You have to go to Sapa!
If the tour you are booking does not include a trip there, you need to book a different tour or arrange an independent trip there on your own! It is one of, if not the most amazing places we have ever been.
With the beautiful mountains and rivers running through the valleys and rice fields terraced thousands of feet down the side of the mountains, the countryside is spectacular but the thing that makes it so amazing is the people who live up there.
Sapa is a small town near Ham Rong Mountain that is surrounded by even smaller villages populated by numerous ethnic minority tribes. Some are indigenous to the area but most tribes arrived there seeking refuge from war or oppression in other parts of Asia. To a large degree, the people have clinged to their traditional lifestyle that doesn’t appear to have changed too much in the past 1000 years. Each tribe wears a different color costume and along with agriculture, the making and selling of textiles is their main source of money.
Costume is probably not the right word as they are not really dressed this way to please the tourists. It is an integral part of the lifestyle and a way for members of the same ethnic group to identify themselves to members of the same group rom a different parts of the countryside. You’ll want to buy some of the beautiful textiles they’re making. You might want to take some supplies like pencils or crayons for the local schools you’ll visit on the treks.
These are dear, sweet beautiful people. Even when they are trying to sell you something in the street, they are charming. And it is remarkable how many of them speak English. As you are trekking through the villages, people (almost exclusively women) will follow along for miles and chat. It really is a remarkable experience.
Most people that visit Sapa plan on trekking through some of the nearby villages. Some take 2-3 day treks and include an overnight home stay in one of the villages. What we did was travel by jeep to nearby villages in the morning, walked for 3-5 hours and then met the jeep for the ride back into Sapa for the night.
On the weekend, villagers from all over the area walk into Sapa to sell thier goods on the central square and to meet with other people from different villages at what is known as the “love market” on Saturday night. We actually had a funny experience when a mature Red D’zou lady that took a special liking to your correspondent when we visited the love market.
On different days of the week, there are markets in different villages in the area. On the Sunday we were there we visited a remarkably colorful market in Bac Ha, located about 2½ hours from Sapa very near the border with China. The drive to Bac Ha was both beautiful and a bit harrowing. We’re glad we did the Bac Ha market trip but could have lived without it. We would have missed something special if we had not visited the minority villages around Sapa.
It is possible to travel to Sapa from Hanoi by mini-bus or jeep but the best and quickest way to get there is by the overnight train. We booked ahead to make sure to get the only a 2-berth cabin on the Tulico Carriage of the SP1 train. While this is not a luxurious train, it had soft sleepers, A/C and clean cabins. But in general, we found it impossible to sleep on this train, more from the track conditions than from the quality of the berth.
While we were in Sapa, we stayed at the Bamboo Hotel. It was nothing fancy but was perfectly adequate for our needs. We had an incredible view of Ham Rong Mountain from our room and the breakfast room. The hotel holds folk dance performances on Friday and Saturday nights. The crowd for the show was a mixture of tourists (including some real drunk visitors from China) and remarkably, a few local villagers.
We didn’t stay there but the Victoria Sapa Hotel is by far the nicest hotel in Sapa. In addition, the hotel offers a package that includes the room plus transport in a berth on the Victoria Express Train, the most comfortable train in Vietnam. Only hotel guests are allowed to book on this particular train.