Sapa, Vietnam travel tips

Sapa, Vietnam is a town that exists almost entirely for tourism. The town was a surprising and dismaying experience after 6 weeks traveling through the rest of Vietnam, but the views are killer.

Where we ate:

As with many tourism-fueled towns, the food in Sapa sucked or was expensive (and might still suck). Most MEHs below should be considered “as good as you can expect for Sapa.”

  • Xua + Nay Restaurant – The first of many unsatisfying meals in Sapa. Whatever we got we had to cover in chili sauce since it lacked any flavor: NAH
  • Highland Coffee – Apparently some sort of Sapa institution, it was one of the worst meals we had. Sandwiches were sloppy interpretations of the concept. Even the bread was dry and flavorless. Oh, and the coffee was gnarly, and bad coffee is usually impossible to come by in Vietnam: NAH
  • Baguette + Chocolate – Well worth the stroll to the “far side of town,” which isn’t that far. Surprisingly good Western-style baked goods and desserts, especially the banana muffins. Take away sandwiches are good for hikes. Be warned, there’s no heat and you must take off your shoes to sit in the couch area, a poor combination on cold days: YEH
  • Pine Restaurant – We read that this was the only all-Vietnamese restaurant left in Sapa. Unfortunately, by the time we ate there, they’d added the same-same Western dishes as everywhere else. The Vietnamese food was okay, but because Pine’s prices were lower other places in Sapa, the value was high. When we ordered fried chayote we got the ubiquitous Vietnamese green vegetable (sometimes called morning glory or water spinach), so they may just serve you what they have and figure you don’t know any better. The other diners were entertaining, Vietnamese cops drinking way more than eating: MEH
  • Queen Hotel – We stopped by because they had locally produced boozes on the menu and claimed to have free WiFi. The WiFi was intermittent, though they had wired terminals if in crisis. The atmosphere was nil, but the staff was friendly and the local bac ha brew, a Northern Vietnamese moonshine, was so potent we couldn’t finish our drinks, which were heavily poured: YEH
  • Le Pho – If you pretty much only make pho, shouldn’t your pho be the best? Though it looked pretty, Le Pho’s was bland, the soup little more than hot water, and the meat paltry and chewy. Though their hot chocolate was truly excellent: NAH
  • Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel – The hotel on the road to Cat Cat has a cozy restaurant on the ground floor that is a good value for the style. Their breakfasts were creative, such as corn pancakes with ham and tomato jam or were simply made well, like their fluffy pancakes. Lunch however was a disaster, the salad was water-logged and the wild pork was bland: YEH for breakfast only
  • Corn cakes and ham from Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel
    Corn cakes and ham from Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Black Hmong Restaurant – One of the newer restaurants on the road to Cat Cat (aka D Phan Si). They were playing some of our favorite music and had a promising menu. The food did not live up to expectations. If we weren’t starving after our hike we would have left most of the food uneaten (the cheese fries were especially nasty). However, it’s worth a stop on the way back from Cat Cat on cold days for their hot mulled wine and the pleasant tunes: MEH
  • Romano’s Pizza – Their pizza is much better than their watery pastas, which was better than the Aussie burger that Todd got, which he decreed “silly.” Another place to get hot mulled wine on a cold day. Good free WiFi: YEH
  • Street food vendors near the “Stadium” – A couple of women set up informal stalls on the sidewalks around the stadium and serve up rice cooked in bamboo, roasted chestnuts, and grilled meat on sticks at bargain prices. One of the better meals we had. The ladies were very amused to serve us Westerners: YEH
  • Fanning the grill coals, Sapa, Vietnam
    Fanning the grill coals on the streets of Sapa | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Pineapple, 55 Phan Dinh Phung, in the town of Lao Cai – As you head out of Sapa, you will likely have some time to kill in Lao Cai. Don’t eat where the minivan drops you off, they’re on commission. Instead walk over to Pineapple for a nice oasis to escape from Lao Cai’s touts and smog: YEH

Where we stayed:

  • Pinocchio Hotel – The beds were comfortable, blankets thick, price cheap, but they made you pay for a space heater if you couldn’t stand the frigid cold, which we couldn’t. The balcony is unremarkable except for the view (which you can see everywhere in town). There’s no reason to pay for a “view room”, since the condensation obscures the view when it’s cold out and the balcony, and the guests hanging out on it, is between your window and the view: MEH

What we saw:

  • Night trains to/from Sapa – For the love of all that is holy, do not go by “hard sleeper” overnight to/from Sapa. The car is smoky, loud, and dirty and the hard sleeper berth is a rock. The “soft sleeper” is worth every extra dong. Also, you do not need to book the train and subsequent required minivan through your hotel. Simply walk or cab to the Hanoi train station to book your round trip train to Lao Cai. Once in Lao Cai, there are hordes of minivans (Lonely Planet is wrong, you don’t need to walk to the town’s bus station) to take you to Sapa for 30,000 dong. In Sapa, just walk to the bend in Cau May Street two hours before your train and find a minivan to Lao Cai: YEH
  • Local Tourist Maps – We dropped 25,000 Dong (about $3 US) on one of these in hopes it would help us guide ourselves on hikes through Sapa’s hills. The maps were useless. Hardly any walking trails were included and those that were were unfindable or just plain wrong. Instead, just bring a compass and ask anyone you see for directions: NAH
  • Hike to Ta Phin – Given that we weren’t sure of the most direct hiking trails there (see map above), the supposed easy round-trip day hike turned very loooong. But, even though we never quite reached the village of Ta Phin, we had a gorgeous hike with views and distractions. We took xe oms back to town and had to bargain hard: YEH
  • The view on one route to Ta Phin, Sapa, Vietnam
    The view on one route to Ta Phin | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Hike to Cat Cat Village – The hike, if it can be called that, meanders past lackluster booths manned by grouchy hill tribe women selling “authentic handmade” made in China Black Hmong souvenirs. Not much of a village experience. The views during the hike are phenomenal, and worth the stroll. At the end of the downhill hike, you reach the waterfall, where Vietnamese music blasts over loudspeakers, drowning out the roar of nature. Do as we did and climb the stairs near the bathrooms and find the trail to the fairy stream, which is simply a beautiful river where one bend muffles the nearby cacophony: YEH, except for the waterfall and the tout town
  • Main Sapa Market – This market is probably more impressive in warmer weather. We saw fruit and veg sellers and cheap clothes and cloth for sale. Little local food and the restaurants there were few and utterly overpriced: MEH
  • Shopping in Sapa – If you want to browse any of the Black Hmong blankets for sale on the town’s sidewalks or the jewelry and other hill tribe souvenirs in the informal outdoor market booths around town, do so at your own risk. The women are incredibly aggressive. The prices drop very quickly, and even further once you bargain. You should be able to pay 20-30% of their starting price: MEH