Vietnam Diaries Part Nine: SaPa and the Cool Mountain Retreat

Red Dzao lady in the market with Mom

For a change of pace and temperature, we decided to head to the highlands of Vietnam and to the mountains.

Renowned for its beauty, SaPa is in the Lào Cai Province in north-west Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. Several ethnic minority groups such as the Hmong, Dao, Giáy, Pho Lu, and Tay live there.

The Hoàng Liên Son range of mountains dominates the district, which includes Vietnam’s highest mountain, Fan Si Pan (or Fancy Pants as we called it affectionately), 3143 m above sea level.

SaPa lies at an elevation of about 1500 meters high so the temperature is quite cool. Reminiscent of Ireland! To get to SaPa you have two main options: by road or by rail.

If you’ve never been on an overnight train before, it’s worth the experience.

Our Livitrans Express Cabin in Hanoi

We booked a four-bed berth cabin through Blue Dragon tours (so we weren’t stuck with someone random in the same cabin). It’s a bit more expensive to book the extra bed but the plus side is that you get a private cabin. The train takes about nine hours to get from Hanoi to Lao Cai and then a further 40minutes drive to SaPa.

Pro-tip: Have transport or a car ready for you when you arrive. We had pre-booked but our driver didn’t show up and we were hounded by taxi sharks. In total frustration, we ended up paying more just to get to SaPa. The SaPa Eden Hotel on the outskirts of the city was to be our lodgings for the night.

A busy few days ahead of us, the next day we woke up, emptied out bags to just the essentials and headed off into the wild. The plan was to trek for three days with the SaPa O’Chau tour company (who we probably won’t tour with again, but more on that later!)

With Miss Co from the Black Hmong Homestay

Armed with our rucksacks, our guide was from the Dzao ethnic minority group. Across mountains, cornfields, rice paddies and dirt paths, our legs travelled many paths on their Muong Hoa Trek tour.

We saw places we hadn’t seen before and met some very interesting people. It was certainly something we couldn’t do on our own!

Six years ago, Mom and I came to SaPa and took loads of photos of the ethnic minority groups.

This time Mom was on a mission to find the women from the photos, and WE DID!! It was hard to believe how many of them were unchanged. Yes, the lines in their faces had gotten deeper but their eyes held the same strength of character that we remember.

The work that they put into their hand-stitched bags, clothes and tapestries remains breathtaking (see more photos here).

But SaPa has changed too. The once quiet, clean, unpolluted city has become more industrial and lost some of its charms.

The old market has been moved away from the centre making it difficult for the ethnic groups and even tourists to get to and you can’t help but feel that it’s far more policed than before. The once fun element of trading had in truth become quite aggressive seemingly due to government restrictions.

I feel for the women of SaPa, and feel a great sadness for them too. You could clearly see the desperation in their eyes. It’s sad to say but I don’t know if I’ll be back.

I do have fond memories there, I do, but the shine no longer lingers…

If you’re interested in reading more about our experience with the women of SaPa, you can read them here. You can connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat.

(This post has been backdated to reflect the date that we visited SaPa)


Hello! Úna-Minh is a journalist, social media consultant and virtual assistant who loves (you guessed it) TRAVEL. She also feels a bit strange writing in the third person so she'll stop that now. You can find out more about me and my Mammy in the about section of this blog!

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