When I think we almost missed Sapa. With the time we had left and with
the bike we had to sell I really thought we might have to pass on Sapa and the area. Thankfully the bike sold much quicker than we thought and we were on our way to Sapa on an horrible sleeper bus, bike-free.
If we had to go again I would probably take more time for Sapa and the area and do it by ourself. But on this occasion, short on time, not knowing how easy it would be once there, we booked a tour that included Bac Ha market on our arrival Sunday and a 2 day trek from Sapa to Lao Chai and further.
What you discover once in Lao Cai province (where Sapa is located) is that this region is just different from almost every place you visit in Vietnam. Robb told me that it reminded him of Nepal somehow.
The area is colourful and full of rice terraces. The climate is cold but so far in the mountains the view is always gorgeous. Lao Cai is also surrounded by the minorities of the area: Hmong, Dao, Giáy and Tay.
The one you encounter the most though are the Hmong minority, you will also meet quite a lot of Red Dao in Sapa.
What the Lao Cai province is famous for is mainly the markets and treks widely available. From a 2 days walk in the province to climbing the mount Fansipan, everything is possible for everybody. On the market side you have one almost everyday. Don’t expect to be able to buy much from them, as they are mainly orientated to locals and have food and livestock available. The most famous markets of the area are the Bac Ha market and Coc Ly market.
For a list of the markets you can find in the area:
Sunday – Bac Ha Market
Monday – Phong Hai Market
Tuesday – Coc Ly Market
Wednesday – Cao Son Market
Thursday – Lung Khau Nhin Market
We had the chance to discover the Bac Ha market on Sunday. Beautiful place full of life. If you are here to take pictures of people be aware they are here to work mainly so don’t go pushing your camera in their face and opt for a zoom lens, they will let you know quickly if they don’t mind you taking their picture and you won’t bother them doing their job.
As we arrived with the overnight sleeper bus, but had to wait in Lao Cai for 3 hours before the tour bus arrived to take us to the market, we were left with only two hours to explore this big market. I wouldn’t recommend the organised tours, once we’d arrived in Lao Cai we discovered there were regular bus services running from the bus and train station directly to Bac Ha, which would have been cheaper and would have got us to our destination almost three hours earlier. Ask at the bus station, the local busses leave on the hour and will take around 2 hours to get there. Bac Ha is the largest and most accessible of the weekly markets, but because of this you can expect to see more tourists and more souvenir stalls than you might at one of the others. If you just want to buy souvenirs, Sapa has got most of them so don’t worry about it and just look around you, discover the price of a buffalo (20 – 30 million dong, for an adult) , check out the chicken for sale or the donkey and let yourself be hit by the cuteness of the puppies for sale.
The other big hit around Sapa are the treks. All type of difficulties, all type of trekking but remember if, like us, you come around in December, January time: it gets very cold so get some warm gear with you! For those treks you will most often get a guide from one of the minorities (usually a Hmong guide). If you are looking for a guide you can try to contact companies like Sapa’O’Chau or Sapa Sisters that are the most famous and renown companies in the area. A 2 days trip will usually bring you to a homestay in Lao Chai. If you worry about comfort and hygiene, don’t, they follow strict regulations and the only problem you might have is the lack of privacy, but you don’t go in a homestay for that I suppose. If you are not bothered by the all trekking, motorcycles can be rented around town for as little as 3 USD per day.
Sapa itself is a town that kept reminding me of some in the French Alps. And there is a reason for this: the town use to be own by the French which gave it the all spirit. So dear French friends, French food addicts, you will be pleased: Tartiflette is a usual meal in Sapa! Yes, you heard me: Tartiflette! (for those of you that don’t know this meal it is composed of mash potatoes that have been cooked in red wine, onions, ham and smothered with cheese on top… Yep, it is good!). And if you are not a fan of French food well you will get some Hot wine just to warm you up and some nice hot chocolate.
But enough about the food. Sapa has got more: between the crafts from the minority and the numerous spas that offer Red Dzao Medicine Herbs bath, you won’t be bored at night! The hotel choices are pretty good. We opted for the Cat Cat Twilight with a fire place (much needed by that weather) and an electric blanket plus terrace for 20$ a night and we were not dissapointed. As soon as the grey sky gets off the view is gorgeous. And a fire place… You can’t make that less romantic for a mountain town hotel room!
What else can you do in the area? You can rent a motorcycle and tour
around the mountains, rice paddies and villages (bear in mind that some of the minority villages charge an entrance fee of around $1 per person for tourists wanting to nosey around). As it is almost everywhere in Vietnam, getting around on a motorbike is the easiest, cheapest and most enjoyable way to see many things, without being tied to the schedule of an organised tour.
Also if you are in the area and have time donation are welcomed by many places that connect to school and villages. Minority villages are usually quite poor so warm clothes, gloves, scarfs are welcome for the winter month. You will be able to find more information about it while in Sapa.