This 'post' seeks to orient the prospective traveller to aspects of the SaPa experience.
Why, because the traveller experience of SaPa has changed immensely over the past few years.
For some intending to visit, a tour is the way to go.
For others self travel always makes the journey.
May I offer some insights that helps you understand some of the 'details', so that you can better enjoy your experience. If so, read on (and do look at the links I mention).
First I will focus on SaPa as a destination to engage with Minority Groups (as the ethnic communities are called in Vietnam). Those that go for other reasons may not gain from my observations here.
I will address (1) train travel, (2) Bac Ha, (3) transport (4) Sapa , (5) trekking, and (6) Pho specialty.
For most tourists, access to SaPa is via a train from HaNoi. The train goes to a railhead station at Lao Cai . From there, buses ply the (good) road to SaPa.
There is a day train - but with hard seats and a long journey, few westerners undertake the experience. Most opt for an overnight sleeper train. And there are several departing HaNoi each evening. Some sleeper trains are VN Railways trains. Others are VN Railways trains with sleeper cars supplied by private companies offering different levels of luxury.
Tickets for the sleeper trains 'marketed' by VN Rail are sold by VN Rail (tho travellers oft report difficulties getting a berth). Tickets for the private company berths are sold by those companies. In both cases, the many travel agents and GH's in HaNoi act as agents for ticket sales. Just do your homework and check the prices offered (rorting is an artform to some travel agents).
One travel agent has a website with details and the price they charge. Look here to be guided.
Most sleeper trains arrive in Lao Cai between 4 and 6am (having left Hanoi between 9 and 11pm, the evening prior).
Bac Ha market
There are a variety of markets in the north-west of Vietnam, some are well attended, some less so. Some markets are a destination in their own right, with colourful clothing, eye-popping goods for sale, etc. One of the best (and easily accessible for SaPa bound tourists) is at Bac Ha. From the Lao Cai railhead, Bac Ha is in the opposite direction from SaPa.
The Bac Ha market operates ONLY on a Sunday. So enchanting is the Bac Ha market that many tourists make the detour from Lao Cai before heading to SaPa (later in the day).
To 'catch' the Bac Ha market, one either gets transport on the Sunday morning, or arrives in Bac Ha on Saturday afternoon.
One can leave SaPa on Sunday morning. However, the buses leave SaPa around 7am and don't get to the market till after 10am. Most of the vibrancy and eye-popping activities are absent by 10am. So, try and get there early.
It is for this reason that travellers opt to take the Saturday night train from HaNoi, get transport to Bac Ha (early), and leave later to arrive in SaPa that evening.
I've mentioned the HaNoi - Lao Cai train. There are mini-buses from the Lao Cai station to SaPa, from Lao Cai to Bac Ha (on Sunday mornings) and from Lao Cai - Bac Ha - SaPa on Sundays.
A word of warning. The cost of the mini-buses from Lao Cai are what the mini-bus driver can extort from you. Unless you are pre-warned, you'll pay dearly. As of mid-2009, the cost one way is 50,000VN dong. Some gullible travellers have paid 1 million VN dong!!!!
I strongly suggest that when you book your train ticket, you also consider booking the mini-bus travel at the same time. Yes, you'll pay a bit more: but probably a lot less than what the mini-bus drivers will fleece from you.
Without doubt, SaPa IS Minority Group 'central'. Many of the Minority Group women walk the streets seeking to sell Chinese made 'trinkets' or 'handicrafts' to you (at the highest price they can get). These women (and older children as well) are supplementing the household income. The women work in the fields when there is work, and they supplement their income in SaPa on other days.
The women will stop you as soon as you raise your eyes. You WILL be surrounded by Minority Group women. Most speak English, and some, other languages.
The main areas you will encounter the Minority Women are the regular backpacker and flashpacker hotel areas around the Square, and along P Cau May.
In the SaPa streets, you'll tend to see 3 or 4 ethnic groups: Black H!Mong, Giay, Red Dzao, and Yao (but, there are other ethnic communities in the area, that don't come to SaPa). You'll notice the difference by the head gear they wear. Both Black H!Mong and Giay both wear similar Indigo dyed hemp clothes, but the Giay have round pillbox hats. The Red Dzao women have bright red balloonish head dress, and they have the front of their heads shaved. You'll occasionally see other Minority Group women such as Yao (with a checked scarf head-dress), but not as often.
Engaging with the Minority Women can be fun. Many tourists treat these people poorly. Yet, despite such appalling treatment they still manage to be cheerful. I've found that while they do want to ask you questions - in order to sell to you - they are more than willing to answer your questions about them. So, talk to them about their family, where they live, what their family does for work, why they wear the clothes they do, why there are differences in clothing between one group and another. YOU will definitely enjoy the experience if you focus on them, rather then they on you.
I will add another aspect about engaging with the Minority Group women in the section below.
There are several options regarding 'trekking'.
Some opt for day trips from a travel agency. You will be met at your GH/hotel, or at the agency, by a local guide paid for by the travel agency. This guide will take you along well worn paths around the local area. Sometimes, you will be transported by car for some of the distance where the terrain is steep. Prices vary.
Look at the map at this page . To the lower left from SaPa, you'll see a green area. This is a valley full of Minority Group villages. Your Day Tour will walk you to one or more of these villages.
Home Stay Trekking Trips
Homestays are popular precisely because tourists get to stay in a hamlet, and (generally) interact with locals.
That said, homestays are an industry.
The idea of homestays has been organised by the Vietnam Gov't. Generally, the central gov't has told the province gov't to organise the local 'people's committee' (in tourist attractive areas) to develop homestays as a traveller option.
Increasingly, private operators have caught the 'bug' and also engage with the local 'people's committee' to undertake homestays in areas where there is demand.
You must remember that in Vietnam, decisions to do anything on land that changes status quo MUST be approved by the local 'people's committee'.
The point I am making is that where a homestay is advertised, it means that the local 'people's committee' has both approved the tour operator, and the village involved, to facilitate the homestay.
Generally, demand has been so great that the villagers are sick of the tourist intrusion and have constructed 'purpose built' dwellings for the homestay. In effect, tourists are directed to stay in a 'sleeping' building, with a common room: sometimes the local villagers provide food, etc.
You can choose any of the 'tours' that advertise the homestay option. But in Sapa you will stay in a 'sleeping hut' that is purpose built for tourists. You do NOT stay in a villagers' dwelling-home.
Be aware that Vietnamese travel agents will generally promise you anything to get you to commit to a tour, but once you've paid your money may not deliver on their promises. Some agents are worse than others in this regard.
In the map here , you'll note a village near the green area called TaVan. This is where there is a large 'homestay' building. Others are at Ban Ho, and near Nam Cang.
Self organised Trekking
Over recent months, the H!Mong (and Giay) women have begun to invite tourists directly: 'come to my village, see my house, etc'. I've suggested to travellers that they explore this invitation - but on three proviso's.
First, if you accept an invitation, you will walk the same route that trekking companies will take you. Remember, these women are really friendly people, and they love to be friendly. A key criterion is to turn the conversation from you, onto 'about them'. Ask them about their family, their children, the work they do, the time they arise, what they do in seasons, etc., etc.. Also ask them about the plants, both sown and wild: you'll be surprised at what you'll learn
Second, they will take you along a road where you will have to go through a 'gate' where you pay about 15000VN dong for 'improvements' for the local community. Even if you were with a tour, you'd still pay.
Third, when you have finished the 'tour' of their village and home, make sure you leave a 'donation'. I suggest something like US5 - 10. This is little to you, but a huge sum for them. And, the money goes DIRECTLY to the family (no middle men).
Many who have taken the advice and really engaged in conversation have said they were been invited back to eat in the family home with the woman (and usually her children - her husband will be working). If you get such an offer, take it up, if invited. You will learn much about their way of life.
In Vietnam Pho is Pho - No, it's not.
The Vietnam Gov't has indicated no-one should charge more than 15,000VN dong for Pho. So, some operators look at the round eye and merely serve fatty water, a packet of dried noodle and a bit of chopped green vege.
In the marketplace in SaPa, there is an area where the Black H!Mong and Giay eat. If you are sufficiently interested, go with one or more and buy them some Pho. It will cost you 15000VN dong per serve (1 dollar), and make sure you also get a serve for yourself - it'll be the best Pho you will have in Vietnam BY FAR.
If you choose an ethnic woman that speaks English well, and appears a sort of leader of the group, the Pho experience will be so worthwhile.
If a Minority Group woman does you a favour, try asking her whether you can take her to the market for Pho. If she accepts, you'll enjoy the experience: and it makes a much better exchange than merely giving a tip.
If you want to do it yourself, look here for details.
Hope this helps.
I should have added to BacHa...
Perhaps a major ‘attraction’ at the BacHa market is the colourful clothing of the Flower H!Mong women. But, it is also the wide variety of good (and services) offered for sale. If you were a local, you could even get a bride at this market.
Thanks BruceMoon, that's a very helpful summary of your advice on Sapa. We'll be there in October. Personally, if I were travelling alone, I'd probably have my hotel pre-booked and transfers arranaged to avoid the tout hassle in Lao Cai (I'm definitely more flashpacker than backpacker these days :-), but my friend is new to travel and thinks the prospect of having to haggle for everything is great fun so we're winging it for his benefit. Hence I was somewhat relieved to see your up to date advice on mini-bus costs for a guide!
#3 justwondering has been a member since 12/8/2009. Posts: 20
On another Q for SaPa, I wrote (I'll change a bit)...
When touts want silly prices - just say 'sorry too much' and walk away: they'll then ask how much. You reply with something like fair price. But don't tell them a price [keep it to yourself] and eventually you'll get offered a price you like.
Regarding pre-booking transport. The link I have above (ie. this one ) is posted by a VN travel agent and includes prices. I have no idea how good/bad they are. Try emailing them, and others with what you want for travel. They'll come back to you. Include the question to www.sinhcafevn.com - I know they are fair.
Regarding accommodation, when I was in SaPa last April (2009, low season) the Queen Hotel were selling to walk-ins at US$8, and would accept US$5. Online, I see they want US$20/25. That's the same as everywhere in VN. Everyone asks silly high prices online, but accepts lower when you walk in. So go ask hotels by email for their BEST PRICE. For Queen, try them at: email@example.com. If they come back with under US$10, then they are wanting your custom.
Great info, BruceMoon; thank you. I'm assuming that pre-booking mini-bus travel from Lao Cai would have to be done either through a travel agent or a hotel in SaPa. Is that correct? I was hoping to purchase my train tickets myself, but am intimidated enough by the many posts reporting attempted rip-offs and scams that I do think I'd like to pre-book a mini-bus even if that means using an agent for the train as well. Or maybe I should just relax.
#5 yushu has been a member since 3/9/2009. Posts: 2
As per the post above, there is a website that describes the train options. Go look the post here . I don't know which option you are taking, but some of these must be booked via a travel agent - if so, they can include a mini-bus ticket from Lao Cai to SaPa. Any travel agent or hotel or GH in SaPa will arrange also (probably at 60-70,000 VN dong instead of 50,000VN dong to include their commission).
But, if you buy your rail ticket from VN Rail directly, at least when you get to Lao Cao, you know the minibus should be 50,000VN dong, so just tell the touts that's all you will pay.
Thanks, BruceMoon. I'll likely go the agent route so I don't have to negotiate the touts. (I've been perusing many of your posts on the area and taking copious notes. Thanks for all the postings.)
#7 yushu has been a member since 3/9/2009. Posts: 2