Sapa, in Northern Vietnam, is well-known for fantastic trekking. And understandably so. The countryside consists of rolling hills, deep valleys and rice paddies as far as the eye can see. The area is also home to a vast number of ethnic groups who still live a relatively traditional life in the villages surrounding Sapa.
If you’re in the north of Vietnam and want to discover some of the most breathtaking scenery the country has to offer, then a Sapa trek is just for you. In this post we’ll share our trekking experience and guidelines for what to expect and how to organize your trek in Sapa, Vietnam.
How To Get To Sapa
Sapa can be reached from Hanoi quite easily via bus, train or motorbike. There is no airport nearby at this stage.
Buses can be booked in hotels, guesthouses or at any of the travel agencies in the city. The only thing you need to consider is what kind of bus you want (a sleeper or an ordinary bus*) and when you want to leave/arrive. The bus will cost about $20.
We booked a ‘normal’ bus leaving at 7.00am in the morning. Yes, that’s right. We didn’t go for the night bus. Why? Because the road to Sapa is notoriously windy and, knowing how quickly many Vietnamese drivers travel, we wanted ours to have as much visibility as possible.
As we wanted to be picked up directly from where we were staying, we booked our tickets through our hostel. You could use 12GO Asia and potentially avoid paying a small commission to your host.
The bus left at 7.30 and arrived at about 13.30. The road was windy but not extremely so and we were able to get some rest in the sleeper bus (yes, we got a sleeper despite booking a day bus).
We woke up about 1 hour from Sapa and enjoyed some spectacular views from the window. Monstrous valleys and mountains, all coloured different shades of green, peeping out from behind the mist. If you travel at night, you will miss these exceptional vistas.
You can also take the train to Sapa. In fact, many of the trekking companies organize your train ride to and from Sapa. The train station is about 38km from Sapa in a town called Lao Cai. This means you’ll need to catch a bus or taxi from the train station to Sapa itself. Trekking companies, if you book through them, will organize this for you too.
Your train will leave Hanoi at 10.00pm and arrive in Lao Cai at 6.00am.
We didn’t choose this option because the bus timetable suited our plans more.
Rent your own, join a tour or hire a private guide. Doing this trip on a motorbike would be phenomenal. However, due to the extreme heights and potential lack of visibility on the road, we would advise only experienced riders attempt this route.
Look out! Sapa is a lot colder than other parts of Vietnam. You will go from wearing thongs ad shorts in Hanoi to being wrapped head to toe in your woolies in Sapa. When we were there, in October (Autumn), it was quite cold. We had a jumper and long pants on every day and were under a thick blanket at night. One of us also used a scarf. The town is, in general, also extremely misty.
When To Go
Locals say that the best time to visit Sapa is in Spring (March to May) as the cherry blossoms are in bloom and the countryside is at its greenest. It’s also quite quiet in the beginning of spring so you can avoid the masses of tourists that come later in the season.
Summer (June to September) in Sapa means rainfall every day and temperatures as high as 25 degrees! – We weren’t joking when we said it’s cold there. October and November see Sapa turning shades of gold and brown as Autumn strikes. This is a special time of year when the rice is harvested. The weather is chilly, the landscapes stunning and the rainy season is just hanging on by a thread.
Winter in Sapa begins in December and ends in February. Temperatures drop as low as 0 and it does snow!
Where To Stay
Like most touristy towns in Vietnam, Sapa is filled with hotels, guesthouses, hostels and also has some great homestays. Use booking.com to find the best deals that suit your needs. We’ll put a deal-finder box for Sapa below for you. Be warned that parts of Sapa are quite hilly and if you choose accommodation that’s located on the top of a hill (as we did), you will be doing a decent climb a couple of times a day. Great for your quads!
One other thing to consider is hot water. Our guesthouse, although absolutely beautiful, gave us hot water in bouts of 2 minutes which made it difficult to shave or wash decently.
Despite this, we would recommend it as the location was beautiful and the room was spacious and clean. You can find it here on booking.com.
Plenty of people come to Sapa only for their trek and don’t stay in the town itself. Check out our next post about what to do in Sapa to see why you should definitely spend a few days there!
How To Book Your Trek
Trekking agencies are everywhere in Sapa itself and in Hanoi. You can book in Hanoi and have your entire journey from start to finish planned or you can arrive in Sapa and do the rounds until you find a suitable agency with a suitable price. We chose the latter option as we weren’t pressed for time and wanted to chat to the tour operators ourselves.
You can also book online but will have to pay in person at the office or transfer the money (sometimes only 50%) directly to the trekking company to confirm your booking.
Choosing Which Company
While price might be the main concern, do take a moment to think about the ethical side of trekking. We prefer to support local businesses who actually give something back to the communities they are trekking through. ‘Ethical travel’ is a bit of a buzzword these days so research the company you are going to trek with, ask where your money is going and make an informed decision.
Sapa Sisters is a well-known and respected company that employs and empowers local women. Check out their website for these women’s stories and more information.
We chose to trek with Sapa O’Chau. This company has a great scheme to help local minority groups.
How Much Does It Cost
Some companies have a system whereby the price of the trek is based on how many people are trekking. If there are only 2, the price is $80. 4 people is $60. 6 is $40 and so on. If you pay in advance and then more people join your group, the company will give you a refund at the beginning of the trek. If you want a private tour, the price will be higher.
Other companies have a set price for all the treks no matter how many people are joining. Treks that are tailor-made are also more expensive. Chose the best option for you.
Sapa is extremely touristy and most of the main treks are well and truly beaten tracks. All of the locals and villagers are used to seeing tourists and have learned how to make money from them. During your trek, you will be approached by various villages peddling handmade goods (which are beautiful). They may also offer to ‘help’ you down some steep inclines and then ask you to buy something in return.
Most trekking companies recommend refusing the offers of help unless you do want to buy something. We had originally planned not to buy anything but the ‘help’ is kind of forced upon you as the ladies walking in front of you thrust out their hands and won’t really let you past down the narrow track without accepting them.
This being said, the stuff they sell is reasonably priced and would probably make a good souvenir for someone. These ladies are, at the end of the day, just trying to make a living. It’s up to you to choose how to respond to them.
Each company offers a variety of different routes with different difficulty levels through different villages. Research them and decide which is most interesting for you. If you want something a little more original, ask for a tailor-made tour that will really take you off the beaten track. This will cost quite a bit more though. In the trek descriptions you can find information about how many kms are covered and what the terrain is like. Anything up to a moderate difficulty level is fine for someone of general fitness.
We chose the Red Dao trek which lasted 2 days. The trek itself was not super challenging but the views were spectacular, the homestay family wonderful and the overall experience unforgettable!
How It Began
We met at Sapa O’Chau’s office where we had a quick breakfast and dropped off our luggage. Our guide introduced herself. She was a short Hmong woman dressed in traditional clothes (except for her gumboots) with long black hair down to the small of her back.
Our group hit the road at about 8.30. No sooner had we left the office when a group of local ladies joined us, clearly with the intention of selling us some souvenirs but disguising it with some small talk about where we were from, who was in our family etc.
We walked through Sapa itself and then turned off down an unassuming muddy track. Very soon we were surrounded by trees and rice fields, the sounds of the city long forgotten.
When the track became quite steep, our new friends ‘helped’ us walk for about 2 kilometres before turning off to go home. But not before they had sold each of us a small purse for $3.
Most of the walking on the first day was along bitumened roads. The beginning did see us slipping down muddy slopes as we traversed through some local villages but the rest was fairly smooth sailing.
Despite the nearby town of Sapa being super touristy, the villages do not have a lot of modern infrastructure. Most of the houses are wooden and stand on dirt patches, there are farm animals everywhere and electricity and hot running water are a luxury. People live and work on the land and eat what they produce.
There are rice paddies everywhere, like giant green steps leading up each mountain. Black and white water-buffalo snort and soak in the fields and chickens and piglets scamper around everywhere. There was a bit of up and down on the first day, and consequently a lot of huffing and puffing, but everyone was so awe-struck by the views that we didn’t really notice.
Lunch was served in a small tourist restaurant along the way with views out over the rice fields. We had fried noodle with vegetables and meat and soft drinks and beer were also available for an additional fee. The food was yummy and filling. The 14km didn’t feel like much at all.
The only downside was the almost constant drizzle and occasional downpour of rain that had us saturated by the end of the day. But hey, at least we weren’t hot!
We arrived at our homestay at about 16.00 drenched, tired and happy. We were met with huge grins and handshakes from our host family. The fire had already been lit and we were led inside to chairs arranged neatly around it. Upon the fire lay a large metal pan full of sticks, leaves and branches – our herbal baths were being prepared!
Our host made us French fries with tomato sauce, brought everyone a beer and went off to prepare dinner. We warmed up around the fire and chatted with the other members of our group – 2 Canadians, a Scottish woman and an Englishman. The atmosphere was jovial and lots of laughs were had.
The part of the house where we stayed was quite large with 4 bedrooms, a large dining area, two bathrooms and a kitchen. The floors were concrete and walls and roof wooden. We could hear chickens and pigs outside and the youngest daughter prepared slop for them beside the fire. The kitchen had open drains for all water to run away in and there was also a sink and a small fridge but our beers were the only things in there.
We also noticed bamboo baskets filled with chilis drying above our heads.
The house had electricity and a western-style toilet for guests.
Our beds were off the ground, had mosquito nets and thick blankets to keep us warm.
About 2 hours later our herbal baths were ready. Our host had tipped the water from the pot on the fire, now black from the various plants that had been soaking in it, into large wooden tubs. We stood inside these and used a small bucket to pour water over ourselves. It was boiling hot, interesting in texture but absolutely divine. With the sweat of the day washed off, we joined our host family around the table for dinner.
They had prepared a feast of vegetables, tofu, meat and rice – about 5 dishes in total. We asked for another beer and then were each given a small shot glass filled with rice wine. The rice wine itself was, appropriately, stored in a delicate teapot with floral patterns. The host mother spoke reasonable English and chatted about her life, family and culture. She and her husband were experienced drinkers and some of us couldn’t keep up with the constant refills of fire water.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening with much laughter and good cheer. At about 21.30 we called it a night and retired to our bedrooms, heads swimming with rice wine and tales of the host family’s life. The herbal bath is said to give you a deep sleep and we can confirm this. We slept like logs, snuggled up with freshly-cleansed skin and full bellies.
We awoke at about 7.00 for a beautiful breakfast of banana pancakes (some without milk or egg for the vegan in the group) and delicious Vietnamese coffee. Our host waited on us hand and foot and was never without a smile on her face.
After breakfast, our guide asked us whether we’d like to do the ‘tough’ route back that was exceptionally beautiful or stick to the easy road. We choose the tough one, paid for our drinks, thanked the host family and set off at about 8.30.
It turned out that ‘tough’ to a local Hmong lady (our guide) means 10km of up and down, walking through overgrown rice fields with narrow tracks, ankle-deep mud and a sheer drop to the right that would’ve seen us falling for a loooong time, had we taken a tumble.
She was right, though, the views were impeccable. We were literally in the middle of one of the giant green ‘steps’ that makes up the rice fields in Sapa. Our group barely saw another person for the entire duration of the walk and it was magnificent.
We arrived at the lunch spot at 12.00, covered in mud and already exhausted. Another yummy and substantial meal of fried rice, meat and veg. The chef’s mother pressured us into buying a few more souvenirs during our meal and we moved along.
The Last Leg
Back on the main road, we walked another 45 minutes to the end of the trek where a mini-van was waiting for us. The drive back to Sapa was hair-raising and we very nearly totalled a motorbike rider while we were overtaking a truck on a blind corner.
Nevertheless, we arrived back at the office in one piece. We filled out some feedback forms with incredibly tough criteria (Question 5: Were the drinks at the homestay chilled enough?) and went straight to our hotel room for a shower and a long sleep.
Our guide was a 32-year-old Hmong lady who was a real mountain goat. She managed to complete the entire trek with an umbrella in one hand, a phone in the other and not a bead of sweat on her forehead. Her shoes didn’t even get muddy. In fact, all of the locals we saw on our trek were exceptionally unsoiled and perky given that they were walking through the same sludge and up the same hills as us and we looked like we had taken mud baths.
Although friendly and helpful, our guide didn’t do much explaining and we didn’t really get to meet any other locals along the way as the trek description promised. This didn’t phase us though. We were just happy to be there enjoying the views.
The trek, especially day two, was challenging but totally manageable for someone of a medium level of fitness. The views were phenomenal, the host family was amazing and we were well fed and well taken care of. It wasn’t an immersion into local culture or an eye-opening experience, but it was definitely unforgettable and one of the highlights of our trip in Vietnam
Check out our next post about what else you can do in the lovely down of Sapa!
Where To Next
*Do bear in mind that travel agencies sometimes promise VIP sleeper buses that turn out to be ordinary day buses when you arrive at the station.
What Will Happen To My Luggage?
Most, if not all, of the trekking companies have storage facilities where you can store big pieces of luggage . You can leave them there for the duration of the trek.
Can I Shower?
Most, if not all, of the trekking companies have shower facilities that you are welcome to use before and after your trek. Just make sure you factor in the time it will take to shower (and wait for the shower if there is a queue) when planning your arrival time in Sapa. You don’t want to start out on a 7-hour hike after arriving straight from Hanoi with no shower!
What Shoes Should I Wear?
Normal sneakers are fine. You don’t need hiking boots for the routes up to moderate difficulty. If you’re thinking about doing it in thongs or sandals, imagine how you’ll feel going downhill in the mud in such shoes. We would not recommend this option.
What If I Have Special Dietary Requirements?
Most, if not all, of the trekking companies cater for vegetarians and vegans. If you have other dietary requirements or allergies, just tell the company directly although they will more than likely ask you about this on the booking form.