The Sights and Heights of Sa Pa, Vietnam

The allure of Vietnam’s intrigue and rich historical past is undeniable, with Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) leading the way. While I had previously relied on guidebooks for my visits to these major destinations, my desire to explore hidden gems led me to seek the assistance of my Vietnamese friend, Ms. Tracey from 365Aplus Travel. I wanted an itinerary that would provide a refreshing escape from the bustling energy of the big cities.

Ms. Tracey’s suggestion was to venture into the hills and embark on a two-day exploration of the remote villages near Sa Pa, a tranquil town nestled in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range in northwest Vietnam. The six-hour journey from Hanoi proved to be incredibly rewarding, unveiling sights and cultural experiences that exceeded all expectations in this blossoming country.

These highland regions are home to diverse ethnic Hmong tribes, each with their own unique traditions and language, yet living harmoniously in this picturesque setting. Having endured persecution in China over half a millennium ago, they found solace in these mountainous territories, establishing quaint villages amidst terraced rice paddies and deep river valleys that meander through towering peaks.

Sa Pa presents a world far removed from the colonial charm of Hanoi and the cosmopolitan vibrance of Ho Chi Minh City. It boasts an eclectic charm of its own, resembling an Alpine mountain village adorned with the flickering lights reminiscent of a miniature Las Vegas, complemented by its distinctive architecture.

Sapa Station | Photo: Steve Leland

Clad in traditional attire, our knowledgeable Hmong guide, Co’, warmly welcomed us at the bus station and escorted us to the Pistachio Hotel, conveniently located in close proximity to the town center. Bright yellow LED lights adorned the bustling streets, adorned with an array of restaurants, shops, and spas encircling the amphitheater-style main plaza. Affectionately referred to as the ‘Love Market,’ this is where young individuals from remote villages come together to meet and court potential partners.

Among the notable attractions is the grandiose Sa Pa Station, an architectural marvel that dominates the city’s skyline. It not only houses a hotel and a train station but also serves as a depot for the funicular that connects the town to the Fansipan Peak cable car.

Fansipan Peak | Photo: Steve Leland

The cable car itself is a remarkable engineering feat, whisking visitors on a breathtaking, twenty-minute ascent, reaching a staggering altitude of 10,000 feet. This cloud-piercing journey transports visitors to the summit, also known as the virtual Rooftop of Indochina. The sight of a magnificent Buddha overlooking pagodas, shrines, and majestic mountain peaks creates an image straight out of a mesmerizing Shangri-la.

On the second day, we returned to ground level to immerse ourselves in the awe-inspiring scenery through a guided 8-kilometer trek. We meandered along narrow pathways, traversing captivating landscapes of terraced rice paddies, bamboo forests, and lush farmlands. Co’ expertly led the way to her remote village of Lao Chai, where the rich traditions and endemic culture of the Hmong tribe took center stage.

For our second evening, we opted to participate in a recently established Home Stay program, offering a unique opportunity to intimately interact with ethnic groups through overnight stays in Hmong family homes. Co’s personal residence, the Big Tree HomeStay, built by herself and her husband, served as our modest accommodation for the night. We indulged in ethnic culinary delights prepared over an open fire and savored them in a communal fashion, graciously served by Co’ and her sister. Ending the evening with a shot (or two) of ‘happy water,’ their homemade rice moonshine, perfectly concluded this unforgettable experience.

Sa Pa has undoubtedly earned its place on my list of must-visit destinations in Vietnam, and with a new airport on the horizon, the region is poised for significant growth. However, I implore you to seize the opportunity to discover the enchanting hills of Sa Pa before the influx of tourists encroaches upon this unique and captivating destination. Now is the time to embark on an extraordinary journey in Sa Pa, Vietnam.

As a former Cruise Director, Steve has been cruising the world for the past forty years. Bringing a new dimension to cruise journalism, he continues to spin the globe searching for off the grid cruise adventures and unplugged destinations to share with Porthole Cruise Magazine readers.