Sapa is a beautiful place. It’s high in the mountains, surrounded watery green terraced farms. Thick white whip cream clouds settle in the valleys, occasionally blowing around in gusts so dense that you can literally touch them as they move through the streets.
We were only in Sapa for one full day, just a quick stop over before crossing over into China at Lao Cai about 40km north.
Sapa is extremely tourist friendly, and there is no shortage of affordable tours you can book ranging from one day to several days. The tours will take you to see the sights, trek in the mountains and valleys, and meet the locals in the remote little farming villages. The locals will be making their various tour sales pitches the moment you step off the bus, or you can go into almost every other shop and book one of a dozen or so packages.
We were pressed for time, and down to our last few hundred thousand dong, so we opted to do a self-guided motorbike tour of Sapa. The motorbike cost 100VND (about 5USD) for the day + about 60k for gas. We went out at noon, and were back by 6pm. It was a great afternoon, and although I’m sure the other tours are also interesting and more informative, this kind of tour suites our style perfectly.
We use Maps.me to download offline maps and plot our routes so we don’t get lost, but I don’t think you could easily get lost here even without GPS. Here’s a map of our half day motorbike tour of Sapa.
We didn’t see any normal gas stations, but there are lots of little make-shift gas pumps around in front of the shops. We wouldn’t have known what to look for had we not had a few empty tank incidents in the past and learned about these little pumps, so in case you’re wondering, here’s what they look like:
Up the Mountains
We first took about a 20-minute ride north up the mountains. It’s a very easy and very beautiful ride up the windy roads. There are several viewpoints along the way, and you’ll see locals in their unique outfits waving hello and going about their business along the side the road.
Waterfalls around Sapa
The first waterfall, Silver Falls, can be seen high up in the mountains from the road, tumbling down through the forests and ending at the road. It costs 15,000VND (1USD) each to get in, and takes about 20 minutes to hike up alongside the falls and back.
The second falls, Love Waterfall, is a few minutes further up the hill. It costs 45,000VND, and is a 2km hike through the forest to get there. We did not buy the tickets to go to these falls, but instead found a little hiking trail off to the side. We actually really enjoyed the hike, which took us about 45 minutes. It’s not well maintained, and you start to lose the trail after a while. We bush-whacked as far as we possibly could until the trail completely disappeared. There was nothing at the top but bamboo and mud, so the only reason to proceed when you start to lose the trail is if you have a 4-year-old who likes whacking trees with bamboo swords and climbing in the mud. OK, if DAD enjoys whacking trees and climbing in the mud.
Tram Tom Pass
Tram Tom Pass is the highest point around Sapa, and has one of the most stunning viewpoints. You get about a 270 degree panoramic view of the mountains. There are a few food stalls up there where you can buy eggs or lamb skewers roasted over coals. They have also constructed a little viewing platform out of tree branches. When you first see the platform, you almost laugh to yourself at the thought of anyone daring to walk on it, but then you see other tourists doing it and before long you’re out there too. The logs all looked pretty freshly cut, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they rebuild it after every rain storm.
Ma Cha Village
After spending about 3 hours in the mountains, we came back down through the city, and then took our motorbike east, into the valley. This was probably my favorite part of the trip. You have to watch carefully for the turn down into Ma Cha village. When you make the turn, you find yourself right in the middle of those terraced farm fields, which you’ve been admiring from above since you first arrived. There are farmers out there working, kids running around playing, and all sorts of farm animals wandering the streets. The local kids all smile and call hello to you as you pass by. It’s a really happy place, and the scenery is like something out of a hobbit movie. I felt like Rae was going to leap off the motorbike with excitement on several occasions as we passed by the baby pigs, ducks, and cows.
After you get past the village center, you arrive at a road signs with 5 different wooden arrows pointing in different directions to various villages. We picked one, Ta Phin, and drove up along the little cement pathway for a few kilometers, before deciding it was time to start heading back before it got dark.
We had a bit of time left when we got back to Sapa, so we took a quick ride down the hill to the west into Cat Cat. The sun was setting at this point, and descending into the white flowing clouds as we rode down the hill at dusk was both eerie and beautiful.
It was a really pleasant afternoon; one I’ll never forget. 5 hours was a good amount of time, but we weren’t bored by the end and could have continued to enjoy riding around in the villages for a few more hours if we had more time. I saw a few people around the internet asking whether or not it was worth coming to Sapa if you only had a day. My answer would be yes! I’m sure there is plenty more to see and much we missed, but we both felt like our efforts to get here were worth it, and that we had enough time to have a full and memorable experience.