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Sa Pa Travel Guide

About

Resting close to the border between Vietnam and China, Sa Pa is a culturally rich gem tucked away in Northwest Vietnam nestled in the high mountains of Hoàng Liên Son. Vietnam itself has many "untouched by civilizations" gems like these, but Sa Pa holds a special place even in this circle. One of them is being the home for several minority groups such as the Hmong, the Giày, the Phù Là, the Tay and the Yao ethnicities. The lineage of these racial groups can be traced back to the 15th century where more than 200 carved stone boulders found around Sa Pa and nominated as an UNESCO world heritage site, tell the humble origins of these unique cultures. Experts believe the name of the area itself originated from the Hmong language, since the original hamlet discovered by the French in the late 1880s was called "Sa Pa" or "Chapa" by its inhabitants. Sa Pa grew to be a popular township among European colonists due to its attractive continental climate, eventually having a sanitorium and private villas built there. Today, Sa Pa is in a total economic boom, welcoming thousands of tourists yearly who either trek the paths between villages, admire the delicate terraced rice fields dug out on the side of hills like emerald steps, or explore the last primary rain forest in Vietnam right here in Sa Pa (due to the significantly pristine climate), Sa Pa is steeped deep in history and nature that leaves you with more after visiting it.

Local Custom & Slang

Spring Festivities

  • Sa Pa is home to both ethnic tribes and rice fields as wide and green as these tribes are unique and deeply cultural. Given enough time, one can discover each and every last community's stories to tell; from the intricate headdresses, the handmade clothes, and the elaborate festivals they celebrate, mostly in the bright warmth of spring. Out of this list of interesting festivals and traditions, one of them that stands out is the Gau Tao-the Spring Festival for the Mong ethnic group. Every January each year, hundreds gather in the pristine fields behind serene mountains to pray for luck to be bestowed upon childless couples. Besides the themes of blessed fertility, another aspect of the festival encompasses individuals being blindfolded and having to catch a goat set loose within a boundary. This festival is also a great spectacle of other ethni groups gathering to show off their skills and try to gain divine blessings in the form of a partner; many competitive activities including giao duyen, pushing sticks, crossbow archery amd climbing all test the mettle of the locale here.

Here's A Tip on Tipping

  • While in most Asian cultures, tipping at business establishments is hardly the norm. While this was true initially for Vietnamese culture as well, the recent and rapid growth of tourism has made tipping commonplace, so do not be surprised if most establishments you visit incorporate that as a norm.

How to address people in Vietnam

  • Toi (To-oi): to address yourself
  • Ban (bah-n): to address someone else in general
  • Anh (ah-n): to address an older man
  • Chi (chee): to address an older woman
  • Em (ehm): to address anyone younger than you

Social Gestures and Touch

  • Pointing with one's index finger at sacred objects (e.g. Buddhas) is considered social taboo, so do use your whole hand when addressing something instead. Considering this point, it is seen as a sign of respect to remove one's hat in the presence of respected or elderly members of society (e.g. monks, senior citizens).

Essential Vietnamese Phrases

  • Can you speak English?: Ban noi tieng anh duoc khong? (Banh noi thien an durkh khom)
  • Hello: Xin Chao (sin chow)
  • Thank You: Cam on (kahm uhn)
  • Good Bye: Tam Biet (tarm byeet)
  • Sorry: Xin Loi (sin loy)

Trip Essentials

  • Weather
  • Currency
  • Visa
  • Electricity
  • Sa Pa's weather is unique compared to other parts of Vietnam due to it being one of the few places that experiences heavy snowfall. Few tourists visit Sa Pa during this period of mid-December to February, as the rare winters with foggy cold weather can turn quite harsh instead of the light or moderate snowfall most tourists expect. However, if you prepare and stay safe, Sa Pa at this time can be quite a magical sight to behold. Temperatures can average from -6.1°C to 29.2°C, so be mindful of sudden weather changes.

  • March to May heralds the warm and dry season in Sa Pa, and this is where the area sees a huge slew of outdoor enthusiasts arriving at its shores. This is trekking and hiking season, so be prepared to deal with such crowds or be part of it when you arrive at Sa Pa during this time. Temperatures can range from 4.2°C to 29.8°C during this time period.

  • June to late September signals the cool and wet weather of the year for Sa Pa. This is where the highest frequency of local tourists hit up Sa Pa, while the cool dry weather peaks at late September to mid December, making it comfortable trekking and photo-taking weather. Temperatures can range from 8.7°C to 27.2°C during this time period.

Transportation

By Sleeper Car

  • With no native airport and few roads leading to and from the area, transportation options of getting to Sa Pa is extremely restricted. The most popular being by overnight train, or sleeper car. This means that you board a train from your starting point (most travellers bound for Sa Pa begin from Hanoi) and spend the night on it until you reach the following day. The train system runs both effeciently and punctually, having a full train schedule and prices for varying travelling groups. Whether you are moving with simply your significant other or more people, the sleeper cars will have the suitable accommodation for you. Visit the website hereto find a comprehensive train schedule from Sa Pa as well as booking links.

  • Prices vary between the different sleeper cars: but they can start from 155,000 VND and cost up to 2,350,000 VND depending on the size and the comfort level you desire your sleeper car to be.

By Motorbike Taxi (Xe Om)

  • With few asphalt roads and mostly narrow winding dirt paths, it is expected to see the omnipresent Vietnamese figure of the Xe Om filling the paths and roads of Sa Pa. They are mobile, cheap, quick and most drivers are part of the township itself. Some of these riders even speak English, so don't turn down this daunting-looking transport down when in Sa Pa, or indeed in any part of Vietnam.

  • Just like any other metered taxi cab, Xe Oms charge according to kilometres of the distance travelled to your destination. Prices can range from 10,000 to 15,000 VND.

By Motorcycle Rental

  • Another versatile mode of transport to get around Sa Pa, it is no wonder that renting a bike in Sa Pa becomes nigh impossible, making it a more sensible and safer option to book yours prior arriving in Sa Pa. This is to not only avoid would-be hustlers and sandbaggers, the weekend and holiday peak periods also lessen your chances of successfully renting one.

  • Generally, rental rates in Sa Pa start from 80,000 VND to 240,000 VND per day, depending on the make and type of your rental bike.

  • Local Operators: Lao Cai Tourism Information Center – No. 02 Fansipan, Sapa District, Lao Cai province. Contact: 043 994 2811 or +84 935 999 886 Hoang Ha Hotel - No. 08B, Thac Bac Street, Sapa Town, Sapa District, Lao Cai Province. Tel: 0203 872 535 or 0918 324 535 Mr. Nghia - 21 Thach Son. Sapa District, Lao Cai province. Tel: 0983 644588 or 0973865292.

By Foot

  • Sa Pa is one of the rare parts of Vietnam not choked with asphalt roads filled with local travellers and foreign visitors looking for that next special memory-maker in this strange and mystical land. Ironically, going on foot to some of your dsestinations in Sa Pa takes you longer than other modes of transport, meaning you are more likely to miss out on crowds all trying to reach the same place on time. Many tourists also agree that going on foot gives you a more unobstructed and deeper view of Sa Pa, allowing you to stray of the path to explore whatever whenever, as compared to being on some mode of transport. Be sure to book a local tour guide, and travelling around Sa Pa on foot will be an unforgettable experience for the books.

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