Beyond the chaotic motorbike-filled streets of Hanoi, you’ll find a quiet and unspoiled mountain town in Lao Cai Province, known as Sapa.
Surrounded by emerald green rice paddies and misty hills, it’s one of the most naturally beautiful spots in the country. Sapa is very popular with outdoor lovers and hikers, as it offers stunning trails through temperate forests and rolling countryside.
As you trek through this region, you’ll enter many small local villages where you can meet minority groups and get to know their culture. These ethnic minorities live in small villages throughout the mountains and come to the center to trade and sell their products – including fruit, rice, vegetables and handicrafts.
Whether you are a beginner hiker or a seasoned pro, exploring this cool, lush mountainous region will be a treat. Here are some important things to know before you go trekking in Sapa.
Sapa is located around 320 km (198 miles) from Hanoi and there are many options for getting there.
- Overnight Sleeper Train: It leaves Hanoi at 10pm and arrives at Lao Cai by 6:30am. The standard train ticket will cost around $27 USD per person and you’ll be in a cabin with 3 other travelers. There’s also an option for a deluxe private cabin. From Lao Cai you’ll need to take a minibus to Sapa, which is a one hour drive. The drivers will be waiting at the station and the prices are negotiable.
- Overnight Sleeper Bus: This is a more affordable option – it will cost around $15 USD per person. The coaches are quite comfortable – you can lie down in the seats and you’ll have a blanket, WiFi and a free bottle of water. You’ll arrive directly in Sapa – no need for a transfer from Lao Cai.
- Rent a Car: If you want to have the freedom to travel at your own pace, you can also rent a car and drive. It will take about 6 hours.
Popular Sapa Hiking Trails
There are many routes to choose from when trekking in Sapa, depending on how much time you have and your physical ability:
- Fansipan: This mountain, known as the Roof of Indochina, is the highest peak in Vietnam. The trek will take around 2-3 days and it is only recommended for experienced hikers.
- Lao Than Mountain: Another towering peak, Lao Than can be reached via motorbike from Sapa. The trek will take around 5 days and it is best during the dry season from November to April.
- Cat Cat Village: This short trek will take you to a historic village of Black H’mong people, where you can learn about their day to day life.
- Giang Ta Chai Village: Another stunning hike, this journey will take you through Hoang Lien National Park to a picturesque village with a waterfall. Take a moment to look at the clothing sold by the artisans at the local market.
Consider Hiring a Guide
It is possible to go trekking on your own in Sapa, but there are many reasons to consider hiring a guide. A local guide will be familiar with the terrain and the best lookout spots and will be able to plan the best route for you. Also, they will know all about the changes in weather and any potential dangers, so they can adjust your hike accordingly. (It’s also nice to give back to the local community by hiring a local trekking guide.)
It’s not necessary to arrange for a trekking guide before you arrive – it’s easy (and cheaper) to book one in person. You can even ask your hotel for a recommendation, or head to the main tourism office. Most of the guides in the region speak excellent English and will be able to tell you all about the nature and history of the area.
Bring the Right Shoes
Hiking trails in Sapa can be quite rugged and you will find yourself scrambling up the mountains on rocky, uneven terrain. Sturdy hiking shoes are a must. If you don’t have any, there are many shops in Sapa that rent and sell trekking gear. So, if you don’t want to lug your gear around the rest of Southeast Asia this might be the best solution.
You’ll also want to bring a pair of flip flops to wear at the end of the day so that your feet can relax and breathe.
Give Yourself Extra Time
Many travelers simply take the overnight train to Sapa, do a trek that same day, when retun to Hanoi on the train the following night. However, this isn’t really enough time to soak up the natural beauty and laid back pace of Sapa.
Give yourself more time to enjoy the area by spending a couple of days in the region. You can wander around the town, dine in the local restaurants and just enjoy the fresh mountain air.
More Sapa Trekking Tips
- The best time to plan your trip is between the months of August and November. The rice fields will be at their most beautiful shade of green, so you’ll get the best photos. However, this will also be when the weather is rainy, so make sure that you bring a raincoat with you, as well as a waterproof bag for your camera.
- If you are trekking from December to February – bring warm clothes. It’s not uncommon to see snow in the mountains during this time of year.
- Pack lightly. Your bag might feel like when you try it on in your room, but it will feel much heavier when you’ve already been walking for 6 hours.
- Consider bringing a plastic poncho. It will fold up really small in your bag but it can protect you if it starts to rain.
- If you go on a trek with a company, you’ll likely be able to leave your main luggage at their office and just take a day pack. Also, most hostels and guesthouses in the area will have a luggage hold service.
Any more questions about trekking in Sapa?
Let me know in the comments below!