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SAPA

Information

There is a small bank in Sapa, but is does not handle foreign-currency exchange. You can use or change US dollars at most hotels, but don’t expect to be given the same exchange rate in Hanoi.

 Internet access is available in many hotels around town, usually for 500d per minute.

 

Sapa market

Montagnards from surrounding villages don their best clothes and head to the market most days. Saturday is the busiest day, but the town becomes so crowded with tourists that it’s a much more pleasant experience on other days of the week.

 The market is a big magnet for organized-tour groups from Hanoi, many of which arrive here on Friday night. If you’d rather enjoy Sapa at a more sedate pace, avoid the Saturday market.

 Trekking to Local Villages

The nearest village within walking distance is Cat Cat, 3km south of Sapa. Like everywhere in this area, it’s a steep and very beautiful hike down; if you’re too exhausted or unfit to hike back up, there is plenty of xe om ready and willing to cart you back to your hotel.

 Another popular hike is to Ta Phin village, about 10km from Sapa. Most people take a xe om to a starting point about 8km from Sapa, and then make a 14km loop walk of the area. Most hotels offer guided day and half-day treks, depending on the number of people and what, if any, vehicles are needed, expect to pay somewhere between US$4 and US$10.

 Long-standing (and still recommended) places to ask about guided treks include Auberge Hotel(   871243),Mountain View Hotel(   871334) and the Friendly Café(Royal Hotel). There are also several tour-booking offices on the main street.

 

Fansipan

Surrounding Sapa are the Hoang Lien Mountains, nicknamed the Tonkinese Alps by the French. These mountains include Fansipan, which at 3143km is Vietnam’s highest. The summit towers above Sapa, although it is often obscured by clouds and is occasionally dusted with snow. The peak is accessible all year to those in good shape and properly equipped, but don’t underestimated its difficulty. It is very wet and usually cold, so you must be prepared.

 The summit of Fansipan is 19km from Sapa and can be reached only on foot. The terrain is rough and adverse weather is frequent. Despite the short distance, the round trip usually takes three to four days; some very fit and experience hikers have made it in two days, but this is rare. After the first morning you won’t see any villages; just the forest, striking mountain vistas, and perhaps some local wildlife such as monkeys, mountain goats and birds.

 No ropes or technical climbing skills are needed, just endurance. There are no mountain huts or other facilities along the way (yet). So you need to be self-sufficient. This means taking a sleeping bag, waterproof tent, food, stove, raincoat or poncho, compass and other miscellaneous survival gear. Bring your own gear. Hiring a reputable guide is vital and, unless you are a seriously experienced mountaineer, finding porters who will carry your gear is also strongly recommended.

 Good places to inquire about trekking guides include the Auberge Hotel(   871243), Mountain View Hotel(   871334).Friendly Café(Royal Hotel), and Chapa Restaurant (   871245). If you organize the clim through a local operator, you’ll find yourself paying an all-inclusive rate of around US$60 per person for a couple, US$50 per person for a group of four and US$45 for per person for sensible maximum group size of six.

 Fansipan summit is accessible year-round, though weather-wise the best time for making the ascent is from mid-October to mid-December, and again in March, when wildflowers are in bloom.

 

All Stitched Up

 

Like many hill-tribe women, those of the Yao of Ta Phin – a community about 10km from Sapa – are expert at embroidery, an art handed down through generations. Traditionally, only silk thread is used. Unprocessed silk is bought from the market, boiled to make it smooth, and then dyed with natural colors extracted from plants that include turmeric and tea leaves. Three strands of silk are then twisted together and drawn taut by the sewer, who pins one end to the knee of her trousers, runs the thread down and through a bracelet held on one toe, then pulls it back up to her knee. A quick twist, and the thread are ready.

 Embroidery is done in segments. Items of everyday clothing include the Iuykhia, a densely embroidered lower back flap on a jacket. The smaller Iuy tan is a rectangle of pattern that decorates the back of a jacket. The Iuyleng is a band of decoration at the front opening of a jacket. Trousers, la peng, are decorated with distinctive stripes of color rather than blocks of pattern. La pengpe is cloths used to bind the lower legs. La sin is a belt used to hoist up the back flap of the jacket when women work in the fields. Chap hoong is the bib of r ed cotton behind the opening of a jacket, and may be studded with silver ornaments. The red head-covering worn by Yao women is called a hong, and is usually made up of at least seven layers of cotton scarves.

 There are many recurring motifs in Yao embroidery, although their symbolism, if any is unknown. Most motifs are associated with nature, from gibbon hands to cabbages to thunder deities. Maybe this simply reflects the natural surroundings; maybe it also reflects a Taoist appreciation of balance between wild and cultivated nature.

 Like all cultures, Yao culture is dynamic and constantly changing. Women say they ‘borrow’ or copy motifs from other tribal groups and incorporate them with their own; H’mong flower motifs are common. It may not be long before recognizably Western images, such as hiking boots and cats’ paws, make their appearance in the market place.

 

Sourse: ‘Our Craft Traditions’ Series: A Yao Community in Sapa, Vietnam by Vo Mai Phong& Claire Burkert, The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, 2001.

Tram Ton Pass

If you travel along the Sapa-Lai Chau road, you will cross Tram Ton Pass on the north side of Fansipan, 15km from Sapa. At 1900m, this is the highest mountain pass in Vietnam. Aside from magnificent views, the climate changes dramatically. On the Sapa side of the mountain, you can often expect cold, foggy and generally nasty weather. Drop down a few hundred meters below the pass on the Lai Chau side and it will often be sunny and warm. Ferocious winds come ripping over the pass, which is not surprising given the temperature differences – Sapa is the coldest place in Vietnam while Lai Chau is the warmest. Tram Ton Pass is the dividing line between two great weather fronts – who says you can’t see the air? (The day we passed by, there was fog and cloud on the Lai Chau side and blazing sun towards Sapa. But hey, you just can’t pick the weather.)

 Along side the road, about 5km towards Sapa is Thac Bac, the Silver Waterfall. With a height of 100m, it’s a big one, and the loop track (admission 3000d) that takes you up steps and across a bridge halfway up in steep and spectacular.

 

Places to Stay

If you’re on a tour booked through a café or ravel agency in Hanoi, your accommodation presumably will be prearranged for you. However, self-propelled travellers need to know that prices can fluctuate wildly according to the volume of tourist traffic. On weekends, prices can skyrocket, with a US8$ room going for at least double the price. Look round and negotiate. Needless to say, it’s wise to avoid the Friday/Saturday rush; midweek there should be no problem, especially during the icy winter.

 Beware of hotels using old-style charcoal burners for heat – the fumes can cause severe breathing problems if your room’s not well ventilated. Many hotels now offer electric heaters instead, or open fireplaces during the winter.

 There are now roughly 50 accommodation options, from a solid string of heap guesthouses to a luxury resort. The majority of Sapa’s villa-hotels are owned and run by the government, and, unfortunately, restoration efforts have fallen short of their potential; still, the hotels are atmospheric. Worse are the characterless new mini hotels popping up and plaguing the town with karaoke. Construction is continuing full bore.

 The hotels named here offer rooms and/or balconies with views; the scenery is, after all, one of the main reasons for visiting Sapa. It’s not an exhaustive list: there are plenty of other hotels in town that are also good value, especially along the main street, but simply lack the scenic location.

 

Places to Stay – Budget

Auberge Hotel( 871243, fax 871666; e auberge@sapadiscovery.com; w www.sapadiscovery.com; singles/doubles US$6/28) is notable for its town and valley views and bonsai garden. Some upper-floor rooms have fireplaces; cheaper rooms are in an older section of the hotel and lost their mountain views during the building boom. The restaurant is recommended and it’s a good place to find travel and trekking information.

Queen Hotel(   871301, fax 871282; twins US$4-10), just next door to the Ayberge, is a friendly place offering good-value rooms with great views and some fireplaces.

Tulip Guest House(   872914; singles/doubles US$4/7), which was built in 2001, is small, simple, very clean and also has some terrific views.

Green Bamboo Hotel(   871214; rooms US$8-25) is in French-villa style with fine views, a small garden and a popular bar. The more expensive rooms are pretty basic for the price though, with nowhere to sit and no tables.

 Mountain View Hotel( 871334; e ninhhongsapa@hn.vnn.vn; rooms US$6-15), formerly Ninh Hong Guesthouse, has relocated to a prime spot on the edge of town; corner rooms have views to die for. The owners. Mrs Hong, speaks fluent English, and was one of the first female trekking guides in Sapa. She now has a small team of local women working with her as guides.

Tung Lam Hotel & Restaurant(   871404, fax 871081; rooms US$15) offers fine, well-maintained rooms, and also a decent terrace restaurant, perched over the valley.

 Cat Cat Guesthouse(   871387; e catcat@fpt.vn; rooms US$7-20) is a multilevel guesthouse that gets top marks for its sweeping views from the terrace and some of the rooms. But housekeeping is not a strong point here; check the state of the bed linen and the bathroom before you check in.

 Twilight Guesthouse (Nha Nghi Hoang Hon;   871601, fax 871381; rooms from US$8), built in 2001, is small and quiet, and has spotless rooms with bath. US$12 buys you a corner rooms wit ha view, and there are shared balconies for all.

 

Places to Stay – Mid-Range

Royal Hotel(   /fax 871313; eroyalhotel-sapa@yahoo.com; rooms US$18-30) is well located, with only a few rooftops obscuring the view from the more expensive rooms. Rooms are of good standard, and the long-standing. Friendly Café, known for touring information, has relocated here.

 Chau Long Hotel(   871245, fax 871844; e chapatour@hn.vnn.vn; wwww.chaulonghotel.com; rooms US$28-51) opened in 2001 and has good standard rooms, as you would expect for the price. The location is magnificent, and the Internet café and bar on the 3rd floor is very pleasant.

Buu Chinh Hotel(   871389, fax 871332; rooms US$20) is owned by the postal service and is situated in a Swiss chalet-style building. A little way put of the town center, it’s popular with tour groups. The rooms are clean and all have balconies with gorgeous views.

 

Places to Stay – Top End

Victoria Sapa Hotel( 871522, fax 871539; e victoriasapa@fpt.vn; wwww.victoriahotels0asia.com; superior/deluxe rooms US$85/103, 6-bed family studios US$147, luxury suites US$180) offers a delightful lodging experience. This hotel has it all – tastefully decorated rooms, sweeping views from the restaurant, two bars, a heated indoor swimming pool, fitness center and tennis court. Rates include breakfast, t ax and service. Non-guest can treat themselves to a swim for US$5.

 As part of a package, hotel guests can travel between Hanoi and Lao Cai in the resort’s Victoria Express(   04-933 0318, fax 933 0319; evictoria@fpt.vn), with luxurious, private train carriages (with private dining car) attached to the regular train.

 

Places to Eat

Mimosa Restaurant and Gerbera Restaurant(mains from 20,000d) are next door to each other. Both have terraces and are family-run eateries, with good and reasonably-prices barbecue beef, wild boar and venison, as well as pasta, salad and a variety of Vietnamese dishes.

The Gecko(   871504; packed lunch 40,000d) is a good French-run restaurant where you can drink an espresso, pick up picnic lunches, have a light lunch or treat yourself to a splendid set menu for 150,000d. If that breaks the budget, the bar offers reasonably priced drinks and is a good meeting place.

Delta Restaurant( 871799), Sapa’s first (and still the town’s only) mainly Italian restaurant, does good pizzas and pastas.

Chapa Restaurant(   871245; echapatour@fpt.vn) is a true travellers’ café, with the usual banana pancakes and spring rolls. If you peek in the front door, the place may appear full but there are more tables in the room upstairs.

Auberge Hotel has a popular terrace restaurant with some vegetarian dishes. Most of the busier hotels also have reasonably priced cafes.

   There’s a string of popular restaurants worth checking out near the bottom of the main drag (south of the stairs leading down to the market), and below the market as you head in the direction of Cat Cat village.

 

Entertainment

Considering the number of travellers to Sapa, organized entertainment is relatively scarce. Mostly it’s a cosy café scene at the various guesthouses.

Bamboo bar(Green Bamboo Hotel) was the first Western-style watering hole to open in Sapa. Thers’s a free traditional hill-tribe music-and-dance show from 8.30pm to 10pm Friday and Saturday.

 Ham Rong Hotel also offers a nicely low-key outdoors hill-tribe show (admission 25,000 including one free drink) with an authentic feel, from 8.30 to 10pm Friday and Saturday.

 The Gecko has a decent bar and a good, laid-back music selection.

 Victoria Sapa Hotel offers two cosy bars and a terrace for a more ‘civilized’ drink in this stylish hotel. Drinks cost a bit more than elsewhere in town, but the atmosphere is hard to beat.

 

Getting There & Away

Bus, Minibus & Motorbike Sapa’s proximity to the border region makes it a possible first or last stop for travellers crossing the border between Vietnam and China.

 The gateway to Sapa is Lao Cai, 38km away on the Chinese border. Minibuses make a trip regularly between 5am and 5pm (25,000d, one to two hours depending on roadwork). In Sapa, minibuses wait in front of the church but do not run on any particular schedule. However, the minibuses do wait in Lao Cai for the train that arrives from Hanoi.

 The advertised rate of hotel minibus services to Bac ha (110km) for the Sunday market is around US$10 per person; departure from Sapa is at 6am and from Bac Ha at 1pm. You can also go to Bac Ha by public minibus, if you change vehicles at Lao Cai.

 Public buses from Sapa to Hanoi (about 12 hours) leave around 5am.

 Driving a motorbike from Hanoi to Sapa is feasible, but it’s a very long trip. So start early. The total distance between Hanoi and Sapa is 380km. the last 38km are straight uphill 0 unless you’ve been training for the Olympic, it’s hell on a bicycle.

 Cafes in Hanoi offer weekend trips to Sapa for around US$40, usually combining train and minibus transport. This is probably the most hassle free way to do the journey, but many prefer to do it on their own. See Travel Agencies in the Hanoi chapter for more information.

 

Train The train trip ti and from Hanoi has become much more comfortable with the opening of a public soft-sleeper class. At the moment, a sleeper ticket from Hanoi to Sapa can be booked only through hotels and agencies; it’s expected that by the time you read this you’ll be able to book this service directly at he station.

 Tickets prices vary from around 62,000d for hard seat to around 130,000d for a soft sleeper. The day train leaves Lao Cai at 10.20am; the night train at 6.45pm. The journey takes about 10 hours. Both trains leave Hanoi around 10km. purchasing tickets from agents in Sapa costs a bit more than at the station in Lao Cai, but ensures you a seat or a sleeper on the train. It also ensures that you can book seat on a Sapa-Lao Cai minibus timed to coincide with train departures.

 Getting Around

The best way to get around Sapa is to walk, and almost everywhere it’s steep! If you’ve got only an hour or so to skill, it is worthwhile following the steps up to the Sapa radio tower; the views of the valley from here are breathtaking.

 For excursions further out, you can hire a self-drive motorbike with a driver for about US$10.

Vietnam Guide Book

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