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Sapa, a mist-shrouded town in Lào Cai province, is one of Vietnam’s most astonishing destinations. Resting at the foot of the country’s highest mountain, the town overlooks a vast green valley covered in maze-like rice terraces. Trekking and hiking here are popular activities, and the landscape is crisscrossed by a network of trails. A highlight of any Sapa tour is encountering local people who inhabit nearby villages.
While there are pros and cons to traveling in each season, the ideal weather for trekking is during spring and autumn. Summer should be avoided as trails become muddy and unsafe.
- Spring — March to May are Idyllic months for trekking in Sapa. The weather is warm and dry, wildflowers — including orchids — are blooming, and farmers are plowing the terraces.
- Summer — June to August is not the best time to go trekking in Sapa, unless you are a true adventurer or ready to be prepared for anything! Although the landscape is temptingly lush and green, the weather is hot and humid and trails are slippery.
- Autumn — September and October are good months for a Sapa trekking tour. The weather is dry and cool, the rice fields are turning golden and farmers are beginning the yearly harvest.
- Winter — November to February is wintertime in Sapa and although chilly, it can be a good time to visit with fewer tourists. The overnight temperature may drop below zero and there can be frost and snow. The landscape, however, can be very atmospheric, with fog enveloping whole villages.
It is possible to see quite a lot in Sapa even if you only have one day. Walk through the rice terraces, admire the local houses and walk around a nearby village such as Cat Cat. It is also possible to complete the journey up Mount Fansipan in one day (taking the cable car down) if you’re an experienced trekker.
However, we recommend allowing between two and three days for a trekking tour in Sapa. With two days, you can explore villages further afield such as Ta Van and Ban Ho. Spend the night in a homestay and get to know a local family. You can also climb Mount Fansipan at an easier pace, staying overnight at one of the rest stops on the mountain.
With three days or more, you can avoid the tourist trails altogether, visiting remote villages like Bản Khoang and Tả Giàng Phình and staying with local people along the way.
- Little View Homestay is a centrally located sanctuary surrounded by mountains and valleys. The rooms are clean and cozy. The in-house restaurant serves up local organic fares.
- For clean and affordable accommodation, try Go Sapa Hostel. It offers easy access to all attractions and vistas overlooking the Cat Cat Valley and comfy common spaces for making connections.
- Sapa Clay House is a luxury retreat that celebrates authentic Sapa culture. It has an on-site spa, perfect for pampering yourself, as well as an infinity pool that flows out into the lush scenery.
A three-day Sapa tour allows plenty of time to explore its idyllic paddy terraces, verdant valleys and cloud-covered peaks. Plus, plenty of its major attractions are easily accessible from town. The fansipan cable car will take you right to the summit of the highest mountain in Vietnam, while Cat Cat’s Love waterfall will capture your heart with its cascading falls. Visit colorful and vibrant local markets where local artists sell all kinds of handicrafts. Trek through Sapa’s hills and tribal villages and dine on papaya salads, salmon spring rolls, noodle soups, barbecue skewers and hot pots.
While you can always hire a car and a driver to take you to Sapa if you have the means, the most popular ways to reach the town are by train and by bus.
- Sleeper train: Trains, including the Victoria Express, Sapaly Express and King Express leave Hanoi every night of the week, arriving at Lao Cai early the next morning. Tickets cost between USD 27 and USD 145 one way.
- Sleeper bus: A popular alternative to the train is the sleeper bus, which has reclining seats. Several different bus companies operate between Hanoi and Sapa. Ticket prices can be as low as USD 12 one way.
- Meet local tribes: A key reason for trekking in Sapa is to explore the villages hidden in the hills and valleys surrounding the town. These isolated villages, some of which have traditional stilt houses, are home to communities of different tribes, including the Black H'mong, Red Dao and Tày, who create vibrant woven and embroidered clothing.
- Climb Mount Fansipan: Many travelers in Sapa set themselves the challenge of conquering Mount Fansipan – Vietnam’s highest mountain at 3143 meters. After a demanding climb through thick forest, you are rewarded with panoramic views of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range.
- Visit the waterfalls: Head over to one of Sapa's beautiful waterfalls and admire the cascades hidden among the mountains. The Love Waterfall located just 14 kilometers away from the town, Silver Waterfall (Thac Bac) in the San Sai Ho mountainside and Tien Sa Waterfall in Cat Cat are among the popular ones to visit.
- Visit local markets: Another highlight of a trip to Sapa is visiting an ethnic market. Local people, wearing bright traditional clothing, sell everything from pears and plums to medicinal herbs for bathing and even live buffalo. You can find affordable brocade skirts and bags, silver jewelry and cotton and hemp clothing to bring back with you.
- Learn to cook local cuisine: Many homestays, hotels and restaurants in and around Sapa offer cooking classes where you can learn about the cuisine of the local tribes and how to make particular dishes yourself. Often these classes will include a fun trip to the local market for ingredient buying.
- Learn local handicrafts: Several of the villages allow travelers to watch locals at work creating beautiful textiles, and some treks include a session where you can try batik, embroidery and hand-dying for yourselves.
Planning is essential if you want your Sapa trek to go smoothly. Read on for our top tips.
- Bring the right clothing: The weather in mountainous Sapa can change at any moment and sudden downpours are common. Many treks will go ahead even if it rains, so you should pack a waterproof jacket and hiking shoes with good grip. If traveling in wintertime, bring warm layers.
- Hire a guide: Any Sapa trekking trip should be accompanied by a guide who knows the local terrain and language. Trekking without a guide is not advised, especially on difficult routes like Mount Fansipan. If you have booked in advance, you will already have a guide, but if not, you can also find one in the town.
- Locals will try to sell you handicrafts: Locals may try to sell you souvenirs during treks. Be polite and firm if you don’t want to buy anything, but also understanding. Locals may also expect a dollar or so for photos.
- Bring some cash: Most of the ethnic villages and the waterfalls charge fees to enter, so it is a good idea to carry a small amount of cash with you, unless you are sure that entrance fees are included in the price of your trek.
Trekking in Sapa is a highlight of any trip to Vietnam. This exotic destination is becoming more and more known among travelers, so go now – before the rest of the world finds out.
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