Sa Pa: Incredible Rice Terraces (And a Peek Into The World Of Backpacking)
Rice terraces are one of Asia’s most iconic landscapes, and seeing them in person should be on every traveler’s bucket list. There’s something truly amazing about these stratified, horizontal layers carved into steep mountainsides stretching toward the horizon as far as the eye can see. It’s a perfect blend of natural beauty and man-made wonder. The topographical lines are almost a work of art, but they serve a practical, fundamental purpose: to produce rice, a crop that’s basically synonymous with life and humanity in this part of the world.
You can visit rice terraces in a number of Asian countries, but Vietnam is a great choice because it is both safe and accessible to visitors. Rice is grown in many Vietnamese provinces, but most of the terraces tend to be concentrated in the mountainous northwest of the country near the border with Laos and China. Perhaps the most popular spot for visitors is the town of Sa Pa in the province of Lào Cai.
I spent two full weeks in Sa Pa because I finished my ESL teaching certification at the beginning of April but I don’t start teaching in Ho Chi Minh City until the end of May. With nearly two months to pass, I finally had the opportunity to test out the concept of “slow travel.” I stayed in one place for the first two weeks of my break in one because I didn’t want to spend the money to hop between a bunch of different cities or countries. It has been three months since I last received a paycheck, after all!
Because I stayed at one guesthouse for the full duration of my two weeks in Sa Pa, I wouldn’t necessarily call what I did “backpacking.” However, I did meet a ton of backpackers during my time here, so this is probably the most contact and exposure I’ve had to that elusive and intriguing form of travel
In this post, I’ll share the inside scoop on a perfect getaway to Sa Pa. You don’t have to spend two weeks there like I did to fully enjoy the stunning views and warm hospitality of the locals. However, I do have some tips to make your trip easier, cheaper, and more enjoyable! I feel like I got to know the area really well and am excited to pass that knowledge on to you! These are the things I’ll be covering in this post:
1. Sa Pa's Stunning Rice Fields
First things first: how and where to see the best views of the rice terraces! This is the main attraction in Sa Pa, and for good reason. The scenery will absolutely take your breath away. Know that the pictures don’t really do it justice! Consider photos only a piece of the puzzle; the landscapes are a 360-degree experience that can’t be fully captured by camera. We’ll start with the “where” and then discuss the “how.”
The best views of the rice fields can be found in the Mường Hoa Valley, which extends for many miles southeast of Sa Pa town and is only accessible by winding dirt roads (as of April 2019). Although the town of Sa Pa offers some good views, the valley is just so much more lush and picturesque. That’s why I recommend that you not only visit Mường Hoa Valley, but also find lodging in one of the villages there (more on that below).
I explored the Mường Hoa Valley extensively between the outskirts of Sa Pa town (located here) and the massive river dam (located here). What’s great is that the main roads are all built high along the eastern slope: above the river, villages, and fields below. Therefore, you won’t have to hike up to a hard-to-reach place for a great view. Instead, there are stunning panoramic scenes almost everywhere.
In order to enter the Mường Hoa Valley, visitors may have to pay a one-time 75,000 VND (approx. 3 USD) fee as you leave Sa Pa town. You’ll receive a ticket like the one shown below. Hold on to it for as long as you stay in the area and you won’t have to pay the fee again.
Bring comfortable walking shoes because the best way to explore is on foot. If you have an old pair, bring those since the roads and trails can be very dusty or muddy. Whether you hire a local trekking guide or explore on your own, give yourself enough time to really wander. Some of the best views aren’t found along any road or trail. For example, I took the photos below while walking through a grass field on a hill.
Option 1: Explore on your own
It’s important to know that you don’t need to pay for a guide in order to fully experience the beauty of this area. Although a guided tour will probably take you through some smaller villages and hiking trails that you probably wouldn’t find on your own, the main roads in Sa Pa offer very similar views to the ones you’ll see on any guided tour.
Not all hiking trails are hard to access, however. If you find one on your own, see where it leads! Many of these dirt paths will bring you through the rice fields; they’re a great way to see the terraces and rice plants up close.
Although it’s totally possible to use the main roads as your guide for walking from one end of the valley to the other, know that as a pedestrian you’ll be sharing the road with a lot of motorbikes, a few cars, and a bunch of construction vehicles and equipment. Sa Pa and the Mường Hoa Valley seemed to be in a constant state of construction, so you’ll need to stay alert.
Option 2: Hire a guide
If forging your own hiking path isn’t your style, never fear! Trekking guides are everywhere in Sa Pa and the Mường Hoa Valley, and in most cases all you’ll need to do is book something with your hostel or homestay. Routes can depend a lot on what you want and how much you’re willing to pay, but they run from “half-day” treks to multiple-day ordeals.
I’ll go into more detail below about why Miku Chill House was the best homestay ever, but one of the reasons it was so awesome is that the owner’s mother is the designated hiking guide. On the day I booked it, she met a large group of guests directly at the homestay and took us up a hill. We continued through a small village, many rice and corn fields, and finally through a bamboo forest.
Our lunch was a typical family-style meal that was served about halfway through the hike. It may look simple, but the meal was really satisfying after multiple hours walking!
As we were wrapping up our meal, our guide brought out a bowl of homemade rice wine, which she amusingly called “happy water.” It smelled sweet but ended up tasting quite strong and stiff! After we finished one round, our guide offered another (and poured one for herself). Over and over again, she refilled the cups of anyone who didn’t adamantly refuse (as well as her own) until finally the bowl was empty. You might think that this was a moment of celebration for finishing a difficult trek, but no, we still had a whole afternoon of walking left under the hot sun!
The trek cost 300,000 VND per person which included lunch and the happy water. However, we had a large group, so it would’ve cost more per person if the group was smaller.
So was it worth the money? Well, for about 13 USD you get a meal, multiple shots of alcohol, and a full-day hike on a route that you wouldn’t be able to find on your own. Perhaps more importantly, it was nice to hang out with a group of other travelers for basically the whole day, and our guide was a lot of fun (and managed to out-drink most of us!). So I’d say that unless you have a really tight budget, the guided trek was worth it. Just don’t forget to explore on your own as well, at least a little bit!
A note on the weather
The weather isn’t always sunny here, and sometimes the valley can be cloudy, rainy, or foggy for an entire day. Therefore, schedule at least three or four days in the area if you can! It would be a shame to come all the way to Sa Pa only to have limited visibility during a very short stay.
Sources online claim that the best time to visit Sa Pa is in the spring or fall, and I thought that the weather in April was really comfortable. As you can see in the pictures on this post, the mountains and rice paddies run from brown to lush green, and the fields that are flooded produce some really beautiful and unique reflections. Pictures online show the fields turning to bright gold in fall, so I’d love to come back and see them again right before the harvest if I ever go back!
What about renting a motorbike?
Traffic in Sa Pa town is actually surprisingly congested, and the roads outside of town aren’t exactly paved. If you have a lot of experience driving a motorbike in rough, rural conditions, this could be an option for you, but if not, Sa Pa is probably not the ideal place to try and learn how to ride for the first time.
2. Reflections on Backpacking
One of my favorite things about this trip is that for the first time in my life (or at least in many years), I got to meet a bunch of backpackers and really get a sense of what it’s all about. Most people who stayed in my guesthouse only spent a few nights in Sa Pa before they were off to another part of Vietnam or Southeast Asia, so I was definitely the odd one out for staying in the same place for two whole weeks.
Even though everyone who came through my homestay only stayed for a couple of nights, I felt like I really got to know many of them in a meaningful way despite the short period of time. Homestays are a truly great option for solo travelers because the other people you meet there will feel like longtime friends after only a matter of hours or days.
Since most of my travels up until this point have been weekend trips, they’ve focused more on seeing as much of a destination as possible in a limited amount of time. I’m intrigued by backpacking (or at least, a variation of it) because it seemed to naturally foster meeting new people and building relationships. I’m hoping to explore this genre of travel in more depth in the coming months now that I’m based in Southeast Asia!
3. A Summary of Sa Pa town
If I had to say one thing about Sa Pa town, it would be that it feels incredibly touristy. If you look at it on Google Maps, the town appears to be tiny, like you could walk from one end to another in a matter of minutes. You might wonder if there are even hotels and restaurants here. The answer is yes; in fact, there are so many hotels that are brand new or currently under construction that I really wonder how many of them are going to stay in business long-term. Just take a look at the following pictures to see how built-up Sa Pa is.
Of course, some tourists may want the comforts of a resort town, which is an accurate term to describe Sa Pa. Many of the hotels also offer a view of the rice fields. However, if you really want to see the best views and immerse yourself in the lifestyle of the people who’ve lived here for generations, I highly recommend that you stay at a guesthouse outside of the city. I talk more about my homestay in a nearby village below.
Even though I don’t think you should stay there, it’s still worth spending an afternoon or evening in town. There are some good restaurants and bars. There’s also a little lake that’s relaxing to walk around if the weather is nice.
In the main square, there’s a picturesque stone church as well as a large open-air amphitheater where locals play soccer and volleyball in the evenings.
In my opinion, those are the only quaint parts of Sa Pa town. Otherwise, it’s a hectic town with traffic that can come to a standstill, a ton of construction, clubs that blast music for the whole block to hear, and relentless street vendors trying to sell trinkets you don’t want or need. If you’re in search of a relaxing escape to the rice fields of Vietnam, skip the hotels and chaotic streets of Sa Pa town!
4. Where to Stay
Now that you know why not to stay in town, I’ll show you why you should stay in the Mường Hoa Valley instead! The villages and small communities there are so much more relaxing than Sa Pa, and most appear to have numerous guesthouses and homestays for you to choose from. I stayed at Miku Chill House, a homestay located near the village of Tả Van.
Tả Van is composed of a number of houses and small businesses clustered around a main road as you can see in the picture above. It’s incredibly quaint and laid-back, and it’s the kind of place where locals and strangers will greet you on the street.
Miku Chill Homestay
I’ve already touched on a few of the reasons why homestays are amazing: they arrange day treks, and they’re the perfect place to meet other travelers. Miku Chill House had all this and more: delicious food, a really cozy atmosphere, and a great view.
What I’ll remember most, though, is the fact that Miku, her family, and her employees made all their guests feel like a part of the community. That’s obviously not an easy thing for a hostel owner to do, and the fact that she does it so well and so naturally is the main reason I recommend staying at Miku’s.
5. Activity Ideas
If you stay in the Sa Pa area for a while like I did, the novelty of the scenery may eventually wear off and you might be interested in doing some activities other than trekking. All of the ideas listed below are based in and around town, so you’ll need to arrange a ride there if you’re staying in the valley.
Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng): Vietnam's Highest Mountain
If you do only one activity on this list, take the cable car from Sa Pa to Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak. It’ll fill up an entire afternoon, but it’s well worth the effort and money because there are a bunch of beautiful temples at the summit. I’ve dedicated a separate post to that day trip, which you can read here.
There are two major waterfalls a little to the northwest of Sa Pa: the Love Waterfall and the Silver Waterfall. Since both are located about a half-hour to forty-five minutes outside of the town by car, you’ll have to arrange either a taxi or day tour (private driver) to get to them. Ask your homestay if they can help you arrange something.
I only visited the Silver Waterfall, and heavy fog ended up rolling in right as we arrived. It ended up being a bit atmospheric, but it was hard to actually see the upper half of the falls. If you make it to Love Waterfall, leave a comment below and let me know how it is!
Cat Cat Village
I have mixed feelings about Cat Cat, an area on the outskirts of Sa Pa that has been turned into what some might call a tourist trap. You have to pay a small fee to enter the area, and once you do, you basically just a follow a loop on foot. The first half of the trail is basically an outdoor shopping mall. There are countless stalls that all sell the exact same souvenirs and knick knacks that you can find in town.
The second half of the trail is a little bit nicer. You’ll cross a river on a little bridge and pass by a small waterfall (not one of the two mentioned above). The souvenir shops and stalls become less frequent as you near the end of the loop, but they never fully disappear. Since you can do any number of nature walks in the Mường Hoa Valley without having to pay or be bombarded by vendors, I’m hesitant to recommend Cat Cat Village. However, it’s an option if you really need something to do one afternoon.
The Sa Pa Cemetery
Last but not least, the town of Sa Pa has a cemetery on its border with the Mường Hoa Valley. It’s not a tourist attraction by any means, but it is a tranquil patch of hillside despite being right next to the hustle and bustle of Sa Pa. It was interesting to check out and only takes a couple of minutes to wander through. Needless to say, be respectful if you visit.
6. Food in Sa Pa
I have to admit that food in Sa Pa is not necessarily one of the area’s biggest draws. Meals tend to be Vietnamese classics (phở, fried rice, etc) and they were a bit bland here. On top of that, restaurant prices in Sa Pa were consistently more expensive than in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi (although still a small fraction of typical prices in the US). The one drawback to staying in a village in the Mường Hoa Valley is that you’ll have fewer dining choices than if you stay in Sa Pa town.
The best way to deal with the lack of options if you stay outside of town is to take part in the homestay’s family dinners. Not only are they a great way to meet your fellow hostel-mates, but the meals also tend to have a lot of variety and a good mix of veggies and protein. It’s also varied each day, so you’ll never be served two identical meals in a row. At Miku Chill House, the family dinner cost 90,000 VND per person, which is admittedly expensive for a meal in Vietnam, but they were always delicious and usually filling.
Vietnam's Best Beverage...
One particular beverage is good no matter where you go in Vietnam: coffee! There’s three varieties you should try that are pictured below, and all of them can be found in Sa Pa.
Pictured first above, Vietnamese-style coffee is the gold standard no matter where you travel in the country (I don’t think I’ve ever seen drip coffee anywhere in Vietnam). It’s served with this special metal filter and comes out strong, a bit like coffee brewed in a French press. If you aren’t a black coffee drinker, ask for it with condensed milk, which is very viscous and sweet and should be mixed thoroughly after all the coffee has filtered into the glass. Vietnamese coffee can be served hot or iced.
The second picture shows coconut coffee, which when ordered cold, basically tastes like espresso over ice cream. For those who don’t love the taste of most caffeinated beverages, coconut coffee is a great way to experience Vietnamese coffee culture because it’s sweet, refreshing, and not really bitter.
The last picture with the scenic background may look like a latte, but this is actually egg coffee! I know what you’re thinking, that egg coffee sounds really strange and unappetizing. Maybe you’re picturing a raw egg yolk dumped into a cup of black coffee (I know I was before I tried it), but that’s not what it is at all. I’m not exactly sure how they do it, but I think that the egg white is used to make the foam. It is actually a really good drink, and everyone I’ve met who’s tried it ends up really liking it! If you want to have a truly authentic and complete coffee experience in Vietnam, be sure to give this a try!
Sa Pa Town's Best Food Offerings
As I mention above, the town of Sa Pa has a better variety of cuisine than the villages in the valley. If you’re a fan of BBQ skewers, there are a couple of restaurants and street stands selling them around throughout town.
I also found a really amazing Indian restaurant in town called Namaste Omar’s, located here. They appear to have a couple of other locations throughout Vietnam as well. The butter chicken I had here was so good that I decided to go back for another meal a few days later. If you need a little bit of culinary variety while staying in Sa Pa, I wholeheartedly recommend Omar’s!
Sa Pa town also has a bunch of bars. The two I recommend are The Hmong Sisters and The Hill Station. The Hmong Sisters is a pretty standard bar with a nice relaxed atmosphere, especially if you go in the early evening or on a weekday.
The Hill Station is a quaint little place just up the street from The Hmong Sisters that serves food, wine, and beer on tap. This is another relaxing place with a great vibe. If you’re a fan of craft beer, this is the place for you!
There’s also a bunch of pizza restaurants both in Sa Pa town and in the villages, but needless to say, pizza served in rural Vietnam may not taste like what you’re used to. I’ll just leave it at that.
7. Additional Info
In order to get to Sa Pa, you’ll need to either take a bus or train from Hanoi. Most visitors seemed to take the bus, but I decided to try the train which ended up being a good experience. Since the train departs at night and arrives early the following morning, I recommend booking a bed in a sleeper car instead of a seat. It’s not necessarily a restful sleep, but at least you’ll arrive without feeling like you’ve pulled an all nighter.
I booked my train ticket through this agency and the round-trip ticket cost about 60 USD, but word of mouth was that the tickets are cheaper with other agencies. You can purchase tickets in person at the train station in Hanoi (located here), but I don’t recommend waiting until the last minute because they could be sold out.
If you do take the train, you’ll be dropped off in the city of Lào Cai. Shared vans going to Sa Pa can be booked upon arrival and will cost 50,000 VND. The van ride from Lào Cai to the center of Sa Pa town takes about an hour.
Once you’re in Sa Pa, I recommend using your homestay to book any and all taxis you may take during your time here. “Grab” (the Vietnamese version of Uber) doesn’t really operate in Sa Pa, and taxis you hail on the street are almost sure to try and rip you off or overcharge you in some way or another. Since homestays partner with drivers they know, there’s an element of accountability and trust. Taxis booked through homestays usually have upfront rates instead of a running meter.
(Because this post was basically a novel)
I feel like this is one of my posts that ended up looking like an encyclopedia article. However, I’m hoping that it answers any and all questions for visitors headed to Sa Pa! Departing Sa Pa after two weeks felt like leaving home in a way, but I’m so glad that I spent such an extended period of time there and saw a more complete picture of life in the valley. The area truly is spectacular and I think that even a short visit to this little corner of Vietnam would be a unique experience even for avid travelers.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been in and out of Hanoi four times, and each time I spent at least a night there. My next post will be about my first impressions of Vietnam’s fascinating capital, a city I’m sure I’ll be returning to many times in the future! Thanks for reading, and be sure to leave a comment below!