Trekking through golden yellow or emerald green rice paddy terraces surrounded by beautiful valleys as far as the eye can see in Sapa, Vietnam sounds pretty damn incredible, right? This place should be on everyone’s bucket list!
Vietnam’s Northern mountain town, close to the border with China, has emerged over the last decade as a must visit tourist destination on the typical Vietnamese itinerary, and hiking is by far the best way to see its beauty.
Sapa has been attracting trekkers for a hundred years, since the French developed the town as a weekend retreat from the humidity of Hanoi. One of the major highlights for Sapa hikers is Fan Si Pan (Fansipan), the tallest mountain in the Indochinese Peninsula.
Trekking in the stunning Murong Hoa Valley and spending a night at a homestay is the most popular “thing” to do in Sapa. But you will need at least one more day for Fansipan and Cat Cat village.
Does visiting Sapa seem a little overwhelming as you plan your Vietnam adventure? It’s much easier than it appears. We’ll talk you through getting to Sapa, booking your trekking tour and what you can expect!
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How To Get To Sapa, Vietnam
Sapa is a tiny town in Northwest Vietnam, on the slopes of the Hong Lien Son Mountains. Mountain towns usually mean winding mountain roads. And trust us, Sapa is no exception. The route from Hanoi to Sapa by bus and train are very similar. Both routes meet in a town on the border with China called Lao Cai. From Lao Cai, there is only one road up and down the mountain to Sapa. This road bends, curves and meanders its way up the mountain for what feels like an eternity! Let’s just leave it at the fact you will be given paper bags in case of emergency on the bus.
The interactive map above shows the location of the Sapa Express Bus departure in old quarter Hanoi, Lao Cai and Hanoi train stations. We have also marked the Sapa drop off point. See the winding road up the mountain?!
Your decision to travel by train or bus could be based on budget, convenience or availability. Check prices on 12Go Asia to see whether the train or Sapa Express is a better fit for your budget/schedule. Both the bus and train were priced at US$12 per person when we visited Sapa, but remember you will pay for a bus connection after the train.
Our recommendation is to travel with Sapa Express. Ironically, despite the barf inducing roads up the mountain, this was the best sleeper bus we took in Vietnam!
Personally, we didn’t see the benefit to traveling by train and changing in Lao Cai. Especially when the bus was cheaper. Plus, the bus left Hanoi closer to where we were staying in the old quarter.
Best Time For Trekking in Sapa, Vietnam
Vietnam is a whirlwind of varying climates. Sapa has a unique subtropical highland climate. There is no way you can plan your entire Vietnam trip based around perfect weather conditions in each city. That being said, if Sapa is the one place you want the best chance of perfect trekking conditions, September is the month you need to plan for. Let’s take a look at the seasons:
Winter: December, January and February (not recommended)
During Winter in Sapa, temperatures plummet and fog moves in across the mountains. Snow can often fall on the highest peaks and in general average temperatures are not ideal for trekking.
Spring: March, April and May
Trekking in Spring is perfect for those who enjoy warm, dry weather and fewer tourists (both international and domestic). But you will not see the picturesque golden or abundant green rice terraces in Spring. That’s the main trade off.
Summer: June, July and August
Summer is a time for domestic tourism in Sapa. It’s also extremely humid, hot and wet. This is the time of year when rice terraces are lush green, but you will probably spend your whole visit being rained on!
Fall: September, October and November (Recommended)
September is the ideal time to visit. It might still be on the back end of heavy rainfall, but this is the only time of the year you will see the famous and sought after golden rice fields. By October, most of the harvest has been collected. Fall is fantastic for hiking through Sapa valley as it brings ideal trekking temperatures and clear blue skies. Mostly! When we visited in October, we had a mix of beautiful blue skies and rain! By November, it begins to get colder and rice fields are significantly less beautiful.
Self Guided or Local Guided Sapa Trekking Tour
The first thing you need to decide is how you want to explore Sapa. The main point we want to get across to you is not to worry about organizing everything before you arrive. You will not be short of options!
There are a number of ethnic minority peoples in the region, namely the H’Mong, the Dao and the Dai. Staying with a family in Sapa is likely to be the main reason you’re visiting but that can be done in a number of ways:
1 – Book into a Homestay Online Before You Arrive into Sapa (Self Guided)
This is the best option for independent travelers who want to experience a more rural, isolated Sapa with fewer tourists. And you still stay with a local family, this option simply removes the trekking guide. When you get dropped off in Sapa town near the Sun Plaza, you will need to find and hire a motorbike or take a taxi to the homestay of your choice. They are mostly located down in the Muong Hoa valley where many of the trekking tours go. You will be able to independently trek around the valley, but be warned, without a local guide, it will be harder to deflect vendors trying to sell their products.
Check prices for Sapa Homestay’s on booking.com – filter by ‘homestay’ and look on the map to the South East of Sapa town for homestay’s.
2 – Book into a Normal Hotel in Downtown Sapa (Local Guide)
Search booking.com for the best value hotels in Downtown Sapa. Spend 1/2 nights in a hotel followed by a 2 day 1 night trekking tour. This is our top recommendation.
This way you get to spend some time in town, check out Fansipan and Cat Cat Village, and then do your hiking with a homestay. We will cover how to book your own guided tour in the next section.
3 – Pre-book the Entire Sapa Section of Your Vietnam Itinerary (Local Guide)
Many visitors to this region would prefer to have others do the hard work for them and it’s especially understandable with the Sapa tour. You could book either in a Hanoi travel agency or as part of an organized tour. Check out this 2 day 1 night tour from Hanoi to Sapa including transport, trekking and homestay with Get Your Guide for an extremely competitive price. The convenience factor here is huge and is perfect for those with only a few days spare. Unfortunately, this means you won’t be able to do Fansipan and Cat Cat village.
How to Choose and Book A Guided Sapa Trekking Tour
Personally, we found it difficult to gather information about whether we should pre-book a trekking tour with a local guide or wait until we arrived in Sapa. We decided to wait until we arrived in town to make a better judgement call. And we’re glad we did.
You absolutely do not have to book a trekking tour and homestay with a local guide before you arrive. But if you would feel more comfortable having the arrangements in place, book in advance. It’s entirely up to how you prefer to travel! Prices will be similar whether booked online or in town, especially if you can find a good deal online.
As your bus pulls up in Sapa, there will be a Sea of Hmong women dressed in bright vibrant clothing waiting to inundate you with offers of trekking tours. You can talk to as many as you like at this point to discuss hiking options. You will need to do your best Moses impression to part the Sea of women before moving on to your hotel!
Trekking in Sapa has become so popular that there are an increasing amount of options. There are also local travel agencies in town where you can book your trekking tour. Alternatively, book with your hotel owners who will be more than happy to help. It helps if you build up a good rapport first with your hotel owner. Yes, they will take a small cut for themselves but it means you get a highly recommended guide.
This is how we booked our trekking tour on our Sapa itinerary and it worked out perfectly for us. Our Hmong guide was amazing, the mother of all the Mama’s!
What to Expect on a Sapa Trekking Tour with Hmong Guide
The best part about booking the homestay through your hotel (like we did) is that you should be able to leave your backpack/luggage at the hotel. All we carried was our day pack for the overnight. We were met by our Hmong trekking guide Mama Sung right in our hotel lobby in the morning. Once the introductions were over, we began our hike.
We left town heading East and made our way along dirt paths around mountain sides, passing houses and tons of animals. Heat and humidity took their toll immediately after we began to climb. There are several viewpoints along the route affording spectacular views over valleys and rice terraces. We were a little unfortunate on our first day as the air was thick with a dense fog. We were literally in a cloud, all day! Don’t be surprised if that happens to you too, the climate can be quite changeable.
We met several other tourists trekking with their guides along the same route. It’s a great place to meet like minded people. But it is touristy, so don’t expect to be out there alone. There was a stop for lunch in a busy canteen that appeared out of nowhere, probably because it was raining so heavily and we couldn’t see! We chose the vegetarian rice option but there are meats available. We were also provided a drink. Beer and some other foods were available for an additional charge.
Our guide Mama Sung was absolutely brilliant! She taught herself to speak English and loved to practice with us. Mama Sung also showed us how to recognize an indigo plant. This indigo is important to the Hmong tribe because they use it dye their clothing. After around 6 hours of trekking, we eventually arrived into the village where we were shown to our accommodation for the night.
Once we arrived in the village area, we learned how the houses were built specifically around the rice terraces. These narrow paths were just wide enough for one person and one motorbike. We walked through the skinny maze to find our accommodation for the night. The set up for each homestay will be a bit different. Mama Sung first showed us around her house and we met her husband. She had a huge chart on the wall with pictures and the English word underneath. This was how she taught herself to speak English! We were told we wouldn’t be staying at Mama Sung’s house, but at her cousin’s house with several other tourists. Next, we were led to another building and shown where we could sleep. We shared the house with 4 other tourists.
At first we were disappointed not to be staying in Mama Sung’s house as we thought that was the point! But the other tourists staying in the house with us were great. Dinner for us was at 6pm and it was truly superb. The homemade spring rolls we had that night were some of the best we tried in Vietnam. We also have to mention the morning glory, delicious chicken and vegetables with rice. This was such a drastic improvement over the lunch!
After dinner, we all had a few beers (paid for of course!) and then Mama Sung brought out a clear plastic bottle that looked like it was the prototype of plastic bottles. She had been talking about something called ‘Happy Water‘ all day, singing it to us and laughing. When she took the lid off, we understood. Wow. Is this the stuff they had in the tank of Apollo 11? Needless to say, we all felt a little rough the next morning.
Personally, we preferred the second day of hiking. The weather was beautiful, the sky was clear and the sun was beaming which was a complete contrast to the day before! We found the scenery and actual trekking to be more enjoyable too. We ventured through the beautiful rice terraces, even though they were waterlogged and no longer golden. It’s a mighty spectacle to look upon 90 degree angled soil and grass spread out for miles, like endless one sided green pyramids.
We walked over a dam in progress, through numerous terraces and stopped for lunch in a more hospitable wooden log cabin type canteen. The spot was right next to a waterfall and the sun was beaming down on us. There were a few groups all trekking together on the second day. The route became a big happy family with many tourists and locals interacting!
Following another 6 hours of hiking, we were ready to head back to town for our transfer to Halong Bay. We said goodbye to Mama Sung along with the other fabulous guides and got picked up by a minibus. Unfortunately, our bus got stuck for 1 hour when a huge truck was offloading material on the only through road. Definitely not what you wanted after a long day of trekking, but we finally got back to Sapa in the early evening.
Where To Stay Before and After Trekking in Sapa Valley
Use the booking.com search box below to find hotels and homestay’s in Sapa. Be sure to book a hotel centrally if you plan to stay in a hotel and then take a trekking tour from there. Stay close to the lake. Muong Hoa valley is where you need to look for a homestay if that’s how you want to do it instead. Look to the South East of Sapa town.
Sapa is a lovely town to spend a few days. There are plenty of great options for accommodation. We’ve scoured booking.com and put together the best deals we could find for each budget category! Check them out below the booking.com search box.
Tips For Trekking in Sapa
- Be aware that weather in Sapa is extremely changeable! One day could be beautiful clear blue skies and sun and the next day Sapa disappears in a cold cloud of water vapor. It is worth considering adding a ‘fudge’ day just in case you need it.
- Do not worry about booking a trekking tour in advance. There will be plenty of opportunity to book a tour once you arrive in town.
- Having said that, booking in advance means you can relax and not have to worry about searching out options in town. It’s entirely up to how you prefer to travel.
- You need robust footwear, a raincoat and a compact daypack for trekking. In addition, take lots of thin layers to combat rain and humidity!
- Don’t forget your bug spray, the last thing you want is to be eaten alive in the Vietnamese mountains!
- You will be exposed for around 6 hours each day. Sunscreen is an absolute must.
- Leeches are a problem. We both didn’t wear pants that covered our entire legs and we wished we had. We kept checking each other for leeches all day. Also note, the leeches will be more active after rainfall.
We hope this guide helps you plan your own successful Sapa trekking tour!
How much have you budgeted for your Vietnam trip? Take a look at our 1 month Vietnam expense report to get an idea of how much you will spend.
And finally, be sure to read our top 30 key things to know about Vietnam before you visit.
Please let us know if you have any questions in the comments below!
Trivia: Sapa is located at what altitude?
1,500 meters (4,900 feet)
Combine this altitude with incredibly changeable climate and you have yourself a very difficult place to pack for! It can get chilly in winter up there!
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