[Video] Your Guide to Trekking and Hiking in Sapa, Vietnam
Posted by Jessica Drolet
Sapa is my favourite travel destination in Vietnam. Not only do you witness spectacular views of rolling mountains and rice terraces, but you get to mingle with local hill-tribe people who make the experience unique and authentic.
Last July, I went back to Sapa to hike the highest peak of Vietnam (3.143 m) with a friend visiting from Dubai. Fansipan (Phan-Xi-Pǎng) is one of the prettiest and most enjoyable hikes I’ve done. If you enjoy trekking adventures, Sapa should be on your list.
How hard is it?
Me at the summit, 8 hours after the start of our hike!
It’s not an easy hike. The second half of the Trạm Tôn route, the shortest trail, is rather steep and involves climbing ladders.
I read that—and have seen—people go up in 4 hours and hike down in about the same amount of time, but it actually took my friend and I 8 hours just to go up. If we had taken fewer breaks, I know we could have hiked much faster, but 4 hours seems ambitious.
Good thing a cable car was built in February 2016. Although it makes the top commercial and crowded, it allows you to go down in just 20 minutes.
How to get there?
From Hanoi, your best bet is to take an 8-hour night train. The price is about US$40 each way. The four-berth cabins are comfortable enough to get some sleep but make sure you bring warm clothing as the air conditioning can be very cold.
Your other options are to take a 5-hour bus for as low as US$15 or to arrange shuttle transportation from Hanoi with your hotel if they have it.
Where to stay?
The Junior Suite at AIRA Boutique Sapa Hotel & Spa.
Many people opt for home stays which provide the most authentic experiences. For this trip though, I was looking for the easiest and most comfortable solution.
I chose AIRA Boutique Sapa Hotel & Spaand highly recommend it. It’s modern, central but away from all the noise, and the service is impeccable. They upgraded us to a Junior suite and gave us the room when we arrived, at 6:30 AM. What’s more, they offer decently priced spa treatments. I would definitely go back.
If you’re a group of 3 or 4, you might enjoy Sapa Jade Hill’s cute villas a little further away in the mountains, and if you like eco-friendly hotels, check out Topas Ecolodge which is all about social responsibility. It’s 18 km away from Sapa town but it has a beautiful infinity pool.
2 or 3 days in Sapa is the perfect length. You’ll need 1 day for trekking and 1 day for hiking if you’re fast or come down by cable car, or 2 days if you sleep in the mountains.
Our itinerary was as follows.
5:30 AM – Arrive at the train station and head to hotel in private shuttle transportation.
6:30 AM – Arrive at the hotel, check in and sleep until 11:30 AM.
12 PM – Go to town (1 minute away by taxi) to book the afternoon trek and the following day’s hike, and eat lunch.
1:30 PM – Start the trek.
6 PM – Finish the trek with a dinner at a homestay.
6:30 PM – Go back to the hotel and get a foot massage. Go to bed early.
6:30 AM – Wake up, eat a high-carb breakfast and check out.
7 AM – Meet the guide and head to Trạm Tôn Pass, the trail’s entrance, by taxi.
8 AM – Start the hike, pause for lunch at noon, arrive at the summit at 4 PM.
4:30 PM – Take the cable car, go back to the hotel by taxi.
5:30 PM – Take a shower, get a foot massage and order take-out dinner.
6:30 PM – Head to the train station in hotel’s van.
7:30 PM – Arrive at the train station and board the train to Hanoi.
When to go?
Compared to Ho Chi Minh City where it’s always around 30°C, Sapa’s weather varies a lot. Most sources recommend going between March and May, and from September to November,when chances of rain are lower and the weather is not too cold. I unintentionally did the opposite. The first time I went was in December and this time was at the end of July.
July and August are the greenest but also the hottest and wettest months. Do check weather forecasts as typhoons are more common in July and August than during the rest of the year. It usually rains in the morning and clears up in the afternoon, but we had two beautiful sunny days.
Also go during the week as it can get crowded over the weekend.
Tips for trekking in Sapa villages
Book a trek with Sapa Sisters, an inspiring organization empowering Hmong women. Treks usually start in the morning, but they might be able to accommodate you if you prefer an afternoon trek.
Head back before it gets dark because the ride is not smooth. At the end of the tour, you’ll have the choice between a taxi or a motorbike ride back to your hotel. We chose motorbikes but regretted it. It’s a bumpy and unpleasant ride in the dark.
mosquito repellent. Mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria and dengue fever are prevalent in Vietnam.
long pants. Even if it’s hot. They’ll be useful when you walk in the middle of the rice fields.
an extra pair of socks. Yours might get wet while crossing rivers.
small money bills from 10,000 VND (US$0.50), to 100,000 VND (US$5). Local hill-tribe villagers will follow and help you throughout your trek. At the end, they’ll show you scarves and other hand-made crafts. Buying something between 100,000 VND to 200,000 VND (US$10) is a nice gesture.
water. Our guide gave us a 500 ml bottle of water each but we finished it within an hour.
Other than Vietnamese people, there are a number of indigenous communities derived from Chinese migration living in Sapa villages, the two main ones being Hmong and Dao (pronounced Zao or Yao). So the culture is different there, and people may not return your “Xin Chào” (which means hello in Vietnamese) as they have their own dialect. My advice is:
Dress modestly and conservatively. Each ethnic group has a unique attire and in general, not much skin is revealed. Also avoid all-white outfits, they are mostly worn at funerals.
Ask permission before taking pictures of people. Particularly of infants and older people who can be suspicious of cameras.
If you are invited into a house (homestay), remove your shoes before entering and carry your backpack in your hands.
Be thoughtful when you bargain. It’s ok to bargain but do you really need that extra $2 you’re about to save on that $10 scarf? On the other hand, what may seem cheap to you might not to others so avoid saying things like “it’s so cheap”.
Think before buying handcrafts from children. Some people believe it can encourage children to quit school and become full-time sellers. An alternative is to give them fresh fruits, small notebooks, pencils or pens.
Avoid public displays of affection. Even though PDA is becoming more and more acceptable in big cities among people of the younger generation, you should avoid it all around Vietnam and especially in rural areas.
The lovely lady who followed and helped me throughout the trek.
Tips for hiking Fansipan
You can’t—and will be glad you don’t—hike without a local guide. I did go ahead of my guide a couple times, but it’s risky. Not only can you lose your way, but you can bump into snakes and other animals. Stay with your crew at all times.
Don’t book expansive trips (online). The lowest price we found was US$50 per person for a one-day hike. Once you get to Sapa, you can find a guide and negotiate terms (pickup time, etc.). We found ours two doors away from Sapa Sisters, on Fansipan Street. Our guide spoke English and was very patient and knowledgable about the fauna and flora.
Start your hike early. Make sure you plan enough time so that you don’t hike Fansipan in the dark, unless you’re a pro or well equipped for it. But even then, it doesn’t seem like the funnest and safest plan.
money. The cable car is a fixed rate of 600,000 VND (US$26) per person for a day pass.
snacks. Lunch is usually provided by your guide but if you’re a picky eater, bring your own lunch and some snacks.
sunscreen. I got a really bad sunburn on the back of my neck.
hiking sticks could be useful too.
Dress in layers, as for any other hike. It was pretty windy at the top.
I would probably avoid hiking in heavy rain but that’s something you can discuss with your guide if that happens.
Hiking Etiquette for first-timers
Greet other hikers or local people. A friendly “hello” is enough to open the door to others if they have questions or need help.
Let people travelling uphill pass first when you hike down. They have right of way, although they may need a break and offer you to go first.
Don’t create too much noise. Radios or mobile phones can disturb people who are hiking or living near the trails.
Stick to the trail. Not only is it dangerous to take shortcuts but you might contribute to an increase in erosion.
Stay to the right of the trail, and let people pass you on the left.
Don’t feed wild animals. They might be dangerous when approached.
Do I need to mention not to litter? Especially discarded cigarettes as they can start fires.
What was your favourite hiking experience? Have you been to Sapa? Share your experience in the comment section below.