Top Things to Do in Sapa & How to Avoid the Crowds [2024]

From when to go, what to see and how to avoid the tourist crowds!

Last updated: 04 Jan 2024 - 14 min read
Top Things to Do in Sapa & How to Avoid the Crowds [2024]
Top Things to Do in Sapa & How to Avoid the Crowds [2024]
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Sapa is one of the most well-known spots in Vietnam. It's the second most visited place in North Vietnam other than Halong Bay and it's easy to see why. It's suitable for everyone from backpackers to kids, most people here speak English and it's a pretty place with iconic views. If you're thinking of going, here's everything you need to know - including how to avoid the crowds!

TLDR: Though Sapa is super touristed, it's worth a visit for its unique blend of nature, colourful communities and social enterprise. If you'd like to experience Sapa as it was before mass tourism, head to neighbouring Sin Suoi Ho village.

The Basics

Is Sapa Worth Visiting?

Come to Sapa for iconic rice paddy views, lovely local culture and if you don't mind the crowds!

Come to Sapa if you want to see iconic rice paddies, enjoy easy hikes, learn about minority ethnic groups in Vietnam and you don’t mind the crowds! It’s a pretty popular stop for backpackers in Vietnam, with lots of hostels and touristy shops, so do be prepared!

For us though, what makes Sapa really unique and worth visiting is that, unlike many other places in Asia, the majority of guides here are women. Traditionally, H’mong hill tribe women in Sapa were expected to be homemakers. However, with the growth of tourism, women have found opportunities as guides and shopkeepers, while many men have taken on domestic roles. This shift occurred because Hmong women, while at home, dedicated time to learning English.

Just by coming to Sapa, you can directly contribute to giving local women a voice in a predominantly patriarchal society! 

Getting There

Most people take a bus (left) or a train (right) from Hanoi to Sapa. The seats recline so you can sleep well!

The closest international airport to Sapa is in Hanoi. You can reach Sapa from Hanoi by various means, with the most common options being sleeper buses and trains.

  • Bus: To get from Hanoi to Sapa, many travelers choose the overnight sleeper bus, which takes about 6-7 hours and costs around $10 USD for a one-way ticket. These buses are quite comfortable for sleeping, and many of them have reclining chairs.

    Most people take the 10 pm bus from Hanoi, arriving in Sapa Town around 4 am. You're allowed to stay on the bus until about 6 am, which is perfect timing because many trekking tours start around 7 or 8 am!

  • Train: For a more comfortable journey with a better night's sleep, we'd recommend the night train. All the train companies basically operate different cabins on the same train. So although you're booking with different train companies, you'll actually be on the same train. Take Chapa Express for a more premium experience.

    The night train departs from Hanoi train station at 10 pm, arriving at Lao Cai train station, where you'll then hop on a shuttle bus to reach Sapa Town by 7 am. This option allows you to maximize your time and start exploring as soon as you arrive.

  • Private car: If you're looking for a private journey, you can also take a car. It's 5.5 hours each way to get to Sapa, and you can also make it a road trip and visit other places along the way!

Best Time to Go

  • Best: Our favourite time to visit Sapa is during autumn in September and October, because that’s when the rice fields turn a beautiful golden yellow and farmers begin harvesting. The weather during this period is also great for trekking.
  • Good but Touristy: If you want green, go to Sapa in June when the rice fields turn an amazing lush green colour. But this is also the busiest period with lots of domestic travellers. Summer is also the rainy season, so be prepared for sudden storms.
  • Avoid: If you want to do a homestay, avoid winter in Sapa (December - January) as it gets very foggy and cold. The homestays are very basic with no heating, so it may not be the most comfortable!

Things to Do in Sapa

1. Hike Iconic Rice Terraces

The most popular thing to do in Sapa is to explore the rice paddy fields by trekking.

There are two ways to explore the rice paddy fields in Sapa: sleep in Sapa town and do a one-day Sapa tour, or you can do a 2-3 day trek and homestay that will take you further afield to explore. 

During these treks, you'll encounter beautiful rice terraces, bamboo forests, waterfalls, and villages belonging to ethnic minorities. The treks are pretty easy so they're suitable for kids, as well as the elderly.

What makes trekking in Sapa interesting is not actually the scenery; it's more about the journey itself. Here you're guided by locals from ethnic communities, and you really get to learn about their cultures and way of life. When you spend time in Sapa, you'll realise that you come for the views, but you remember it for its heartfelt hospitality.

Day tours often visit well-trodden areas like Cat Cat village and Ta Phin Village, while multi-day experiences offer a deeper cultural experience, and avoid more of the tourist traps.

2. Enjoy a Local Homestay 

Staying in a homestay allows you to really immerse in the gorgeous surrounding and enjoy the heartfelt hospitality of the locals.

We’d highly recommend spending at least a night in a homestay because it’s the best way to experience Sapa. Not only will you get to explore more hidden routes, you’ll also get to enjoy home-cooked meals and really get to immerse in the warm hospitality of Sapa. 

We’d go as far to say that you haven’t really experienced Sapa unless you’ve done a homestay, because that’s by far the best bit of Sapa!

3. Head to Sin Suoi Ho Village for an off-the-beaten-path experience

Going to Sin Suoi Ho is like stepping back in time to Sapa before mass tourism.

Stepping into Sin Suoi Ho is like stepping back in time to Sapa 10 years ago, before mass tourism. We fell in love with its pristine views of endless rice terraces, impressive waterfalls and its charming village life. Despite its ruggedness, the guesthouses are extremely cosy, exceptionally clean and well maintained. The village is still unheard of among travellers, making it a good non-touristy alternative to Sapa.

Sin Suoi Ho also has a great story. Up to 1995, the village was in the grips of opium addiction. It was a perennial opium growing area, the rate of addicts was increasing day by day. The village chief wanted to help his people wean off their addiction and get out of poverty. So he started investing in alternative agriculture, and built a road to connect his village to nearby towns. In recent years, the village started to develop community tourism.

Sin Suoi Ho is a couple of hours away from Sapa Town. You can ask for your homestay to arrange a pick-up for you from Sapa Town.

4. Climb Mount Fansipan 

Mount Fansipan is Indochina's tallest mountain, and also a very challenging hike.

Sapa is also home to Mount Fansipan, Indochina’s highest peak! There are a few ways to climb Mount Fansipan: climb with overnight camping; a day climb, or pair a Fansipan climb with a homestay and rice terrace trek.

We’re not going to lie: Fansipan mountain is one of Southeast Asia's toughest hikes, even more challenging than Mt. Kinabalu. It's for intermediate hikers who crave a challenge. The summit is often shrouded in fog, so you shouldn't be doing it for the views! You'll tackle the climb via the Tram Ton Pass, which has a demanding ascent lasting 5-7 hours, depending on your fitness level.

Insider tip: If climbing isn't your thing, you can also take the cable car, but this means you’ll be at the peak with all the crowds! As a compromise, you can consider climbing up Mount Fansipan to enjoy the view before the cable car crowds arrive, and then take the cable car down.

5. Visit cosy cafes in Sapa Town

Enjoy a banana pancake and local coffee at a cute Sapa cafe before you leave!

Before leaving Sapa, be sure to spend a few hours in Sapa Town and popping by a few local cafes. One of our favourites is Gem Valley, and is known to have the best views in Sapa. Enjoy a banana pancake, drink some Vietnamese coffee and have one last look at the beautiful Sapa scenery before heading back to Hanoi.

Another cosy place that trendy locals love is Color Bar. This cosy and hip place has a selection of exciting and yummy cocktails. 10/10 for ambience too!

6. Learn about Indigenous Crafts

If you want to learn more about indigenous culture, start with the fascinating traditions of the Black Hmong people. Here, you’ll learn about the indigo dyeing and cloth-making traditions of this vibrant community. It is perfect for those looking to understand more about the local culture, and traditional crafts that are fast disappearing.

7. Try a Red Dao Herbal Bath 

One of our favourite things about Sapa is being able to experience the way various ethnic communities live, and the Red Dao community is particularly fascinating. We'd highly recommend trying out the Red Dao herbal bath which is steeped in tradition.

The Red Dao community have been using medicinal plants for their baths for generations, with each family passing down their own unique recipe. It's not just relaxing; it can do wonders for tired muscles and has a bit of that magical touch to it! Plus, taking part in this tradition makes you feel a little more connected with the local culture.

8. Support a Social Enterprise 

By supporting social enterprises in Sapa, you're directly supporting youth education and upskilling.

Some tour operators in the area, like Sapa O’Chau and Sapa Sisters, also operate as social enterprises so your spending also goes to the wider at-need community. They focus on empowering Hmong youths by supporting their education, training them in the hospitality sector, and providing them with fair job opportunities.

While trekking with these social enterprises may be pricier, it's really rewarding knowing that your spending is helping raise up the next generation.

9. Visit a Local Market

Sapa and its surrounds has lots of local markets, so if you're looking for souvenirs or you just love markets, you may like to visit.

Traditionally markets are not just for locals to trade at, but they're important social places for locals to gather and find love. While the main market in Sapa Town is now very touristy, you can find some fascinating, colourful markets further out. Here are some of the main ones from most touristy to least.

  • Sapa Market (Every Day, in Sapa Town): this two-story traditional market is right in Sapa Town and opens daily. You can get all sorts of cheap souvenirs here, as well as fruits and vegetables. It's generally quiet Monday through Friday. Saturday mornings are somewhat busy, but Sunday morning is the big market day when the Black Hmong people from the furthest reaches of the district come to trade. It's not super special but it's fun to come on Sunday mornings to see the buzz of local activity.
  • Bac Ha Market (Sunday mornings, 100km from Sapa Town): This is the largest market in the area, and has become more touristed in recent years. It's a great place for people watching as ethnic communities come from all around the area, and try local market food. But watch out for over-inflated tourist prices, and some degree of hassle!
  • Can Cau Market (Saturday morning, 120km from Sapa Town): If you want a really local experience, this is probably it. There are far fewer tourists here, and it's really fun to people watch and just take in the buzz. You may not find much to buy here as it's mainly local household goods (e.g. fresh produce, livestock, farming equipment, and clothing), but it's a fun adventure.

Top Tips

1. Pack light

If you're doing a homestay, bring a backpack instead of a luggage to save you the trouble of pulling your luggage up the steep hills from the main road to your homestay entrance. On motorbike rides, we managed to fit a 60L backpack in front while carrying a normal sized 27L on our backs.

A pair of trekking shoes with a good grip is also essential in reducing the likelihood of you slipping when trekking.

Sapa remains cool all year round and is prone to fog, so do bring lightweight and water-resistant clothing. It gets very cold in winter, but you will still perspire while trekking, so be sure to bring enough warm layers that you can easily put on and remove.

2. Prepare yourself for basic homestays

Homestays in Sapa are basic, but cosy and full of heart.

The homestays in Sapa are pretty basic countryside homestays, so don't expect 3-4 star hotel conditions! There are proper WC toilets (i.e. not squat), and shower heads, but the bedrooms are kitted out with simple mattresses with no AC/heating.

Note that if you go during December to February, you should come prepared with layers. There is no heating so it does get quite cold in winter! We wore four layers of clothing and snuggled under the thick duvets they provided.

If you go during Spring to Autumn, the temperatures should be nice and cool (averaging at around 25°C/77°F in July).

3. Do buy local crafts to support the local community

We don't love buying touristy souvenirs usually, but Sapa is an exception. Here, selling handmade embroidery is the way most Hmong women earn a living. It’s almost certain that for every trek you go on, there will be a few really lovely Hmong ladies who will accompany you and your group, and assist you if you need help going up and down the hills.

They will carry baskets of Hmong embroidered wallets, bags, scarves etc. that they’ve made themselves and will sell them to you at the end of the trek. It takes them a few days to make an item and each item costs less than $10 USD.

Knowing that this is their only source of income to provide for their family, we try and support them by buying some items when possible. Support them if you’d like, but please don’t feel obligated to do so!

4. To avoid the crowds, do a private trek

A private trek will take you to more hidden parts of Sapa

If you prefer a quieter experience and want to enjoy stunning views without the crowds, you might consider visiting Sin Suoi Hoi nearby, or take a private guide and request to go to less-touristed spots. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How many days is enough for Sapa?

Most travellers come to Sapa for 2-3 days. We’d highly recommend spending at least 3 days here. If you'd like to visit a local market or go to Sin Suoi Ho, stay for an extra day! It'll be worth it because you'll get to see a side of Sapa that few travellers have seen.

  • Day 1: Arrive in Sapa town from Hanoi in the morning. Spend the rest of your day wandering about Sapa town and the little cafes here. Spend the night in Sapa town. 
  • Day 2: Start your 2D1N trekking and homestay trip in Sapa valley. Take the ones that go a bit further away from the tourist trails so you can really appreciate the beauty of Sapa away from the crowds. Overnight at a homestay. 
  • Day 3: Explore rice paddies, local villages and enjoy the warm hospitality of the Sapa peoples. Finish your adventure at 8:30pm in the evening. Take a sleeper bus to Hanoi back at 10pm.

What is the weather like in Sapa?

Come in June for green rice paddy views (top) and in Autumn for golden hues (bottom). But be prepared for fog (right).

The weather in Sapa, Vietnam, varies depending on the season though you can generally expect some level of fog!

  • Spring (March to May): Spring in Sapa has mild temperatures and blooming landscapes. It's a great time to visit for trekking and enjoying the lush green scenery.
  • Summer (June to August): Sapa's summer is warm and wet, with occasional heavy rains. While the temperatures are relatively high, it can get quite foggy. This season is ideal for those who enjoy the vibrant, green rice terraces.
  • Autumn (September to November): Autumn is a popular time to visit Sapa due to its pleasant weather. The skies are clear, and the temperatures are comfortable, making it a great time for trekking and outdoor activities. The terraces turn a gorgeous golden during this time.
  • Winter (December to February): Winter in Sapa is cold, with temperatures dropping to near freezing. It's the best time to witness the beautiful snowfall in the region, but it's also the coldest and driest season.

In summary, Sapa's weather varies greatly with the seasons, so the best time to visit depends on your preferences. If you prefer milder temperatures and clear skies, consider spring or autumn. Summer offers lush greenery but lots of tourists, while winter provides a unique experience with the possibility of snow.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Sapa Vietnam known for?

Sapa, Vietnam is renowned for its breathtaking mountainous landscapes, vibrant ethnic cultures, and trekking opportunities. This picturesque region is celebrated for its terraced rice fields, which offer stunning vistas and are a testament to the ingenuity of local farmers. Travelers are drawn to Sapa to experience the unique traditions and lifestyles of various ethnic minorities, including the Hmong, Red Dao, and Tay communities. Sapa is also known for its cool climate, making it a popular destination to escape the heat of the lowlands. Outdoor enthusiasts flock to Sapa for its trekking and hiking adventures, providing a chance to explore the natural beauty of the Hoàng Liên Son mountain range including climbing Mount Fansipan, the roof of Indochina. Additionally, the region offers visitors the opportunity to relax in traditional Red Dao herbal baths, further enhancing its appeal.

Is there a lot of things to do in Sapa Vietnam?

Sapa, Vietnam offers a diverse range of activities for travelers. You can hike the iconic rice terraces, with options for day tours or multi-day treks that take you through beautiful landscapes, bamboo forests, waterfalls, and ethnic minority villages. For an authentic experience, consider staying in a local homestay to immerse yourself in the culture and hospitality of Sapa.

If you're looking for an off-the-beaten-path adventure, head to Sin Suoi Ho Village, where you'll find pristine views of rice terraces, waterfalls, and a charming village that's still untouched by mass tourism. Another adventurous option is climbing Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Indochina, though it's a challenging hike. You can also explore cozy cafes in Sapa Town and learn about indigenous crafts, including the traditions of the Black Hmong people.

For a unique experience, try a Red Dao herbal bath, known for its relaxing and therapeutic qualities. Lastly, you can support social enterprises, which empower local youths through education and fair job opportunities. These activities ensure that there's no shortage of things to do in Sapa, catering to various interests and preferences.

What can I expect on a 2D1N Sapa trip?

A sample itinerary could look like this:

Day 1: Begin at Sapa and trek to Muong Hoa Valley with stunning scenery. Arrive at Homestay in Hau Thao, interact with local children, and savor a homemade dinner. Overnight at a local homestay.

Day 2: Start the day with a hearty breakfast, then trek through Muong Hoa Valley, passing Ta Van village and a bamboo forest. Explore a beautiful waterfall and learn about the Red Dao people in Giang Ta Chai. Return to Hao Thau, explore the village, and enjoy a family dinner. Your Sapa hike adventure concludes at the Homestay.

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