Located roughly ten hours northwest of Hanoi by a combo of train and local bus, this popular hill station is known for being a great gateway to the north and northwestern regions of Vietnam. Famed for its terraced rice fields and the surrounding ethnic villages, this was a place high on our ‘must-see’ list prior to our departure for Southeast Asia.
Many people visit this small city to connect with local guides in order to venture out on one to two day treks through the surrounding villages. There are, however, plenty of options to view the surrounding areas on your own in both more manicured or natural landscapes. Whether by motorbike or afternoon walks, there was plenty for us to see and the main road headed south out of the town offered some great viewpoints. It is worth noting, though, that as in many hill stations, throngs of locals flock to these hillside retreats for the cooler climate and fresh air over the weekends making for busy streets and side roads with mini buses and lines at some of the gates. Fortunately enough, during the weekdays, Sapa returns to its ‘normalcy’ of a vacant ski resort vibe with almost too many competing hotels, restaurants and wandering guides all looking for business.
Outside of the weekend/weekday shifts, timing was also an important factor for our visit here because of the drastic changes in the seasons. In this part of Vietnam, the winters are filled with colder weather and heavy fogs, while the summer months are frequently met with days on end of torrential rains. As a result, the weather patterns greatly affect the planting and harvesting of the rice in this region. For a large portion of the year, the terraced hills are covered in various shades of brown and for a much smaller portion they are completely flooded (can make for some less enjoyable hiking conditions and backdrops). It is only over the months of July and August in which the mountains are at their most revered, layered in shimmering greens and yellows. Even though these months do overlap with the monsoon season, they still offer the best views. Generally speaking, July brings deeper shades of greens while August sees a full spectrum of yellows. While over May and June, you’re just on the cusp of mud and water.
For us, it kind of became a challenge – could we really last long enough in Vietnam to make it until July to visit Sapa?
Considering we ended up going in May, after a mere four weeks of our planned twelve week trip, it’s fair to say we grossly underestimated how worn out traveling through Vietnam would make us.
Thus, irrespective of the potential May rains, muddy backdrop and unfriendliness associated with the north (which we were getting accustomed to as we traveled), we went ahead with our visit and used this time to enjoy the change in scenery while allowing ourselves the appropriate time to rest and regroup. Ultimately, the area was beautiful, the air was cool and the rice terraces were still quite impressive.
At the end of each day, we had to stop to take it all in. The mountains. The cool air. The fact that we were finally in northern Vietnam. As much as Vietnam was turning into a place that challenged every dream associated with this leg of our trip and even our desires to wander, it also brought us together in ways that we would have never fathomed. Sapa was no exception. We did, however, have to consciously pause and remind ourselves of how lucky we were to have this time in our lives to explore together – a time that will hopefully help us define much of our married life together. And in that sense, what better way is there to appreciate this mutual growth with your life partner than immersed in nature, with an abundance of time, aware of your ever changing surroundings?