The countryside in northern Vietnam is mind-bogglingly beautiful. Shimmering green rice terraces, rustic little villages, soaring peaks shrouded in curling mist. Chances are these are the images that drew you to travel in Vietnam in the first place. There’s just one small problem…the gateway to this stunning landscape is Sapa, a soulless tourist trap riddled with pushy street vendors where huge hotel blocks are going up at lightening pace. Crowds of selfie stick wielding tourists pour in by the bus load and jostle for position despite the uninspiring streetscape while horns blare incessantly in competition with the local traders for your attention. You buy from me! You buy!
Okay, rant over. Safe to say, we didn’t like the town of Sapa all that much. But the surrounding hills are some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen and our time here has been the highlight of our travels so far. So here are our tips on how to avoid the tourists and get the most out of your time in northern Vietnam.
Pick your trek carefully
There are dozens of tour operators in Sapa offering variations of the same trek to see the rice terraces and visit a local village. Most will take you to Cat Cat village, about 2km from Sapa, which is a tourist hotspot. For a more authentic experience choose a longer trek; you’ll spend more time walking amongst the rice terraces than sitting on a bus and it gets you off the main tourist route.
We booked a 12km trek and were not disappointed. The trip cost £8 each and included lunch in one of the local villages. We trekked deep into the heart of the countryside, starting high up amongst the terraces with incredible views (when the mist permitted), before descending into the valley itself for a closer look.
We passed through three local villages and were accompanied by a group of lovely Hmong women who lived at the furthest village, Lao Chai. Ultimately they were there to sell us their handmade crafts, but it was still an amazing cultural experience, trekking alongside the indigenous people, all dressed in traditional indigo clothing with wicker baskets on their backs. We chatted along the way and they made us hearts from leaves and twigs plucked from the surrounding fields. Just be sure to take some cash with you as they will expect you to buy something at the end of the trek and can be very persistent. Be prepared for the hard sell!
Plan to visit out of season
We travelled to Sapa at the end of January so it was still pretty cold and very misty, but this did mean that there were fewer visitors. Plus the mist gives the rice terraces a mystical, other-worldly aura and you’ll feel like an explorer discovering them for the first time! When the clouds break and the spectacular views are revealed in their full glory it’s all the more rewarding.
Rent a moped
Renting a moped gets you further away from Sapa and deeper into the Vietnam countryside. And at £8 a day, they’re an absolute bargain! Don’t expect much of a safety briefing. Our guys didn’t even ask for a driver’s licence! But they’re simple to operate. Just be sure to have a little test drive before you leave the hire company and get them to show you how to refuel, open the storage compartment and restart the engine when it inevitably cuts out.
Having your own wheels give you the freedom to go wherever you like and stop at your leisure. Cruising through the countryside, the sun on your face, a gentle breeze whispering in your ears and not another soul in sight apart from grazing buffalo is an experience not to be missed.
Our intention was to ride our moped out to Silver Falls, a waterfall 10km outside of Sapa. However, as we wound our way up the steep mountain road the sun gave way to thick fog and we missed the signpost for the waterfalls. The oversight turned out to be the best thing we did that day as we discovered a beautiful neighbouring valley bathed in sunshine, flanked by towering cliffs swathed in green. We found ourselves pulling over on the roadside every few minutes as yet another jaw-dropping photo op revealed itself. We found the waterfall on the way back, however it wasn’t a patch on our stunning valley and we felt pretty smug about getting lost.
Follow the locals
On our way back to the motorbike hire shop we spotted a local man turn off the main road and ride his motorbike up a tiny track into the hills. The track looked so picturesque and was completely empty of other vehicles so we took a gamble and followed him a little way behind. We could have been heading straight into his back yard for all we knew (which we had done earlier that day!), but fortunately we didn’t, and the track led us through the most charming village we saw in Sapa. Children played at the roadside, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig and her piglets trotted across the path in front of us and a woman worked in a rice paddy nearby. And the best part? Not another tourist in sight.
General tips for travelling around Sapa
- If you’re travelling from Hanoi, get the overnight train with Vietnam Railways. It’s a far more romantic journey than the bus and was actually one of the highlights of our trip! A bed in a 4 person cabin (referred to as a soft berth) costs £20. The charming wood-panelled cabins are like something from the 1920s and the bed is really comfortable with crisp white sheets as clean as you’d find in a 5* hotel. Being rocked to sleep by the clickety-clack of the railway tracks beneath you is truly unforgettable.
- Sapa is cold in January, really cold! And most of the budget hostels don’t have heating – we could see our breath when we woke up each morning! So if you’re planning a trip in January, I’d advise stretching the budget for a heated room.
- An average meal costs £2-£3 per person, so fill your boots in Sapa.
- If you don’t want to buy from the local traders then it’s best to firmly but politely decline from the outset. A typically British “maybe later” doesn’t translate and before you know it you’ll have a pack of stall-holders following you down the street like the Pied Piper.