Located in the mountainous ranges of Northern Vietnam, Sapa is one of those places where I was surprised to find out that people only spent a few days when visiting. Whilst I was volunteering for three weeks at Sapa O’chau, I would meet people who would come directly to the office from the overnight train ride from Hanoi, dump their gear into storage and immediately start an overnight homestay trek. The following afternoon, they would return, shower and head back to Hanoi, on the overnight train.
On most occasions, it comes down to the lack of time available as the north of Vietnam is usually the final destination for most travellers who start their Vietnam adventure from the south and are finishing off their journey by trying to cram both Sapa and Halong Bay into under five days. For me, part of coming to Sapa just isn’t going on treks but spending time in and around the village as there are activities that you can spend an hour or up to a day doing. With the hectic pace throughout the rest of Vietnam, why not sit back and relax and take in the fresh mountain air and experience the friendliness of the local people.
Here are a few selections of my ten favourite things I found myself doing during my time in Sapa. If you plan on coming, stay an extra day or two, relax and immerse yourself in the Sapa village vibe.
People watch in the main square
Most days that I had free, I’d come down here with the camera and people watch. At the edge of the square, you have minority villagers both Red Dao and H’Mong congregating in the area selling their wares, organised groups putting on free performances, kids perfecting their skateboarding skills and other random occurrences. Sometimes it’s awesome just watching the mountain fog roll in and out of the town.
Cruise through the busy market
Like most places there are no central supermarkets to buy groceries. Everything including dry and wet goods is traded at the main market. From herb, spices, meat, fish, clothes and laundry detergent can be purchased here. If you want to see lots of mystery meats or curious to see what cuts of meat is sold other than fillet and rump then here is the place to explore. If you’re extra daring, sit down at the noodle soup stand and trying slurping away at a bowl of noodles whilst the restaurateur chops away at boiled intestines right in front of you.
Belt out the high notes at karaoke
Most Vietnamese actually have a vocal range that can take on most any budding professional singers. The only thing is that they’re mostly addicted to ballads and love songs. Down by Sapa Lake, Karaoke venues stay open till late where young locals can sing away until their heart’s content. If you’re a Westlife fanboy then these places are a dream come true. Each room is fully stocked with beers and snacks and $5 should an hour of booze, dried beef snacks and a steady stream of Beer Hanoi.
Go exploring by scooter
Most people tick off just the one trek but there’s so much to see outside of these trekking routes. With limited public transportation available, the best way is to cover decent ground is hire a scooter and go exploring yourself. The roads are fairly easy to navigate so it’s difficult to get lost. For $7 you’ll get a one day rental and a full tank of fuel. A leisurely drive will get you as far as Lai Chau near the Chinese border, or you can just explore the other areas nearby such as the nearby H’mong or Red Dao villages.
Try your hand at volunteering
Why not give volunteering a go? Various organisations offer volunteer placements that are primarily english teaching. Sapa O’Chau is an organisation that aims to improve disadvantaged students’ English so that they can re-enter state school and eventually gaining future training and employment. The main positions available are teaching roles but any preference and competency is considered. During my time there, I used my marketing and photography skills to create content for the new website. Volunteers can spend as little as a few days there to a few months, but it’s best to stay at least a week if you can afford the time.
Late night BBQ skewers
By late night, I mean closer to 9pm as the town tends to shut down around 11pm. I never knew Sapa to be big on BBQ. but along the streets in town you’ll see street side stalls selling skewers of meat that are cooked over hot coals. Vegetables wrapped in meat and other mystery meat sticks, everything is fresh and cooked to order. I found myself returning to these places time and time again, devouring the BBQ sticky rice, mushrooms wrapped in pork and mustard lettuce wrapped in beef. At around a dollar for a couple of skewers, it’s the perfect beer accompaniment and to be enjoyed with other locals and visitors.
Do more trekking
Why stop at an overnight trek when there are other trekking options available. There are five different ethnic minority groups in the region and most treks will only take you to visit one group, so why not spend the time to see and experience more of it on foot. Most trekking companies offer up to fifteen different treks, so try out one of the lesser known treks or challenge yourself by heading up Fansipan; Indochina’s highest peak.
Try the fish n chips at Sapa O’Chau Cafe
Vietnam isn’t known for fish n chips, but at the Sapa O’Chau Cafe, it’s their signature dish. Devised by one of the English staff members, the generous portions of fish are made from the local river trout and coated in a light and crunchy batter. This is a dish not to miss if you want a taste of the west in Sapa.
Escape to the lake
As small as Sapa can be, sometimes it can get quite congested when the busses do the daily tourist pick up and drop off. At these times, the locals come out to sell their handicrafts to disembarking tourists. If you ever feel the need to escape the crowds then head to the man-made lake where the crowds are fewer in numbers and you can relax in the sunshine.
Take a cooking class and stuff yourself silly at the Hill Station restaurant
Unlike the cuisine in the south, the food in Sapa is based on simplicity and subtle flavours with very few ingredients. Simplistic and with nose to tail approach, the locals are able to extract every ounce of flavour and texture to produce a variety of humble and yet flavoursome dishes. I did a cooking course with The Hill Station on my final day in Sapa and in the end, was a decadent experience, making blood sausage and tofu from scratch, fried chicken and smoked buffalo.
Making blood sausage can be an ordeal especially when purchasing the blood, still warm from the wet market and transporting it in a clear, tiny plastic bag. However the herbs, spices and texture from the peanuts make the end product a surprisingly delicious treat.
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