Tips for Trekking in Sapa, Vietnam

 

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.

Trekking in Sapa, Vietnam.

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:

Going hiking in Sapa, Vietnam.

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.

Scenic mountain views over Sapa, Vietnam.

Pack light

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.

The rice terraces in Sapa, Vietnam during the wet season.

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.

Umm, you'll notice Sam had a bit of a 70s vibe by the time we reached Vietnam...

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.

Scenic lookout over a village on the hike through Sapa, Vietnam.

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…

We found company on our hike.

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.

A home with a view of the rice fields in the foreground and the mountains in the background.

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!

The town of Sapa in the distance.

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!

Tips for Trekking in Sapa Vietnam

Have you gone trekking in Sapa?
If not, what’s the most memorable hike you’ve ever been on?

Edited shot of the mountains in Sapa, Vietnam.


56 Comments

  • I’ve heard mixed things about doing this hike in Sapa. Thoughts on that?
    Beautiful photos, and I gotta say, I’m a fan of Sam’s ‘stache. Suits him!
    Great tips, I love that you can do this trek without bringing a lot of crap – one of the reasons I’m not really into trekking… the whole lugging of things doesn’t really appeal to me. My back just can’t take it!

    • Audrey says:

      Haha, yup, Sam spent a few weeks rocking a bit of a 70s look. It’s kind of fun looking back at the photos now… 😉 As for the mixed reviews, I’ve come across those as well and the biggest issues seem to be the touting or people who signed up for the experience even though they hate hiking. Like I mentioned, the touting is kind of unfortunate because it can take the enjoyment out of the walk, however, I only found it to be an issue on the first day as we walked towards the first village. After that it was just our group with hardly any other hikers in sight. At the end of the day, the landscapes were breathtaking so that made the trip totally worth it for me. 🙂

  • Deepti @ Endless Postcards says:

    Vietnam looks absolutely beautiful. I’m trying to figure out where to go next summer (I’m deciding between Vietnam, Thailand, and Kenya), but I’ve been leaning towards Vietnam. I’ve heard about the touting from some friends as well, but I guess it’s just part of the experience. Wonderful pictures! I don’t go trekking as much as I’d like, because when I travel, I travel with my parents (who aren’t the most athletic.) This summer, I’m going to Vietnam and solo-traveling for the first time, so I’m pretty excited to see some beautiful views!
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  • Great tips, particularly the ones about water and snacks! And shoes! I made the mistake of not being prepared enough when it came to the shoes…

    We trekked around Sapa a month or so back, and we booked a tour through our hotel in Hanoi. It turned out to be a nightmare of an experience – after getting off the train at 5am and having no sleep, we had to start trekking at 9am. It was the most miserable day of my travels so far. The views were breathtaking, but my footwear (running shoes, to be precise) just weren’t appropriate, so I was in agony the whole day. I’d definitely invest in proper hiking shoes if I went again!
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    • Audrey says:

      That sounds like a tough day. I couldn’t imagine getting little to no sleep and then having to set out on a full day trekking excursion – I would be the crabbiest person around! I hope you were at least able to enjoy some of the views.

  • Cata says:

    This is great advice!
    There definitely should be a lot of planning beforehand, especially if it’s a first time trekking experience! Finding the right shoes and weather-appropriate clothing will make the entire trip more comfortable and allow you to actually enjoy the sights 🙂 Packing light will also work to the same end – travelers need to be aware of their own limits and of the limits imposed by the journey’s specifics!
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  • Emily says:

    These are a lot of simple tips for hiking the Inca Trail. I think the best thing we did for that trip was to bring a water purifier; we were able to safely drink water without hauling too much or being subject to inflated prices along the way.
    Emily recently posted..The Sights of DelhiMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Thanks for the tip, Emily. I’ve never used water purifiers but it sounds like a great idea if you’re doing an extended hike and don’t want to be carrying gallons of water on your back. I’ll keep that in mind for future trips.

  • Ashley | Ashley Wanders says:

    Beautiful photos! I was in Northern Vietnam in February and had originally planned to go to Sapa, but the weather was less than ideal, so I went to Hoi An instead. Hopefully I will make it back to do a trek someday!
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    • Audrey says:

      Hoi An is a great choice too! I actually ended up extending my stay there. I thought the Old Town looked so magical – I just couldn’t seem to pull myself away. I hope you enjoyed it! 🙂

  • Charlie says:

    Looks like a beautiful place. I’m currently making a bucket list of sorts for the SE Asia leg of my trip from January, I think I’ll be adding Sapa to the list. I definitely want to do some trekking in Asia, this looks like a great place to do it. Thanks for the tips, and inspiration too!
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  • Oh man, Sapa is so beautiful! I visited with my family a number of years ago but was sick so couldn’t do any trekking at the time. Seriously planning to go back and head out on a multi-day trek in the next year!
    Thanks for your tips!
    – Petra
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  • Tessa Clare says:

    I loved sapa. It was awesome seeing a different side of Vietnam. We had just finished a crazy tour so we didn’t books homestay trek. We stayed in town and hired guides on the days we wanted day hikes. Loved the views and hikes and actually wish we had booked even a one night homestay hike. I agree also – don’t trek the first day off the train. Spend a night in sapa on either side. Get a massage and go to some of the amazing restaurants that are in this place on the middle of nowhere. We had some great meals. Funnily enough no hotels in sapa have a pool- but there are lots of beautiful balconies to chill from

    • Audrey says:

      I’m glad you were able to relax and enjoy a bit of pampering in Sapa. 🙂 I agree, there is no need to rush straight into a hike. I spent my first few days just enjoying the views, visiting the markets, and sampling the international cuisine – for a small town, Sapa sure has some great restaurants!

  • Vy says:

    Thanks Audrey for great tips and beautiful photo. I am Vietnamese and I wonder what month you came to sapa? Its was the best choice because the weather was perfect then.

    • Audrey says:

      Hi Vy, I was there in the month of May. I did have a couple of rainy days, but the showers never lasted too long. 🙂

  • Frei says:

    Great story – and great tips for Sapa too!
    I would recommend that if you don’t have transportation included in your package from the train station in Lai Cao to Sapa, to go and book it in advance with your hotel. Those guys who are waiting at the train station know they are your only option to get to Sapa and will overcharge you big time! Most of the hotels can arrange a pick up for you in advance, which takes a lot of hassling and time after a long train trip…
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  • Sara says:

    Hey Audrey!
    I am going to be in Sapa in November – thanks for the great article! When you did your trek, did you leave your main bag at your hotel in Sapa and just pack a smaller one for the trek? That’s the impression I got so I wanted to know what you did with your main bag.
    Going to book my hotel at the place you stayed through your link 🙂

  • Markus says:

    Hi Audrey,
    Sapa is so nice and easy. I’ve climbed the Fansipan in two days and it was awesome. Guides were kind and compared to what the were doing very cheap.

    Kind regards,
    Markus

  • Renuka says:

    Sapa does sound incredible! Beautiful landscapes. Yes, I have been on a similar hike when I was in Darjeeling – it was a hike from Dilaram village to a lake. We must have walked for 4-5 hours. It was super fun! The thing is that if you have scenic views, the walk isn’t burdensome.
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  • De'Jav says:

    Wow looks like an amazing place. Vietnam is definitely a place that I want to get too. Was 1 month enough time in Vietnam?
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  • Nomads At Heart says:

    Hi Audrey, thanks for sharing this. I have to say, these are lovely pictures and the post is inspiring. We will be heading to Vietnam soon so will definitely go to this place for some time. Do you think it’s a good place to stick around for a couple of weeks or more? 🙂

  • Franca says:

    I’m not a huge hiker myself but this hike looks so worth the effort, the views are spectacular. I have to admit your tips are very handy Audrey, especially for a not so expert hiker like myself.
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  • The scenery looks stunning! We love hiking, but usually day hikes, where we can return to private lodgings with private shower, etc. It’s nice to read about other interesting places though…
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  • Mary @ Green Global Travel says:

    Beautiful photos! These are great tips for trekking, and it’s funny how the smaller things you don’t usually think about become even more important!

  • Sapa O'Chau says:

    Great post with lots of genuinely useful info about trekking in Sapa. My only comment is that not all guides working in Sapa are local. So, it’s worth requesting this if you want your guide to be from one of the 5 ethnic minority communities in Sapa District. Thanks

  • Wow it looks amazing! I haven’t been to Vietnam yet but I really want to get there at some point. Good tip about bringing the flip flips for the end of the day when you want to rest your feet- I wouldn’t have thought of that.

  • Great tips, this is definitely something I would love to do when I go to Vietnam next year. I did a few multi day treks in Peru and Mexico and loved it
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  • Nichelle @ Airline Miles Experts says:

    Stunning scenery! Sapa is so beautiful and with that view, I couldn’t complain how tough the hiking would be. 🙂
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  • Ooh this looks fun! We are traveling over to Vietnam early next year and I think we might have to add Sapa to the list.

  • This looks and sounds amazing. We just returned from two weeks in Vietnam but just hit the cities. We love hiking, so we’ll have to check this out for our next trip.

  • Roshni Kaur says:

    Hey there! I love your blog and instagram 🙂 Thank you for sharing all these helpful tips. I am actually going to Vietnam on the 6th Feb but only for a week so I could spend 2-3 days in Sapa. We actually arrive in Sapa on Sunday so i was hoping to check out the Bac Ha market that day then the following day do a whole day worth of trekking and either leave that night or the next night. Does this sound like a good plan from your experience? 🙂 Any tips/advice would be great!!!! I’ve been researching like crazzzzy but find your blog to be the most helpful!

    • Audrey says:

      Hi Roshni,
      That’s exciting to hear that you’re off to Vietnam! The Bac Ha market is a bit of a long drive, so I would allow all of Sunday for that. Then if you have 1 day in Sapa, you can do one of the shorter hikes (Cat Cat Village is a super easy one that only takes half a day), or if you decided to stay for 2 days, you can go on a guided hike through the villages and also do a local homestay. All of this is easy to arrange once you arrive in Sapa. There are a lot of tour operators in town, and in most cases you can even book directly through your hotel. I hope that helps a bit!
      Wishing you a wonderful trip,
      Audrey

  • Sapa Tours says:

    So beautiful pictures and great tips, Audre. I want to share some of my experience in Sapa. If you are back- packers, you need to preprare a suitale itinerary to ensure that the attractions in the trip are arrange appropriately. For example a good itinerary for 2- day- trip: Hanoi – Sapa – Cat Cat Village – Silver Waterfall – Lao Chai Village – Ta Van Village – Ta Phin Village. Some others tips if you visit Sapa are: Instead of buying some hand made items in souvenir shop, buy them directly from the ethnic minorities to negotiate reasonable price; As the experience of Audre, hiring a local guide is also a way to support the ethnic minorities; Do not give local children candy because they can not affort to go to dentist.

  • Alvina says:

    Great tip about not booking a guide till you arrive. I have been working in HCMC for the past six months only escaping for a hike up Kinabalu and a week in the central highlands of Vietnam. Sapa is my first stop on 5 months of travel so any hints to make a good start are welcome.

    Not had time to see where you’re from but look at my site for hiking in the Lake District, UK.

    Alvina

    • Suk Pei says:

      I will be heading to Sapa too in this end of April. If I were to go for the homestay trek, would it be advisable to not book any accommodation before I go to Vietnam? Also, how much is it roughly to arrange a local guide upon my arrival in Sapa?

      • Audrey says:

        Hi Suk Pei,
        You may want to book a night or two in Sapa before you start your trek. This will give you time to organize everything and get to visit the town for a bit. I did the trek a few years ago, but I think it was somewhere around $40 per person for the 2 days. You can easily book tours through your hotel, the tourism office, or tour operators once you arrive in Sapa.

  • Danielle says:

    This post is super helpful! I’m in Hanoi right now and planning to go up to sapa in a few days. I really want to do some hiking and get away from the crowds and tourists. Do you have any advice for how to book the home stay/trekking experience? I really want it to be authentic and local, but I’m afraid of all of the touristy trips I see posted in Hanoi. I really want to choose the right trip for me! Thanks!

    • Audrey says:

      Hi Danielle,
      It’s really easy to book things once you arrive in Sapa. You can do so through the main tourism office in the centre of town, through your hotel, or through one of the many tour operators. They’ll be able to get you sorted.

  • Mette says:

    Hi

    We are traveling to Vietnam the 25th of june, and want to trek in Sapa. What was the company name that you used and how many days would you recommend for trekking? We are thinking of 2 days/1 night – because we are travelling in Vietnam for only 3 weeks.

  • Benjamin says:

    Wonderful blog Audrey, thank you so much for the precious advice. I’m going to Sapa next week for about 2 days.
    I think I’m going to follow your advice and not jump into a trek (i’m an absolute beginner and have no proper shoes haha) right after the train. Instead I though about slowly walking around the first day and do a proper trek the next day.

    Does it sound like a good plan to you? If yes would you have a place to recommend for my one-day trek?

    Cheers
    Ben

    • Audrey says:

      Hi Ben,

      If you want to do a solo half-day trek, there’s nearby Cat Cat Village. Your hotel should be able to give you a map and some directions. Alternatively you can arrange for the 2-day trek with a local tour operator.

      Wishing you a great trip!
      Audrey

  • kelly says:

    Hi Audrey,

    I love reading your blog. Thank you for letting everyone knows about my beautiful country. Would you mind let me know the camera you used for SAPA Trip (above pictures).

    Thank You,
    Kelly

    • Audrey says:

      Hi Kelly,

      I was shooting with the Casio High Speed Exilim while I was travelling in Sapa. Here’s a link to that model: http://amzn.to/1HEo4vX Most of my Southeast Asia photos were taken with that camera. 🙂

      Wishing you happy travels,
      Audrey

  • kelly says:

    Thank you Audrey for the quick response :). I really appreciate it. Would you let me know which post was taken using Sony NEX-3NL/B Mirrorless Digital Camera Kit (Black). I am trying to decide whether to get Casio or Sony one. Please let me know.

    Have a great day!

    Thank You,
    Lan

  • Penny says:

    Hi, thanks for your helpful blog. We are hoping to do visit Sapa in May, planning the night train with a 1 overnight stay in Sapa. Would you recommend a home stay or hotel overnight? How difficult is it to arrange trains etc. Independently? Will also have suitcases – can we leave them safely somewhere and just take a rucksack for the trek itself?

  • karenhappycook says:

    Thanks for sharing information about Sapa. BTW, I’ve seen your youtube video! May you have more journeys to come! I cant wait to see Sapa with my own eyes 🙂
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  • John says:

    Vietnam has been a dream for me for the longest time… Can’t wait to make it a reality, especially since I’m even more excited about it after reading this!

  • Thanks for the heads up. Such a wonderful landscape, it is closely similar to our landscapes here in the Philippines. I recommend you to visit also our mountain peaks and landscapes here. You may visit Mt. Mayon, the place will surely give you a wonderful, challenging and memorable journey.

  • Natalie says:

    Where do you recommend a single lady traveller stay in Sapa?? I’m hoping to take the night train from Hanoi and spend maybe 2 days hiking around– what are your thoughts on safe but fun places with easy access to treks?

  • Englishmanrick says:

    Thanks for informative blog. I’m planning on flying into Hanoi from Crete via Athens & Moscow. Mount Fansipan is calling me and I think Cat Cat also, if only for their lovely names! As I’m now 71 and reasonably fit, I don’t see any problems with a sensible approach to trekking, as I have recent experience in Annapurna region. Looking forward to views and meeting the local people, before heading south at a leisurely pace.

  • Jellis Vaes says:

    Hey Audrey! Many thanks for this tips. I am currently in Sapa, very handy information!
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  • Willa says:

    Hi Audrey,

    This looks beautiful! Do you remember which 2 day trek you did? Do they all follow the same route? And where you able to leave your big bags somewhere in Sapa?

    • Audrey Bergner says:

      Hi Willa, I’m pretty sure the 2-day trek is a standard tour that covers the same loop, except groups stay in different homestays along the way. I booked directly through my hotel but there are lots of tour operators where you can get more specifics on the tour. As for your large bags, your hotel should be able to store those – that’s what we did. The hotel that we had been staying at also let us use one of the spare rooms to have a quick shower once we came back from the tour, so ask your hotel if that’s possible.

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