Updated November 6th, 2018.
Trekking in Sapa Vietnam is near the top of the bucket list for many travellers to Southeast Asia. When my friend and I set off for Vietnam, it was way up the top of ours.
However, we grew concerned once in Vietnam, when we began to hear negative reports from fellow travellers that Sapa was not all it was cracked up to be. Many backpackers told us that the ‘trek’ they’d booked consisted of traipsing over concrete paths with swarms of other tourists whilst being persistently sold souvenirs by local ethnic minority people.
How could we avoid this kind of experience?
Many tours that we looked at promised ‘authentic interactions with local ethnic minorities’, but how could we know that they were telling the truth? I’d heard terrible stories from friends who’d been trekking in Northern Thailand and had reported the exploitation of the Karen long-neck people.
I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to pay money to experience some kind of ‘human zoo’. I also wanted to see the beautiful countryside of Northern Vietnam, without falling over another tourist every two minutes.
Tours to Sapa – Choosing the right one!
There are loads (and I mean loads!) of travel companies offering tours in Sapa. The choice you make can drastically alter your experience – as we discovered! I strongly advise that you check TripAdvisor reviews, ask fellow backpackers about their personal experiences and shop around, either online or once you arrive in Hanoi. (One tip – the cheapest, especially in Vietnam, isn’t always the best.) In short – do your research!
We were recommended the company Friends Travel Vietnam, through a well-travelled friend. The company is run by a Dutch-Vietnamese couple, Mr Sidney and Ms Thao and their international team.
I can honestly say that from start to finish our Sapa trekking experience was truly unforgettable. We suffered none of the issues that fellow backpackers reported and felt that our encounters with local people were genuine and beneficial to both parties.
Their tour, which I would highly recommend, is called the “Real Sapa Experience” which for me, really hits the nail on the head. We saw a total of three other tourists during our trek, were welcomed into a traditional family home, helped to prepare meals (experienced a herbal bath!), and got to experience authentic life with an ethnic minority.
Our knowledgeable and friendly guide, Sue May, was from the Red Dao ethnic minority and walking with her, through the mountains that she knows so well, was an honour.
Our tour comprised of three nights and two days (there are longer options), two of these nights spent on an overnight train between Hanoi and Sapa. The tour (with train tickets included) costs $185 USD per person. Before I tell you more about our own experience, let’s cover some of the basics of trekking Sapa Vietnam…
Trekking in Sapa – The Basics
When is the best time to visit Sapa?
Sapa has four distinct seasons…
(We went trekking in Sapa in August, which is essentially rainy season in Northern Vietnam. Despite some rain during our visit and a cancelled train (more on that later!), we were still able to have an enjoyable experience. The mist and clouds made the landscape more atmospheric and the rice fields were an incredibly bright green, which was amazing for photos! However, if you want to avoid the rain, trekking in Spring or Autumn may be preferable…)
March-June = Spring. Spring in Sapa is one of the best times to trek, offering cool, sunny days. It’s the time when plants and flowers are starting to bloom. It is also the time of year that the local ethnic minorities are planting rice.
July-August = Summer / Rainy Season. You can certainly still trek in Sapa during the rainy season, you just need to bring a rain jacket as it is prone to heavy downpours in the afternoon. You can experience four seasons in one day during the rainy season! If luscious green countryside and rainbows appeal to you, this could be the perfect time for your visit. There are also fewer crowds during this time.
September – November = Autumn. Autumn still offers the luscious green of the rice terraces (the rice is ready to harvest at this point) and is much drier than the summer months.
December – February = Winter. Winter is a magical time in Sapa, you can even see frost on the higher peaks! That said, be prepared for sub-zero temperatures at night!
Essentially, it’s perfectly fine to trek in Sapa all year round, as long as you specifically pack for the season of your visit! Which leads us to…
What to pack for a Sapa trek?
Many tour companies allow you to leave non-essential luggage at their office. This could mean that you leave your big rucksack in Hanoi and take only your daypack with you, packed with only the essential items that you’ll need during your trek.
I can’t stress how important it is to take the tour company up on this offer. There is absolutely no need to lug unnecessary weight with you during your trek.
If you do not have a small daypack, then a shoulder bag will do. But for me, when trekking, two shoulder straps are always better than one. It goes without saying that backpacks with wheels are NOT recommended! (You’d be surprised at the mistakes people make!)
Whatever bag you take with you, a waterproof cover could be the difference between a positive trekking experience and a negative one, especially if it’s the rainy season!
From there, keep it simple, but don’t forget the following absolute essentials!
- Water: It goes without saying, no matter what season you’re travelling, you’re going to need plenty of water. Extra bonus responsible-traveller points go to anyone who takes a filtered water bottle with them.
- A Change (or two) of clothes: Don’t allow yourself to get drenched early on during your trek and then have to wear soaking wet clothes for the rest of the time! As your grandmother almost certainly told you, that’s how you catch a cold!
- Shoes: Comfortable walking shoes/boots with a good grip. Sandals/flip-flops the (for the evening). Rubber flip-flops for the shower.
- Hiking poles/walking sticks: If you like to walk with them (on this tour, the guide provided us with one).
- Trekking socks: The thicker the socks, the less chance of blisters.
- Camera/mobile phone: Plus spare batteries/charger/camera bag. You’re bound to want to take some photos!
- Toiletries: Don’t assume you’ll find these things at a shop on the way, bring them with you.
- First aid kit: Never a bad idea.
- Personal medication: If you’re on medication, it’s probably best to carry on taking it, no matter how good that “fresh country air” is for you. If you have allergies, take some anti-histamine (or equivalent) with you.
- High factor sunscreen, lip protection, after-sun, sun hat and sunglasses: Wherever you are in Southeast Asia, you should be carrying these!
- Insect repellant & after-bite
- Hand sanitiser and/or anti-bacterial wipes
- Paracetamol: Both aspirin and ibuprofen are to be considered a no-no whilst in Asia, as their blood-thinning qualities can cause complications (ones you definitely don’t want to experience!) in the event of dengue fever.
- Dioralytes/dehydration salts: They weigh next to nothing and make a huge difference when they’re needed.
- Anti-diarrhoea pills: I don’t need to explain the value of this one.
What Clothes Should You Pack?
Depending on how long you’ve been floating around Southeast Asia, you may have forgotten completely about seasons, or at least, ones that greatly affect the temperature, rather than just rainfall. As mentioned above, Sapa offers a refreshing change to this situation.
During Sapa’s spring and autumn, you will need reasonably light clothes, it’s a good idea to carry extra layers (trousers, jumper, jacket), but things don’t get too extreme. It’s winter and (the rainy) summer you need to prepare for.
Winter – If you are trekking in Sapa during late December to February, you will need to bring warm clothing. Warm clothing that you’d wear in winter in a Southern European Country, such as Spain, Portugal, Greece or Italy. A woolly hat, scarf, jumper, gloves, thick trousers, thermal underwear are all a good idea.
Summer (Wet Season) – From May to September, you will need a rain jacket, waterproof bags for keeping your belongings in and waterproof trousers.
What should you know about ethnic minorities in Sapa?
Many travellers have mixed feelings about visiting ethnic minority groups (typically hill tribes). On the one hand, they’ve set off wanting to experience different cultures, learn how others live and similar meme-friendly ambitions.
On the other hand, many travellers have found themselves in unnatural museum-like situations (so as not to say “zoo-like”), where a lifestyle is on display solely for the entertainment of the traveller (and, of course, their wallet).
Somewhere sits a happy medium, whereby travellers can learn from groups of people who are genuinely living in the same way they would be in the absence of any tourism. In these situations, travellers should try and support the local economy.
In the Sa Pa region, you will find eight distinct ethnic groups; Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay, Muong, Thai, Hoa and Xa Pho. Some tour companies are likely to offer to see these groups as a museum piece, others will provide you with an eye-opening opportunity to experience a different culture in a way that’s beneficial for all.
I would advise that you gauge the ethics driving any tour company you consider using, so as to maximise the chance of experiencing the latter of these two possibilities. Assuming you have succeeded, I would promote the buying of souvenirs from these groups in order to help support their community.
Travel tips when visiting ethnic minority villages
Of course, every ethnic minority group has a slightly different set of morals, but there are some general rules that it’s best to follow just in case.
- Do not buy or use drugs: Drugs are illegal and Vietnam and you will not be doing yourself, or anyone else, any favours by buying or consuming them.
- Do not touch any sacred objects: You’d think this is obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many people think it’s OK and end up causing offence.
- Dress conservatively: Covering up legs especially, but also shoulders and arms helps ensure that you’re not going to be seen as disrespectful.
- Keep the noise down: Again, you’d think everyone would naturally follow this rule, but again, you’d be surprised…
- Only drink alcohol if you’re invited to: Grabbing some beers and separating off as a group to drink them could be seen as being “up to no good”. If you are invited to drink some rice wine (hint, you will be!), it would be rude not to accept. (Only joking, if you don’t drink alcohol it is fine to politely refuse!)
- Don’t kiss in public: Couples, curb your PDA! The Vietnamese are shy people and showing affection in public is not culturally accepted. Just wait till you’re in a more intimate setting.
- Ask permission before taking photos: If given permission to take one, show it to the people you have photographed afterwards.
- Do not enter anyone’s property unless invited: Would you do this at home?
- Do not give money or sweets to children: No matter how happy it makes them. Giving gifts to children encourages begging.
- Consider buying a souvenir: As mentioned above.
Okay… on to our personal experience of hiking in Sapa!
Sapa Trekking, Vietnam – Our Personal Experience
The overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa
The tour started at the Friends Travel Vietnam Office in the centre of the Old Town in Hanoi. We were collected by a driver who took us to the train station, ensured we were settled on the train and provided us with plenty of bottled water for the journey.
For anyone that has travelled on the slightly less than desirable overnight sleeper buses in Vietnam with their sticky leather seats and worn out headrests, the overnight train was an absolute treat in comparison!
We were allocated two sizeable beds within a four-bed cabin, complete with fresh sheets, a duvet (hard to find in Vietnam!) and pillow. There was also a small selection of snacks provided within the cabin and more water, which meant we were well fed and hydrated throughout the journey.
Day one of our Sapa trek
We slept well and woke up around nine hours later as we were pulling into Lao Cai Station. We were met by a driver and were taken to a hotel in Sapa village where we were provided with a two-course breakfast, fresh coffee and the opportunity to shower. This was the perfect preparation for a long day trekking!
Unfortunately for us, the weather had really closed in by this point and we were surrounded by thick grey clouds… However, this would not deter us!
For anyone with space in their backpack (we know how tight it gets!) we strongly recommend bringing good quality walking shoes on your Sapa trek. However, for unprepared travellers (like us!), the hotel provided us with short rubber wellies, free of charge.
These were perfectly good throughout our two-day trek, despite completing one of the more challenging routes. This is just one example of the little touches Friends Travel Vietnam offered throughout our tour.
Once we were ready to begin the trek we were met by our local tour guide who gave us a bamboo stick to walk with (at this point we underestimated how incredibly thankful we would be for this 10km later…) and off we went to begin the adventure of a lifetime!
We began trekking across the side of a steep valley and despite the poor weather, with each break in the clouds, we were treated to spectacular views of the rice paddy fields and dramatic scenery that Sapa is so well known for.
Our tour guide, Sue May, was from the Red Dao ethnic minority, and she was incredibly knowledgeable about the local area. Despite tackling tough terrain she made us feel extremely safe at all times and we knew we were in good hands!
After trekking through the jungle, we headed into the valley and through the rice fields towards a small village for our lunch stop. We skirted past the more frequently visited tourist restaurants and headed to a local house to enjoy a traditional Vietnamese lunch.
This consisted of a lemongrass chicken stir-fry, a sticky pork dish, fresh vegetables and rice and was a welcome opportunity to rest our legs and of course, take in the spectacular views that surrounded us.
This was a real ‘pinch yourself’ moment for both of us. It was incredible to be in the heart of Sapa, enjoying not only the stunning views but also eating delicious freshly home-cooked food with not a single tourist in sight!
After our lunch break, we headed deeper into the valley cutting right through the bright green rice fields and into a bamboo forest. Our guide never failed to help us and really couldn’t have supported us any more with plenty of photo opportunities and exceptional knowledge of the surroundings.
Our lovely homestay in Sapa
After around 14km we arrived at the home stay, which would be our home for the night. The homestay itself was immaculate and comfortable, yet retained an authentic feel. We showered and changed and were given fresh green tea.
That night we sat on tiny steps and helped our guide to prepare vegetables ready for the evening meal. We watched as our guide’s husband prepared pork to cook over an open fire and we helped to make fresh spring rolls in the family’s kitchen.
Throughout all of this, we were surrounded by the infectious laughter of our guide’s sons and we couldn’t help but join in some of their games!
We sat down to eat with the family that evening and tucked into the food we had prepared together. There was something truly unforgettable about that experience. It is definitely a moment that both of us will treasure and look back on extremely fondly.
After dinner, we sampled some local rice wine with our hosts and then, when we thought it just couldn’t get any better, we were offered a herbal bath, made using freshly cut local herbs.
With achy legs and several rice wines later it was an offer we just couldn’t resist! It was the perfect end to what had been an incredible day and we were soon tucked up in our beds ready to get some well-needed sleep.
Day two of our Sapa trekking tour
We slept well and awoke refreshed ready for our second day of trekking. Unfortunately, overnight there had been a large volume of rainfall and our train back to Hanoi had been cancelled due to flooding.
When hearing this news we were concerned. However, this didn’t last long as Friends Travel Vietnam worked quickly and efficiently to secure a backup plan and put our minds at ease.
We began our second-day trekking and our guide took us to see her family’s rice fields and some more local villages. We stopped for lunch at another local’s house and enjoyed a delicious noodle dish (we didn’t find noodles that beat this in the rest of our stay in Vietnam!).
The second-day trekking was slightly shorter due to our new travel arrangements. Due to the cancelled train, Friends Travel Vietnam arranged an executive limousine coach to transfer others and us from the group back to Hanoi.
The journey took six hours and a hotel was arranged for us for when we arrived back in Hanoi. We were incredibly impressed by the way that Friends Travel Vietnam managed the unpredictable train cancellation and they really could not have done more to ensure it did not taint our experience.
An unforgettable experience!
Despite the rumours that Sapa has become overwhelmed with tourists we only bumped into three other tourists during our trek! This was due to the experienced tour guide and the carefully planned routes, which offered us a truly unique experience. The route we completed was tough and certainly not for the faint-hearted but the reward was well worth it.
We will never forget our stay in Sapa and the organisation of the trek was exceptional from start to finish. It was certainly a stark contrast from stories we heard from fellow travellers who were marched across concrete paths with building work and droves of other tourists!
This was one of three experiences that we did through Friends Travel Vietnam during our stay in Hanoi and we simply cannot recommend the experiences provided by Sidney and his team enough. If you are looking for a unique, authentic trekking experience in Sapa, with a team that takes a very personal approach then this is certainly the tour for you!
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