Dec 19 2011
If you end up in Hanoi at Christmas but don’t want a city-based festive season, what are your options? With no good beaches within easy travelling distance – and the weather not likely to be good enough for lazing on a beach anyway — why not go in the opposite direction and head for the hills?
Sapa (Sa Pa in Vietnamese) is an obvious choice: with cool misty mornings, plenty of options to get off the beaten track, fireplaces in bedrooms, and views to die for it offers a peaceful and, if you’re after it, romantic break away from the city.
The capital of Sapa district in the Lao Cai province of northwest Vietnam, bordering China, Sapa and its surrounds is home to some of the most populous minority groups in Vietnam – such as the H’Mong and Dao. Sapa blends culture and natural beauty into an intoxicating mix more readily accessible to tourists than it is in similar provinces.
Some might question my rating of Sapa as ‘peaceful’ and cultural — after all, the town itself could be considered a bit of a tourist trap, with holidaymakers lining Cau May and H’mong women and girls roaming the streets and hassling every passerby to “buy from me” or to go on a trek.
But Sapa is what you make it. You could stay on Cau May, eat tapas, Indian or average Vietnamese cuisine and go on a group trek with an overnight in a homestay, following in the footsteps of thousands before you — or you could avoid the crowds.
The in-town option
There are some very nice hotels in Sapa, at the high end – such as Victoria Sapa — and at the more boutique-y end of the spectrum. In the latter group you have places such as Sapa Rooms, Baguette and Chocolate, and the new Sapa View on Muong Hoa. Despite being central, all offer a respite from the busy streets.
It’s also easy to avoid the crowds on tours — private guided tours start from just a little more than a large group tour and can get you off the usual paths. On my last visit to Sapa we paid $18 each for two of us for a one-day trek to the silver waterfall. We didn’t see any other tourists on the whole trek, the scenery was great, we walked through some H’Mong villages, we ate soft cheese and bread while resting on a hill watching the buffalo stroll past, and it was actually quite a testing trek – all good things in my book.
The edge of town
While there are no true homestays within easy reach of Sapa, a couple of homestay-style places are worth a look. For a cheap bed and an amazing view, try Gem Valley View: it’s on the way down to Cat Cat village and offers mattresses in basic but clean rooms. A more upmarket option is H’Mong Mountain Retreat, part of the same group as Sapa Rooms. Beds are still mattresses on the floor in simple wooden huts, but the views are astonishing and the main house is a haven, with comfy chairs where you can relax with a book or just chat with old and new friends.
From H’mong Mountain Retreat it’s easy to just pick up your backpack and go for a self-guided walk. Or you may just want to chill out and do nothing but enjoy the delicious food and the silence.
Remember that Sapa will be colder than Hanoi; in December you’ll need warm clothes, so come prepared. From Hanoi you get to Sapa via train (nine hours or so) to Lao Cai, which is 40 kilometres away. See here for details.
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