Northern Vietnam is stunning country. The iconic terraced rice fields, improbably steep limestone karsts, distinctive colorful clothes of the local hill tribe members… As a traveler, it can feel like you’ve stepped into a fairytale world.
The popular tourist town of Sapa is considered the must-see town of this must-see region of Vietnam, but I’m here to tell you it’s overrated. In 2018 I rode my bicycle through northern Vietnam and experienced better scenery, more interesting towns, and more pleasant vibes in a number of other places.
If you want full backpacker hostels, overpriced restaurants, abundant tour offices, and business-savvy folks from minority tribes pushing trinkets and “authentic village experiences” at you the moment you arrive, go to Sapa. There are a few treasures to be found if you explore a bit off the main street, but in general it’s hard to escape the… overtouristification (can I make that word up?) of Sapa.
But if you enjoy off-the-beaten-track travel, uncrowded trekking, getting around on your own, and actual authentic interactions, I highly recommend you visit one (or many!) of these Sapa alternatives in northern Vietnam.
I almost hesitate to spill the secret for fear of these places becoming more like Sapa. But truth be told, the word is already out and these places do see some travelers. They have less tourism infrastructure than Sapa, but no one will be shocked to see you there. Plus, if you’re already here looking for Sapa alternatives, you’re probably the type of traveler who will appreciate and respect these special places.
Without further ado, here are 8 of the best towns to visit in northern Vietnam instead of Sapa.
Ha Giang is in many ways the most obvious Sapa alternative. About 300km northwest of Hanoi, it’s often considered the “gateway” to exploring the scenic “extreme north” region near the border with China.
Though the most spectacular scenery isn’t found in the city itself, the mountainous surroundings do make a nice backdrop, and the convenient city is a perfect place to organize a trip into the surrounding region. It’s not exactly untouched by tourism; you’ll easily find hostels, hotels, and motorbike rentals in Ha Giang.
The most iconic way to explore the Ha Giang region is by motorbike (or, if you’re crazy like me, bicycle) via the famous Ha Giang Loop. This tour of the far north region with its dramatic scenery and picturesque towns is the perfect way for adventurous travelers to what is, in my opinion, Vietnam’s most stunning region. For those who prefer more than two wheels, buses and hired cars are another option for getting from town to town.
The Ha Giang Loop is a trip for those comfortable striking out on their own. You’ll need to navigate curvy narrow roads, track down food and water from roadside stalls, and maybe wait for the occasional landslide to be cleared from the road. If that sounds like fun, Ha Giang is for you!
Note: A “travel permit” is required for foreigners in the Ha Giang region and costs about $10 USD at this time. It’s largely a formality and you can buy it from many hotels and hostels at the major towns in the region.
Dong Van is a town near the northernmost point of the Ha Giang Loop, 145km northeast of Ha Giang on scenic mountain roads and 430km from Hanoi. It also happens to be a few dozen kilometers south of the Chinese border and the northernmost point in all of Vietnam, which is a common day trip for tourists and Vietnamese alike.
The town is popular with backpackers and has been called the Sapa of the north, but still retains a more relaxed and rugged vibe than Sapa. You’ll find an abundance of hostels and tourist restaurants, as well as tour operators who can arrange treks into the surrounding countryside (or you can explore on your own).
If the back-to-back hostels downtown aren’t your style, the surrounding area offers more atmospheric “homestays” (which typically also have shared dorms). I can recommend Bui Homestay in particular, just 2.5km west of town.
Dong Van to Meo Vac
If you’ve come all the way to Dong Van, you absolutely must continue to Meo Vac. The 22 km of road between Dong Van and Meo Vac, passing over scenic Ma Pi Leng Pass, is among the most scenic stretches of road in all of Southeast Asia!
Motorbike is the classic way to experience this stunning road (rent your own or ride with a hired driver), but it’s also common to hire a car and driver. At only 22km you could even walk it, which would make for an epic day hike.
Meo Vac lies 22km south of Dong Van along the most stunning section of the Ha Giang Loop. It’s a bit less touristy and with less of a backpacker vibe than Dong Van, but the surrounding area is just as stunning.
It’s a great alternative to Sapa for those who want to experience a “normal town” in northern Vietnam, one that hasn’t been overrun by tourism, yet still has plenty of lodging and restaurants that will appeal to travelers. It’s a pleasant and relaxed town to walk around, and the Sunday market is a popular for both tourists and locals alike.
Xin Man and Hoang Su Phi
Between Ha Giang and Bac Ha 180km of scenic road squiggles and climbs past several interesting mountain towns, including Hoang Su Phi and, about 35km later, Xin Man (more accurately known as Coc Pai, the center of the Xin Man district). Along the road between them you’ll pass waterfall after waterfall. If these were near Sapa they’d be tourist destinations, but out here you’ll have them to yourself except for the occasional local stopping for a sip of cool water on a hot day.
Though travelers can find lodging in these towns (usually in the form of a nha nghi, or guesthouse), they’re less often visited than some others in this list and don’t have much in the way of tourist infrastructure like tour companies or hostels. They’re best for those who enjoy exploring less touristy towns and getting around on their own.
Of the two, I prefer Xin Man for its scenery and atmosphere.
Lai Chau and Tam Duong
Lai Chau is an interesting city 70km to the west of Sapa. While its atmosphere is quite different from Sapa, it would make an interesting base if you’re looking to explore the same general region from a different perspective.
The main streets of Lai Chau, the capital of the province, are oddly overbuilt. It’s easy to feel that the grand government buildings and wide, nearly empty streets are out of place in this mountainous region. There is a bit more life to be found on the side streets, and plenty of guesthouses and hotels scattered throughout the city.
Most visitors to Lai Chau will be interested in seeing sights of the surrounding region, including the Pu Sam Cap caves and Thac Tac Tinh waterfall. The latter is near the smaller town of Tam Duong to the southeast (on the way to Sapa), which is a good spot for trekking and homestays.
Further east, closer to Sapa, is the scenic Tram Ton Pass highway and impressive views of Mount Fansipan. It’s well worth a drive to see the views, though if you’re going this way you may as well stop in Sapa too and see what all the fuss is about.
Bac Ha lies 65 km east of Lao Cai, an interesting city in its own right directly on the Chinese border. Bac Ha has less of a backpacker vibe than the Ha Giang region, but is still quite popular with tourists for its Sunday market. Treks can be arranged into the surrounding countryside, but it doesn’t seem to be quite as well-positioned for trekking as Dong Van.
The colorful Sunday Market is the main attraction in Bac Ha. It’s an interesting experience, to be sure, with all the colorfully dressed minority women in attendance. But there are aspects which have been sullied by tourism, and it’s all too common to see tourists sticking cameras in locals’ faces without permission. This isn’t the kind of place where you can expect a bargain, if you’re a foreigner. It is, however, a good place to wander and observe, and to practice mindful travel.
Cao Bang lies on the eastern side of northern Vietnam, about 340km directly north of Hanoi. It’s a fairly large city, not exactly a mountain village like some of the other Sapa alternatives on this list, but it makes a good base for exploring the surrounding area.
The most popular excursion from Cao Bang takes travelers east a few dozen kilometers to the famous Ban Gioc Waterfall on the Chinese border, and the nearby Nguom Ngao Cave. Rent a motorbike in town for a fun way to explore the area on your own.
Enjoy These Sapa Alternatives
If you’re planning a trip to northern Vietnam, it’s hard to go wrong. The region is among the most distinctive and atmospheric of any I’ve experienced.
If you’re interested in getting more than just a packaged tour snapshot, I highly recommend visiting at least one of these lovely towns instead of Sapa (or at least in addition to it). You’ll have more freedom to explore, lower prices, and less hassle, not to mention the chance to experience “real” Vietnamese towns beyond the show put on for tourists.
So pack your camera, good walking shoes, and a smile, and go drink in the lush beauty of northern Vietnam.
More Southeast Asia Travel
If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, you might find these helpful too:
- Celebrate the Festival of Lights in Luang Prabang
- Guide to Exploring Angkor Wat by Bike
- Essential Checklist to Prep for an International Trip
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