Should You Visit Sapa in Winter?
The night bus from Hanoi to Sapa arrived at about 3.30 am. Too tired to venture into the cold black abyss, I continued to sleep until dawn. By the time I left the bus a small gang of local Hmong woman had gathered outside, waiting for weary travellers to pitch their home stays and handicrafts to. I wandered around the streets close to the parked bus, expecting to see restaurants serving pancakes and omelettes to hungry western tourists. They were nowhere to be seen. Was I even in Sapa, one of the most infamously tourist-filled towns in northern Vietnam? I found a cheap hotel and consulted Google Maps; it turns out I was about a 15 minute walk from all the tourist action.
I’d read online that visiting Sapa in winter (November – April) isn’t the best idea, but obviously you can’t trust the internet these days…or can you? Here’s a quick look at my experience in Sapa in January.
Sapa: A tourist town (for better or worse)
The walk from my hotel to the tourist streets of Sapa took me past a small lake, or more like the remains of a small lake. It has been drained (I’m not sure if it’s because there hasn’t been any rain or they purposely drained it) and is now nothing more than a messy, marshy wasteland. The town square isn’t too bad and the views from some parts of town are nice, but Sapa in winter is all about the clouds, which almost permanently obscure the mountainous backdrop. There are a few main streets full of expensive restaurants, shops hawking knock-off North Face gear and overpriced hotels. As you can probably tell I’m not a huge fan of Sapa. Don’t get me wrong though…I’m no travel snob. I generally like tourist towns, but there was something a little off with Sapa. Its one saving grace was actually the wintery weather; the fog rolled in on my last night which gave the whole town an ethereal glow. It also snowed just before I left town, which apparently only happens a couple of times a year.
Cat Cat Village (and an untimely foot injury)
The sun was shining (sort of) on my first afternoon in Sapa, so I headed to the Hmong village of Cat Cat, around an hour’s walk from town. The scenery was mostly obscured by clouds but it was a nice walk. Cat Cat village is like one big handicraft market. Large numbers of tourists pass through and it has definitely shaped the village. The locals pretty much ignored me; rightly assuming I had no need for weaved bags and clothes. It’s debatable whether tourism has been good for Cat Cat but I don’t really see a problem with it, assuming the locals are the ones who actually profit from and control it. Some people argue that tourism has had a negative impact, that they have lost their traditional way of life, but why shouldn’t they embrace the Dong (that’s the name for the Vietnamese currency by the way) and improve their health, education and future prospects? Should hill tribes live in abject poverty just so tourists can have a more genuine experience?
Aside from the mass of handicrafts, Cat Cat is worth checking out due to the surrounding scenery. It’s nice (without being mind-blowing) and makes for an easy half-day trip from Sapa. I saw a cool waterfall, rice terraces and some low-key mountain vistas. I’m sure this scenery is a lot more impressive in summer, when the skies are clear and the rice is yet to be harvested.
On the way back up the hill to Sapa I felt a pain in my foot and ankle. I struggled my way back to town and proceeded to walk with a limp for the next few days. It meant I couldn’t do any more hiking during my time in Sapa, which was frustrating, although the weather deteriorated so much that hiking would have been underwhelming and uncomfortable.
Bac Ha Sunday Market
Local tribes flock to Bac Ha, a small town around 3 hours from Sapa, to sell their wares at the colourful Sunday market. It’s rated as one of the better markets in Vietnam and it was interesting enough. There were a few tourists around but the vast majority of things for sale were squarely aimed at locals. Everything from large cuts of meat to bright skirts and hats and various exotic fruits were being bought and sold. It was raining in Bac Ha which made everything muddy, and it was freezing. After exploring the market and heading just outside of town to check out the surrounding mountains, my tour group friends and I huddled around a pan full of hot coals to keep warm. I took a tour as it wasn’t that much more expensive than taking local transport and it meant I could take my big bag with me and get dropped off in Lao Cai, and from there I travelled to Ha Giang Province.
Sapa in Winter FAQs
- How cold does it get in Sapa? For the first couple of days it was actually alright – I was down to a t-shirt during the days and I wore jandals (flip-flops) at night without getting cold feet. The last couple of days were freezing though and it’s the only place in Southeast Asia that I’ve seen snow.
- Do I need to do a multi-day trek? There are plenty of villages within 3 – 10 kilometres of Sapa which make for fairly easy day hikes. You can often also get a xe om (motorcycle taxi) on the way back. A lot of people do multiday treks which includes a night or 2 in a local home stay. I’m not a big fan of “minority village tourism” so didn’t really have much interest in that sort of thing, but if you’re into that I think it’s a good place to do it.
- How do you get to Sapa? I took a night bus from Hanoi which set me back around $10. A lot of people take the night train but at around $40 it’s expensive. The bus took less than 6 hours so it might be worth travelling during the day.
- Is it worth visiting Sapa in winter? That’s a good question! For me, the scenery around Sapa wasn’t particularly memorable and the town itself isn’t that appealing either. The weather is often cloudy and it does get cold…I’d say summer would be a far better time to visit, especially if you’re into village tourism. If you do visit Sapa in winter make sure you bring plenty of warm clothes — I wasn’t really prepared for how cold it got.
Further reading: Hiking in Dong Van, Vietnam: A Peaceful Walk through the Countryside
Have you been to Sapa in winter? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!