Sapa: My Favorite Place in Vietnam

Vietnam was a tough country for me to travel through. There were a few towns I really liked, (Dalat and Hoi An) but excluding hotel workers, I didn’t find the people to be overly friendly, and it was mass tourism everywhere. Our last stop was in northern Vietnam in the mountainous town of Sapa– and what a way to conclude our trip in the country. It was gorgeous! Many people come here for trekking, village tours, and village homestays. The dramatic landscape has to be one of the most scenic places I’ve ever been to, and if it weren’t for the fact that we were short on time, I would have stayed much longer.

Farmer looking over the rice fields

We took an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai and then a minibus to Sapa. We got in just before 7am, and it was pouring down rain. The weather was not ideal to search for the perfect place to stay, so we followed a tout and soon found a woman from the Hmong tribe tagging along. It turned out to be a good decision because we haggled for the top floor room of the hotel with spectacular views and a large balcony for $12/night. The rain didn’t let up and kept us indoors most of the day. We were happy to have a reprieve from the heat in this cooler climate and just enjoyed the magnificent surroundings.

The following day we left around lunchtime (after the rain finally let up). We wandered through town, inquired about some village tours, turned away plenty of hill-tribe women who tried to sell us stuff on the streets, and decided to take a walk out of town. As we got to the edge of town, I hear someone yelling, “Laura!” It was the Hmong woman that walked with us in the rain when we arrived the first morning. She ran up, we greeted her, and she asked if I remembered her name. By some miracle I did- her name is Che. We weren’t planning on buying anything from her, and we tried to make that clear so she didn’t waste her time with us. She insisted on walking with us. We asked her about the direction we were headed. and it turns out it was towards her home village Lao Chai. At this point, I asked her if she would take us to her village and show us around for a nominal fee. Che agreed almost immediately, (as long as it wasn’t mentioned to tour companies back in town) and we set out for a new destination. I really just wanted her to show us the way to the Hmong village, but her guide skills were top-notch. She pointed out the best vistas and spots to take photos and also pointed out various plants and trees (ahem, including marijuana). After paying our entrance fee to the area, we got off the main road where all of the tour buses come through, and hiked through the hillside on the locals’ path.

Almost to the Hmong village of Lao Chai
Piling on the motorbike with Che and our intoxicated driver

I can’t tell you how much fun we had with Che. Her excitement spilled over when we taught her the art of a jumping photo. She made us little heart-shaped trinkets out of a plant and joked like we were best friends. The village was charming, and we saw how the Hmong make their clothing, including the dying of fabric with Indigo. As our tour concluded, we took two motorbikes back to Sapa with some slightly intoxicated drivers. They dropped us off at the edge of town, we bought a few things from Che, then met her younger cousin Xi (pronounced ‘zee’). At 19, Xi was hilarious; I’ve never laughed so hard in my life. We agreed to find them in town later that evening.

Che in her first jumping photo!

After washing up, we went to dinner and ran into Che and Xi almost immediately. They took us each by the arm and led us away from the restaurant scene into the local market. We dined on some pork and noodle soup dish. There was a table of tourists next to us and one young man, who had had too much to drink, started talking about his ‘man boobs’. This set Xi over the edge, who giggled about his ‘man boobs’ and chided him quite a bit. After that, we went to check out the Love Market, but it wasn’t very happening. We said goodbye to the girls and told them we’d catch up tomorrow; after all, Xi was curious and intrigued to take her first jumping photo as well.

Although we had plans the next day to visit a Red Zhao village north of Sapa, it rained nonstop. It kept us indoors until we couldn’t take it anymore, and we took a short walk in the rain. Because of the inclement weather, we did not find Che and Xi again. I wish we could have said our goodbyes but had a great time with them nonetheless. If it weren’t for being short on time, we would have stayed a few more days and visited a few other villages.

Many travelers I talked to have really enjoyed Sapa. Some can’t stand the constant hassling by the hill-tribe women in town trying to sell you goods. While I understand where they are coming from, as the women can be very persistent, it doesn’t bother me. They’re trying to make a living just like everyone else, and I was polite but firm with them. And when you get the chance to know some of them, such as a Red Zhao seller who was genuinely very sweet, it’s not so bad. For me, Sapa is one of the most beautiful and breathtaking places in the world. I’d love to see it again and explore it further.

To see the rest of my photos of Sapa, click here.

32 thoughts on “Sapa: My Favorite Place in Vietnam

    • Hi Sarah,
      Based on my experience the people in Vietnam weren’t as friendly overall as other countries in SE Asia. I either met super-friendly people in the tourism industry or people like the man who followed me on a train, demanded money, then ripped it in my face. Obviously, if it weren’t for a few people I met my opinion would have been different. I’ve met a lot of travelers whose experiences were similar to mine, but then just as many who had a wonderful time and didn’t encounter any problems.

  • These pictures are amazing! I traveled around SE Asia a few years ago and wanted to visit Vietnam soooo bad, but the visa is a bit difficult to get on short notice :( I must find a way back! And it’s so cool that you managed to find at least a few nice people there.

    • Kirstin,
      We had to go to a town in southern Cambodia to organize our visa for Vietnam so it does make it difficult that you can’t pick it up at the border. I think Vietnam could be a really enjoyable experience on the whole but you have to escape the bigger cities. Obviously some of the towns are really touristy for good reason (think Hoi An) but there are several that I wish I had been able to visit that were a bit off the beaten path and just didn’t make it to.

  • Sapa looks great and we’ve heard some wonderful things about it but we didn’t end up going for reasons I now can’t remember.

    We really enjoyed Hoi An as well and we’ve been in Dalat now for 5 days and really enjoying it, although I’m soo tired as there’s so much to do, my knee’s are all cut up from canyoning today! worth it though.

    • Glad you guys are having fun! We were so rushed in Vietnam that it was just a few nights in each place but luckily we stayed the longest in Sapa. Enjoy the rest of your time in Dalat :)

    • Connie,
      Seriously if you saw Che I would be so SO excited! You’re bound to run into her since it’s so small but there are lots of hill-tribe women so keep your eyes peeled. Oh the very thought makes me happy :) Have a wonderful time!

  • Aww! I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Sapa. I’m dying to go! So happy you met Che. Those kinds of friendships really turn a nice trip into a super-special one. Have fun!

  • Sapa is very charming =) Unfortunately I only stayed 2 days and 1 night since my visa was expiring. Definitely a place I’d re-visit =) I’m glad to read about your Sapa trip and see the photos cuz I missed a lot! Keep safe and happy travels!

  • Loving Che’s first jump photo :-) I’ve never done one either so you’ve given me something to add to my list. Maybe Adam and I will do one when he gets back for you…unless you two aren’t on speaking terms by then ;-)

    As always, really enjoy your photos!

    • Heather. I’m at a loss for words. You’ve never done a jumping photo?! You need to remedy that a-s-a-p! I’ve done entirely too many on this trip- it will require it’s own photo album. And, as for Adam, I think he’s off his meds again (but shhh, don’t mention it to him, it’s a sensitive subject). Our communications may be going through a therapist by then- no direct contact is probably for the best ;)

  • Interesting you didn’t find most of the Vietnamese friendly – I’ve read that quite a few times. And I love the shot of you on the Scooter! I’ve yet to brave the streets of BKK but considering it before I leave!

    • Thanks Matt. I hear mixed things on Vietnam. It really just depends on where you go. The smaller towns tended to be better in that regard. Sapa was a quiet place to ride on a scooter. If you do it in Bangkok, you’re one brave guy! Of course, the traffic doesn’t move very fast since it’s so busy here so it could work to your advantage.

  • Bloody fantastic photos on your blog – great layout and nice feel. I agree 100% with the mass tourism on the north-south trail…glad you found Sapa.


  • I LOVE the jumping photo with Che. She looks so excited! I’m also with Heather though, since I’m normally the photographer, I’ve never had a jumping photo. I really need to give some pointers to Shaun. <3

    • Erica, No jumping photos?? You must do something about this! They’re super-cheesy but fun. When you do take a jumping photo, make sure to share it with us!

  • Sapa was one of our favourite places in Vietnam as well. We spent 3 days walking deep into the hills and stayed in a home stay. Our experience in Vietnam was different than yours however, we enjoyed the entire country. That was 2003 though and things can change quickly in Asia. I would love to go back and spend more time in Vietnams north.

    • Dave & Deb, Sounds like you had a great time! I would have loved to do more trekking but the weather was pretty terrible for us with rain for 2-1/2 days. I would love to go back and see more of the tribes and scenery!

  • Your pictures and story of Sapa are great! I love the photo of Che jumping! haha. We unfortunately missed out on Sapa because there was so much to see in Vietnam in just 11 days! We made ourselves choose between Sapa and Ha Long Bay.

    I like your attitude about trying to understand where the locals are coming from when they are hassling you to buy things. You can’t let things like that get to you when you are traveling. I find that if you just have fun with it, you meet a lot of interesting people.

    • Christy,
      You definitely need to go to Sapa if you make it back to Vietnam! In terms of hassling, I try not to let it bother me. Don’t get me wrong, I have my moments when I get frustrated and have to try really hard not to be rude ;) But I try to remind myself that these people just want to feed their families and make it through another day.

  • Just got back from Vietnam 2 days ago. Sorry to hear that you didn’t find the locals outside of the hotels to be friendly – my mom is from a town outside of Saigon and didn’t particularly enjoy our time in Hanoi (I loved it though). Haven’t been to Sapa but it’s in the plans for the next trip – great pictures & account of your experience!

  • There’s a slight chance I’m going to Vietnam early next year, and your post makes me want to be sure to do my best to get to Sapa. The picture of Che jumping is magnificent!

  • Sapa was definitely one of our favorite places in Vietnam. Like you, we explored with a local Hmong woman, who took us to her village, cooked us lunch, and showed us around. Such a gorgeous and interesting area and lovely people. I really didn’t even mind the people trying to sell me things there. I thought they were friendlier than others I had encountered elsewhere in Vietnam.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *