Trekking in Sapa is at the top of many South East Asia travelers’ bucket lists. This part of Northern Vietnam is famous for its emerald-green rice terraces spilling down mountainsides. You can meet members of many different hill tribes, each with unique dress, language and traditions. And it’s all accessible and affordable for backpackers.
In this post, I’ll cover everything you need to plan the perfect trek from Sapa Vietnam into the surrounding mountains and villages!
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- 1 Trekking in Sapa: An overview
- 2 How many days’ trek in Sapa do you want to do?
- 3 Trek independently or with a guide?
- 4 Cultures you’ll encounter while trekking in Sapa
- 5 On the trail during your Sapa trek
- 6 Where to stay: The Sapa homestay experience
- 7 What to pack for trekking Sapa
- 8 How to get from Hanoi to Sapa Vietnam
- 9 Is trekking in Sapa worth it?
Trekking in Sapa: An overview
Going on a Sapa trek is an incredible experience for the scenery and culture. But it’s not a remote nature experience at all. In fact, most of the time you’ll trek through populated areas. You’ll encounter villages every couple hours, and you’ll walk through farmland in between. That’s not a knock on the scenery — it is spectacular — it’s just a very different experience than trekking in remote mountain ranges.
Along the way, you’ll sleep in dormitory-style beds or private rooms in homestays. You’ll never be far from a proper toilet. The food is excellent and plentiful. The setup is similar to a tea house trek in Nepal.
The trekking industry is big business here — and the locals know it. Sometimes it feels like everybody wants to cash in. Groups of kids and women will follow you for miles, trying to sell you little woven bracelets for 2,000 dong apiece. You’re never obligated to buy, but the hassle can wear on you after awhile.
Finally, the weather in Sapa is not what you’re used to in the rest of Vietnam. It’s chilly — in the winter, you may even get snow. Pack plenty of layers and waterproof clothing. Rain is common in the spring and summer, and if your clothes get soaked, you’re in for a very cold night.
How many days’ trek in Sapa do you want to do?
When you start planning your Sapa trek, one of the first things you’ll need to figure out is how many days you want to go for.
The shortest treks are just one day — you can be back in Sapa by sunset. These are convenient if you’re on a tight schedule, and they’re the most affordable options. However, you’ll stay pretty firmly on the beaten path the whole time. Not only does that mean lots of other tourists, it also means you’ll mostly walk on dirt roads rather than hiking trails.
That’s why if you can possibly fit it into your Vietnam itinerary, I’d highly recommend trekking in Sapa for at least one night. You’ll stay on the main trails the first day. But the second day, you’ll leave the crowds behind and get into much more remote territory. A three-day trek is even better, as you’ll encounter a greater variety of hill tribe cultures.
Of course, the longer you trek for, the more remote you’ll be able to get. Treks of four or more days take you to trails that few visitors get to — but they come with a pretty steep increase in cost and logistical complications. Only a few trekking agencies will arrange trips this long and if you’re a solo traveler, you may struggle to find a group to join.
Trek independently or with a guide?
Once you know how long you want to trek for, you can start doing research into the logistics. The big decision here is whether you want to trek on your own or hire a guide/travel agency.
The vast majority of people trekking in Sapa go with a guide. The main reason is it’s far simpler logistically. You pay a package rate for your food, accommodation, and transportation to and from the trailhead. You don’t have to argue every step of the way about foreigner pricing.
Additionally, most of the guides in Sapa are great. Many agencies employ only female guides, and most of them hail from the hill tribe villages. So it’s a great way to learn more about the local culture and support small women-owned businesses. My guide, Chan, was a Muang woman who was super enthusiastic to teach her guests about her ways of life.
The downside of going with a guide is you’ll be on someone else’s schedule the whole time, and that means staying with the crowds. My group numbered about 20 people at the beginning (most people were only doing a half-day trek so they turned back after lunch). And we trekked and ate alongside two other groups of similar sizes. You don’t have to take a guide, so if you’re not a fan of crowds and you don’t mind paying a bit more, consider going on your own. Just be sure to bring a good Sapa trekking map (available from hotels in town).
Sapa trekking prices for an all-inclusive two-day trek with a guide start as low as $25. A similar three-day trek runs about $40. Shop around at different agencies and bargain for the best deal. Most guides operate as freelancers, and the agencies pool their tour groups (that’s why it’s so cheap). So you may book through one agency but trek with a different one.
You can also book a Sapa tour package from Hanoi. This includes transportation to Sapa, hotels in town, all your food, and guides. It’s quite a bit more expensive than making your own way there and organizing everything yourself. Expect to pay $90 for a three-day tour.
Trekking independently means you won’t get the economies of scale that the tour agencies get. Expect to spend at least $20 a day on food, accommodation, transportation, and village entrance fees. However, if you’re just doing a day trek, it will be cheaper.
Cultures you’ll encounter while trekking in Sapa
The best part of doing a Sapa trek is that you’ll interact with people from several different hill tribes. Each has its own culture and dress. Unlike the hill tribes around Dalat, the folks here follow a much more traditional way of life.
One of the most common cultures you’ll encounter in the mountains around Sapa is the Hmong. This tribe spans into Laos as well. Several different sub-groups exist, including the White Hmong and Black Hmong. You can recognize Hmong women by their batik skirts and turbans covering their hair, which is usually tied up in a bun.
The Dzao (or Dao) people form another large cultural group in the region. They practice the Dao (or Tao) religion, which harks to their origin in China. They also continue to write in traditional Chinese characters. Most Dzao groups wear red scarves on their heads, with variations in the specific style depending on where you are.
The Tay are the third main ethnic group near Sapa. You’re less likely to encounter Tay people while on a trek, since they mostly live in the more-tropical valleys, where they grow rice in paddies rather than terraces. Like the Hmong, the women wear their hair in buns. They also wear elaborate jackets, which may be brightly colored in some places.
Your Sapa trekking tour will likely take you to several different Hmong and Dzao villages. So it’s important to check with your guide about social customs and language in each place. Learn how to say “hello” in the local language and you’ll make immediate friends with everyone in the village!
Additionally, please remember: While the hill tribes of Vietnam represent fascinating cultures, their members aren’t tourist attractions. Never take anyone’s photo without asking permission. You’ll have much more luck if you try to form a relationship before asking for a photo. Asking about someone’s family is always a good conversation-starter in Vietnam. Most people speak some English, so it’s pretty easy to try to make friends.
On the trail during your Sapa trek
One of the great things about trekking in Sapa is once you’re in town, you don’t have to worry about transportation to the trailhead. You can just meet up with your guide/trekking buddies and head out on foot along the road.
Heading south from the Sapa town center, you’ll get some nice views of the downtown area before you hit the trails. It’s a short hike through an agricultural area to the first main viewpoint, and one of the best on the trek. You’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the entire Hoang Lien Son mountain range and surrounding rice terraces.
From the first viewpoint, it’s mostly downhill until lunch. You’ll alternate between a wide trail and a dirt road connecting some of the more remote villages. (No motorbike or vehicle traffic, but you may have some water buffalo to contend with!) You’ll walk down the side of a mountain into a valley with a river flowing through it.
Lunch is at a Black Hmong village in the valley. This is the most crowded part of the trek — you’ll be surrounded by other tourists doing day trekking and locals trying to hawk bracelets, snacks and beer. You’ll eat a large but unmemorable lunch at a crowded and dusty restaurant in the village.
The good news is, after this, most of the crowds thin out as you climb back out of the valley to reach your Sapa trekking homestay for the evening. It’s a relatively short afternoon walk — only about two hours. You’ll end in a Red Dzao village in the late afternoon. If it’s warm enough, you can go swimming in the nearby river.
If the first day is all about mountains, the second day gets you into the Red Dzao and Black Dzao people’s rice fields. You’ll be in very rural countryside with few other tourists around. The first part of the day is all uphill — this is the one part of the trek that gets pretty steep in some places. But the views are totally worth it.
You’ll also cross rice terraces on Day 2. Depending on where you are in the growing season, they may be flooded. Be careful — the pathways through are narrow and the water is surprisingly deep! You’ll stop in a Dzao village for lunch. It’s much more laid-back than the previous day. You may be the only tour group there.
If you’re doing two days of trekking in Sapa, you’ll walk back to the main road after lunch and catch your ride back to town. If you’re continuing on for a third day, you’ll go further into the mountains and away from civilization — the route possibilities are endless from here!
Is trekking in Sapa difficult?
If you’re not an experienced hiker — or if you’re just out of shape after spending months on the beaches in south east Asia — you might be worried about the difficulty of Sapa trekking tours. After all, these are some pretty big mountains!
The good news is, the trekking is not particularly difficult, even for novice hikers. You’ll go up and down a bit, but nothing is particularly steep.
If you’re on a one- or two-day trek, you’ll spend most of your time on wide paths and dirt roads (that you’ll share with water buffalo). Perhaps the hardest part is when you have to walk through the rice terraces — you need good balance to avoid falling into the water!
The one thing that’ll make your trek a little harder is you’ll have to carry all of your belongings with you. That’s why it’s so important to pack light — more info below.
Where to stay: The Sapa homestay experience
Trekking in Sapa doesn’t mean you have to camp. Instead, you will stay in homestays in villages representing different ethnic minority groups. This is a great opportunity to interact with the locals and get a feel for their way of life.
Most homestays provide dormitory-style accommodation for trekking groups. If you’re trekking in Sapa without a guide, or if you negotiate it with your guide beforehand, you may be able to secure a private room in some homestays.
The accommodation ranges from bare-bones to pretty nice. Some places offer just a mattress covered by a mosquito net on the floor. Others offer comfortable beds and traditional decor. No matter what, you’ll have access to hot water and a clean bathroom. Electricity may only work during certain hours and you probably won’t have WiFi.
Included in your homestay will be breakfast and dinner cooked by the owner. Dinner is usually an elaborate feast, including both typical Vietnamese foods and dishes that are specific to that ethnic group. You’ll have a choice of 4-6 dishes, many of them vegetarian-friendly. The cooks prepare plenty for all of the hungry trekkers — you definitely won’t run out. The owners and/or your guides will also offer you some rice wine. Give it a shot!
In the morning, breakfast consists of banana pancakes, fresh fruit, and tea and Vietnamese coffee. You might get eggs or toast as well. It’s simple but delicious!
Homestays and meals are included in the price of Sapa trekking tours. If you visit independently, expect to pay from $5 a night for a dorm bed to $30 and up for a private room in a high-end homestay.
What to pack for trekking Sapa
Whatever you bring on your trek, you’ll have to carry it with you the whole time. So the key to enjoying yourself is to pack as little as possible. Most hotels and travel agencies in Sapa will let you leave your larger backpack with them so you can just bring a smaller day-pack with the essentials.
Unless you’re trekking in Sapa for longer than three days, you really only need one set of clothing for trekking and one set for after you shower. For your trekking clothes, choose lightweight, quick-drying materials like Merino wool. Pack an extra set of socks and underwear for each day.
Definitely pack a fleece or jacket — preferably wool. Evenings get chilly in summer and downright cold in winter. You’ll also want something waterproof — either a rain jacket or do as the locals do and pick up a poncho. And pack a few extra plastic bags to protect your electronics if it rains. Lining your backpack with a trash bag works well too.
You can do a Sapa trek in regular tennis shoes, but hiking boots are better. I’m a firm believer that these Merrells are the greatest shoes in the world. Bring flip-flops to change into after you finish trekking.
Don’t contribute to plastic waste on the trails. Instead, pack a reusable water bottle and purify your own drinking water along the way using a Steripen. Simply stir the U/V light in your water for 90 seconds to kill bacteria.
Bring a toothbrush, toothpaste, and all your typical toiletries, of course. Add sunscreen and insect repellent to your bag as well — and use it liberally on the trail. A camping towel is a must if you plan to shower on the trail, or just pack wet wipes. And stick a headlamp in your bag so you aren’t reliant on homestays’ electricity at night.
Finally, don’t forget your camera/phone and charger! Sapa is so scenic, you wouldn’t want to miss out on the photography opportunities.
How to get from Hanoi to Sapa Vietnam
Sapa is right next to the Chinese border — a long way away from everywhere else in Vietnam. But it’s pretty easy to get there using either the train or a bus. Hanoi is the only realistic starting point.
Your first option is to book transportation with the company you book your trek with. All the Sapa tour agencies can buy you train/shuttle and bus tickets. This saves you some hassle of having to figure out the local transport networks, but you’ll pay a commission.
Alternatively, book your own train to Sapa from Hanoi. The overnight sleeper train runs overnight, with a few options leaving between 9 and 10 pm. It arrives in Lao Cai, at the bottom of the mountains near Sapa, around 6 am. The cheapest option is a soft seat for 150,000 dong. It’s quite comfortable, with plenty of space and in an air-conditioned compartment. A sleeper berth will run you 450,000 dong.
Once you reach Lao Cai, you’ll have to pick up a minibus on to Sapa. These leave from the train station constantly in the mornings. They cost 30,000 dong (beware of rampant overcharging) and take about half an hour.
You can also take a sleeper bus from Hanoi to Sapa. Many of these buses take just as long as the train and cost quite a bit more — the cheapest tickets are 200,000 dong. However, there is a daily express bus for 450,000 dong that takes just four hours. This is a great option for after you trek to return to Hanoi.
Coming from Laos
If Sapa is your first or final destination in Vietnam, you can also use it as an arrival or jumping-off point for the long journey into Laos.
Coming from Laos, you’d first need to get to Muang Khua, which is only reachable by boat from Nong Khiaw or Muang Ngoi Nua. These boats are notoriously unreliable and only leave when full — if your Lao visa is about to expire, build in at least two buffer days.
From Muang Khua you can take the once-daily 7 am bus across the border into Vietnam. You absolutely must have your Vietnam visa already or you will be denied entry with no transport back into Laos. You will almost definitely be asked for a small “fee” when entering Vietnam so don’t do this journey with zero cash on you.
After a long journey on bumpy, windy roads, you’ll arrive in Dien Bien Phu in the early afternoon. Grab a good cappuccino at Pha Din Cafe and Desserts before booking a night bus on to Sapa for roughly 275,000 dong (12 hours). You can also stay overnight and wait for a safer bus the next morning.
Is trekking in Sapa worth it?
You’ll spend hours on a bus or train and invest a good amount of time and money to go trekking in Sapa. While the scenery is incredibly beautiful, you may start to feel like a walking ATM after a few days on the trail. And it’s not exactly off the beaten path. So is it all worth it?
I would still argue that a Sapa trek is an essential part of backpacking in Vietnam. It’s the most naturally beautiful part of the country. If you’re only visiting mainland Southeast Asia, it’s your best opportunity to see the rice terraces the region is so famous for. And yes, the hawkers get annoying on a half-day trek — but if you do a longer trek you can get away from the crowds and hassle.
So don’t miss out on one of Southeast Asia’s best trekking destinations and easily the best place to go hiking in Vietnam. Start planning your Sapa trip now!
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