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Sa Pa – Travel guide at Wikivoyage

View of Sa Pa

Terraced fields in Sa Pa

Sa Pa (formerly Chapa) is a town in a beautiful, mountainous region of northern Vietnam on the border with China. The town has a population of 9,400 (2019), while Sapa district, covering 677 km², has 82,000 people 2018).

At 1,650 m above sea level in Vietnam’s remote northwest mountains, Sa Pa is known for its fine, rugged scenery and for its cultural diversity.

Although the cable car and the host of large hotels built without regard for the mountain environment have reduced the charm of Sapa, a short walk or drive will still reward the visitor with unspoiled views.

Understand

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Sa Pa is a picturesque town in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range near the Chinese border in northwestern Vietnam, known as “the Tonkinese Alps”. Sa Pa and its surrounding region is host to many hill tribes, as well as rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Phan Si Păng (Fansipan), the highest peak in Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam). Other great mountains like Aurora & J, where Sa Pa sees the first rays of sun, make up a very steep valley. Sa Pa has become a tourist hotspot where money is the new drug of choice. Throngs of vendors can be found in the streets, selling their wares. Don’t be put off by the rush, your explorations of the surrounding countryside will be worth the trouble.

Ethnic minorities

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Many ethnic minorities live in and around Sa Pa. Excluding the ethnic Vietnamese Kinh people, eight ethnic minority groups are found in Sa Pa: H’mong (pronounced ), Dao (pronounced ), Tay, Giay (pronounced ), Muong, Thai, Hoa (ethnic Chinese), and Xa Pho (a sub-set of the Phu La minority group). However, the last four groups comprise fewer than 500 people in total. The population of the district was estimated at 31,652 (1993) of which 52% were H’mong, 25% were Dao, 15% were Kinh, 5% were Tay, and 2% were Giay. Around 3,300 people live in Sa Pa town, while the remainder are peasant farmers distributed unevenly throughout the district.

Many older women in particular make items such as ethnic clothing and blankets to sell to tourists. Striking up a conversation with them can be very rewarding and their spoken English is impressive. Doing this in Sa Pa town will sometimes lead to a scrum if other vendors smell a potential sale.

Children from these ethnic minorities often help support their families financially through selling trinkets to tourists. They peddle small metal or silver trinkets, embroidered pillow cases and friendship bands in the main town, and often walk for several hours from their villages to reach town, perhaps skipping school. At the end of the day, some take a motorbike ride back to their village, some walk home and some sleep in the market. Do not encourage this by buying from children. Buy from adults.

Girls and boys marry young (around 15–18) and often have two children by the time they are 20 years old. Poverty has led to a lot of girls leaving their villages each day to go selling in Sa Pa town, and depending on their luck, may only have one meal per day.

Weather

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Sa Pa

Climate chart (explanation)

JFMAMJJASOND

 

 

 

41

 

 

11

5

 

 

 

71

 

 

12

7

 

 

 

119

 

 

18

11

 

 

 

178

 

 

21

13

 

 

 

371

 

 

23

16

 

 

 

356

 

 

23

17

 

 

 

480

 

 

23

18

 

 

 

480

 

 

23

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320

 

 

22

16

 

 

 

191

 

 

19

13

 

 

 

119

 

 

17

11

 

 

 

41

 

 

14

8

Average max. and min. temperatures in °C

Precipitation

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Snow

totals in mmSource: Worldwide Bioclimatic Classification System

Imperial conversion
JFMAMJJASOND

 

 

 

1.6

 

 

52

41

 

 

 

2.8

 

 

54

44

 

 

 

4.7

 

 

65

52

 

 

 

7

 

 

70

56

 

 

 

15

 

 

73

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14

 

 

73

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19

 

 

74

64

 

 

 

19

 

 

73

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13

 

 

72

61

 

 

 

7.5

 

 

66

56

 

 

 

4.7

 

 

63

51

 

 

 

1.6

 

 

57

46

Average max. and min. temperatures in °F

Precipitation

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Snow

totals in inches

In winter (the four months from November to February), the weather in Sa Pa is invariably cold, wet and foggy (temperatures can drop to freezing and there was snow in 2011). Travellers have rolled into town on a gloriously clear day and then spent a week trapped in impenetrable fog. When it is like this there really isn’t very much to do. Also the rice paddies are brown and empty (they are planted in spring), the paths very muddy and slippery and the glorious vistas of summer are completely hidden in the mist. If you choose to visit in winter, take along warm clothes or prepare to be cold and miserable as many hotels do not have efficient heating in their rooms. During that time, the more upmarket hotels that do have heating fill up quickly, so make advance reservations if you can afford not to freeze.

It rains often in August, especially in the mornings.

However, if you visit in summer, say in May, then be prepared to sweat. Hostels may not have air-conditioning so check them out first before making your booking. If you have come to see the rice terraces, you will be disappointed as you would not be seeing beautiful, green rice terraces as the local farmers would have just started to work on the field.

Get in

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By train

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Sa Pa is reached by a nine-hour train journey from Hanoi to Lào Cai (pronounced ), followed by a separate transfer to Sa Pa.

Vietnam Rail operates some of the carriages in the train, but others are operated by private companies (Fanxipan Express, Friendly, Ratraco, Tulico, Victoria Hotels, and many others). Whilst in the past some of these cars were significantly nicer than the standard carriages, they are now almost exclusively Vietnam Railways carriages, just more expensive and easier to reserve in advance. You’re not even guaranteed to share your carriage with other tourists if that’s a concern, as any spare tickets are sold as Vietnam Railways tickets. You may need to arrange with a travel agency to get tickets on these tourist carriages, but anybody can purchase tickets for the Vietnam Rail carriages at the Hanoi train station.

You can buy rail tickets online (or here). Print out your tickets or show your phone at the station.

Prices vary according to the type of seat purchased, and the season during which you are traveling. Dates around Vietnamese holidays are particularly expensive and tickets cannot be assumed available for same day travel, so book ahead if possible. Travelers are strongly recommended to purchase a berth in a soft or hard sleeper carriages, though the trip in soft-seat class is not intolerable.

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  • Cheaper travel. Cheaper tickets, especially in hard sleeper class, can be difficult to come by at times, as tour companies and travel agents will snap up these to foist on their own customers (too frequently a promised soft sleeper berth will turn into a hard sleeper when it comes time to board). To avoid ripoffs, it is better to go to the train station yourself and get the ticket from the ticket office. This is the only way to make sure that you will get what you have paid for. Although one cannot be assured of finding a place, it is often possible to arrive at the station a short while before boarding time, as there are usually young men hanging around trying to hawk unfilled berths at the last minute. The price of these tickets will fall dramatically as departure time draws near.
  • More expensive travel. For a bed in a hard or soft sleeper carriage, expect to pay in the area of 430,000–525,000 dong one way. For a soft seat, expect to pay 220,000 dong one way (May 2012). Tickets can be booked online from a travel agent such as Vietnam Impressive. You will be emailed a voucher which must be printed out and presented to a train company representative at the station about 30–60 minutes before the departure time to obtain the actual tickets.
The Victoria Hotel train has a dining carriage serving good, surprisingly affordable noodles (10,000 dong) and rice porridge (10,000 dong), but other trains such as Fanxipan do not. On the latter train a packet of biscuits, a banana and a bottle of water are provided as part of the cost of the ticket (October 2013), and it is possible to purchase pot noodles and snacks on board. However, you may prefer to purchase your own hot food, snacks and drinks from vendors in the grounds of the railway station. There are toilets on the train but no showers.

You should book a return ticket when you buy your outward journey, as picking up tickets in Lào Cai is harder than in Hanoi. The staff do not speak as much English, and they possibly only sell tickets for travel on the same day, so sleepers may already be sold out unless you go first thing in the morning. Pay attention to the time of your return train. Trains leaving Lào Cai around 20:00 will arrive in Hanoi at around 05:00. If you are planning to stay in a hotel or hostel that does not have a 24-hour reception and do not make prior arrangements when you return to Hanoi at an early hour, you may find yourself sitting outside your hotel waiting a few hours for the reception desk to open.

Transfer between Lào Cai and Sa Pa

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The train terminates at Lào Cai. The hotel where you are planning to stay will often be able to arrange minibus transportation between Lào Cai and Sa Pa for you for about 50,000 dong (February 2012). If you’re looking to pay less, you’ll have to walk to the central park area in Lào Cai in front of the railway station where minibuses and vans cruise for passengers and are willing to bargain to as low as 35,000 dong (off-season, May 2017). Getting on an empty or half-empty bus will mean waiting for more passengers, regardless of whatever departure time is promised by the driver and his ever-present crew of buddies who are hanging around.

The cheapest option is to use the public bus to Sapa, which runs regularly starting from 07:00 and costs no more than 30,000 dong. Cross the parking lot to the street and you will see the bus stop there. The ride is OK, but beware of motion sickness due to the curvy roads.

The ride is about an hour of beautiful views if the weather is good, otherwise it may be an hour of fog, more than 1,000 m up into the mountains.

If you are planning to visit the Bắc Hà Sunday market, it is worth planning your travel so that you arrive in or leave from Lào Cai on a Sunday, as Bắc Hà is nearer to Lào Cai than Sa Pa. The Bắc Hà Sunday market (much larger than the market in Sa Pa) is a big, colorful bazaar overflowing with everything under the sun, including handicrafts by minority tribes, apparel and accessories, meat and vegetables, and household goods. Your hotel in Sa Pa may be able to arrange for someone to meet you at the Lào Cai train station and put you on a tour (USD15 in October 2013) that will take you to the Bắc Hà Sunday market; a village inhabited by the Flower H’mong; and the border between Lào Cai and Hekou, a small town in Yunnan, China; and then bring you to Sa Pa (or the reverse if you are leaving Sa Pa and catching the train from Lào Cai).

By bus

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A toll expressway between Hanoi and Lao Cai reduces the time for the trip from over 10 hours to about 5 hours by car (even 3.5 hours with private car); buses using that expressway are the fastest way to get from Hanoi to Sapa.

Daytime buses: the Sapa Express (with 2+1 seating) and Good Morning Sapa buses fairly reliably take around 6 hours including one or two 30-minute stops. There are 2 departure times from Hanoi: 07:00 and 15:00. From Sapa, the bus leaves around 13:30-15:30. Both charge USD13-17 one way (Dec 2019).

Sleeper buses run direct from Hanoi to Sapa both day and night for around USD13–20. Ask at the local tourist office, a reputable tour agency, or your hotel or hostel regarding tickets. These buses are reasonably modern, the beds are very small and recline back, typically in three single or two double rows. The bus will make stops for bathroom breaks and snacks, and once in Lào Cai city. If you are a light sleeper the journey could be uncomfortable with many sharp twists and turns, and some claim that the mountain roads are dangerous, although there is no evidence of accidents on the route. The bus stop is near the lake area.

Travelers have reported that when journeying back to Hanoi from Sa Pa, bus drivers sometimes drop passengers in the western outskirts of Hanoi, despite assurances that they will be transported to the airport or the Hanoi train station. Should you find yourself in this situation, there is a bus station around the block called Xe Ben Khach My Dien, where you can get on Bus 34 towards the Hanoi city centre for 3,000 dong. Taxis will quote you 200,000 dong to take you to the Old Town.

Tickets can also be purchased at Hanoi Sapa tickets online and paid for using Paypal or card.

By motorcycle

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Sa Pa can also be reached by motorcycle from Hanoi by a variety of routes. The most direct route takes at least 10 hours for first-time riders, though local expats often brag about making it in less. Bikes can be rented in Hanoi for unguided passage, or local guides can lead the way. Along the way be sure to top up with fuel regularly, as petrol stations sometimes prove few and far between. Fuel vendors in small towns often mix their petrol with other liquids such as alcohol or bio-fuels, and such fuel should be bought and used only when there are no alternatives.

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Get around

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Anywhere in the main village of Sa Pa can be reached on foot, although the hilly terrain will be tiring for older tourists, and the town is small enough that you’re not likely to get lost. A basic map will be good enough for most visitors.

Mopeds can be rented in the touristy parts of town, as well as near the gas station on the road leading to Lào Cai, for USD3–6 depending on the amount of time you wish to rent for and your bargaining skills (, determination). Day trips into the surrounding countryside can be very rewarding, although a good up-to-date map and a healthy dose of caution are required as roads are winding and populated with all manner of conveyance, and road signs can be misleading as the north undergoes some odd town-relocation schemes.

Tourists intending to trek to the various villages through the paddy fields should be prepared with good trekking shoes or rubber boots, a walking stick and extra clothing kept in a waterproof bag. Hotels often have gumboots and ponchos to lend to their guests, and such equipment can also be rented or purchased from shops in the town. Depending on the season, the rice fields, which are built in terraces, can be slightly steep, and very muddy and slippery. Not wearing shoes with good grips risks slipping, and even sliding down the slopes. As the paths are also taken by water buffalo, excrement can be found everywhere. Walking sticks can be bought from children from the ethnic minority groups for about 5,000 dong. These enterprising children cut sturdy bamboo and sharpen one end to turn them into sturdy sticks.

For the less adventurous, some of the villages such as Lao Chai and Ta Van are accessible via 4WD, motorcycle or van.

The easiest way to travel in Sa Pa without your own vehicle is by taxi or motor taxi. The local government publicized the price for every company’s service, though it is subject to change over time. Taxi in Fanxipan-Sapa: ☏ . Taxi Xanh-Sapa: ☏ .

See

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Panoramic view of Sa Pa

Do

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If you do not intend to hike in the countryside around Sa Pa on your own, you can join a tour or arrange a private guide who will take you to visit the sights. Your hotel should be able to assist. If you do not feel up to hiking all the way, arrange to hike out of Sa Pa and return by Jeep, minibus or motorcycle, or pick a tour that provides transportation all the way.

Admission fees are required to visit most of the villages. As of 2017 there appears to be a single entrance fee of 75,000 dong covering all villages. However, some may still charge an extra or separate fee. By far the most popular and touristy tour visits two villages near Sa Pa, Lao Chải and Tả Van, including a lunch stop (admission fee: 40,000 dong in August 2012). It is possible to get a taxi from Sapa to Lao Chai, trek the 3.5 km to the bridge in Ta Van and have the taxi pick you up there. Some very unpleasant Hmong women may try to attach themselves to you in quite large numbers in Lao Chai and (speaking excellent English) try to aggressively persuade you to let them be your guide. They may even tell you to ‘go back to your country’ if you refuse their services. There is absolutely no need for guides and the wonderful trek through the countryside is best accomplished in peace and quiet. It can be very difficult to shake these women off, but buying something from someone not in their group should give them the message that you are not against the Hmong people, just against their pushy-ness.

Tả Giàng Phình and Bản Khoang are less touristy but much further away from Sa Pa. Other villages worth visiting include Sín Chải (20,000 dong in August 2012), and Má Tra and Ta Phìn (30,000 dong in August 2012 for both). On these treks, you can get a taste of the locals’ way of life. You can spot their farms for rice, corn, beans, cabbage, spinach and sweet potato, and farm animals including buffaloes, ducks and pigs. There are also breathtaking views of the farm terraces along these treks.

As Sapa grows, overnight tours staying outside the town are becoming increasingly popular. The popular trek to Ta Van forms the first day of many of these tours, with an overnight at a homestay in the village. Indeed, the business is such that it now supports three bars in the village of Ta Van. Tours can be booked through travel agents in Hanoi, directly through operators such as Sapa Sisters and no doubt through many hotels in Sapa.

    • Walking down you will see a few cottage industries like weaving, carving, and art shops. You will walk by some mud-walled houses and the local shaman’s house. In the middle of the trek, you come to a rest stop, with a so-so waterfall, and a supposedly minority village which is a block of dwellings with no sign of any activity. You will also spot water-mills and bridges made out of bamboo, as well as some swings. At the end, you will cross the Cát Cát bridge.
    • Overall, it makes for a nice stroll if you have a morning or afternoon free. Persons of limited mobility should skip this hike due to the large step-climbing involved.
    • There is a path that continues on in the valley, towards Lao Chải and Tả Van. Much fewer tourists, and great views on the rice terraces.

Buy

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  • Handicrafts and other tourist trinkets. The usual endless supply of nearly identical tourist trinkets is available at every turn. Sa Pa is famous for its embroidery. Clothes, blankets, wall hangings and other fabric handicrafts with colourful embroidered designs traditional to the various ethnic minorities in Sa Pa can be purchased from markets and from ethnic-minority hawkers at villages visited by tourists. The indigo dye used to give a deep blue color stains the fingers, which is why many of the women who make them have darkened fingertips. When you wash these clothes the colour will run. To avoid this, soak them in cold salty water, and pack them carefully in your bag to take home.

There are two types of handicrafts: handmade and machine-made. It is easy to tell the difference. If you wish to buy handmade items, it is preferable to buy directly from their makers in the villages. Prices are highly elastic. When bargaining, try to find out how long it took to make the piece. If you do not mind machine-made products, you are better off buying them in the shops in town. It pays to shop around for the right pair of reproduction Montagnard earrings or machine-made fabric items.

Do buy some items, whether handmade or not, direct from ethnic minority sellers, especially if you have enjoyed a good conversation or received help from them. Though they do charge slightly more than shops, bear in mind that the majority of them are very poor and depend on tourist money to survive. However, it is suggested that you avoid buying items from children (see “Ethnic minorities” above).

  • Sports and winter wear. A number of shops in town sell sports and winter wear such as waterproof jackets and hiking boots. Although they bear the logos of well-known international brands, given their low cost it is unlikely that they are original products.
  • Batteries. Be careful when buying batteries as some people will sell dead ones. If you’re really worried about this, just drop them on a hard surface. If they bounce they are empty or partially empty.
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What to buy

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Souvenir shops sell brocade, golden handicrafts, silver handicrafts, wooden handicrafts.

All products are made by local residents. That would be more exciting as walking into villages outside town and buying souvenir by local ethnics. The local government recommends tourists do not buy products from children as it discourages them from attending school.

Souvenir shops

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  • Lan Rừng: Souvenir. Cầu Mây Street
  • Lương Thủy: Souvenir. no 25 Cầu Mây Street
  • Phố Núi shop: Souvenir. no 13, Cầu Mây Street
  • Khánh Huyền: Souvenir. no 17, Xuân Viên Street
  • Sa Pa Shop: Souvenir. no 48, Cầu Mây Street
  • Hue Silk: Souvenir. no 24 Cầu Mây
  • Sapa minorities’ handicraft: Handicrafts. Cầu Mây Street
  • Mường Hoa shop: Handicrafts. no 25, Mường Hoa Street
  • Thiện Việt shop: Handicrafts. no 22b, Fansipan Street
  • Nguyễn Tiến Sỹ shop: Handicrafts. Cầu Mây Street
  • Wild Orchid: Handicraft. no 29 Cầu Mây Street
  • SaPa silver: Silver handicrafts. no 19, Mường Hoa Street
  • Vũ Đức: Traditional silver handicrafts. no 26, Mường Hoa Street
  • Viet Silver: Golden and silver handicrafts. no 34, Fansipan Street
  • Cửa hàng đá mỹ nghệ: Stone sculpting. no 17 Mường Hoa Street
  • Cửa hàng cô Nguyễn Lăng Vân: Tailor and Brocade. Cầu Mây Street
  • Woodcarving shop: Wooden handicrafts. no 14, Mường Hoa Street

Grocery store

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  • Xuân Trường Super Market: No 46 Ngũ Chỉ Sơn Street (nearby Mường Thanh hotel. Open: 08:00, Close: 21:00)

Eat

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  • Namaste Omar’s Indian Restaurant One of a chain of Indian restaurants throughout the country. Namaste Omar’s serves up good quality authentic Indian food, including a number of less well known dishes, in a pleasant restaurant a few minutes stroll from the central square. Prices are very reasonable and a Beer Hanoi costs 25,000 dong.
  • Good Morning Vietnam two branches in town. This entry is for the one on Fansipan street. Excellent, English speaking staff, very good quality local food (try the chicken curry in a coconut or the sizzling duck in honey and garlic), great views across the valley and a fun range of drinks including hot apple ‘white wine’, a hot ‘red wine’ vaguely similar to German Gluwein and even ‘opium wine’. Not to be missed!

Drink

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  • The Hill Station Signature Restaurant 37, Fansipan street (just down the hill going south from the central square.). Sells two craft beers: an IPA and a stout – both from the Pasteur Street Brewing company and both excellent. At 95,000 dong for a half pint they are pricey but go during happy hour from 14:00-18:00 and take advantage of their buy-one-get-one-free offer. They also serve excellent local bar snacks such as dried smoked buffalo, Hmong Black Pudding and salted sweet potatoes. A roaring fire adds to the ambience. Service can be rather slow.

Sleep

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There is a near oversupply of cheap rooms in the touristy area down the hill from the town centre, and generally a flock of young men and women will leap on you the moment you arrive with offers from USD3 and up for a double room.

In addition to the places listed below, homestays in some of the villages surrounding Sa Pa are available.

In Sa Pa, as in many other provinces of Vietnam, it is the law that you must supply your passport to your hostel, hotel or guesthouse to register your personal information. However, a photocopy of the main page and visa should suffice, and if they refuse, tell them your passport is in Hanoi because you are applying for a visa extension.

As of March 2020, there is a lot of construction in Sa Pa, with attendant noise and dust. Most seem to be on southwest side of town (on the down-slope with view of Fansipan Mountain) but north edge of town can also be impacted. To avoid construction zones, if possible, check on location before choosing your lodgings, or try to find very recent photo of hotel environments.

  • Sapa Eden Hotel https://sapaedenhotel.com/ 64 Fansipan str, ☏ . A well-run, clean, family-owned hotel with super comfy beds and a view to die for. Basic but decent breakfast is included. If you don’t happen to like Bob Marley you may want to ask for a room facing away from the restaurant across the road which plays his songs from 07:30 onward.

Cope

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  • Attire. Bring a poncho and/or an umbrella. You can also buy cheap ones in the many shops around. Rubber boots and trekking shoes can be rented from some shops or perhaps borrowed from your hotel. Sizes may be limited.
  • Cash. It is possible to change money and travellers’ cheques, and get cash advances on credit cards, at the bigger hotels in Sa Pa. There are ATMs on the main street. There have been reports of shops taking customers’ crisp notes, switching them with cut and taped-up ones, and insisting that were the ones the customers gave them.
  • Photography. Some of the minorities do not wish to be photographed. Ask permission beforehand. Most will overcome their reluctance to be photographed once money is produced.

Pharmacy

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  • Civil Group 7B ☏
  • No 18 Cầu Mây ☏
  • No 22A Cầu Mây ☏
  • No 22B Cầu Mây ☏
  • No 27 Tuệ Tĩnh ☏
  • No 074A Thạch Sơn ☏
  • No 236 Thạch Sơn ☏
  • No 258 Thạch Sơn ☏
  • No 395 Điện Biên Phủ ☏
  • No 326 Điện Biên Phủ ☏
  • No 004 Xuân Viên ☏
  • No 06A Thác Bạc ☏

Clinic

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  • No 186 Thạch Sơn, TT ☏ or ☏
  • No 25 Tuệ Tĩnh ☏

Health center

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  • Civil Group 7

Hospital

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  • Sa Pa hospital – Civil Group 1, Điện Biên Phủ street ☏

Bank

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  • Sapa Saigonbank (Saigon Bank For Industry and Trade – Lao Cai Branch – Sapa Transaction): No 18 Ngũ Chỉ Sơn Street. Accept: Visa, Master, JCB, Cup, ATM/POS.
  • Sapa Agribank (Vietnam Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development – Sa Pa Transaction): No 01 Cầu Mây Street
  • Sapa BIDV (Bank For Investment And Development JSC – Lao Cai Branch – Sapa Transaction): No 20 Ngũ Chỉ Sơn Street

Connect

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Sa Pa’s official Tourist Information Centre can help you organize your stay.
The Sapa post office is opposite of garden and fountain in center Sapa (Address: No 06, Thạch Sơn Street, Sapa)

Go next

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  • Most people will head back to Hanoi and then on to other routes
  • For those looking to go farther afield, the road to Dien Bien Phu is simply stunning and makes for a fantastic four-to-five-day trip. Always give yourself plenty of daylight hours to return home, however, as highly changeable weather could strand you in dense fog without notice, especially during the winter months. There are buses to Dien Bien Phu which run from the tourist office each day (day bus: 07:30, night bus: 18:30), the trip is 300 km, about 10 hours, and costs USD11 (Dec 2019). It is also the last big city before the Laos border (for those heading to Luang Prabang for example).
  • Bắc Hà

This city travel guide to Sa Pa is a usable article. It has information on how to get there and on restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.

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