[Vietnam travel guide] Sa Pa: Where human hands play god

Jona Bering's travel guide to northern Vietnam is a 4-part series. This 4th installment gives us a peek at Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay. 

If you’ve been to Batad Rice Terraces, Sa Pa had that kind of vibe: hardworking human hands playing god in the landscape. The rice fields sprawl and crawl on toward the hills. While I could stare at their beauty for hours, I could barely imagine the labor farmers invested in the land. The rice fields of Sa Pa is a pure and genuine testament of hard work. 

Unlike Batad though, Sa Pa is crowded with fancy hotels, restaurants, and tourists. But these realities should not dissuade you from visiting this place. Sa Pa is big, and it is pretty easy to avoid your fellow tourists if you are not up for some small talks. It only takes an overnight bus ride from Hanoi. 

If you are not confident to go around on your own, H’mong women, the local tribe in Sa Pa, will be right there at the very moment the bus door opens. The local women, in their hand-woven wardrobe and big dangling earrings, offer trekking guides and stays in their villages. 

1. Walk around the beautiful rice fields 

If you join a tour, chances are you’re going to trail the usual route. We went on our way and just walked around the lovely, lovely rice fields. I prefer it that way. If you do it on your own, be careful of the dogs around. Some of them can be aggressive, by that I mean, very barky. 

2. Check Cat Cat Village 

It is not a real village, but a replica of a village from the bygone years. It is like a museum with real people working inside, so the outsiders can have a view of how life was back then.

The village even has the traditional watermills, freshly installed for us tourists.

There is a waterfall too that the locals manipulated so its cascades is more spread and appealing than its natural one. The village has dances, cafes, and restaurant. Of course, a lot of shops are here, selling trinkets and souvenirs.  

3. Check the Silver and Love Waterfalls 

These might not be the best destinations in Sa Pa, but if your stay is long, do visit these two beauties.

Thac Bac Waterfall (Silver Waterfall) and the nearby Love Waterfall (Thác Tình Yêu) are just about 30 minutes away from Sa Pa’s tourist belt. 

4. Eat hot pot, locally called lau 

Sa Pa is not the only place where you can have this heaven in a pot. But having it in a cold, foggy place  makes it extra special and rewarding. Just imagine feeding fresh herbs and vegetables to a boiling pot of meat broth and then eating it seconds after.

Eating lau is one of the culinary adventures we particularly find memorable in northern Vietnam. Lau warms you up.

5. Check Notre Dame Cathedral 

Some H’mong will be in the square to have a photo op with you if you want. For a donation, I think. We did not try this, because it is not our thing.

The main square is beautiful especially when it is engulfed by the early morning or late afternoon fog. It is a great place too to people-watch. 

6. Hike Fansipan Peak

Nicknamed as the roof of Indochina [Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia], Fansipan Peak (3143 m) should be in your list if you love mountain climbing. 

Despite our love of trekking, our pockets screamed no. Hiring a certified guide can be hefty, but the price is no different from the major mountains in the Philippines.

Ha Long Bay: The Sea Speaks in Spikes 

Unapologetically Filipino, I found the grandeur of Ha Long Bay falling short in my list of superlatives. We have El Nido and Coron, where the most abused adjectives become cool once again. If you have been to these two and you have limited time in northern Vietnam, I would suggest you drop Ha Long Bay from the list.

If you have time and more money at your bidding, however, you may want to visit this place of karst formations, caves, and short hikes. Located in Quang Ninh province, Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site, must be one of the most visited destinations in Vietnam. 

You have two options. Either you join an expensive 2D1N or 2D2N cruise or settle for the less hefty day tour. Since we were on a budget, we opted for the latter. To save some more, you can simply book it through your hostel in Ha Long City. The price online ranged from $50 (P2,500) to $65 (P3,200), while we got ours for P1,200, inclusive of shuttle bus, burp-inducing lunch, and entrance fees to all caves and stops.  

Another reason we bunked by the bay instead availing of the overnight cruise was our love for random motorbike rides. Ha Long City might be plain at first glance, but it has some interesting packets that might appeal to you. I’m talking about cute cafes, hikes to Bai Tho Mountain, and light architectures at night. 

You can also explore further and visit Cat Ba Island, a 45-minute boat ride from Tuan Chau. – Rappler.com

Jona Branzuela Bering, Palanca awardee and author of the poetry collection Alang sa Nasaag (For the Lost), blogs at Backpacking with a Book. She left her beautiful life in Cebu to pursue her goal of traveling long-term abroad. She’s currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam. Follow her travels on Instagram @travelingjona.

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