Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

Sleepy Sapa in the extreme North is a major port of call on the Vietnam tourist trail, even though it’s quite remote, stuck up next to the border with China. You go there to experience the ethnic communities and their daily village life and to trek around the jaw-dropping rice terraces that are cut into the mountainside.

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

Rice terraces of Sapa

IMG 4315.JPG Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

The scenery is special in itself, forget those rice terraces!

The Big Problem

The big problem is quaint, traditional village life plus thousands of tourists does not equal a happy balance. The Hmong and Dao ethnic minorities are mostly more interested in selling stuff to the tourists and getting rewarded for following you around as you set off for a walk – literally as soon as you stroll around town you get latched onto, asked where you’re from, where you’re going etc. They are friendly and pleasant and you really want to help them but the hard sell is kind of the opposite of why you came there in the first place.

IMG 4250 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

The relentless persistance of the local children...some with babies on their backs

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

The tools of the trade

Welcome to our ‘home’

The home-stays are also some experience, to bed down in a basic property with your host family, share a meal with them, discuss and learn about their culture. We didn’t do a proper home-stay in Sapa (well not exactly, see below) but from what we saw they weren’t particularly proper anyway – only a step behind a hostel in a wooden shack, complete with pool table outside. Nice business to the industrious Vietnamese who managed to strike a balance between authenticity and western comforts to satisfy the backpacker crowd. I guess we’re officially flash-packers.

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

In one of the poorer village huts, this was the cooking area used to prepare animal feed

Our Luxury Homestay

We stayed at a tiny B&B recommended by some friends we’d met on the road – Sapa Garden Bed and Breakfast, #1 on Trip Advisor! It was a lovely place with pleasant gardens, although it was a fair stomp out of town – around 3km up the hill! It was the home to an elderly Vietnamese couple who spoke no English whatsoever but cooked-up a mean breakfast. It was only us staying there. Just their son spoke English but he lived somewhere else in Sapa! We got by with an occasional phone call to him but mainly big smiles and gestures and by the time we left we were touched by their friendliness and magnificent hospitality. They waved us goodbye cuddling their grandchildren as we climbed into the minibus.

Getting to Sapa

We took the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, the nearest town with a station to Sapa. It was a surprisingly decent night’s sleep – we opted for the soft-sleeper cabin with four bunk-beds (as opposed to hard-sleeper with 6 beds per cabin). A pair of friendly Vietnamese guys filled the other two bunks – they were off to some construction work at a town along the way.

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

The whole valley is used for the rice terraces


Once we stepped off the train, half asleep at 7am in the morning, we were bombarded by the keen locals trying to offer us a lift up the mountain to Sapa. We had pre-booked a pick-up with our accommodation and so stepped into a minivan fairly quickly. Unfortunately, the minivan drivers didn’t know where our accommodation was, so we had a quick tour of the main village of Sapa with them trying to fob us off with a few wrong places before they gave up and turned the engine off. We sat there and stared at each other in stalemate. We’d paid for door-to-door, you take us there please. This happened a couple of times before eventually they sorted it out and took us the 3km back down the mountain to Sapa Garden B&B.

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

The Silver Waterfall, near Sapa

Impossibly Cut

The main reason people go to Sapa is for the trekking around the amazing countryside, taking in local villages, stunning mountains and valley and terraced rice-fields that are seemingly impossibly cut into the steep hillside slopes. Many different ethnic minorities have villages in the region and you can choose from various trekking options to take them in. We weren’t really sure what sort of trek we wanted, especially as self-guided is tricky as clearly marked pathways don’t exist. After wandering round town you soon get to find out who offers what – everywhere is fighting to get your money! We opted to go into one of the dozens of tour shops and picked a reasonably-priced full-day guided walking.

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

Paddy-cam - a close up of the rice

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

Why don't they make them straight?

Hangers On

The next day we set off with a Vietnamese guide and 6 other tourists – immediately a large number of H’Mong village girls and ladies attached themselves to our group. Our guide said that they were just coming along for the trek back to their village. The local ladies made us flowers and jewellery out of near-by plants and told us about their village. They held our hands when descending a muddy steep section. There is always a slight sense of uneasiness, knowing that this level of guiding wasn’t going to be gratis.

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

A guiding hand down the mountain

But we happily rambled along taking in the amazing scenery, watching locals plough their rice paddies – some using buffaloes, but mostly tending by hand in the scorching heat. Our guide was knowledgeable and friendly. We stopped for a break somewhere but unfortunately this wasn’t the best experience – lots of small children approached us, trying to sell bracelets and tat. You feel horrible saying No endlessly, but there were so many children that we couldn’t buy something from each of them. We felt this was far from a traditional ethnic village experience; they’re being brought up dependent on tourists.

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

Backbreaking work for the women in the fields

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

An apprehensive local girl - Carly's hair scared her off

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

A cute pet...or maybe a tasty dinner

It got worse at the lunchtime pit stop – our guide told us we were going to stop at a restaurant for lunch but that the ladies were going to head back to their villages. The negotiating started – “I helped you down the mountain, so you must buy something from me.” It’s so hard when, apart from being on a tight budget, we simply don’t want to carry round extra stuff that we don’t want and definitely don’t need. Do you give them a tip even though we’d already paid a hefty fee for the guide? To all of them?

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

Walking guides - yours free! (purchase necessary)

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

The Sapa kids take a break from picking fruit

Summary of Sapa

The scenery is stunning and worth making the effort to check out. The villages you can visit along the way are of interest, especially if you want to buy stuff – they’re heavily oriented to serving the huge influx of tourists. So, don’t go to Sapa for the authentic Vietnamese ethnic minority village or Vietnam home-stay. Go for the walks into the dream-like terraced rice fields. And chat to the locals – they’re friendly, but just watch your step.

 Sapa – authentic Vietnam?

Sapa - the face-off between hard-working locals and tourist hordes

Your views on Sapa – authentic Vietnam?? Please add your tips, recommendations or general thoughts about Sapa – authentic Vietnam? to help other round the world travelers:

One Response to “Sapa – authentic Vietnam?”

October 24th, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

Thanks for nagging me.
Well worth the read and some stunning photography.

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