Sapa in north-western Vietnam is just a 3.5 hour flight from Singapore, yet it’s hard to imagine a more different location. Surrounded by forest covered mountains and the now-iconic rice terraces, Sapa is the ultimate antidote to city-weariness. Indeed, French colonists of the Indochina days used the area as a breezy retreat from humid Hanoi. Today, ‘the Tonkinese Alps’ – as the French called them – attract visitors from across Asia and the wider world. If you love breath-taking scenery, fascinating tribal culture and good old fashioned fresh air, then you should definitely check out Sapa, and our top 5 things to do in and around this unique town.
1. Book a Homestay
The local Hmong people have been quick to realise the economic potential of their culture, and are only too happy to let you into their homes and meet their families. Homestays can be booked through your hotel/guesthouse, or through one of the many Hmong ladies who accost tourists in the streets of Sapa. I opted for one of these ladies, rather than booking with my hotel, and had a most memorable time with a number of other travellers. The accommodation was basic (bamboo bed, earthen floor), but the food (vegetables, pork, noodles) was excellent. The man of the house was keen for us all to attain his own level of rice-wine intoxication, but it was a feat beyond us. His wife never ceased working; cooking, cleaning and taking care of the numerous children. It soon became apparent that women manage most aspects of home and work life here.
Homestays arranged by hotels tend to be far less ‘earthy’ than my experience, often being located near a spa and massage facilities, and with guest house level accommodation – not exactly tribal. Which one you choose depends on your love of home comforts!
2. Hire a Motorbike and Explore the Local Area
125cc motorbikes can be hired for just US$5 a day and offer a fun, cheap way to explore the local area. Road quality varies a lot, so always keep your eye on the upcoming tarmac. Look out for potholes, rocks and areas where streams traverse the road. This mode of transport enables you to explore the many villages with ease for just a few dollars, and is far easier and more enjoyable than riding a motorbike in Hanoi. Even so, ensure you have the appropriate licence and that you know how to handle your motorbike. Rental outfits may hold your ID as security.
3. Explore the Rice Terraces
You’ll soon find that rice is everything in Sapa – it’s the oil of the Tonkinese Alps. Around this time of year the rice terraces are aglow with greens and yellows, as the rice nears its harvest point. As a Singaporean, I take rice for granted – but in Sapa you realise how much work goes into its production. Whether you explore the paddies as part of a homestay, a tour, or by motorbike, you’re sure to be blown away by their beauty.
4. Climb the Tallest Peak in Indochina
‘The Roof of Vietnam’ is what they call this part of the country, and it’s easy to see why. The king of the Tonkinese peaks is Fansipan, rising 3,143 metres and offering a real challenge to serious hikers and walkers. Most people opt to do it over two days, with guides asking around US$60 to take you there. While I didn’t fancy taking the summit myself, I did visit a nearby waterfall from which I could enjoy views of this stunning mountain.
5. Soak up the Views and Atmosphere of Sapa
Built of the side of a beautiful valley, Sapa lets you enjoy breath-taking views – often without you having to leave your hotel room. A wide range of international cuisine is on offer in the town’s many restaurants, but if you prefer to embrace the local food (and save money), then you should head for the local market area, or just enjoy some of the plentiful street food. Meat lovers are particularly well catered for, with mini barbecues on every street corner; vegetarians may have to stump up a bit more cash for a tourist eatery!
Vietnam is generally a safe place to visit, but if you’re trekking, biking or even just attempting to cross the road, you’ll quickly realise that this country is not quite as safe as Singapore. Ensuring your travel insurance is up to date will give you the peace of mind that if something does go wrong, you can get help quickly and easily.
Do I Need a Visa to Enter Vietnam?
If you’re Singaporean, Malay, Thai or Indonesian (among others), you do not need a visa, and can stay for up to 30 days as long as you have a valid passport.
Direct flights to Hanoi (a 10 hour train or bus ride from Sapa) are offered by Vietnamese Airlines and Singapore Airlines.
For more info about Sa Pa Vietnam