Guide For Trekking In Vietnam – Part 1: Sapa
A big part of Vietnam is covered by mountains with dramatic landscapes, stunning treks routes, and friendly people. Trekking in Vietnam attracts many adventure lovers from all around the world and remains at the top of the bucket list for many travelers.
In this series of articles, we will introduce you the best places for trekking in Vietnam.
We will start our introduction to
trekking in Vietnam with Sapa. Located in North-East Vietnam it is a home for the highest peak of the country– Fan Si Pan, rice terraces and different ethnic minorities, who still remain the same lifestyle as it was hundreds of years ago.
All the treks start from Sapa town, which still remains French colonial charm. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was developed by French as a retreat place. During the Vietnam Wars, this town was ruined, but in 1990-s many new buildings start to appear and now Sapa has a big range of accommodation for travelers.
Things to do in Sapa
Sapa is the most famous place for treks in Vietnam. Here you could find a big choice of treks with different difficulty levels and length. You can take half-day, full-day or 2 or more days treks with overnights at a homestay.
What you could expect in Sapa is the picturesque mountains, rice terraces, waterfalls and the authentic lifestyle of local hill tribes. There are many different villages to visit and each of them has something unique. It could be herbal bathes in Ta Phin village, hydro-electric power plant built by French in Cat Cat, corn terraces in Supan, springtime plum flower blossom in Ban Ho, bamboo forests in Giang Ta Chai, etc. Each village also has its unique traditions, festivals, and way of living. The only thing which is the same for all these places is dramatic landscapes around.
Conquer Fan Si Pan Peak
The highest mountain in Vietnam –Fan Si Pan, which height is 3143 meters above the sea level, is located in Sapa. You could challenge yourself with the 3 or more days trekking to the peak of this mountain. It will be a real adventure, you will take the narrow paths through the forest which are rarely used, will spend overnight inside a tent and see the wildlife. The trek will be not the easiest, but the views you see and experience you get would definitely worth it.
Explore the culture of hill tribes
Sapa is a home for many ethnic groups. Many of them keep their traditional lifestyle and it is not a tourist attraction. The biggest ethnic groups (apart Vietnamese) here are Black Hmong’s, Red Dao, Tay and Giay people. All of them have different cultures, languages, and traditions and after spending some time in Sapa you will easily recognize the difference between them.
Black Hmong’s wear the clothes of dark blue or black color, and their women hide their long beautiful hair under interesting looking hats. Black Hmong people have migrated from Southern China about 300 years ago. They have a patriarchal social system and every village has a head who takes care of life of the entire village. In their religion, they believe in spirits of nature, different objects, and ancestors.
Red Dao women shave their eyebrows and wear traditional red hats many silver jewelry. You could meet them less often as their villages are farther from Sapa than Black Hmong’s ones. This tribe originally came from China and their religion is some kind of unique mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. They are also experts in the field of herbal medicine. If you visit any of Red Dao villages you could expect to get a really nice herbal bath, what will be a good retreat after the trekking?
Tay is one of the largest ethnic groups in Vietnam and the most integrated into Vietnamese culture. These people are the first who appeared in Sapa. They wear dark blue cotton clothes with bright belts. Their culture and believes are based on worshipping spirits and ancestors.
You will not often see Giay people, mostly in the markets. You could recognize them by women wearing pink clothes combining it with bright kerchiefs. This tribe has migrated to Vietnam from China about 200 years ago and their belief is animism as well as Hmong’s people do.
One of the most interesting activities in Sapa is visiting local markets with colorful textiles, silver jewelry, handcrafts, and local food.
On Sunday you could visit Bac Ha market, which is a big social occasion for locals. Here you could see people coming from all nearby villages to sell and buy local products, livestock, and crafts. It is a very interesting and fun experience that let you get deep into the local culture.
Where to Stay
During the last few years, tourism in Sapa is developing at a high pace and now there is a big choice of accommodation for any budget.
There are plenty of hotels and resorts in Sapa town from 2 to 5 stars. If you choose to spend overnight in one of the villages, you would be able to get only homestay options. In some of the homestays, you will have a private room, but many of them are more like a dormitory, where you will have to share a room with other travelers.
What to eat
Sapa has plenty of choices for having a meal. You could find many restaurants and cafes on the streets of the town, at the hotels homestays and markets. With the development of tourism, you even can find the restaurants of western cuisine. But if you would like to try something authentic Sapa has lots of specialties to offer.
We could recommend you to try Com Lam (sticky rice grilled in bamboo) and seven-color sticky rice (each color comes from different herbs from the forest). Most of the stock in Sapa is not held inside and is free to walk around the valleys all day and eating fresh food from the fields and forests, what makes meat dishes in Sapa very delicious, here you could try horse meat, buffalo meat, pork and black chicken cooked in different ways.
We recommend you to try grilled pork and dried buffalo. It is also worth trying local salmon which is famous to be high in nutrition and not greasy. Vegetarians could find here a big selection of fruits and try local vegetables like Cai Meo and Mam Da.
When to visit
Sapa is located in Northern Vietnam and has winter season. From November to February it will be cold in Sapa when the temperature could go down to 0C degrees, it even might snow at some days. You will not see any growing rice at this time of the year and the weather might be misty. If you will be lucky you could see the beautiful views when it snows, however it is hard to predict the time for snow.
From February to March local farmers are preparing the fields to the new season and the terraces filled in by water will look like a mirror. February is still quite a cool season, but in March it will start getting warmer.
The time from March to June will be great for visiting Sapa, it is the warm and dry season, and you could see the emerald green rice terraces.
During the summer period from June to August, there will be a rainy season, so it will be hard to trek and sometimes it will be too foggy to see the mountains.
From August to October the rice terraces turning from emerald green to golden color, which will give you even more amazing views.
How to get to Sapa
Tours to Sapa usually start from Hanoi. There are 4 ways to get to Sapa:
By private car. It is the fastest and most comfortable, but the most expensive way to get to Sapa.
By bus. There is a new highway from Hanoi to Sapa, it is a fast way to get to Sapa and the cheapest.
By train. Earlier nearly all the tours to Sapa were using overnight train between Hanoi and Lao Cai station (about 1-hour drive from Sapa town). This way is considered to be the safest and more comfortable than the bus.
By motorbike. This option is used mostly by locals, however, some travelers like this option too, it gives more authentic experience, but takes a much longer time. Travelers also should remember that Vietnam doesn’t recognize other countries’ driving licenses, so if you don’t have a local license your riding will be illegal.
We usually recommend our travelers to choose the train option as it is good in terms of price, comfort, and speed.
It is better to pack some comfortable clothes and shoes, remember you will be trekking. It is also worth taking raincoats and waterproof shoes.
If you are planning to make long treks you might consider to take walking poles with you.
As you will spend lots of time outside you should think about taking with you a hat, sunblock cream, and mosquito repellent.
Please remember if you are traveling to Sapa from November to March you should pack warm clothes with you.
Many local markets start at a very early time, so if you want to enjoy the lively atmosphere of the markets you should get up early.
If you entering the local house please take off your shoes before going inside.
Before taking pictures of people please ask their permission first.
Do not touch children head, local people believe that it might bring them bad luck or make them ill.
We hope you got inspired to travel to Sapa, it really will be an unforgettable experience! You could check out some itineraries how you could organize a trip to Vietnam with visiting Sapa here https://vietnamtourspackages.com/package/north-of-vietnam-with-sapa-and-halong-bay/ and here https://vietnamtourspackages.com/package/legends-of-northen-vietnam/
If you already have been in Sapa, please share your experience with us.