Surreal Sapa – Northwest Vietnam

January, 2015

Popular with trekkers, Sapa is a small town nestled among the high Hoàng Liên Son Mountain range, in Northwest Vietnam and famous for its delicate, rugged scenery, but also its rich cultural diversity.

Sapa, Vietnam, China, map
Sapa’s close proximity to the Chinese border


Today, the uncomfortable sleeper bus from Hanoi took about 5.5 hours to arrive.

As the bus climbs, the scenery becomes breath-taking and absolutely stunning, during travel around many switchbacks on this snakelike road.

The online consensus is to go by train, as it’s safer than a bus, car, or motorbike!

Sleeper Bus Trip

Slightly strange is that you must take your shoes off before entering a sleeper bus – guess I can understand the driver doesn’t want the bus getting muddy. You’re handed a plastic bag whilst climbing onto the bus in your socks and awkwardly carrying your daypack and shoes down the aisle, whilst finding your seat number to climb into…

Sapa, Vietnam, bus
Sleeper bus – 3 seats across on 2 levels

Then when it’s time to get off, the driver is invariably in a hurry and kicks you off the bus expecting you to don your shoes in milliseconds, on the grubby road or footpath in the wet or dry, before he speeds off into the distance.

Just so you are prepared, drivers of these sleeper buses are typically grumpy.


This town overlooks spectacular terraced rice fields of the Muong Hoa Valley…you’ve probably seen many surreal photos of this region. And at 1,600+ metres above sea level, Sapa is not only gorgeous but very very cold.

Temperatures can drop to freezing and it did snow about ten days ago but there isn’t any snow around now. The lingering air is still so icy that it feels as if it will snow again soon.

H'mong, Vietnam, Sapa
H’mong Artisans – hand sewn crafts

As it’s winter (in Sapa this is the four months between November and February), the weather here is very cold, wet, and foggy.

The fog is particularly bad and you can get trapped here due to impenetrable fog. Quite surreal, especially in the chilly evenings when everything is enveloped in deep fog. So, be prepared to spend extra time here if you visit during the winter.

Vietnam, Sapa, local
Sapa local


Sapa, Vietnam, church
Multi-coloured church lights

Apart from trying to stay warm, walking around this village-like small but very picturesque town surrounded by spectacular mountain ranges, travellers visit this region for the many treks, walking trails, and to experience the local culture.

Check out the local market, as there’s always something interesting to photograph.


Walk south of town and you’ll come across a small manmade picturesque lake that’s lit up with changing coloured lights at night. This seems to be a meeting place for locals so it’s great for people watching.

Sapa Church and Town Square

Another great people-watching spot is the Sapa Church steps, which is packed with locals taking each other’s photos, especially on the weekends. The Town Square is the happening place with a younger crowd. Stay here longer than 5 minutes and you will be subjected to badgering by hawkers…mainly H’mong and Red Zhao ladies; they’re friendly enough but rest assured, you will be buying something!

Núi Hàm Rồng

See dazzling Ham Rong Mountain and wander around the trails for hours on this lovely 1,800-metre high mountain. Entry is 70,000VND – pick up a free map from the ticket office on ticket purchase.

The lush gardens are full of moss-covered rocks, orchids, Japanese Cherry trees, and many other species. The views are great if it stays clear long enough for you to take photos.

Snack vendors are scattered throughout the main walking tracks and there is also a local restaurant.

The climb up the cobblestone path to the top (missed this somehow and realised when it was too late) is strenuous but apparently well worth the panoramic vista.

Along the trails you’ll see tacky weird cartoon sculptures. Vietnam seems to like its strange sculptures as I have seen many scattered throughout different parks in this country.

Town market

Wander around the large local market to experience a taste of local everyday life and some very interesting scenes.

Sapa, Vietnam, market, butcher
Market butcher

Day trek to terraced rice fields in Shin Chai Village

With a day trek (680,000VND) to the rice fields and a couple of H’mong villages booked with the Tourist Office in town, I’m very excited to start the tour.

The day includes an English-speaking guide, lunch, visit to the villages, and the minibus back to town (Sapa – Matra – Ta Phin – Sapa).

The tour

After heavy rains during the night, the trek’s path is very slippery. It always seems to rain here at the moment.

Some of the people on the trek struggle as they slide and fall down the tracks. So, our guide decided to continue the rest of the trek by detouring and walking on the road – a little disappointing but no one wants an accident.

Although it’s winter and freezing cold here, the scenery on the 4-hour walk before lunch is striking.

rice fields, Sapa, Vietnam
Misty rice fields on trek

Once you arrive at the Má Cha (H’Mong) village for lunch, the village touts follow you until you buy something – even whilst you eat lunch they constantly badger you – annoying.

The Black H’mong and Red Zhao women are very skilled and relentless at badgering, but as this is how they make their money, you can’t blame them really.

Sapa, Vietnam, Red Zhao
Red Zhao villager

After lunch, you take a short walk to the Lá Phin (Dao People) Village and walk another two hours to where the minibus is waiting to take you back to Sapa.

Vietnam, Sapa
Rugged up! Village mud – always damp and wet here (Photo credit: Neil Lintern)

Expect to see more impressive scenery and if the fog hasn’t lifted, it’s even more spectacular.

H'mong Infant, Sapa, Vietnam
H’mong Infant

Would have loved to have done more trekking but alas, the plan is to head back to Hanoi and on to Tallin (Estonia) for a change of scenery through Eastern Europe.

Sapa, Vietnam H'mong
H’mong in the mist

I definitely want to return to explore more of this gorgeous isolated region, as it is not so frequented by foreigners, yet.

H'mong, Vietnam, Sapa
Local market


Thai Binh Sapa Hotel (Ham Rong street, behind the Center Church) is a lovely and cosy hotel but our room is very cold. Unfortunately, Sapa isn’t renown for its central heating or much heating at all.

Sapa, Vietnam, H'mong
Sugar cane for trek

The cold and wet soaks into your bones.

Some accommodation in Sapa offers open fire places in the reception area and some restaurants also have fires, but not everywhere.

Everything is provided in the room and the breakfasts are excellent. The fresh Vietnamese coffee at breakfast is served over a tea light candle and is wonderful!

The room has good hot water, a heater, and electric blankets are provided but it is still cold. Very lovely and welcoming staff. The hotel is a 10-minute walk to the town centre. Only stayed five nights in Sapa during the two-month stay in Vietnam and wish we’d had more time, but will definitely return to this stunning region.


The ‘Set ‘ menu (three-course meal) for a standard price seems to be very popular with many restaurants in Sapa. You will only find minor variations in dishes and price between restaurants.

Antique Sapa Restaurant

On 22A Phan Xi Pang Str, this café, bar, and restaurant offers good service and delicious ‘Set’ dinner meals at the best prices and quality in town. An open fire warms up the candle-lit room, making this a lovely cosy ambiance. Ate here a couple of nights but be warned, the main portions are quite large.


Buy almost everything you need at Sapa’s only supermarket (Ngu Chi Son), especially if you’re doing a couple of days of trekking.

Prices are reasonable and you can even buy local freshly baked bread and pastries here; chocolate is sold but very expensive.

H'mong, Sapa, Vietnam
Market day

Sapa to Hanoi

The Hưng Thành Travel sleeper bus (250,000VND) to Hanoi leaves at 08:00hrs from Sapa’s bus terminal (centre of town, near the lake) and is supposed to take around 5 to 6 hours.

Our bus driver thinks he’s the only passenger on board and makes his own rules along the way stopping when he wants for a smoke, drink, or to pee behind the bus. He even decided to stop only an hour out of Hanoi for lunch – annoying. Following lunch,  the driver gave us the scenic route around Hanoi’s back alleys and suburbs, so the trip took about 7 hours…are we there yet?

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more images. More posts on Vietnam at Image Earth Travel.

Vietnam, Sapa
Foggy street stroll
H'mong, Vietnam, Sapa
Street seller


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39 responses to “Surreal Sapa – Northwest Vietnam”

  1. equinoxio21 Avatar

    You notice how the young woman uses her knife on the sugar cane? Always outwards. Across all Asia I think. Only “dumb” Europeans use their knives “inwards”. 😉

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Yes, and I have seen this across Asia – a golden safety rule.
      Ha, ha, so true…now that made me laugh, and how many cuts have we endured over the years…

      1. equinoxio21 Avatar

        LOL. I do it like that all the time. Learnings I’m trying to pass on to my grandson.

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Hope your grandson picks things up quickly… 😉
        Imagine all the stories that you can share – how cool to have a grandpa like you!

      3. equinoxio21 Avatar

        It’s cool to have a grandson like him. 😉

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        I have 2 Great nephews I’m still to meet and I can’t wait but they live in NSW (only 900 kilometres away). One is 2 and the other only a couple of months.

      5. equinoxio21 Avatar

        You must go. They are so cute at that age…

      6. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Hopefully at the end of February and yes, my niece keeps sharing photos of both and they are so cute.

      7. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Ah. You keep a whatsapp chain or sthg? That’s a good way to keep in touch.

      8. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yes, WhatsApp and texts, and sometimes video calls – not the same but better than nothing.

      9. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Totally right. When our oldest daughter and her husband went to London for a year, post grad, the tech tools were very useful.

      10. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        It’s good to keep in contact with friends and family – distance shouldn’t be an excuse… 😉

      11. equinoxio21 Avatar

        When that daughter went to spend a year in Africa after her first residency, all we had was mail. Which was still a very good option…
        And no, distance is not an excuse…
        (The youngest is in New York for a month now… I think we raised a bunch of nomads…)

      12. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        I remember the days of writing home to let people know I was still alive, or the reverse-charge phone calls…how technology has evolved since those days…
        Nothing wrong with Nomads and I could easily live a Nomadic life. 😉

      13. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Well you have. 20 years on a boat?
        (And no, nothing wrong with nomadic. I am actually getting itchy feet again… LOL)

      14. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Ha, ha, I have indeed, actually, 21 years as a liveaboard. 😉
        Yeah, I had itchy feet when I landed in Oz in 2020! Time to dust off the backpack.

      15. equinoxio21 Avatar

        I think you will leave when you’re ready to. A week, a month, a year? or more? Meantime you can enjoy Oz.

      16. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Of course, you know me too well… 😉

  2. equinoxio21 Avatar

    You really have been around. As for shoes, there is an almost general dislike in Asia about shoes. They bring the outside dirt, filth inside. I’ve seen Asians take their sandals off to go into a shop. I think Canadians and Scandinavians are the same… (different reasons, same result)

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Not enough, just love to explore. 😉
      I was raised to always take my shoes off when entering a house so fully get it. Not really a big ask but some people get annoyed with it, although I don’t ask visitors to at my place.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Many thanks for the re-blog China.

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    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

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    1. Image Earth Blog Avatar

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  7. Unknown Avatar

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    1. Image Earth Blog Avatar

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  8. thegreyeye Avatar

    Some bus, huh? But really an awesome trip. I have a friend in hanoi, if he is not off to US 😁 I would definitely like to visit some day

    1. Image Earth Blog Avatar

      At the end of the day, it’s all relative and I’ve been on worse. I love this region and would love to return to explore even further as 5 days there wasn’t long enough. Don’t leave it too long to visit 😉

  9. justanothernomad0305 Avatar

    I was in Sapa a few years ago, though I took the overnight sleeper train which might have been a bit more comfortable than your bus journey. It was the highlight of northern Vietnam for me, eclipsing the very touristy and over-crowded experience I had of Halong Bay… great post!

    1. Image Earth Blog Avatar

      Thanks and I appreciate you taking the time to comment!

      I’m sure the train would have been better and I was glad the bus there was under 6 hours – I hate being on Vietnamese roads, especially after being in a very bad bus accident a few days into Vietnam just north of Can Tho.

      I did write a post on Ha Long Bay, it may bring back some memories and yes, very touristy.

      Apart from the caving experiences in Vietnam, Sapa definitely is one of the highlights for me.

    1. Image Earth Blog Avatar

      Sapa is an incredible and ‘wow’ place! Try to get there before too many tourists do…

      1. leblogdupigeonvoyageur Avatar

        Sure I’ll do

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