
Fun Facts about the Lao Cai Provence
- Sa Pa has around 9000 residents
- Bac Ha district has 48000 residents
- Lao Cai Province in total has 702.000 residents
- Sa Pa has 700.000 yearly international tourist arrivals
- The distance from Hanoi to Sa Pa is 320 km or 6 hours travel by bus
- From Sa Pa to Lao Cai are 120 km and 2,5 hours travel by motorbike
- Lao Cai to Bac Ha is 67 km and 2 hours travel by motorbike