Of all the amazing things to do in Vietnam, I was really looking forward to going trekking in Sapa.
Sapa is located in the very northwestern corner of Vietnam, just miles from the border of China. Sapa is where people go for a mountain adventure, to be in nature, to escape the crowds (somewhat) and the hustle and bustle of the city, and above all, to hike through rice terraces.
These unique terraces are common in Asian countries and are an ingenious way to grow crops on the sides of steep hills. Besides constructing a flat surface on which to grow rice, terracing slows down the flow of water, allowing the water to slowly absorb into the soil, which limits the loss of the precious, nutrient-rich topsoil.
This being my first time in Asia, I was extremely excited to see and hike through these perfectly crafted, visually stunning rice terraces carved into the sides of hills and mountains.
Plus, I love hiking, I LOVE mountains, and I love a good adventure. Trekking in Sapa just checks all the boxes.
Finally, Sapa has a unique culture, with many villages and different ethnic groups in the region. The biggest ethnic group is the Hmong community. In fact, our Sapa hiking guide was a Hmong woman!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up.
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How to Go Trekking in Sapa, Vietnam
In this post, we’ll talk about exactly what it’s like to go trekking in Sapa, the locally owned and operated tour company and guide that I recommend, what to know before you go, how long and hard it is, and many more details so that you can have a great experience doing a Sapa trekking tour.
Let’s start with how to get to Sapa!
How to Get to Sapa
The best way to get to Sapa is to take a night train or a night bus from Hanoi. We were able to get on a night train that left Hanoi around 10pm and arrived in Lao Cai around 6am. Lao Cai is a larger city about an hour away from Sapa. It is the closest city to Sapa with a train station.
I recommend booking your train tickets ahead of time on 12Go Asia – you can browse different options and make your reservations right on the website, and get your tickets delivered electronically. It’s very convenient!
I would recommend booking your ticket ahead of time, as taking the train is popular and spots can sell out.
I loved taking the night train Vietnam – you save a ton of time during the day, and you save money by not needing a hotel night. The night train was comfortable enough, and the way the train swayed just a bit rocked me right to sleep.
I have several tips for taking the trains in Vietnam:
✔️I would choose a 1st class sleeper over a 2nd class sleeper car (you get a cushy pad to sleep on instead of just the wooden boards.)
✔️Both of these options are for cars that sleep 4 people, meaning if you’re traveling as a couple, you’ll likely be sleeping with others.
I was a little nervous about this, but it turned out to be not a problem at all – everyone just minds their own business and goes to sleep (of course, it’s a toss-up as to whether you’ll be paired up with snorers).
There are occasionally private berths (for two people) available, but those sell out fast.
✔️Expect train tickets to cost anywhere from 10-20 euros.
✔️Finally, when looking at train schedules, pay attention to what train station in Hanoi you’re departing from, as there are several. “Yen Vien – Hanoi” is about 25 minutes outside of the Old Quarter, whereas just “Hanoi” is right in the Old Quarter.
Arriving at the Lao Cai Train Station
As we were about to arrive in the Lao Cai train station, the conductor on board asked if we wanted to take the shuttle van to Sapa Town for 60,000 dong. (about $2.30).
If you are offered this option on arriving in Lao Cai, I would definitely take it (and if you aren’t offered it, ask a conductor if it’s available). The van will drop all passengers off at their chosen hotels.
I checked the Grab app to see how much it would cost for a car, and it quoted me 450-500,000 dong, so the 120,000 we paid for the two of us was definitely a much better deal for this approximately 1 hour long ride.
Book a Trekking Tour In Advance or When You Arrive?
It is definitely possible to book a guided trek in Sapa when you arrive in the city, as there are many women out in the markets and streets advertising their services. You can “shop” between the offers, choose someone that you vibe with, and haggle the price, if you so desire.
However, we chose not to do this, and decided to book our trek online in advance. We maybe paid a little bit more to do it this way, but I’m glad we did, and here’s why.
We’re not digital nomads, where we can spend weeks or months on end in a country. So, personally, when my time is limited, I like to have as many logistics as possible figured out ahead of time. It can be overwhelming to arrive in a new city, not know where you are, and then spend time figuring out where to go and what tour to book when you could be spending your time already out in the rice terraces.
And when we’re talking about big ticket experiences that I’ve been really looking forward to – like Halong Bay or trekking in Sapa – I want to make sure I can read the reviews, book a good tour, get the logistics out of the way, and have a fantastic experience.
In the end, I was extremely happy with the quality of the experience, our tour guide, and that we went through parts of the rice terraces where no one else was (we only saw one other group on each day!)
What Sa Pa Trekking Tour We Chose, and Why We’d Recommend It
We did the 2 Day/1 Night Authentic Trekking Tour in Sapa with Sapa Original Trek. This is a tour company, but it is run by a local man, Mr. Tinh, right in Sapa, so I still felt good that we were giving our money to the local economy.
This trekking expedition was just so excellent. We went out with a Hmong guide who took us through the rice terraces where no one else was. This was also a private trekking expedition – it was just Matthew, myself, and the guide.
We stayed the night in a homestay in a village tucked in the mountains, where we were joined by a few other travelers. The following day we hiked some more, had lunch, and then were driven back into town and dropped off at our next hotel.
Communication ahead of time was really easy – Mr Tinh answered questions quickly and gave us all the necessary information about what to expect and where to go. We were picked up in a very nice car and driven back to Sapa at the end of the 2nd day.
The whole thing start to finish was magical, well-organized, and a great value for money.
Meeting Our Guide For Trekking in Sapa
You’ll meet at the tour office (which is also the home of Mr. Tinh, the tour organizer), just 10 minutes from the town square. Here, you can leave any extra luggage, use the bathroom, and meet your tour guide.
Our guide was Mu – she’s a very friendly Hmong woman from a neighboring village. She spoke English well and knows the area intimately. We had a great time hanging out with Mu over the two days we were hiking – she told us lots of fun stories and fun facts about the area!
Most treks head down the valley to the rice fields and villages south of Sapa, but our trek went up and to the north. Mu gave us the option of a longer or shorter route (only shorter by a couple of km). The tradeoff is that the route is shorter, but it’s on the road more and less through the terraces, canyons, and valleys. We of course chose the longer route with the cooler views!
I think it’s definitely worth doing the harder route – you just get such a better experience and stunning views. However, if it has been raining, there will be some very muddy sections.
Beginning the Hike
We started by walking down through Sapa town and then up and out of the village towards the mountains.
It won’t take too long before you arrive at the rice terraces!
We were here in November, which is right after the rice was harvested, so the fields were cut. It was still beautiful though, and seeing the the sharp lines of the terraces was so impressive! (More on what its like to go trekking in Sapa during different seasons of the year in a section at the end of this post.)
You’ll hike up, over, across, and then down the rice terraces and into the valleys, and then up and over the hills that hold the rice terraces again. There were plenty of downhill or flat sections that were less strenuous, but the uphill sections could be pretty steep.
Water buffalo roam through the terraces eating the weeds. They are a natural weed control, preventing the fallow terraces from being overrun with other plants. They are also used to plow the fields in the spring. If you hike on the off-season, you’ll see a lot of water buffalo as you trek.
Your path will weave through the terraces, along the terraces, through the jungle forests and bamboo forests, and by fields of flowers, but almost always you will have amazing views for taking pictures over the valley, and be surrounded by mountain peaks on all sides.
Several times you’ll cross small streams, hopping on the rocks to ford the stream.
If it has been raining recently, it will be pretty muddy. For us, it had been a couple days since the rain, and there were still a few muddy sections.
There will probably be other local women, besides your guide, who will start hiking with you and try to sell things to you. You do not need to buy from them. You will also be swarmed by saleswomen when you get to the homestay.
As you hike, you’ll pass different crops being grown in patches beside the rice fields. During the rice off-season, parts of the rice terraces were also used for other crops. There were also small fields separate from the rice terraces used for growing food.
We saw indigo, cabbage, corn, garlic, onions, potato trees, banana trees (both the potato and banana trees are grown for the animals), and lots of different fruits. We also saw several fish ponds, a marble quarry, and marijuana plants. Don’t get excited, the marijuana is actually grown just for the hemp, to make hemp cloth.
The trail is well-cleared, and often goes right through the terraces, which was pretty dang cool. Other times, you’ll leave the rice fields for a bit and hike more through the forest, and occasionally you’ll walk along a road.
You’ll also walk through several bamboo forests! Bamboo has many uses in Sapa. It can be used for piping and building materials, but also as fencing to keep water buffalo contained.
I just can’t overstate enough how beautiful the views were while we were hiking in Sapa. It regularly took my breath away!
Right before we arrived at our homestay, we got to this incredible viewpoint with 360 degree views over the mountains, valley, rice terraces, and village:
Arriving at the Homestay
We stayed the night in the little village of Ta Phin. As we approached the village that was nestled in this picturesque valley, we walked through some lovely farmland areas, including this cute little path right through the crops and the greenhouses. We saw plants like plum trees, peach trees, tomatoes, peppers, and a variety of other crops being grown.
The homestay was at a large, almost compound-like home in the village. There were a couple of other trekking groups there with their guides, plus the hosts. In total, our group was about 10 people.
When we arrived, we were welcomed with tea and water and relaxed for a while on the terrace. There were a lot of local women around trying to sell different souvenirs, but they backed off pretty easily if you weren’t interested.
The home was an interesting mix of rustic and modern – fast wifi, security cameras, hot water, and electricity, but also a pot over an open fire, exposed brick, some spots with open walls (like the picture above), drying vegetables in the attic, etc. I actually loved the homestay and its quirkiness, and thought it was super charming.
Dinner was family style, delicious, and had lots of traditional options, and we ate with the big group of travelers and guides. It was really fun to chat with everyone and get to know some new people from different countries!
After dinner, we opted to enjoy a herbal bath. Tubs made from barrels were filled with steaming hot herbal water that you could sit and soak in. It felt really good on our sore muscles! (This was an extra cost and was $7 per person).
You could also buy the herbal bath mix, oils, tea, and rice wine that were used and served at the homestay.
👉 Ready to Book? Check availability for Original Sapa Trekking here
The Second Day of our Sapa Trekking Tour
On the second day we woke up and had a delicious breakfast of crepes, then bid farewell to our hosts at the homestay and set out on the second leg of our hike.
On the second day, we ventured even more deeply into mountainous areas. We were still hiking through rice terraces, but we were surrounded by bigger mountains and the views were really incredible!
I should note that during part of the day we had more overcast weather, so visibility was somewhat impaired. If you happen to have heavier clouds and/or rain during your trek, you won’t see *as* much of the landscape.
Thankfully the weather can change quickly, so we got a lot of clear views. This area had some interesting rock formations, and of course beautiful mountain peak after peak. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here are several pics from the second day of hiking. These views just make my heart skip a beat!
After hiking for several hours, we came to another small village, where we stopped at a restaurant and ate a delicious lunch. After lunch, we were picked up in a nice car by Mr. Tinh, and driven back to Sapa, where we collected our luggage and were dropped off at our next hotel.
About the Rice Fields
Here are some fun facts we learned about the rice fields:
✔️A lot of the fields are operated by one family, but sometimes it will be the parents and the sons will help work it, and then they’ll divide the rice with the son’s families.
✔️Closer to the villages, people’s homes are often in or right by the rice fields. However, farther out and more in the mountainous areas, people would build small huts to shelter in when working (e.g. the picture above).
✔️A medium sized rice field will yield 80-100 10-kg bags of rice.
Hiking in Sapa Stats – How Long Was The Hike
We hiked about 14 kilometers (8 miles) the first day and 12 kilometers (7 miles) the second day. Each day we spent about 5.5-6 hours hiking, which included a 30-45 minute stop for lunch at a restaurant.
I would say it was a strenuous hike, but doable for someone with moderate physical ability. We love hiking but don’t exercise regularly and we did fine (although were very tired at the end of the second day).
Best Time of Year to Go Trekking in Sapa
Let’s break down what it’s like to do a trekking tour in Sapa a during each of the following seasons:
June, July and August are when the rice is planted and growing, and the fields are lush and green, and full of tall, swaying stalks. This is also the rainy season in Sapa, where it rains practically every day for a few hours in the afternoon.
Temperatures are around 90 F/30 C, plus high humidity. This is the best time to visit Sapa for the views, but it is the “worst” weather time, as it is very hot, humid, and rainy.
In September and October, the rice turns yellow and it’s harvest time. This is also a beautiful time to visit. Highs are more around 20 C.
By the middle of October and into November, the terraces lay fallow, or other crops are sometimes planted in sections – but mostly they are bare. However, this is a great time of year to visit for perfect temperatures and low rain.
We visited in November, and although we didn’t see the full green terraces, we had drier and milder weather and still really enjoyed the stunning landscapes!
The lowest tourism season, this is the coldest season in Sapa, with temperatures sometimes in the 40s F. The fields are bare and fallow, and sometimes the fog can be thick.
The weather during the springtime is pleasant and relatively dry. In March, the fields are being flooded, and April-May will see some blooming flowers. By May the rice fields are started to green up with small rice shoots.
What to Bring and What to Wear For a Sapa Trek
Backpack: A smaller, school-sized backpack, with just the clothes and toiletries you’ll need for an overnight stay. You can leave the rest of your luggage at the tour office. Less is more!
Hiking Boots: I definitely recommend wearing good hiking boots, even over tennis shoes, as you are sometimes hiking in uneven and muddy terrain. I would NOT hike in sandals (even hiking sandals) because of the mud.
Water: We were each given a 1.5 L bottle of water each day, but we drank all that plus some extra water. It’s pretty humid and you’ll be working hard – I’d bring extra water.
Sunscreen: You are pretty close to the equator, so the sun will be more intense. Combine that with the time you’ll be outside, and you definitely want some skin protection. This is our favorite sunscreen – it rubs in so smoothly and easily, and it lasts forever.
Power Bank: There’s electricity at the homestay, but you’ll for sure be taking a ton of pictures and videos as you hike through the rice terraces, and this power bank will give you some extra juice if your battery runs low.
A Light Jacket or Sweatshirt: Evenings got down in the mid-50’s, so I was happy to have a light sweatshirt to wear at night.
A Poncho or Rain Jacket: Particularly if you’re hiking during the rainy season
Some Cash: For any extras you may decide to purchase on the hike
What Was Included in the Price of the Trekking Tour?
In a nutshell, everything was included in the price of the tour. That included our private tour guide, lunch, dinner, breakfast, and lunch, the homestay, a large water bottle for each person every day, and a car ride from the end of our hike back into town.
It did not include the herbal bath, any extra drinks you might want, or a tip for your guide (not necessary, but we did tip)
Final Thoughts on This Sapa Trekking Tour
I just can’t say enough good things about this entire experience – the hike, the route, the tour guide, the tour company, the food, the views – everything was perfect.
Plus, besides being a great outdoor adventure, this was also an incredible cultural experience – getting to hang out, hear stories, and chat with Mu, a local Hmong woman, as well as our hosts at the homestay was a rich and valuable experience.
Going trekking in Sapa is absolutely a bucket list adventure and I would recommend this 2 day/1 night trek with Sapa Original Trek to anyone!