Visiting Vietnam is no longer complete without a stop to the northern mountainous enclaves of Sapa or Ha Giang. Riding along the mountainous rice paddie terrain overlooking miles of untouched nature is for many the highlight of their Vietnam trip, and just looking at the pictures it is not hard to understand why.
Sapa and Ha Giang are both located around 320 km to the north of Hanoi, just by the Chinese border. This area of Vietnam is where you will find the largest diversity of ethnic groups with eight different ethnic groups in Sapa alone. Before heading up north from Hanoi, take half a day to visit the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology to get an overview of the incredible ethnic diversity in these regions and throughout Vietnam.
Sapa or Ha Giang?
The word on the street recently between travelers is that Ha Giang is the more rugged and authentic option of the two as Sapa is definitely a more developed tourist destination. While this is true I would not say that Sapa is necessarily overrun with tourists. While, even though you will encounter more of them it will certainly not interfere with your experience but ratherusually result in you meeting more friendly travelers to have a chat with during your hike and some extra drinking companions during the evening. That said the landscape of Ha Giang is a bit more dramatic and grandiose. To sum it up, if you are looking for an easier escape from Ha Noi into North Vietnam, Sapa is your choice, if you want to sweat it out for an added adventure experience, Ha Giang is the way to go.
Hopping on a train or a bus by yourself and renting a motorbike when your there to explore the area is an attractive option for many. The bus will take around 6 hours and the train can be up to 9 hours. Personally I recommend booking a 2 day tour from HaNoi with transport and a guided hike and homestay included. The hike is guided by one of the local women in the village and is an absolute highlight of the trip, they are born with a smile on their face and of course know the area in extensive detail. As you are visiting an area home to these fragile ethnic minorities it seems logical to support them directly as tourism is the primary source of income for them.
The town of Sa Pa you will immediately notice the increase in elevation and a good 10 degree difference in temperature compared to Ha Noi. I would not say it is necessary to stop here for too long but get out on the hiking trails as soon as possible. If you are flying solo head to the tourist information center on Fansipan street in the city center to get a great selection of hiking maps and for some much needed tips/info from the helpful people at the the tourist center. If you are in a two day tour you will usually get into SaPa very early from an overnight train or bus, check in briefly into a hotel to shower rest and eat breakfast and hit the trails around 1 pm.
Nearby Villages of Sapa
There are several local villages surrounding Sa Pa in the mountains that you can hike to or drive depending on preference. The general rule is if you want to avoid large numbers of tourists go to a village further away from Sa Pa. See here for a great overview of 10 nearby villages that can be visited, note that not all of the villages allow tourist in without a guide and some require that you purchase an entry ticket prior to your arrivalcome.
Sa Pa is also just 9 km away from the highest mountain in Vietnam, Fansipan towering at 3143 meters. You can reach the summit on a guided trekking tour or if you prefer to limit physical exertion you can hop on a cable car, which is a guiness world record holder in distance travelled by cable car! The hike is certainly not for the faint hearted so don’t shy away from the cable car if you are not sure of your physical capabilities. Fanispan can be conquered in a 4 day tour from Hanoi for those looking to conquer the roof of Indochina.
Located around 12 km from the Sapa town center this stunning waterfall is a must on your stop to Sa Pa, the waterfall is formed by sources of water from the Lo Sui Tong mountain peak and resembles a white dragon looking down from the sky. A quick 30 minute drive on your scooter from Sapa makes this a no brainer stop.
Located further west from Sa Pa, Ha Giang has more recently popped up among the must visit location in Vietnam. “The Ha Giang Loop” has become synonymous with traveling here which is a circular mountain road route around the area that can be done on motorbike.
Ha Giang was once a very secluded section of Vietnam but with better infrastructure the number of visitors here has increased dramatically and will certainly continue to do so in the future. The towering limestone peaks and almost mythical aura of the region takes you by complete awe.
Accessing Ha Giang can be done in a guided tour from HaNoi or you can book your own bus ticket. There are also guided motorbike tours here that will escort you in the area, I would absolutely recommend this method as you get the full motorbike adventure experience with the added security and comfort of having a local guide accompanying you. A map of the route can be seen below, completing the entire loop will take you up to 5 days but shorter versions of around 2 days can also be arranged for those with limited time.
The main attraction to this part of the country is of course the absolute isolation and connection to nature and the local community you get here. There is no right or wrong in terms of where to go here, anytime spent in Ha Giang is time well spent so give yourself as much time as your schedule allows you. See here for an excellent 2 day itinerary that can be done by motorbike.
Mai Pi Leng Pass:
A mountain pass that stretches around 20 km that connects the towns of Dong Van and Meo Vac. This road offers some of the most stunning scenery that can be seen in Vietnam, preferably do this on a motorbike
Quan Ba Heaven gate
Located about 50 km north of Ha Giang town this is a gateway to the Dong Van Geological park, Heaven gate is on top of the pass from Ha Giang to Quan Ba district. This used to be a gateway to the kingdom of the Hmong people. To visit you must climb some steps to the highest peak where you will get a stunning view of the Dong Van plateau where you will feel like you are in a sea of clouds.
Lung Cu Flag Tower
Located in the lung cu commune of the Dong Van district, the monument consists of a 30 meter tall flag tower on top of Lung Cu peak.The monument is built to mark the northernmost point in Vietnam.
When to go?
Sapa and Ha giang are both located in high elevation so expect quite cold temperatures during peak winter months. It can hover around 0 degrees during January and December and occasionally will even snow. During the peak summer months in Hanoi from July to September these areas will be a welcome escape from the sometimes blistering temperatures of Hanoi.
How long should you spend there?
If you want to do as much as you can of Vietnam in two weeks a 2 day trip from Hanoi to one of these areas is most likely all you have time for. Personally I would recommend at least 4 days in the north, the combination of ethnic diversity, natural landscape and total isolation is a completely unique experience to the rest of the country and I would say South East Asia.
Sapa and Ha Giang are of course just an entry into the entire region of North Vietnam, you can easily find yourself spending weeks and months in this absolutely awesome part of the world. Take in the fresh mountain air and be prepared to sent to another world.