The best things to do in Sapa Rice Fields

The Best 11 Things to do in Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa or Sa Pa is a mountainous city in northern Vietnam, in Lao Cai Province sharing a land border with China. Sapa is known for its stunning rice paddies, Hmong people, and fantastic hiking trails. This remote mountainous town is also loved for its cold climate, which is very unique for a Southeast Asian country, and while the entire area is generally known as Sapa, there is the main town of Sapa and a series of nearby villages that make up this area.  Sapa was the last stop on our first visit to Vietnam, we left from here heading towards the Chinese border.  We loved our time in Sapa, and while things have changed a lot since we first visited, this remains a fabulous place to visit in Vietnam.  Here are the best things to do in Sapa.

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Although Sapa has terrific hiking trails, it’s not the same kind of trails that many foreign visitors are used to. This isn’t, however, the jungle trails of northern Cambodia, where you couldn’t even see a trail, like when we were in Mondulkiri.  The Sapa hiking “trails” are usually unmarked and only known to the Hmong people or locals of Sapa. Hmong people are ethnic minorities known for their particular style of rice farming. You’ll see them carrying a woven basket on their backs as they harvest rice and care for their children simultaneously.

Hmong are mount-dwelling people who live across the Indochina region, namely northern Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and southern China. In Vietnam, they are known for their traditional dresses and handicraft skills.  Here in Sapa, they’re also known for homestays, and as hiking guides.  Making money in much the same way that the Bunong people of Cambodia do.

TOP PICK OF THINGS TO DO IN SAPA
Get to the top of Fansipan the easy way – the absolute BEST thing to do in Sapa
Experience the roof of Indochina – the top of Fansipan (by Cable Car)

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Where to stay in Sapa

Although Sapa is one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam, it remains one of the most affordable places to visit. You can stay here for more than a few days since accommodation doesn’t cost a fortune, and you can choose between staying with local guests, hotels, eco-lodges, and even luxury resorts.

Aira Boutique Hotel and Spa is an ideal place to stay if you want to be near the town but away from the busy area. The view from the hotel is magnificent, surrounded by trees – very serene. At the same time, you can still enjoy luxurious features such as massive rooms, a fitness center, spa services, and a buffet breakfast.  You can check rates and book a room here.

On the other hand, you don’t need to spend more than you need for a place to stay. Mountain Queen House is a mid-range hotel just a few steps away from Sapa Lake. They offer an excellent breakfast to prepare you for a day full of adventure and trekking. There’s availability and prices here.

You can also stretch your budget even further by staying at Maison de Sapa Villa. An affordable guesthouse near Sapa Museum featuring an on-site resto bar, lounge room, and superb staff. Each booking also comes with a complimentary breakfast.  See what’s available here.

The Best 11 Things to Do in Sapa

It would be unconscionable to come to Sapa and not head out into the mountains, (and there are easy ways don’t worry!), so we’ll kick off our guide to Sapa with just that.  Getting out into the mountains.

1. Go trekking in Sapa

The number one thing to do in Sapa is to trek through the beautiful rice fields. There are different trails you can choose from depending on the difficulty you prefer. As mentioned, the tracks are unmarked, which ensures the Hmong tribe can rely on taking visitors on excellent hikes and benefit from it.

Rice Fields in Sapa

Before starting your hike, you must mention how challenging the hike you want to be so your local Hmong guide can take you on a trail that you’ll be comfortable with. You can either pay direct cash to your guide or book one and pay in advance. There is also an option for half-a-day and multi-day hikes where you can either stay with a Hmong family overnight or stay in a hotel.

Rice Fields Sapa

You can decide if you want the hike to start in Sapa, assuming you made your own way there, or start the trip in Hanoi, where the tour agency will help you arrange your transport to Sapa, accommodation, tour guide, and transport back to Hanoi.  This is a great option for experiencing trekking in Sapa.

Don’t be put off by this being a 3-day trip – it’s going to take you a significant time to GET to Sapa, so if you are short on time, this is a fabulous option.

Another option is to arrive in Sapa and speak to a local Hmong about trekking with them. In this way, you can have the freedom to decide when to start or how many days the trek would be.  Don’t worry you’ll always find someone who will take you.  What you need to measure up are their level of language skills and your negotiation skills.  Payment, will, of course, be in cash.

Some of the Sapa trekking guides have great language skills (and a good sense of humor too!), and one woman who was negotiating with Nigel was rather persistent.  She said she’d follow him until he gave her a job.  He told her he was going home, and she rather took that as something of a marriage proposal and said she wanted to go to England (!).

Hmong Guides

Not sure you can cope with this level of negotiation?  Prebook a half-day trek here, and you’ll be able to prepay and also get a good level of spoken English with your guide.  This is a popular Sapa trek, so book early.

Klook.com

2. Ride the Cable Car to Fansipan from Sapa

The mountain of Fansipan is the highest point in the Indochina region. It stands at 3,147 m or 10,312 feet and is also called “The Roof of Indochina”. Fansipan is another popular hiking place in Lao Cai province.  (If you want to hike Fanispan then this is a great option)

In 2013, a cable car was built by Sun World to make it more accessible to visitors. The Fansipan cable car offers a stunning view of the Indochina mountain range covered in dense forest and rice paddies.

Fansipan

You can either take the cable car both ways or take the cable car one way and then hike down. You should decide before you head out. If you choose to take the cable car, getting a ticket early is best to avoid wasting time waiting in line. If you decide on a hike one-way, make sure to arrive before the cable car starts operating so you have plenty of time to hike down before sunset. 

  • Address of the Fansipan Cable Car: 8RPF+XM9, Unnamed Rd, TT. Sa Pa, Sa Pa, Lào Cai, Vietnam
  • Opening Hours of Fansipan Cable Car: 7 AM to 7 PM
  • Entry Fees for  Fansipan Cable Car: 750,000 VND for adults, 550,000 VND for children below 1.4 m in height

3. …Or Hike Fan Si Pan

Before 2013, Fansipan could only be reached on foot, and it took 2 to 3 days to reach. To hike Fansipan, you must trek for 6-7 hours and cover 11.2 km (6.96 miles). The hike is moderately hard and requires good physical fitness due to a mixture of rocky and muddy trails. It can get even more challenging if you do the trek during winter or rainy months due to soft soil and strong headwind.

Although you can hike Fansipan on your own, joining a guided tour is recommended for your safety since the trail is not always marked. (this is a great guided trek for Fansipan

You can hike Fansipan in one day if you are a thru-hiker since you can cover the distance required within 24 hours. If you do, you must leave very early in the morning and stay at the peak for no more than 30 minutes before starting to descend and finish the trek before it gets too dark.

As an alternative, you can take the cable car up in the morning and hike down, saving you time but also ensuring you have the legs to finish the trip.

4. Get Great views from the Glass Bottomed Bridge in Sapa

While hiking the rice fields and mountains is one of the top things to do in Sapa, you can also see some of the scenic areas around Sapa without hiking. The glass-bottomed bridge in Sapa aka Khu du lịch Cầu Kính Rồng Mây in Vietnamese is 2,200 m high with a 60 m length viewing deck.  Sapa’s glass-bottomed bridge is 19 km (11.8 miles) east of Sapa town center. The bridge, which is similar to the Sky Bridge in Langkawi, Malaysia overlooks the beautiful windy road of Sky Gate of O Quy Ho and the Indochina mountain range.

You can get there yourself by riding a motorbike or hiring a taxi. You should get a ticket in advance to save money and skip the line. The ticket is for admission to the park and access to the bridge. You’ll have to pay extra if you want to try ziplining or some of the other activities available here.

5. Hike to a Waterfall from Sapa

Hiking to see different waterfalls while you’re in Sapa is a great way to see more of the area. There are two must-see waterfalls in the Sapa area –  Silver Waterfall and Love Waterfall.  The route to both involves a leisurely walk, with some good scenery. Once you get to both waterfalls, you can also go wild swimming in the pools below the falls.

Sapa Waterfalls

It’s easiest to visit both waterfalls on a combo day tour. You can get there on your own as well, but you have to rent a motorbike or hire a taxi to get around. The travel time (one-way) is approximately half an hour, and the waterfalls are around a 10-minute drive from one another or a 3 km (1.86 miles) walk.  Visit Waterfalls from Sapa on a day trip

Love Waterfall, Sapa

Love Waterfall is a romantic site because of the folktale associated with it. According to legend, many years ago heavenly fairies used this waterfall as a place to bathe.  One of the fairies became mesmerized by a Hmong man, O Qui Ho, playing the flute.  The fairy and O Qui Ho fell in love and the fairy returned each night to listen to his music, but her parents found out and forbade her to return.  There are various iterations of the legend, but one says that she transformed herself into a bird flying around the mountain so that she could live with him forever.  And thus the name Love Waterfall was born.

Regardless of the myth, it’s a nice walk, and many of the plants and trees here have some signage so you can tell what they are. There are two ways to reach the waterfall from the parking lot. You can either take an off-the-road trek or follow the well-worn trail. It’s about a kilometer (0.6 miles) walk with some steps. The entrance fee is 70,000 VND per person.

Silver Waterfall, Sapa

Silver Waterfall has much more of a wild forest atmosphere and is much higher than Love Waterfall.  It’s also a shorter walk to get there, and it’s only a couple of hundred meters from the first viewing spot of the waterfall. You can climb more steps, about another 300 m, for better views, but these steps can be a little challenging. Unfortunately, the area is not as well-managed as Love Waterfall, and trash is a problem here. The entrance fee is 20,000 VND per person.

6. Get out into the local villages from Sapa

The best way to learn more about Hmong ethnic group who reside in northern Vietnam is by visiting the most popular and oldest villages just a little outside Sapa town center. Cat Cat Village, Black Hmong Village, Ta Van Village, and Ta Phin Village are some of the biggest Hmong communities in the Sapa area. Cat Ca is near the town center, but the Black Hmong Village is located in Lao Cai town, near the border with China, around 35 km (21.75 mi).  (If you’re crossing into China, this is the town that you go from and I wrote about the border crossing here).

Although you can reach both places on your own, it won’t really make much sense because you can’t learn much about the culture by just walking around, although it’s an interesting and pleasant walk.  This is definitely one of the activities where booking a guided tour will give both you and the local community a whole lot of value. Joining a tour means your local Hmong guide and the community can earn from the tour services, which help the villages.

Cat Cat Village Directions

At the same time, you will get to learn more about the group’s history, culture, and traditions. You can ask your guide questions you might have and even have the option to see the daily life of Hmong people without being too intrusive.   There’s more here on what to expect on this type of tour.

7. Drink some (local) wine in Ban Pho Village

Ban Pho village near Sapa is another village worthy of exploration.  It’s famous for Rice wine.  Rice wine, also called “rượu gạo”, is the most popular liquor drink in northern Vietnam. It’s distilled from fermented rice and usually 40% alcohol. Most locals drink this to keep warm and enjoy it with Hot Pot, blackened chicken, or barbecued meat.  Again, you’ll get the most out of visiting Ban Pho if you join an English-speaking guide who can explain what’s going on.  Bac Ha Market is where locals and Hmong people buy and sell products directly and this is the source of the best rice wine in the area.  Want to taste rice wine?  Come and explore the market and get a taste of the hard stuff here.

Bac Ha Market Sapa Trek

8. Visit Sapa Museum

Visiting Sapa Museum is a great place to stop by if you want to know more about the Hmong culture and see artifacts and models of traditional houses. Best of all, the entrance is free, so you’ll learn a little and then have money left over if you’re looking to buy unique souvenirs made by locals, this is the place to go. 

  • Address of Sapa Museum: TT. Sa Pa, Sa Pa, Lao Cai, Vietnam
  • Opening Hours of Sapa Museum: 8:30 AM to 11:30 AM, then again from 1:30 PM to 5 PM from Mondays to Fridays, closed on the weekends
  • Entry Fees for Sapa Museum: Free

9. Go boating on Sapa Lake or walk the lake’s edge

Sapa Lake is the best place in the city to find some peace and quiet, believe me, those Hmong ladies who want to take you on a trek can definitely chatter! When the weather permits, you should walk down to the lake and check if the boats are going. You can rent a duck-shaped paddle boat for an hour. The rental fee is about 60,000 VND, and a boat can take up to 6 people. You can go around the lake if it’s not too windy or wait for the sunset golden hour later in the day.

10. Tour the rice fields of Sapa

Booking a challenging trek is not the only way to experience and learn about the famous rice fields of Sapa. You can learn about farming rice from the locals by joining a leisurely tour of the rice fields, where you can ask questions about why the fields are designed this way and the culture behind them. This is also a perfect activity if you don’t have a lot of time Sapa and are only interested in seeing the unique rice paddies.  Check out this rice field exploration here.

Rice Fields Sapa

11. Cross the Border into China from Sapa

You can explore the beauty of rice paddies well beyond Vietnam. Cross the land border between Vietnam and China, where you can see the Yuanyang rice fields of Yunnan. There are different ways to cross borders. The most popular among locals and Chinese is to take the train, a very scenic way to see the transition between the two countries.

You can also take the bus or minivan to the border gate and cross the border on foot which is more exciting and affordable. The border gate is located between Lao Cai town and Hekou province of China. The border point is called the Lao Cai International Border Gate Administration Center. I wrote about our experience leaving Vietnam and crossing the border to Hekou here.

Top Things to Eat in Sapa

The food in Sapa, or northern Vietnam in general, is very different from the south of Vietnam or even central region Vietnamese food. The dishes are richer in flavor and less sweet. You will find lemongrass in many dishes, and fresh vegetables are the number one ingredient. The top dishes in Sapa are Hot Pot, sticky rice, barbecue on sticks, and dried meat.  So here are a few things to check out food-wise in Sapa.

1. Eat Hot Pot in Sapa

Hot Pot is a popular dish in Vietnam. You will be served a large pot of broth where you can cook meat, vegetables, and even noodles, some places might also offer a vegetarian option.  They also have a hot pot down in the Vietnamese delta, but it’s way too hot down here for me to try it!  Vietnamese Hot Pot is best eaten in Sapa, especially if you visit during winter to keep yourself warm. The best places to try Hot Pot here are Nha Hang – Hot Pot Center, Little Sapa Restaurant, and A Phu Restaurant. Although nearly all local restaurants offer Hot Pot, so you shouldn’t have difficulty finding a place to try it.

2. Check out the barbecue restaurants of Sapa

You will also notice how many restaurants sell barbecued meat on sticks, where you can sit at plastic chairs and tables on the sidewalks around Sapa. Most are grilled meat, but you will also find vegetables and seafood. BBQ Trà Phương Quán is one of the best barbecue places in Sapa, it’s located by the lake. Other options are Nhà Hàng Gia Bảo – Nướng Ngó and Lẩu và Nướng Hoa Trà.

What’s the Weather like in Sapa?

Vietnam is a hot and humid country, and Sapa is no exception. However, in the Vietnamese winter (December to the end of February), this region of Vietnam transforms into something unique compared to other parts of the country. The temperature drops to between 13°C to 6°C (55.4°F to 42.8°F) with foggy to zero visibility. Lao Cao province has also recorded freezing temperatures and ice in Sapa, but it’s a very rare occurrence.  Between the end of December and mid-January, the temperature in Sapa can drop as low as zero degrees celsius (32°F).

The rainy season in Sapa is from May until September, with the wettest months from June to August. During these months, trekking is much more strenuous and strongly not recommended as you won’t have as good an experience as in other months. The temperature is usually between 21°C to 25°C (70°F to 77°F), with high humidity and often foggy mornings.

Local Villages near Sapa

Sapa’s dry season is between September and October, with temperatures around 20°C and 16°C (68°F and 61°F). September is actually the best time to visit Sapa. The air is dry and there is a low chance of rain. It’s before the harvest season, which means the rice fields are covered in tall stems of light green to yellow.

Where is Sapa

Sapa is located in Lao Cao Province, approximately 317 km (197 mi) northwest of Hanoi. It will take you 5-6 hours to get to Sapa from Hanoi, depending on your mode of transportation. It is only 32 km (20 miles) from Sapa city to the Lao Cai Border Gate to China.

How to get to Sapa – 4 Ways to Get to Sapa

Sapa doesn’t have its own airport. 99% of people come from Hanoi to get to Sapa, and you can get here in various ways depending on how much time you have your budget and your preferred comfort. Whether you are arriving via train, bus, or minivan, most of these services offer a transfer to your hotel without an extra fee. If not, the bus and train station have taxis and motorbike taxis lined up if you need their services.

I wrote specifically about how to go from Hanoi to Sapa here, but here are some of the best ways to do it.

1. Take the Train to Sapa from Hanoi

For me, getting the train to Sapa from Hanoi is the best option – unless you’re coming here on a guided trip.  Taking the train from Hanoi to Sapa is more comfortable and scenic, but it’s slower than a bus and can cost a bit more depending on your chosen class. You can book a luxury private cabin or a regular economy seat.

The best site to book Vietnamese train tickets on is 12goasia. (see the links below). While you can make a booking on the official Vietnam trains site, they do NOT accept foreign credit or debit cards – you can go along to a train station or official agent and pay in cash. It’s much easier to book through 12goAsia and you can check the timetables and book tickets here.

The train leaves at Hanoi Railway Station (Ga Ha Noi) at 120 D. Le Duan, Van Mieu, Hoan Kiem, Ha Noi, which you can reach by taxi, Grab Car, or Motorbike Taxi. Some train companies also offer a pickup service from your hotel. The travel time to Sapa from Hanoi by train is around 8 hours. You can check the train schedule, and prices, and book your seat in advance here.

Arriving in Lao Cai from Hanoi by Train

2. Take the bus to Sapa from Hanoi

You can take the bus, which is the most affordable and faster than the train. Although Hanoi has a central bus station, most bus companies require you to go to their own station/office to board your bus. The companies often pick you up from your hotel without extra charge.  You can check which ones do here.  The travel time is between 5-6 hours. Some buses take more stops to pick up passengers or drop off/pick up some cargo.

There are two different buses you can choose from. One is your regular sit-up bus with AC. The other option is a sleeper bus which allows you to recline to 160° for a more comfortable journey. These buses also have a toilet onboard for convenience. It’s a winding road to Sapa since it’s a mountainous city. Make sure to put your seatbelt on and take some motion pills to avoid feeling dizzy or sick. You can check the bus ticket price and schedule here

3. Take a minivan from Hanoi to Sapa

Minivan is another option, the price and travel time are about the same as the bus, but there is almost no stop since these vans are designed to charter for tourism. This is the most comfortable option.  The minivan has two choices: a semi-sleeper and a VIP luxury, which are fitted with comfortable and roomy chairs and an individual entertainment screen. The minivans have fewer seats, hence it gets booked fast, so make sure to get your ticket in advance.

4. Ride a motorbike from Hanoi to Sapa

You can also get to Sapa from Hanoi by motorbike, but be aware that the road is windy and often traveled by big trucks and buses with poor visibility. The travel time is between 5-6 hours, depending on how many stops you need. You might also have to slow down once you enter the mountain road for safety reasons or wait for the fog to pass to see better when riding.

Renting a motorbike and driving in Vietnam

Renting a bike and riding it yourself is a fabulous way to explore Vietnam, and buying or renting from Ho Chi Minh and riding all the way to the north is a very popular way to see the country on two wheels.

However, you need to be aware that to do this legally in Vietnam you’re required to convert your driver’s license to a local one.  Simply having an international driver’s permit is not recognized in Vietnam, nor is it enough. 

That said.  It’s not going to stop people from renting or selling you motorbikes.  Remember though if you have an accident then it’s unlikely that your travel insurance will be valid.

Safety in Sapa

Sapa is a pretty safe place to visit and has been on the tourist trail for many years now.  Follow all the usual precautions that you would when traveling in a busy city

  • Keep valuables out of sight
  • Always lock your valuables away when they’re not with you (read how we use a portable travel safe here)
  • Use a VPN when utilizing public WiFi networks in hotels, hostels, and guesthouses (read about VPNs here)
  • Tap water is generally NOT potable in Vietnam, so consider taking a refillable water bottle to reduce the use of single-use plastic.  We always travel with a filter water bottle, which I wrote about here.

Travel Insurance for Sapa

Sapa is a pretty safe area to travel to, but accidents can happen, and Fansipan is at altitude.  If you’re considering travel insurance for your trip to Sapa, then you can get a quote from World Nomads for your travel insurance for Sapa

Travel Tips for Exploring Vietnam

Final Words on the Best Things to do in Sapa

Sapa is an incredible destination in northern Vietnam that offers unique outdoor activities and cultural excursions. It is worthy of the time investment you’ll need to make to get there.  From trekking through the famous rice fields, perhaps challenging yourself to summitting Fansipan, learning about the Hmong ethnic group, or even just enjoying a few days surrounded by a cooler climate, it’s a great addition to any Vietnamese itinerary.

Stock images in this article are courtesy Deposit Photos.

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