Go Trekking in Sapa, Vietnam
Hike through beautiful rice paddies and stay with a local family
There are so many reasons that trekking in Sapa should be on your travel bucket list. The quaint mountain town of Sapa is located in northwest Vietnam, in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains region. The town itself is full of charm, but it’s the hiking trails around it that really stand out. Expansive rice paddies span as far as the eye can see, blanketing the curves of the rolling green hills that create a jaw dropping landscape before you. Trek through the hills with a local guide as you learn all about the culture and traditions of the hill tribes that call this region home. You’ll get to meet local people and even stay in their homes with them, giving you a true feel for life in the mountains and a deep appreciation for the simplicity of it all.
Hill tribes such as Hmong, Tay and Dao, make up most of the local population in Sapa. They live in the mountains and farm for a living, leading simple but hard-working lives.
Way of Life
Many hill tribe people making a living growing rice, hence the abundance of rice paddies in the area. Family homes are typically very basic, often made from wood and with no running water or electricity. Homecooked meals are a big part of family life. The day’s activities are scheduled by the rise and fall of the sun, beginning early and turning in for bed as the sun goes down. It’s a simple, humble way of living.
Sapa is home to approximately one million Hmong people. The Hmong are members of an ethnic group who live in southern China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. Hmong women are easily identified by their traditional dress – black skirts and leg warmers, accented by silver jewellery.
Trekking in Sapa
Go on a multi-day hike
Although it is possible to do single day hikes around Sapa, you’ll definitely get the best experience by embarking on a multi-day trek. These tours will take you further into the mountains through tiny villages and countless rice paddies, and also give you the opportunity to experience the culture here by staying at a local homestays. To make the most out of your trip, we recommend doing at least a 3 day/2 night tour.
Choosing your guide
Although you can book a tour when you arrive in Sapa, we recommend booking it in advance. Most tour operators will offer a pick-up service from the train station as you arrive, making the journey easier and more efficient. There are plenty of options to choose from, so do your research and choose a tour guide that’s socially conscious and truly supports the local community.
Sapa Sisters are an all female group of Hmong people who know the region well and are passionate about sharing it with visitors. Sapa Sisters are well known for offering good pay and workers rights, which sadly isn’t always the case. Some of the guides offer homestays in their homes, and it feels more like hiking with a friend than a guide. You can find out more here.
Best Time to Go Trekking in Sapa
June – September: heavy rain, difficult walking conditions, and also crowded with Vietnamese tourists
Late September – mid December: weather is cool and dry, making it perfect for trekking and taking photos
Mid December – February: cold winters with harsh conditions (yes, it snows here!) Pack extra warm clothes if you choose to visit during winter.
What to Pack
Leave your main bag at your hotel or hostel and take only a small backpack with you on the trek. The following essentials will go a long way:
• Good hiking boots that are waterproof and have good grip
• Waterproof poncho for inevitable downpours
• A warm jacket and pair of leggings/trousers – the temperatures drop at night even in warmer months
• Hat and sunscreen. These are particularly important in mountains as the UV levels are higher.
• Insect repellent – the rice paddies attract a lot of insects and mosquitos
• Small torch. Power-cuts are not uncommon in the villages, and most homestays will not have electricity.
How Do I Get to Sapa?
Sapa is in the northwest of Vietnam, around 350 kilometres north of Hanoi. There are three options for travelling to Sapa – by train, bus or car.
Taking the train to Sapa
The overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa takes around 8 hours. It departs Hanoi at 9.30pm and arriving at Lao Cai station at 5.30am. From here, it’s a 45 minute bus or van ride to get to Sapa town. The trains are reasonably comfortable, with 4 beds to a cabin. Tickets start from £17, making this an affordable and safe way to travel. Bonus: there’s also a ‘luxury train’ if you’re looking for additional comfort.
Travelling to Sapa by bus
For the more adventurous (or perhaps those on a tighter budget) there are buses that run between Hanoi and Sapa. Most buses offer lie-down seats, and will make one or two rest stops along the way. The buses tend to leave Hanoi in the afternoon, arriving in Sapa around 6 hours later in the early hours of the morning. Tickets start at £9. A word of caution – the roads into the mountains are very winding, so a bus is probably not the best choice if you suffer from travel sickness.
Take a taxi
A taxi from Hanoi to Sapa will take around 5 hours and cost around £115.
Tips for Trekking in Sapa
1. For the best all round travel experience we recommend taking the train from Hanoi to Sapa. The views are great, it’s nice to arrive early in the morning, and it saves time by travelling overnight. It’s also the safest way to travel, avoiding the winding roads and potential wet weather conditions.
2. It is possible to travel to Sapa and explore the area without a guide. However, for a more complete experience we definitely recommend booking a tour to go trekking in Sapa with a local guide.
3. Groups of local women will probably walk with you at some point along your hike. They may help you navigate difficult terrain and make gifts from the flowers. After walking with you for several kilometres the women will ask you to buy crafts from then as a way of saying thank you. If you don’t want to buy anything from them, it’s kinder to tell them ‘no thank you’ straight away.
4. Similarly, children may try to sell bracelets and small gifts along the trails. Although tempting, it’s best not to buy from them as this actually encourages children to be kept out of school to help earn money instead. It’s best to buy souvenirs in the town.