Sapa. We’d wanted to go for years. We had visions of emerald green rice terraces, colourful hill tribe culture and amazing hiking. It’s an old French hill station and to us this usually means a blissfully cool climate and a small pretty settlement. I mean it even made it into the top three things we wanted to do in the whole of Vietnam.
Sadly, that paradise doesn’t exist. Maybe it never did, but we knew almost instantly that Sapa wasn’t going to be how we expected it to be.
It turned out to be our biggest travel disappointment.
We don’t want to make this a truly depressing blog post so we’re not just going to tell you what we didn’t like, we’ll tell you how we think you can have a better time. Looking back we made a few mistakes and how you go about visiting Sapa will make all the difference.
If you’re like us and want to find out how it is for yourselves, then here’s a few suggestions that may help you have a better trip.
Sapa: The Bad
You’ll need to lower your expectations
This was our biggest problem. We’d heard so much before going that we were expecting Sapa to be one of our favourite destinations in Vietnam. If you’ve read a few of our blogs you’ll already know we love hiking and escaping to the wilderness of a country.
This is probably the biggest let down for Sapa, as it didn’t seem like anywhere (that you can visit easily anyway) was unspoilt. There was a lot of construction and trash everywhere! The majority of the rice terraces are built on, and it’s so touristy that there’s rarely a feeling of escaping into the nature.
You will meet a lot of H’Mong people, but almost every cheery hello is quickly followed by ‘shopping….trekking’. I know people have to make a living, but that’s true all over the world and there are few places in the world where we have experienced as much hassle as in Sapa. At times it felt likeno locals would ever talk us other than to selling a tour or “shopping”.
You can’t blame them but it doesn’t endear you at all. Tourism has brought wealth and opportunity to this corner of Vietnam that wasn’t there before, which is a great thing.
It’s just a shame that there hasn’t been much consideration for preserving the natural beauty that was the reason it became so popular in the first place.
The depressing Cat Cat Village
“Tribal Disneyland” seems to be nicest description of this village turned tourist attraction. Having paid for entry, you will soon find that every building and ledge has been converted into a shop. And yes we mean every one!
For the first kilometre, you’ll see nothing but H’Mong bags, clothes, bracelets, souvenirs and statues for sale, covering the sides of the path and just as many people getting in front of you saying “Hello? Shopping? Sir? Hello? Shopping?”.
On top of this there is a mass of tourists crowding into a narrow area. It felt like visiting a theme park, and not a good one.
The only reason why you may find it worth persisting is for the not so bad waterfall at the end, and the second part of the walk from the village to the road - which less people do. But you can see a lot better versions anywhere else in Vietnam.
The worst food in Vietnam
The food in Sapa town (not the homestays) is awful, and will cost you about four times more than its equivalent in Hanoi. If you were enjoying food heaven in Hanoi, I’m sorry to tell you, you will be entering food hell.
Our go to lunch is always banh mi, but in Sapa they leave out all the ingredients that actually make it tasty. No herbs, no chilli sauce, no mayo, no flavour.
This goes for all the dishes we tried, it was all tasteless. Even the fried rice was wet and gluggy. Ugh.
Read next: 7 amazing things to do on Cat Ba Island
Sapa: the ugly
A polluted dump - Sapa Town
Sapa town is a depressing place. A quiet hill station it is no longer. Instead, what you’ll find is a busy, polluted and noisy city with constant construction, car horns and diesel engines roaring day and night, leaving you sleep deprived and miserable.
It doesn’t have any redeeming features: the food is bad and overpriced, there’s a fog of dense pollution so you’ll rarely get a glimpse of the mountain landscape around you. Whatever you do, don’t base your trip around this horrible place!
Our first mistake was booking two nights here so that we could do some independent hiking from the town. By the end of our two days here we were seriously disillusioned.
Read next: Train Street in Hanoi
One of the biggest frustrations with Sapa is that independent hiking is near impossible. Mistake number two was wasting two full days trying. We always prefer to walk independently but this is one place that it really doesn’t pay to.
We didn’t expect signposted, manicured trails, but a simple idea of a route that we could do without a guide. Unless you walk along the roads (most of which will have motorbikes, cars and lorries buzzing past you constantly - even on the rural dirt roads) then hiking in Sapa without any help is near impossible. Good luck finding a map, we tried and failed!
Whilst you can try to find your own routes by picking random dirt tracks, it’s more likely that you’ll end up in a village and then being followed by the local people trying to sell you things.
They won’t leave you alone either, meaning you’ll likely inherit a guide anyway!
Having read other blogs, we thought that hiking on your own would be relatively straight forward. Sadly outside of road walking, this isn’t so as you can easily walk through someone’s house, land or get hopelessly lost as nothing is marked and nothing is obvious.
If you want to salvage your time in Sapa, relent and find a local guide. You don’t have to organise a tour, you can easily find a guide (they will find you first anyway!) to take you walking on a private trip.
Sapa: The Good
The homestays outside of Sapa town
The key to having a good time in Sapa is finding a homestay in somewhere like Ta Van. They are generally in quiet, rural and more authentic settings.
We chose to stay at Joy House in Ta Van: a homestay that had private rooms, with the chance to eat with the family and enjoy a smaller village setting.
It was half a kilometre from the nearest road, meaning that we relaxed in the evening with the sound of the nearby river rather than traffic noise, and could look out at the mountains ahead of us as opposed to construction sites.
Once more though, depending on where you choose lower your expectations with the homestays as they have become more like small businesses and have less guest interaction than you might be expecting. However, we really enjoyed seeing this little piece of rural Vietnam.
We both agreed that it saved our trip to Sapa and we highly recommend it, especially over staying in the grotty town.
Having a good time with our guides
As soon as we arrived in Ta Van, it became obvious that we weren’t going to get away with doing anything on our own. We were followed for half an hour before finally giving in and accepting that we now had guides!
The local community wait outside the homestays for visitors to leave, striking up conversations and ultimately trying to sell you something.
It was at this point where we tried something different: indicating we would pay for the hike and seeing if this could open up conversations and the unique experience we were looking for. It made a huge difference.
The best thing to do is to go with the flow. What the locals will want is the opportunity to sell you something at the end of your walk, but in return they will help you do a decent hike. From our homestay, we were commandeered by four local people who were incredibly sweet and waited until the end to sell to us.
They helped us walk through rice terraces to the top of a waterfall. When the path became slippery, they helped massively. Without these locals, we wouldn’t have done any decent hiking in Sapa. They also gave us a bit of an insight into local life and we wished we’d just decided to take a guide earlier in our stay.
At the end, rather than just being paid for helping us, they wanted to sell us some bags, scarves and bracelets they’d made.
We simply picked the cheapest things they sold (we didn’t really want anything and had to buy from all four!) and it ended up being what we thought we would pay for a guide.
Looking back we realise we wanted to learn a bit about the hill tribe culture, but then didn’t hire a guide which really doesn’t make any sense! Hire one from the beginning and you’ll have a better time.
What we kept in mind was that the money we gave them actually went to the local community. This wasn’t going to a faceless corporation, but local families in Ta Van.
Granted, many would argue that this only encourages them to pursue and sell to tourists, but in the end they made our stay more enjoyable so were happy to pay.
It is worthwhile taking a step back and reminding yourself that you are with some of the least privileged people in the world and that giving them a few dollars will make much more of a difference to them than it will to you.
A herbal bath in a barrel
Ta Phin, the Red Dao village near Sapa is famous for it’s traditional herbal baths, though we couldn’t get to the bottom of why they were in a barrel! It is a unique experience and one that definitely lifted our spirits after walking 10km along a dirt road to get to it!
We didn’t end up going to the most well known of the spas (as there was yet more construction going on behind it), but plenty of the homestays in town offer a similar service with a pretty view, albeit not of the rice terraces.
Where to stay in Sapa
For a quiet getaway in the hills of Ta Van, Joy Homestay is somewhere in between how we imagined a homestay to be and a guest house. It is set in a very small village with the communal area overlooking a picturesque river, mountains and rice terraces. It’s a peaceful place and one where we could heave a sigh of relief after the disappointment of Sapa town.
The rooms are small, but simple and spotless. You’ll also be able to have good home-cooked food for dinner, by far the best food we had in Sapa.
We visited when the owner was not there so though we slept in the family home we didn’t feel it was quite as much of a homestay experience as we’d expected. Check in advance to see if the owner will be there if you are hoping for an immersive experience.
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Are you planning a trip to Sapa? Or have you been and have any tips that we didn’t include? Let us know in the comments below!