Sa Pa, a place in Vietnam that instantly cues visions of emerald rice terraces, hill tribe culture and great trekking.
It’s famous around the world for its ancient rice terraces, carved long ago by ethnic minorities.
But, is it still worth visiting?
Has the Sa Pa so many visitors fell in love with fallen victim of mass over-commercialisation?
When I decided to spend nearly a month in Vietnam and starting breaking up my time in the north, middle and south, I knew I wanted to plan for an overnight to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi.
I was also interested in a day trip to Ninh Binh and trekking Sa Pa, but wasn’t sure if I’d have the time.
When I worked out I could do an overnight to Sa Pa, it was only a few days before I’d have to leave, and I had no idea where to start planning.
I’m normally not one for the pre-packaged tour options from the likes of Viator and Get Your Guide, but in this instance, when I found a well reviewed hiking option from GYG, I decided to just go for it.
Once I booked the trip, I read a few blog posts about what trekking Sa Pa is like now (2018/2019) to help level set my expectations. I knew it wouldn’t be like the people who had gone 10-15 years ago, I was aware of how well known Sa Pa has become.
I’m so glad I did this, because it set the bar pretty low for the experience.
At best, I rationed I’d have a great time seeing and trekking Sa Pa.
At worst, well, surely, it’d at least be a scenic trip.
I know people who have gone, expecting beautiful hillsides, a thriving hill tribe culture and little development and been mega disappointed by what Sa Pa has become.
I’m always a bit surprised when this is people’s reaction in places like Sa Pa- surely, if the mainstream world knows about the place or experience, you can bet it’s no longer a true ‘hidden gem’.
Was Sa Pa beautiful?
Was it also commercialised, filled with trash and construction everywhere?
Did it ruin my trip?
No, while disheartening to see at times, I also expected those things- that’s simply what comes with mass tourism, unfortunately.
The tourism isn’t all bad though- it’s brought wealth to this part of Vietnam that wasn’t there before.
Would I recommend the tour I booked?
In short, no.
Doing a tour vs. booking things on your own isn’t a problem in places like Sa Pa where you need a guide to trek anyway. But, carefully select your company.
The GYG tour was un-organised and impersonal. Twice, I had to call them to sort details.
One time was from a village in Sa Pa, after my guide told me I wouldn’t make my bus to Hanoi. She was unaware I was even departing that day, and told me the only way I’d make it would be to pay extra money for a local to drive me back up.
It wasn’t until I called GYG and had them speak to her that she agreed the mistake in overlooking my departure time was her fault, and agreed to pay for me to be rushed back to town.
With GYG, you’ll just be another number on their long list of patrons taking tours in Vietnam on that particular day.
Post-tour, I heard of Hanoi Journey tours and wish I’d done a bit more research ahead of my visit. There are lots of providers to choose from in Hanoi, so don’t rush your decision.
You may trek to the same places with the smaller tours as you would with the larger company options, but the entire experience will likely be different. Details matter, and when people are forgotten about or things are overlooked, it’s frustrating because it’s an experience you paid for.
Regardless of which provider you decide to book with, most tours to Sa Pa look similar.
- Early morning departure from Hanoi, six hour ride to Sa Pa, usually by a luxury van
- Arrive in Sa Pa, check into your hotel. Most tours offer options for 2, 3 or 4 star hotels
- Have lunch at your hotel or a nearby restaurant if it’s not included
- Leave mid-afternoon to trek to Cat Cat Village
- Return to Sa Pa early evening
- Have dinner, explore town
- Go to bed early, day two is a big trekking day
I didn’t mind the long ride to Sa Pa, our van was comfortable. And we stopped twice to use toilets / buy snacks.
The trek to Cat Cat is best described as sad. Calling it ‘tribal Disneyland’ would be appropriate.
My trek to Cat Cat began with my H’Mong guide picking me up at my hotel. On this day, it was just her and I, which was nice because it gave me the opportunity to ask questions about the region and her tribe.
For the first 10 minutes, two other H’Mong guides (her friends) followed us and asked me questions (where I’m from; if I’m married; how long I’m in Vietnam). Right before we started to descend down the long hill, they tried to get me to buy things from them, but I politely declined.
The trek to Cat Cat isn’t really a trek- you walk along the main road for most of it, and the majority of it is downhill. Once you’re outside the village, even the trail and steps within are well maintained.
Walking through the first part of the village, you’ll be bombarded by people asking you to buy things from them.
We stopped at an indigo store, where, because I was alone, I was taken into the back to see the process of dying and stitching. This was pretty cool- I’d be sad to miss it if I was in a larger group.
We continued descending steps into a valley, where there’s a flowing river, gushing waterfall and a few shops, as well as restaurants.
Here, my guide insisted I watch a dance performance.
We argued about this a bit- I didn’t want to see it, I knew it would be an overly touristy experience, and much preferred continuing with the trek to get back to town. I was tired from a long travel day, and knew the next day of trekking would be long.
In the end, I watched a few minutes of the show. While doing so, I could see my guide chatting with other guides. It appeared her insistence I watch the show was little more than a chance for her to chat.
I’m sure she figured I’d enjoy it, because it’s made for Westerners and all Westerners like the same things.
Incidents like this are why I prefer to book experiences on my own. After watching a few minutes and confirming it was exactly what I thought it’d be, I asked her to continue so we could get back to the village.
From the area with the waterfall, you walk for 10-15 minutes uphill to get to an area with taxis and motorbikes. If you want, you can take one of them back to Sa Pa town. Or, you can continue trekking as we did for about an hour uphill back into the heart of town.
Back in town, I had dinner at my hotel.
I stayed in a two star hotel, which I expected to be budget and basic.
Overall, the food at my hotel was okay, not great but not terrible. The spring rolls were the highlight- some of the best I had in Vietnam, crispy and fresh.
I could have ventured out to town to see what other options were available, but I’d read a few reviews touting the food in Sa Pa as dismal, at best. Especially in comparison to a food heaven like Hanoi.
Keen to call it an early night, I went to my room after dinner to sleep.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get much sleep that night. Sa Pa has become a heavily congested and trafficked town. My hotel was on a main road, and even though I was four floors from the ground, the traffic was insanely loud until 2 am, and started up again at 5 am.
My usually trusty ear plugs did little to drown out the noise.
If you’ve been to Vietnam, you know what I’m talking about- people honking at each other on motorbikes. Constant yelling. Engines revving.
Even Hanoi felt quieter than Sa Pa.
If you can choose your own hotel, opt to do so and go for one slightly out of town if you want to sleep while you’re there.
- Early morning: Breakfast
- 9 am: Depart hotel to start trekking
- 9 am – 2 pm: Trek three villages, with a brief stop in one for refreshments
- 2 pm: Lunch in a village
- 2:30 pm: Return to Sa Pa
- 3 pm: Bus pick-up from hotel, drive six hours back to Hanoi
- 9/9:30 pm: Arrive at hotel in Hanoi
Waking up a big groggy on day two, I drank two cups of coffee at breakfast, hoping that would help shake me awake.
My guide was a bit late picking me up, but I didn’t think anything of it.
In hindsight, I probably should have been a bit more concerned. Especially when, after 25 minutes of waiting, she did pick me up and I quickly learned from talking to others in my group, that they were all spending the night in Sa Pa. No one else was departing on a mid-afternoon bus to Hanoi as I was.
Still though, I figured the guide had those details and I didn’t need to worry. After all, this was why I’d booked a tour in the first place.
Trekking on this day was much more scenic, finally the views of Sa Pa I’d been waiting for.
We trekked from Sa Pa town to Long Y Lin Ho to Lao Chai to Ta Van. My tour group visited another village after Ta Van, but I was rushed back to Sa Pa to make my bus departure to Hanoi.
The landscape on this day of trekking was simply spectacular.
GYG advertised the trek would take 3.5 hours, but our guides quickly set expectations that it’d be 6-8 hours.
Even though I’d read a few posts about trekking Sa Pa, I wasn’t prepared for this trek. And, candidly, I’m not sure I would have done the trip to Sa Pa if I knew how it would really be.
Sure, it was gorgeous. But it was also dangerous (without proper hiking attire / gear).
Trails were some of the steepest I’ve ever seen, and many times, there wasn’t even a trail to walk on. We were forging through field and forest.
Pathways were covered in rocks and often, mud. Many people in our group fell throughout the trek, even with the guides helping us.
Having only brought basic trainers, I wouldn’t have done this trek if I’d known how it would be. You definitely need proper hiking shoes, potentially even hiking poles depending on the season.
I visited in April, right before the wet season. I can’t imagine how hazardous these trails are when it rains.
The risk was worth it though, because the trek was beautiful and felt remote.
The only downside, really?
Arriving at our stop for lunch and having the guides who’d trekked with us all morning flat out harass us to buy from them.
It was aggressive and everyone in our group felt uncomfortable.
I’d have no problem paying a bit more for the tour to pay for these women to accompany us- everyone needed their help trekking. But, trying to force purchase of items afterwards is another thing.
Around lunch time, I looked at my watch and noticed how late in the day it was. When I asked my guide what time we’d be back in Sa Pa town, she casually replied 5 pm.
It was at this point I panicked a bit. I told her my bus to Hanoi was at 3 pm, and she looked at me blankly. It was definitely the first time she’d been given that information.
At first, she told me there was no way I’d make my bus. Which, was a huge problem because, the next day in Hanoi, I was meant to be departing for an overnight to Ha Long Bay. There wasn’t flexibility in my itinerary for errors at the sake of the tour company.
After arguing for a few minutes, she told me the only way I’d make the bus would be to hop on the back of a motorbike and pay for a local to take me up.
Here, I refused. I’d already paid for the tour- it was not my fault the company had messed up the details. So, I found a number for the local operator GYG used for the tour I took and called them.
They chatted with her for a few minutes in Vietnamese, and eventually, she agreed to pay for me to take a bike back to Sa Pa town.
This incident alone is reason enough not to book with GYG. I’d expect a much better performance from a major tour company- not something as grossly unorganised as this was.
What if I didn’t have a watch on me and missed my bus?
I have a hard time believing GYG would take care of me, and pay for an additional night in Sa Pa, let along help sort the other logistics I’d need to figure out.
If I were to do the trip again, I’d spend two nights in Sa Pa and plan things myself.
You need to hire a guide no matter what, but I would have liked control over choosing my hotel, and confirming details for my trip.
Getting there on your own isn’t hard- there are overnight buses and trains from Hanoi. Sa Pa Express seems to be a favourite among those who take this option.
Once you get off, you’ll pretty much be bombarded (saw it happening) by H’Mong women, asking if you need a trekking tour.
You can choose to stay in Sa Pa town, or for a more local experience, taxi to one of the villages and overnight in a homestay.
I’ve heard Lao Chai (20 minutes from Sa Pa, driving) Ta Van (45 minutes from Sa Pa, driving) are great for this. Bonus: You’ll wake up right in the villages, ready to start trekking.
Many homestays aren’t online yet, so having a tour company help book them may be the easiest thing for you to do if showing up and looking for accomodation makes you nervous.
If I’d known what I know now, I would have skipped Cat Cat village entirely and gone to Fanispan mountain instead. There’s a cable car to the top, which boasts incredible views. At over 10,000 feet high, it’s the highest mountain in the Indochinese Peninsula.
Cost wise, I know what my tour cost and I’ve heard mixed things about what doing it independently nets out to be.
- I’ve heard the Express bus is often $15 USD each way
- Price of a hotel/homestay for 1-2 nights will vary depending on what kind you select- there are a few hostels in Sa Pa
- To cover, 1-2 days trekking, price is usually $25-40 USD per person per day, depending on the length of your trek
- And, if your hotel/homestay doesn’t include meals, you’ll need to budget for that as well
I thought paying $90 USD was a bit much for the tour, but with everything factored in, it may net out to be similar in cost.
Would I recommend visiting Sa Pa?
It’s a beautiful landscape, unlike the rice fields I’ve seen anywhere else in SE Asia. The mountains lend an incredible backdrop to the treks you’ll embark on.
But, as with anything, do some research before you visit. Understand what you’ll be getting into and how you should prepare.
If your expectations are in line with the experience to be had, you’ll leave Sa Pa feeling as I did- awed over the beauty of northern Vietnam.
Would you ever trek Sa Pa, if visiting Vietnam?