Located on the east coast of south-east Asia, Vietnam is a country rich with culture and tradition, and diverse in geography and history. Often associated with war and foreign occupation, Vietnam and its people are kind, generous, and welcoming.
The country bombards you with outstanding street food, colourful ethnic cultures, and challenging adventure.
Since the 1990’s Vietnam’s tourism has increased seemingly exponentially. The challenge now is to manage this, still relatively new, emerging sector, and to mitigate any harmful effects. The future of the country’s tourism industry is bright. Vietnam’s youth are now appearing to take hold of this viable sector and transforming it into one that is equitable, sustainable, environmentally and culturally sensitive, and profitable.
Welcome to Sapa. Located in the Vietnam’s northern Lao Cai province. This town was developed almost one hundred years ago as a mountain retreat for the French colonists. Today, the region has become a colourful mosaic of culture, ethnic markets, and inspiring landscapes that can be easily reached by an overnight train ride from Hanoi.
Sapa has become one of Vietnam's premier tourist destinations and has historically been an escape from the heat and humidity of Hanoi. It's known for its trekking, amazing landscapes, climate, and ethnic minorities. This region is a photographer’s mecca, an explorer’s playground and many travellers’ favourite place.
Beyond the tourist centre lie a multitude of trekking opportunities and villages where the homes of many of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities are found. These include: Black Hmong, Red Dao, Giay (Day) and Tay.
Tourism has played a contentious role in the growth of Sapa throughout its entire history. As in most tourist destinations both negative and positive impacts are evident. As tourists, you can help support sustainable, responsible tourism development by supporting the businesses of the local ethnic minorities.
We hope you are excited as we are about your tour to Sapa. You have made an excellent choice to venture north one of the most inspiring and colourful regions of Vietnam.
When you finally decide on a tour and/or arrive in Sapa, be sure that you have arranged for an extra 'free' day. The free day will be extremely beneficial for getting acclimatized (to the town and to the altitude), getting sufficient rest after the night train, and adjusting to the weather. Take some of this time to meet with some of the people from the different ethnic minorities (Red Dao and Black Hmong to start), and to get acquainted with the geography.
Your best bet is to get a map, track out your trekking routes and look into possible extra little jaunts and explorations to neighbouring villages along your route.
As you village-hop it is recommended that you reflect on where your money is going. Even small decisions such as where you purchase bottled water can make a big difference and spread economic benefits more equitably. Additionally, try to purchase souvenirs from a member of every ethnic minority. These steps can help create a more equitable tourism economy and ensure that you are doing your part to be a respectful and sustainable visitor.
To and from Sapa can be done via rail or highway. If we were to advise on the best, most effecient way of travel, we would suggest going to Sapa via overnight train and returning to Hanoi by bus.
Sapa's tour guides are fantastic! There is an incredible ethnic mix of young, talented, enthusiastic guides including Black Hmong, Red Dao, Kinh, and Giay. The Black Hmong are known to have a great sense of humour and excellent English skills and the Red Dao have incredibly warm personalities. Many of the Kinh (Vietnamese) guides have University degrees in tour guiding, while ethnic minority guides have a lifetime of knowledge from their villages and the surrounding mountains. Both the Kinh and ethnic minorities have their advantages and the perspectives from them are both quite valuable. Take full advantage of whomever leads you with lots of insightful questions or activity requests.
Finally, don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. The culture of the area does not usually ask you to come help with things like the cooking or the daily chores of feeding the animals and working in the field. You will have to be the one to wake up a little earlier and take the initiative. It will be well worth it!
Here a few thoughtful questions to ask when booking your tour.
Will the tour be led by a local ethnic minority guide? Can I request a guide from the village I am staying in? What are the ethnic minorities I will be meeting? Will I be able to interact with my homestay hosts and what minority are they?
What are some cross-cultural considerations I should be aware of? For example, Should I bring gifts with me for my tour guide, my tour guide's family, my host family (e.g. wine, school supplies, household tools)?
What proportion of the tour price is going to the guides and/or the homestay family? What are some ways I can increase these amounts (e.g. purchasing brocade/batik products or beverages)?
What is the current weather in Sapa? Do I have the right footwear? Can I buy rubber boots in Sapa if the weather is wet?
Be proactive and kindly ask to join in cooking and other village activities such as farming, embroidery, or feeding the animals. When you visit your homestay, be sure to tell the homeowner if you don't have a permit to stay overnight and they will assist you in acquiring one.
Cat Cat is a short walk from Sapa town. It is a Hmong village with a few great photo opportunities with locals, a picturesque waterfall, and scenic backdrops. Not taking more that a half day, this village can be done independently or with a local Hmong guide organized with a responsible tour operator.
Taphin is a 20 minute drive or a 4 hour trek from Sapa. Predominantly a Red Dao village, there is a small commune of Black H’mong on the west side of the valley. Incredibly scenic and alive with an infamous moving market of Dao street sellers. Taphin has been primarily offered as a half-day trip, however, the increased zealousness of the street-sellers has made it somewhat unattractive to tour operators.
Taphin village is not to missed. The most sustainable option recommended by CBT Vietnam is a trek from Sapa and an overnight in one of the homestays. Definitely, ask your concierge or tour operator to set you up a customized tour if the option is not listed! Here is a website about Taphin for more information.
Lao Chai is a Hmong village in the descending valley southwest of Sapa. Easily accessed by a number of trekking routes, this hill tribe village can be reached in three hours by the average trekker. Most of the local Black Hmong trekking and tour guides are from this village and many are currently working with their families and the CBT Vietnam team to set up homestays. We definitely recommend doing the minimally challenging trek from Sapa to Lao Chai, via Cat Cat Village and Y Linh Ho, and spending an afternoon learning traditional batik in the village of Lao Chai. Follow this up with a night one of the great homestays already established for an amazing and authentic Hmong experience.
Tavan has become the most popular trekking destination in all of Sapa. The Giay (Day) ethnic minority has truly been entrepreneurial and industrious in retrofitting their homes to offer a place for trekkers to spend the night. It is not uncommon for Tavan to have 25 or more homestays being occupied with groups as large as 10 tourists.
The village of Tavan is in a stage of rapid development. The tourism industry there is flourishing and the impacts are clearly visible. With tourist numbers always increasing the future of this area as a destination might be in hands of the tourist.
Gian Ta Chai is a popular meeting point for half-day walkers and trekkers that sits at the base of a large waterfall that is at times just a trickle compared to the thundering water flow during rainy season. It can be reached with a short trek, continuing down the value between Tavan and Ban Ho.
When your tour is said and done, and you are at home reflecting on your memories and sharing your pictures, don't forget that there are people who have built an incredible relationship with you. The people of Sapa are pretty incredible, and believe it or not, if you returned, they will remember your face, and maybe even your name. We have seen this happened time and time again.
When you are in the villages write down some addresses and emails, or connect with someone via Facebook. When you find the time mail a photo or two to your guide and homestay families. They will be sure to include it in their many photo albums, or possibly even pin it up on their wall as a memory of the great time you shared together.
Please remember to travel responsibly and ethically.