I’ve been to Vietnam twice now and because I wasn’t able to make it to the north on my first trip, this time around I knew that I had to get myself north to visit the famous region of Sapa. And when I tell you that once I arrived, the region took my breath away… I truly have no words. Sapa is indescribably beautiful with golden green rice terraces, mountain peaks as high as the eye can see, and the greenest landscape interrupted by small, beautifully decorated Vietnamese villages. If you’re traveling to Vietnam, and you are interested in the outdoors and trekking, then you surely can’t miss visiting this region. Here’s everything you need to know about trekking in Sapa.
History of Sapa
Sapa is located in the northwestern region of Vietnam. It’s the capital of the Lào Cai Province and is well known for its beautiful rice terraces, local villages, Fansipan Mountain (the highest peak in the Indochinese Peninsula), and the ability to trek throughout the region.
The people who first colonized the region didn’t leave much information behind, so very little is known about them. Then came the Hmong and Yao people, but the region started to garner attention when the French came to town in the late 1880s. It wasn’t until 1993 when Sapa was completely open to tourism that the region became a prominent holiday destination amongst international tourists.
Local People in Sapa
There are eight different ethnic groups in the Sapa region. Not including the Viet (Vietnamese) people who mainly live in Sa Pa town, there are also the Hmong (52%), Yao (23%), Kinh (18%), Tay (5%), Day (1%), and Xa Pho (1%).
Each minority lives in their own village and have traditional ways of dressing and speaking.
I found this information from the Vietnam tourism website, however my local guide told me that there were only five ethnic groups throughout the Sapa region.
How to Get to Sapa
Sapa is most easily accessible from Hanoi (however you can visit from other places like Ha Giang). Because Sapa is a mountainous region, there is no airport and it’s only accessible by road. There are two main options when traveling from Hanoi to Sapa (by far the most popular way to get to the region) and that is by bus or by train.
TAKING A BUS FROM HANOI TO SAPA
Beginning in 2015, busses started to operate daily from Hanoi to Sapa to meet the demands of travelers visiting the region. In my opinion, this is the best way to visit Sapa because it’s actually faster than taking the night train. The ride from Hanoi to Sapa will take around six hours and includes a couple of stops along the way so that you’re able to get out and use the bathroom (at time of writing, this will cost 3000 VND so make sure to have cash on you). You can choose an overnight bus or a day bus depending on your preference. The easiest way to book is through Bookaway, where you can compare options from all of the bus companies traveling to Sapa.
BOOK YOUR BUS TICKET FROM HANOI TO SAPA HERE!
TAKING A TRAIN FROM HANOI TO SAPA
Since tourists have begun to flock to Sapa, the trains traveling between Hanoi and Sapa have been updated with AC, bathrooms, and beds – not a bad way to travel ;). Of course depending on what you’re willing to pay, you can book the cheapest option (less amenities) and the more expensive the ticket, the more amenities you get.
The train departs Hanoi station and arrives at Lao Cai station near the border of China. There are seven different rail options to choose from, the earliest departing from Hanoi at 9:40pm and the latest departing from Hanoi at 10 pm. The train ride lasts eight hours and you can also book a ticket on Bookaway.
BOOK YOUR TRAIN TICKET FROM HANOI TO SAPA HERE!
IF YOU’RE TRAVELING TO SAPA FROM HANOI DON’T MISS:
IF YOU’RE TRAVELING TO SAPA FROM HA GIANG DON’T MISS:
Where to Stay in Sapa
There are tons of villages and areas throughout the Sapa region to stay, but I chose to stay in the town of Sa Pa. I really enjoyed it and would recommend to base yourself there, however if you’re trying to get away from the tourist crowds, you might want to stay elsewhere. While I really liked Sa Pa town, it’s incredibly touristy and prices are a bit high for Vietnam (although still very cheap in the grand scheme of things).
When I visited, I stayed in two different hotels and would highly recommend both of them:
- Heart of Sapa – Stay here if you’re on a budget
- Sapa Relax Hotel & Spa – Stay here if you’re looking for a bit nicer accomodation and can spend more money
How Many Nights Should You Stay in Sapa?
Before deciding on how many nights to stay in Sapa, you need to know what kind of trek you want to do. If you want to do an overnight trek and stay in a homestay, then you’ll want to stay for at least two nights in Sapa. If you are rushed for time and only want to do a day trek, then you only need one night in Sapa.
I stayed in Sapa for three nights so that I could trek and also enjoy the town. If you aren’t pressed for time, I would recommend slowing down and enjoying the beauty of the region.
What to Pack for Sapa if You Plan to Trek
Having come completely unprepared for trekking in Sapa (I fell multiple times because I wasn’t wearing great shoes), here’s a list of things I would pack if I were to do it again. Keep in mind, if you’re doing a two day trek, I would pack a bit more seriously than if you do a one day trek.
- Sunscreen – for face; for body
- Water bottle that keeps water cold
- Hiking shoes (I wore tennis shoes and fell due to the mud in the rice fields)
- Athletic wear
- Fanny pack (to hold money, etc) – this one if you’re bringing a water bottle; this one if you aren’t
Should You Trek Sapa with a Guide or Alone?
I am not an experienced hiker so I would say that trekking with a guide is best. Not only does a guide know the terrain best and can help you through difficult areas, but you’re walking through the rice fields on trails that are completely unmarked. Even if you are an experienced hiker, I would have a hard time believing that you’d be able to trek this area alone.
I think the bigger question is, what kind of trek do you want to do? If you’re wanting to spend 1+ nights in a village then you’re going to want to join a trek that allows that. If you want a more local experience and you’re willing to spend more money, you can hire a private guide to take you on a less touristy path through Sapa. And if you’re like me, you can show up to your hotel and pay them to send someone for you. (When I was at Heart of Sapa Hotel I paid $20 for a one-day trek to Lao Chai village, which included having a guide and lunch. This route was very touristy but seeing as I’m not a big hiker, it was fine for me).
All of this said, I did trek to Cat Cat Village alone, (which is hardly even a trek). Cat Cat Village is the nearest village to Sa Pa and it’s essentially a 30-minute walk downhill. If you’re spending a couple of days in Sa Pa you could do a proper trek (through the rice fields) and also explore Cat Cat Village on your own. For more details on Cat Cat Village, make sure to read this post.
Cost of Visiting/Trekking Sapa
In my experience, Sapa was a bit more expensive that the rest of Vietnam. Hotels were cheap (I spent $15-$30/night), and my trek was cheap ($20), but food and other activities (like massages) were more expensive.
Overall, I would budget $25/day in Sapa not including any trekking.
The Best Time to Visit Sapa
The best time to visit the region of Sapa is between March-May and September-November. Spring brings beautiful flowers, and autumn brings golden rice fields. The coldest month of the year is January, and rainy season lasts from May-September with the wettest months being June, July, and August. (I visited the region in September and it was absolutely breathtaking).
2-Day Sapa Itinerary
If you’re planning to do one-day trek, here is what I would recommend for a 2-day itinerary in Sapa…
DAY ONE IN SAPA
- Arrive via bus and check into hotel
- Trek to Cat Cat Village or take the cable car up to Fansipan Mountain
- Walk around the lake at sunset
- Dinner at Little Sapa
DAY TWO IN SAPA
- Hire guide to do a one-day trek through the rice fields
- Get coconut coffee from Cong Caphe
- Foot massage
- Dinner at Little Sapa
Tips & Advice for Trekking in Sapa
The hardest thing for me before visiting somewhere new is really knowing what to expect. Once I’ve visited, I always think to myself, “It wasn’t that hard to figure out!” and I promise you it’s the same for Sapa. It can feel overwhelming knowing how long to stay, what kind of guide to hire, etc; but in Vietnam… things just tend to work themselves out! Below you’ll find my best tips and advice for trekking in Sapa.
- First decide how long you want to trek, then book your hotel based on that
- Decide if you want to take an overnight bus to Sapa and then start a trek that morning; or if you want to take an overnight bus once you leave – this will determine how long to get your hotel
- The region is VERY touristy – if you’re wanting to visit the north and you aren’t a big trekker, I suggest looking into the Ha Giang Loop instead
- Drink plenty of water
- Wear sunscreen (even if it’s cloudy)
- Know that you will be bombarded with women and kids trying to sell you handmade goods
- If you’re traveling to Vietnam, especially to do something as intense as trekking, I highly recommend purchasing travel insurance to protect you in case anything were to happen
- Americans (and most other nationalities) need a visa to visit Vietnam – you can get that here
FAQ About Trekking in Sapa
- Is trekking in Sapa difficult?
- There are so many different treks you can do that range from easy to hard. Because you’re at a higher elevation, you may tire quicker but there are some pretty simple treks that you can do if you are worried about difficulty.
- Is trekking in Sapa worth it?
- If you’re a big trekker – absolutely. If you’re not, you might find yourself disappointed by the crowds of tourists. In this case, I would instead encourage you to look into visiting the Ha Giang area instead.
- Can you trek Sapa on your own?
- You can definitely “trek” to Cat Cat Village on your own; as far as trekking to villages further away, it would be challenging due to the unmarked and unpaved trails.
As you can tell from this post, I absolutely loved Sapa due to its beauty and how unique the area is. However, I did find the area to be very touristy. If you’re looking for something a bit more off the beaten path (and don’t care too much about trekking), I would encourage you to check out the Ha Giang Loop.
If you have any questions about trekking in Sapa, let me know in the comments below!
IF YOU’RE PLANNING A TRIP TO VIETNAM, DON’T MISS:
- The Best 2 Day Ninh Binh Itinerary
- A Complete Guide to Visiting Hoi An
- How to Travel from Hoi An to Hue Via the Hai Van Pass
For more information on Train Street, make sure to check out my Instagram page/highlight reel by searching “#ppinvietnam” or under my highlights, “Vietnam”
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