If you’re travelling all the way to Northern Vietnam, you shouldn’t miss trekking in Sapa. This is, after all, one of the most scenic regions of Northern Vietnam, and if there is one thing the frontier town of Sapa is known for, it’s rice terraces with sweeping mountain vistas.
Sapa was the final stop of my 1-month Vietnam travel itinerary, and what a way to finish an incredible month of travel across the length of the country. It was incredibly picturesque, the cool mountain air was refreshing, and it was just great to be out exploring nature.
Here I’ve compiled a few tips for trekking in Sapa:
Hire a guide
There are full-day hikes and even half-day hikes (like Cat Cat Village) which you may want to attempt on your own, however, if you want to spend a few days experiencing the hillside I would recommend hiring a local guide who is familiar with the terrain, the changes in weather, and the best lookout spots.
Treks are easy to arrange once you arrive in Sapa, so don’t bother making bookings in advance as it’ll be cheaper to do so in person. I booked my guided tour through my hotel in Sapa, but you can also book tours through the main tourism office or the various tour operators found in town. Most of the guides are local and they speak great English, so know that you’re giving back to the local community when you book a trekking guide.
In my personal experience, towels and bedding were not necessary. The accommodations arranged by my tour were at a small family-run guesthouse. It was a bit of an open-concept with lots of mattresses lined side by side and a mosquito net over top, but we had clean bedsheets, warm blankets for the night, and fresh towels. That really was all we needed. I saw a few people lugging around their own sleeping bags and heavy packs with who knows what…you really needn’t bother.
Also, keep in mind that the guide is not a porter (this is not Everest Base Camp) and he is not going to carry your bag for you. Only bring what you deem absolutely necessary. Remember, your bag may not feel heavy when you first try it out in your room, but it’ll only get heavier as the day progresses.
Wear sturdy shoes
Our guide took us “off-the-beaten-track”, quite literally. There were times when we were scrambling up the mountain on all fours, hopping across ditches, and having our bodies whipped by branches as we cut across a bamboo forest. It was demanding and you’ll want good footwear.
I brought a pair of running shoes with good support and a solid grip. Hiking boots might be something to consider if you’re planning something longer than a 2 day trek, like say the summit of Mount Fansipan.
Aside from my runners, I brought a pair of flip flops to wear at the end of the day – my feet were tired and craving some wiggle room after a long day of trekking in Sapa! I’ll also admit I did wear the flip flops on the last day of the hike when we were back on even terrain, but I would NOT recommend attempting the whole hike in flip flops lest you end up with a sprained ankle. Now that would be one way to ruin the rest of your travel plans…
As a side note, there are lots of shops in Sapa that both rent and sell trekking gear. If you’re doing some travel around Southeast Asia prior to your visit to Sapa and don’t feel like lugging around boots and hiking poles, know that those things can be found in the town at affordable rates.
Pack snacks, lots of ’em
I am a perpetual snacker and my mood starts to quickly decline when I go unfed for long periods of time (I’m talking like 2 hours). There will be stops for lunch and dinner, but you have no control over those times. Well, actually, you do – the quicker you walk, the sooner you get to the next village with a restaurant, but whether you can get the rest of your group to go any faster is another question… Bring some snacks and save yourself the suffering.
Bring double the water you think you’ll need
Actually make that triple. You will get thirsty and you’ll be guzzling more water than a camel. It’s a horrible feeling realizing you’ve just drank the last drop of your water and there are still another 2 hours of hiking ahead of you. We did pass a few makeshift stands selling water as we got closer to the towns, so I’m not saying you’ll die of thirst, merely that it could be a while until you get a drink…
Get used to the touts
If you’re spending a few days in Sapa, you’ll notice that for the women of the Hmong tribe touting is serious business. If you are hoping the touting will stop once you leave Sapa, think again. Despite making it clear that we had no intention of purchasing any more souvenirs, we had women walk alongside us for hours. Things started off friendly enough with them asking questions and practicing their English, but there was always a pitch at the end and their sales tactics were a bit aggressive. I’m not trying to sound harsh – I realize that they also have to earn their living – but I am sharing the realities of my experience so that others aren’t shocked by this when they visit.
And lastly, don’t forget your camera!
The scenery in Sapa and the surrounding region is stunning so you’ll want to make sure you bring your camera and that the battery is fully charged. Our guide was very gracious and let us take lots of photo breaks every time we came over a hill or reached yet another lookout point. My photos from Sapa are still some of my favourite from my travels in Vietnam!
Getting to Sapa:
- Catch a train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. Lao Cai is a small town that sits by the Chinese border, and it is only 38 kilometres away from Sapa. There is a bus service that runs between Hanoi and Lao Cai, but the overnight sleeper train is by far the most convenient way to get there. The trip to Lao Cai is an overnight journey that leaves Hanoi at night and gets you into Lao Cai by morning. I booked my train with ET Pumpkin (rate: $84 USD round trip) and the cabin was very comfortable with a little pinch of luxury (they seek to create a 3* star hotel experience aboard the train). It was one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had on a train.
- From Lao Cai you’ll catch a minivan to Sapa. Depending on the company you booked your transportation with, the cost of the minivan transfer may or may not be included in your ticket. If it’s not included you’ll find the minivans parked directly outside the train station and they’ll leave for Sapa as soon as they get a full van. I have to warn you, it’s a winding road with vertical drops on one side, so if you get queasy you’ll want to take some Gravol beforehand. Also, try to get a window seat so that you can at least breathe some fresh air.
- Give yourself a few extra days to wander the town and enjoy the sights. I met a few travellers who were arriving in town, joining a trek that same day, and then returning to Hanoi by train the following night. Personally, I really think you’ll miss out if you rush this trip, so give yourself some time to enjoy the place. While in Sapa I stayed at the Mountain View Hotel and I can highly recommend it – get yourself a room with a mountain-facing balcony because the place really lives up to its name!
Have you gone trekking in Sapa?
If not, what’s the most memorable hike you’ve ever been on?