Travel blogger Sara from Picturesque World, shares her experience of visiting the hilltop town of Sapa, Vietnam and the fascinating culture, arts and crafts she discovered there.
As Sapa comes into view, the mountains and rice terraces dominate the scene. It’s stunning! But, as I discovered, there’s so much more to this sleepy town then memorable scenery. The colourful textiles, local culture, arts and crafts of Sapa in Vietnam are equally memorable. Add them all together and you have an unforgettable experience.
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Sapa is a small quiet mountain town located in the northwest part of Vietnam, about 5 hours away
(380km) from Hanoi by bus close to the border with China. It is home to five ethnic minorities of Vietnam: H’mong (internationally known as Miao), Red Dao (Yao), Tay or Choang (Zhuang), Giay, and Phu La (Yi). Each has its own distinct traditions and costumes. When I was in Sapa I was able to learn a bit about their culture, mingle and trek with the locals, visit their art and craft markets and so much more.
Agriculture plays a key role in the economy of Sapa, however, the tourism and handicraft industries have been growing and many are now reliant on this work. Don’t be surprised when you visit Sapa to be approached by several locals all trying to sell their local crafts.
Visiting Cat Cat village in Sapa
Our first experience in Sapa was to visit the Cat Cat village, about 3 kilometres from the main town. It
was a great opportunity to see the traditional lifestyle of the local people, how they live, the houses,
art and craft and also a chance to watch a cultural dance inside the Dance House of the village.
The Cat Cat villagers are from the H’mong ethnic group. I was instantly amazed by their colourful clothes. I
particularly loved the traditional checked scarf that they wear in their heads. Walking through the
village, you can see the residents sewing and embroidering their clothes, making crafts and selling
it to tourists. Visitors can also rent traditional clothes if they wish and walk around the village to take photos.
The H’mong grow hemp and use its strong fibres to make their clothes, which they dye with
indigo. Cotton is also used to make the traditional wedding blankets, for example. Most of the patterns
embroidered by the H’mong (and the Red Dao) carry meaning. It was fascinating to see them embroider their clothes with silk threads for myself.
The Cat Cat village tour is something that I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in the rich
art and culture of the ethnic group H’mong.
Trekking through the rice fields
The immersion into local culture in Sapa didn’t stop with our visit to Cat Cat Village. The next
day, we took a one-day trek through the rice fields of Sapa, going from one village to another and finishing with a traditional meal in a local house.
If you are into trekking, Sapa is the perfect destination. There are countless routes to choose from.
You can trek for one to three days, including a hike to Fabsipan peak.
Our day began very early in the morning when we met our guide, a young lady of the H’mong ethnic group. She was extremely knowledgable and could speak English very well. She constantly explained everything about tribes living in Sapa, their costumes and traditions as well as the struggles they have faced over the years.
During the trek, we went through steep and muddy paths but the trekking itself was relatively easy, suitable for anyone (unless you have mobility problems). Some local ladies followed us throughout the entire trek. I was gobsmacked at how easily they kept out while carrying a traditional back-basket overflowing with handicrafts the entire time and despite not having proper shoes.
It is very common to spot locals wearing a back-basket in Sapa. They are used throughout the mountains as opposed to the Vietnamese shoulder basket, used mainly in the lowlands. The baskets are made out of rattan vines and bamboo. Each ethnic group has its own weaving techniques and ways to decorate them. They are used for agriculture, carrying handicrafts, clothes and a host of other things.
The highest peak in Indochina
After our fabulous trekking experience next, we decided to climb the Fansipan Mountain to the highest peak in Indochina at 3,143 metres high. It’s dubbed “The Roof of Indochina” and it takes around 3 days to hike the whole route. Being short on time, we took the train from Fansipan Station followed by a cable car to get to the top.
The view from the peak is one of the most unique experiences you can have in Sapa. Seeing Sapa town, the rice fields and the villages through the clouds is amazing.
There are also several cultural monuments, pagodas, temples and statues to see, offering a glimpse of the local religion as well as an appreciation of the traditional architecture.
The Grand Buddha Statue – one of the highest Buddhas in Vietnam – was the highlight for me. The bronze Buddha is 31 metres high. But it doesn’t stop there, there is so much to see at the top of Fansipan, that you need at least 3 hours there.
If you looking to see and learn a bit about the local traditional art and architecture, Sun World Fansipan
Legend, as the experience is known, is a must-do in Sapa.
Art galleries in Sapa, Vietnam
While Sapa doesn’t have any big art galleries like in Vietnam, there are a couple worth visiting, including the Gem Valley near the Cat Cat Village and the May Art Gallery.
The Gem Valley is a cafe, homestay and art gallery. There’s an incredible view, as well as some wonderful paintings in the art gallery. Home to two Hanoian artists who moved here having fallen in love with the beauty of Sapa, you can even spend a few nights here.
The May Art Gallery is a space in Sapa with paintings, posters, traditional clothes, and more. It is
free to enter and if you wish you can buy some of the art displayed there as well as watch some of
the local artists making the silk pictures.
How to get to Sapa from Hanoi
It’s easy to visit Sapa from Hanoi. You can take the overnight train which takes about 8 hours from Hanoi to Lao Cai. From there it is less than 20 miles to Sapa by local public bus. Alternatveily, there are numerous organised tourist tours to Sapa from Hanoi. These vary from inexpensive group tours to luxury private tours, depending on your budget and previous.
Where to stay in Sapa?
If you enjoy seeing local arts and crafts during your travels, you will love a visit to Sapa. Their
unique style, the colours, the patterns and the techniques used to create their art are outstanding.
Have you been to Sapa? Leave us a comment, we’d love to know your thoughts.
Sara is a photographer, videographer and blogger based in Sydney. Sara is passionate about travelling and meeting other cultures and people around the world. She loves to showcase the world and everything she sees on her blog, Picturesque World.