A magical mountain village: Sapa

Ah, Sapa… Small mountain village that has lodged itself inside my heart. You know when you visit a place and it just sticks? Sapa was like that for me. Here’s why…

It’s a small little town in the mountains right in the North of Vietnam. That actually says it all, but I’ll give you a little more to fall in love with. The town itself it pretty touristy, but the surroundings are absolutely incredible. Steep mountainsides covered with terraced rice paddies, water buffalo working the fields and local Vietnamese villagers in traditional dress living in tiny villages tucked away in the mountains and accessible only by dirt pathways.

In love yet? Just wait…
You can go hiking into the nearest local village on your own (and then go exploring around the river for some breathtaking scenery), picnic on the banks of the river and hike through the dazzling scenery to your heart’s content. Or you can go the organized route and do a day tour where you visit 3 villages. I was wary of an organized tour, I thought it might feel a little like a people-zoo, but it turned into an amazing day. Well, let me add in one small caveat there: the last hour was fairly uncomfortable because we were harassed to buy stuff, but that’s part of being in Vietnam – almost constant harassment to buy stuff. You become immune.

We booked with the tourist office just above the market and it was a great (and lucky) choice. The tour guide, Minh, is fantastic, and takes you off the beaten path, which is exactly where you want to be. Otherwise you’re just following all the other tourists in a straight line through the villages, and you might as well be in a (very pretty) museum.
To get to Sapa you take an overnight train from Hanoi. There are tourist class trains, but they’re not much different and they charge a lot extra. If there are four of you you can book out a whole berth – waaay better. Regrettably, there were only two of us.

We stayed at the Thai Binh Hotel, which was excellent. At the top of the (very hilly) town, a great location and superb service and delicious breakfast (the best baguettes we had in the whole of Vietnam!). The clincher, though, was that they offered not only a heater but an electric blanket! Extremely necessary in Sapa, it gets pretty freezing.
All in all, Sapa was that rare thing: a tourist destination that’s actually worth the hype.

Image: James Khoo

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