Sapa is a popular destination in the Lao Cai Province of Northwest Vietnam. In the summer, tourists flock to the mountain town to trek through the lush, green rice terraces that Sapa is known for.
In the winter, sunny skies are less common (though not impossible) and it’s significantly colder (this is the only part of Vietnam where it sometimes snows), but Sapa still offers stunning landscape views and so much more.
1. Less Tourists and Crowds
Way back when, few outsiders made the trip to Sapa or the nearby villages. The ethnic minority groups in the area survived simply off of subsistence farming. And while today most locals and minority groups continue to farm only to feed their families (rather than selling rice or produce in the markets) most families rely on tourism for income.
For better or for worse, Sapa is no longer a quaint, sleepy town and in the summer, Sapa can be mobbed with tourists and traffic and the beautiful hillsides are easily filled with other trekkers.
However in the winter, you’ll see far less tourists than you would during the peak season. Every restaurant we wanted to try in town had a table available, and while trekking, it was rare for us to encounter other tour groups. We were also able to get our own private tour guide which was much nicer than having to trek in a large group where everyone has different things they want to see and different paces.
2. Forget the Hard Sell
As I mentioned, Sapa has a thrives on tourism. If you look up other resources on Sapa, you’ll see many complaints about the local women aggressively trying to sell you their handicrafts or their services as guides. While I sympathize with both parties (tourists feel annoyed or uncomfortable but locals are trying to earn a living).
During our visit to Sapa we did not encounter much of the “hard sell” in large part, because of the weather. It was just too cold. At most, women huddled with friends with items for sale laid out on blankets on the sidewalks. Very few people came up to us to ask us to buy anything and if they did, they took no thank you as an answer immediately and then returned to find warmth.
We did have two women who followed us from town as we set out for our first morning of trekking. They followed the common routine of asking “Where are you from?” and “What is your name?” and I was wary of them at first. However later when I was nearly knee deep in mud in the rice terraces (mud is a year-round thing in Sapa), I was thankful to have the two of them keeping me upright.
Peter and I paid them for helping us through our trek after and although we did not purchase any handmade items from either woman at first they were not pushy about it at all.
3. Pay Less
Pretty self explanatory, but in the off-season, expect to pay less for hotels and homestays. You’re also likely to get extra perks from your hotel or to be able to negotiate for the prices of tours and treks. If you are doing some shopping, the odds are in your favor when it comes to haggling, but I recommend buying directly from one of the local ethnic minority women rather than from a big shop where the products are most likely mass produced and not handmade.
4. Beautiful Views
No matter the season, Sapa is a beautiful place to visit. While the iconic rice terraces are not as vibrant at this time of year, this region still offers fantastic trekking any time of the year.
I would definitely add on additional time to your stay in Sapa if you’re traveling in the off season just in case you get a couple of days of poor weather, but you’ll still be able to enjoy the peaceful landscapes of the area.
5. The Hospitality
Beyond the views that make Sapa so famous, what really draws me in to the region and the real reason I want to go back is because of the wonderful hospitality we encountered. The staff at our hotel were so generous, thoughtful and always smiling. Our guide Ni Ni (a whole post on her and her village coming soon) was so informative, endearing, and genuine.
And you could really tell that the local communities revolved around their families. I would love to go back again and stay in a homestay with a local family but I really contribute the great feel we were able to get for Sa Pa because of reasons #1-4 above.
Want to travel to Sapa?
How to Get There
For our trip to Sapa, Peter and I took the New Livitrans Express overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. There are several different train companies that run this route, but we found the Livitrans 4 person first class cabins to be clean and comfortable. I’m a very light sleeper, but I slept like a baby on the train to and from Lao Cai.
Where to Stay
Our room was clean, warm and comfortable. Although we arrived in Sapa in the early morning before our room was ready, Mr. Kim at the hotel allowed us to use an extra room to shower and freshen up. Because we booked our treks with the hotel we were also given free breakfast on the day of our arrival and a free dinner the evening we left.
Mr. Kim also allowed us to use an extra room to shower after we had already checked out of our room so that we would be fresh for our train ride back to Hanoi. He also packed us two chicken sandwiches for our train ride. Additionally the staff kindly cleaned our very muddy shoes after each trek. I would definitely recommend staying at this hotel.
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