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Sapa

Orientation

Sapa town is set on a roughly north-south orientation, and you'll be heading north as you head up the hill away from Mt Fansipan into town and on towards the road to Lao Cai. The chief landmark is the old church sitting just above the pentagon-shaped town 'square'. It's actually a stadium built into the hillside, though we've never seen it used as such. The road along the south side of the church, crowded with market stalls, is Phan Xuan Huan — following the road to the end leads to some cheaper accommodation with lesser views. There are two sets of steps that lead down to Cau May, which may provide a good short-cut between the church and your hotel.

Cau May (Cloud Bridge) is the main thoroughfare for foreign tourists, and is crowded with restaurants serving western food. This street starts at the south side of the town square and terminates in a steep set of stairs lined with cheap rooms, let out by the Vietnamese who have come here to work. At the top of the stairs, you'll find one of the town's two ATMs that takes foreign cards.

To the right and up a bit is Dong Loi, the alley where you'll find Chau Long Hotel. To the left, the road takes an extreme turn and technically becomes Muong Hoa, but places along both streets may refer to either name. Here you'll find places like the Lotus Hotel and the Pinocchio.. There's little to see past the Bamboo Sapa Hotel, but 25km further on is Ban Ho village.

The other road of interest is Thac Bac (silver waterfall) which ascends north from the town square up into the hills. Here you'll find Baguette and Chocolate, and further up, the Summit Hotel — and much further still, Lai Chau.

The road that crosses Cau May leads to places like the Cat Cat View and Boutique Hotel and then on to Cat Cat Village. Cat Cat is literally 'cascade', the French word for waterfall, subjected to the Vietnamese rules of pronunciation. The road is called Fansipan, after the mountain, via a variety of curious phonetic spellings involving the letter 'X'.

There's very little to lure you further north than the post office on Thach Son, along the fish-shaped park above the town square. Not even the bus station, since all the buses to Lao Cai and Lai Chau depart from in front of the church. Across from the bus station is the BIDV bank along with the town's other ATM. North of the bus station is the artificial Sapa Lake, which takes about an hour to walk around.

Tours and treks can be booked in advance in Hanoi, or on the spot in Sapa. You'll pay a bit more for the former, but to make sure you get the tour you want when you want, booking ahead in Hanoi provides more ease and security. Tours are offered absolutely everywhere in Sapa, and trying to pin down the best agency with the best tours for the best price is like trying to catch a wave on the sand. The bottom line is, don't pay more than you can afford, and Sapa is so beautiful, and the surrounds so intriguing, you'll walk away feeling you've got your money's worth, even if you paid a bit more than someone else for the same thing.

If you really want to re-distribute your western dollars directly to those who need it most, forget about the tour agencies and look out for the H'mong girls who, as well as touting their wares, will likely offer to take you to their village or on a tour of local villages. They can even offer homestays and their English is often very good. Motorbike drivers are also on hand if you prefer a tour on the back of a bike. It's best to work out a plan on your own first, and just tell your guide where you want to go.

BIDV Bank: Ngu Chi Son (across from the bus station), Sapa. T: (020) 387 2569; F: (020) 387 2636. Hours: Winter: 07:30 to 12:00 and 13:00 to 16:00, Summer: 07:00 to 11:30 and 13:30 to 16:30.
Main Post Office: Thanh Son, across from the park, Sapa. T: (020) 3871 298, F: (020) 387 1282. Hours: Winter: 07:30 to 18:00 and 19:00 to 20:30, Summer: 07:00 to 18:00 and 19:00 to 21:00. Long distance phone service available.

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