Iconic rice paddies, forest treks, dramatic mountain landscapes and cute tribal villages are what make Sa Pa a charming town to visit in North Vietnam. An overnight journey from Hanoi brings you to the Lao Cai province and a 45-min road trip from the train station to this bucolic mountain town. For a very local experience (and to encourage sustainable tourism), book a homestay where you have the opportunity to interact with and learn more about the ethnic groups that live in the area. If not more, you must spend at least 2 days in Sa Pa.
Sa Pa is an idyllic haven cradled in the Vietnamese mountains and the weather here tends to be warm during the day and cold during the night. When I travelled in December, nights were foggy and freezing but there was no snow (not yet, anyway). Make sure to carry layers with you for the cold, damp nights. In Sa Pa, the best way to travel is to rent a bike; I suggest to do this once you’re there rather than online beforehand as you can negotiate and find several operators as you walk along the streets, and get a really cheap deal. Renting a motorbike will set you back by about $5 (only!) for the whole day, which is 9am – 5pm.
It gets dark a bit early and is a bit pointless to be riding around in the dingy, narrow streets after that. At night, its best to stick around in the town center, which is quite lively, thanks to the swarming tourists. If you’re arriving in Sa Pa early morning, drop your bags off at your hotel/ BnB and get ready to explore because there’s a lot to do in 2 days in Sa Pa!
How to get to Sa Pa and where to stay
The most convenient way to reach Sa Pa is by train, which is an overnight journey from Hanoi. I took the King Express Train which I found very comfortable and the timings were perfect. There are several other options including buses, minivans, etc.
Click here to find the perfect inter-city travel option for you: Hanoi to Sa Pa
If you are adventurous, and have more time in Sa Pa (I had only two days); you don’t care about living close to the city centre, and love nature, then spend a night at ChaPa Ecolodge. A romantic place hidden in the hills, with panoramic views of the mountains and the rice terraces, providing rooms with a magical view and a balcony to sip your coffee from while overlooking the majestic green landscapes, the ecolodge has an old world charm about it.
If you prefer to live closer to the town, where all the hustle and bustle is, I would highly recommend to look for a homestay. Click here to find yourself the perfect little homestay in Sa Pa.
2 days in Sa Pa
Day 1: Cat Cat Village, Muong Hoa Valley & Sa Pa Market
A central place to start exploring is the Stone Church of Sa Pa. The church, with its ancient Romanesque and Gothic architecture, was built by the French in the early 20th century, and is surrounded by the beautiful green Ham Rong Mountain range in the backdrop. A small amphitheater right across the church is very lively and active, with several events taking place through the year. On Saturdays, the famous ‘Love Market’ is held here, a social event in which the young. eligible men and women from the tribes come in search for the love of their lives. Although the event has become more of a tourist attraction these days, it’s nevertheless vibrant and spirited, making it an interesting local experience if you are here on a weekend.
From here, walk to Cat Cat Village. Located hardly 2.5 kms from Sa Pa town (you can even walk to it if you don’t want to rent a bike on Day 1), the charming village is nestled in the Muong Hoa Valley, surrounded by rice terraces. If you do plan to walk it, then make sure to wear comfortable shoes.
You will stumble upon several lanes with French architecture in Sa Pa, reminiscent of the colonial rule which lasted until mid 20th century. The hike to Cat Cat Village is mostly downhill but on rainy days can get really muddy and difficult to traverse. Once you reach the entrance of the village, you will have to pay a fee of $1 to enter the protected area, which goes towards sustaining the local families and their businesses. You will find several ethnic tribal women selling handcrafts and colorful textiles. Some of these shops also rent out the local attire for the day, so don’t hesitate in getting the bright colored clothes and get some stunning pictures while exploring the waterfalls, exhibition houses, water mills and the markets. Keep aside about 2-3 hours to explore the village.
In the afternoon, head for a trek along the rice terraces of Ham Rong Mountain. Taking a guided trekking tour might be a good idea because finding the hiking trails can be a bit of a challenge, due to the absence of any wayfinding signs or markers. However, if you’re adventurous and don’t mind getting a bit lost, go for it anyway. Since you won’t be landing at the same place as where you start, it’s best not to take a bike for this tour. Instead, just rent a bike-taxi on Grab to take you there and another one to bring you back.
Make your way to the Muong Hoa Valley as per the GPS (about 20 min from Sa Pa) and this is where your trek starts. Famous for its rice farming and tribal villages, the valley has several biking/ walking/ hiking paths that start from here. Since I was on my own, I asked some locals around to figure a hiking trail through the gorgeous rice terraces. I followed an unpaved path that went through Bản Ý Linh Hồ, downhill towards Lao Chai Village, which was a 7-km trek through beautiful landscapes.
In the evening, find your way back to Sa Pa town, which is quite happening, so walk around in the area, visit the Sa Pa market and enjoy a nice meal.
Day 2: Sunworld Fansipan, Silver Waterfalls & Heaven’s Gate
Right next to the Stone Church in the city center, is also where you can take the cable car to Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam (as well as Cambodia & Laos combined). Look for the sign that says ‘Sunworld Fansipan Legend cable car’. On a clear day, the views of the valley from the cable car are absolutely breathtaking. However, its not unusual to have foggy days, which is what I experienced on my 2 days in Sa Pa. Nevertheless, going through the clouds towards the sky in a cable car is a surreal experience and even on a foggy day, I’d recommend you to visit Fansipan, although I did find the experience a little pricey as compred to most other things in Vietnam. The journey to the peak is split into 3:
- the monorail from Sa Pa town to Sa Pa cable car station
- the cable car from Sa Pa cable car station to Fansipan cable car station
- the Fansipan monorail (or the 600-step staircase) to the summit
You can easily spend 2-3 hours exploring this tranquil area around Fansipan cable car, home to beautiful gardens, stone sculptures, pagodas, and the 20-metre celestial Buddha statue perched on the mountainside, the largest in the country.
In the afternoon, head to the Silver Waterfalls. You could either rent a bike-taxi or drive here yourself. About a 25-min drive away from the town centre, it makes for a good road-trip. Although I was not very impressed myself with the waterfall, it certainly is refreshing to be near a waterbody. The place is quite calm, green & relaxing. Just park your bike on the side of the road and climb some steps towards the bridge from where you can enjoy great views.
The highlight, however, is the visit to Heaven’s Gate. Now, after a lot of research on the internet, I came across pictures of this majestic rock and a little space in between which could be reached after climbing a flight of stairs, and this was titled Heaven’s Gate in Sa Pa. That was the picture I had in mind when I went searching for this site. However, to my shock (and maybe even slight disappointment), I was made to realize that many articles on the internet have MISLABLED the Heaven’s Gate in China as to that in Sa Pa, which is utterly ridiculous. Nevertheless, this frequently-engulfed-in-fog place is stunning in its own right. You probably have gorgeous views of the valley on a clear day but the ambience is very unique and magical on a day it’s enveloped with a thick mist, literally feeling like you’re in heaven.
There is no majestic gate (there is a little one) here but a staircase leading into nothingness comes a close second (they might as well have named the place Stairway to Heaven instead of Heaven’s Gate). However, with not a lot to do except take a little walk in the gardens, you may not need more than 1-2 hours to explore this place.
If you’re spending only 2 days in Sa Pa, this is where your trip ends. Make your way back to Lao Cai train station for your journey out.
Book your journey back from Sa Pa to Hanoi here.
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