I was a little confused about the town of Sapa before my visit in October 2014. I’m guessing there are others like me so I have come up with a list of the 9 things about this simple little town that will be helpful for first-time visitors.
1. So is it Sapa or Lao Cai?
Sapa, the beautiful mountainous town lies in the northern part of Vietnam, within the Lao Cai province. Tourists normally arrive by overnight train at the Lao Cai (pronounced as Lao Gai) train station and transfer to car or mini-bus in order to get to Sapa. I arranged my mini-bus transfer with Sapa O’Chau for US$3 one-way.
The ride from between Lao Cai and Sapa is about 30-40 minutes with a lot of bends and turns but with amazing views (especially on the return journey from Sapa to Lao Cai).
The town of Sapa lies at an altitude of 1,500 metres (or 4,921 feet) so altitude sickness should not be a concern.
2. Main town square
The town of Sapa is not big so everything is pretty close to each other. The main town square is in the centre of the town, with the Sapa stone church sited at one corner and a multi-purpose arena right in front of it. The atmosphere here in the day and at night were very different – the locals were selling their fresh produce along the pavements surrounding the church and the multi-purpose arena in the morning and families, young boys and tourists gathered around here at night playing, socializing or just chillaxing.
It was busy and vibrant in the day, clam and peaceful at night.
3. Postal Services
The general post office is about 2 minutes’ walk away from the Sapa Stone Church. Choices of postcards here were limited and the stamps cost the same (VND 21,000) regardless of where the card was going to. The ladies at the post office spoke limited English however I managed to get my postcard sent with just the words ‘postcards’ and ‘stamps’.
4. Food and restaurants
There are many restaurants and shops selling western food in the town of Sapa, mainly catering to the foreigners. These are located along Cau May, and Fansipan street.
Along Xuan Vien street there is a row of restaurants selling BBQ food, seafood and dishes of stir-fried food. At the junction of Fansipan street and Thac Bac street, there are shops selling mainly BBQ food and steamboat. It is set out somewhat similar to the Chomp Chomp Food Centre just that restaurants were operating inside instead of hawker stalls.
When night falls, stalls were set up along the pavement by the Lake of Sapa. You not only get to enjoy the food, the beautiful reflections of the houses along the lake will mesmerize you as well.
5. Sapa Market
The Sapa Market is hidden from the main road and is easy to miss. It is near Cau May street and there are a few steps of stairs before reaching the market itself.
Many ethnic minority ladies set up stalls along the pavements selling all kinds of stuff from bread to vegetables to cooked food.
There is also a food market inside the Sapa Market selling local Vietnamese food. If you fancy having a meal with the locals, this could probably be the best place!
There are many shops selling hiking/camping equipment and clothings here, especially for North Face gears. All the jackets, shoes, backpacks have the brand clearly sewn but from what I understand, these are imitations, NOT the real deal! So if you really want to buy, BARGAIN!
7. Grocery stores
There are small grocery stores all around the town selling mainly local products. However I discovered a much bigger shop right beside the multi-purpose arena (at about 2 o’clock of where you are if you are standing in front of the Stone Church, facing it). This grocery store also sells clothes, souvenirs, imported snacks and daily necessities. So if you forgot your favourite shower gel or shampoo, check it out.
There are a couple of pubs along Cau May street which cater mainly to foreigners along with quite a good choice of restaurants.
If you are in the mood, there are also karaoke lounges although I don’t know whether they have English songs 🙂
For those who have tired feet from all the walking, you can go for a massage or spa. I came across a shop providing foot massage service and also Red Dao herbal medicine bath. It looked decent from the outside.
9. Local Ethnic Minorities
There were some ethnic minority ladies hanging around the main town square area who were trying to sell their hand-made bags and jewellery. They will sometimes accost the visitors and try to hard-sell. Unless you want to buy, just decline politely and walk away.
Take the time to walk around this beautiful little town and enjoy the tranquility (besides the occasional honking from motorists). When you feel bored, try trekking into the mountains!
There you go, the 9 things about the Town of Sapa which hopefully helped you gain a little bit of insight. Click here to check out my interesting experience of a Homestay with a Red Dao family.