Trekking in Sapa: Must-know Points to Keep in Mind

Rachel Tran
Rachel Tran | Published: February 22, 2020

Most visitors to Sapa end up wishing they could spend more time there, and no wonder — this highland town in northern Vietnam has got it all, from spectacular mountain views to colorful hilltribe markets. In Vietnam, Sapa has been long known for the natural spectacular footpaths along mountains and tribal villages where a few ethnic minority groups are residing in. Trekking is always one of the must-do things when exercise-lovers travel. This article is about to highlight you should know before arranging your backpack for journey of trekking in Sapa and be sure to check out the strolls, treks and scenic drives listed below.

I. How Many Days to Trek in Sapa?

For trekking alone, it is recommended that one full day is enough. But if you don’t want to miss an opportunity to discover a new lifestyle as well as totally unwind experiencing the beauty of nature, then a 3-day-2-night trip will be perfect.

II. Best Time to Trek in Sapa?

Sapa has 4 distinct seasons.

Spring is from March to May when people start planting rice and flowers bloom under warm sunlight. The picturesque scenery of peach blossom and plum blossom over the village will depict what a countryside-featured paradise looks like.

Summer (June-August) best shows off how warm such a tropical country can be, what’s more, it also has the heaviest rainfall of the year. You may encounter an unexpected downpour while enjoying the brightest green rice paddies with your fellows. As a result, it is definitely low season to go for a trek in Sapa here.

From September to November is Autumn, the weather is drier but still rainy sometimes. Please be noted that it is harvesting season, the yellowish color of terraced fields which are on top most magnificent backgrounds in Asia is ready to make your heart skip a beat.

Winter is chilly and misty. Sapa covers itself with heavy fog, occasionally snow on peak as if it were trying to hide its mysterious beauty

Honestly, Sapa is worth trekking all year round, but if you opt for the finest weather, Spring and Autumn will suit you best.

III. Sapa Treks and Trails

1. Cat Cat FallsOne step at a time

Overview: More country stroll than hike, this short walk provides an excellent introduction to the countryside surrounding Sapa.  Most people tackle this trail on their first day in Sapa, when they’re still feeling worn out from the long night-train ride from Hanoi.  

Trail Route: This hike begins just past the popular Cat Cat Hotel, continues on past the turreted mansion-like HQ for Hoang Lien National Park, and then descends by staircase to Cat Cat Falls.  After crossing the river on a plank-floored suspension bridge, the trail then climbs steeply up the other side of the valley before descending to cross the river yet again on another narrow suspension bridge.  At this point you can walk back to Sapa or hire one of the waiting motorcycle drivers to take you back on a high-speed ride up twisting mountain roads.  

Hilltribes: Black Hmong live in an extended village scattered along the river valley.  

The Scenery: The Cat Cat Falls are picturesque, though nowhere near the size of the famed Silver Waterfall (see below).  

Fitness Level: Moderate, as the trail features hundreds of concrete steps. 

Trail Conditions: Cement staircase or sidewalk the whole way.  The second suspension bridge has lost some planks, so watch your step.  

Trail Rules: Cattle and water buffalo always have the right of way.  

Reality Check: Expect to share the trail with not just backpackers but more well-heeled travelers as well, since tour buses regularly unload their charges at the stairs leading down to Cat Cat Falls.  

Costs: Though it’s not always collected, foreigners normally pay 10,000 Vietnamese dong (US$0.70) to enter Cat Cat Village, payable at the gatehouse just past the Cat Cat Hotel.  The motorcycle ride back from the end of the hike should cost about 10 to 15,000 dong (US$0.70 to 1.00) with a little polite haggling.  

Guides: This hike is so easy to follow that a guide isn’t necessary.  Keep in mind that if you go to Sapa with an organized tour, a guided version of this hike will likely be included in the itinerary.  The Kangaroo Café in Hanoi offers inexpensively priced tours to Sapa that consistently get good reviews from travelers .

2. Lao Chai and Ta Van – Down by the river

Overview: This hike offers spectacular cloud-shrouded mountain scenery and the chance to walk through traditional hilltribe villages and their surrounding rice paddies.  

Trail Route: The hike initially follows a mountain road that leads out of Sapa, then descends into a deep valley, crosses the Ta Van River, and winds through rice paddies and the spread-out homes of Lao Chai and Ta Van villages.  Eventually the trail crosses back over the river and rejoins the road, where most hikers then hire a jeep or motorcycle for the return ride to Sapa.  

Hilltribes: Black Hmong and Day communities line the hiking route.  

The Scenery: From the road you’ll get an absolutely stunning view of the mountains across the river valley as well as the villages nestled down in the valley itself.  In the summer, expect to see luminous green rice paddies.  

Duration: 3 to 4 hours at a reasonable pace, assuming you take a jeep back to Sapa; add another two hours minimum if you don’t.  

Fitness Level: Moderate.  

Trail Conditions: Construction crews are currently improving the road out of Sapa, so expect to encounter torn-up portions of pavement with axle-deep mud and piles of blasted rock.  The trail down into the valley can be steep and slick in spots, so be sure to buy a bamboo walking stick from one of the local Hmong kids for 2,000 dong (US$0.15).  Don’t wear your best shoes and pants, as the trail’s rust-orange mud can permanently stain your clothes.  

Trail Rules: Behave as if you’re walking through somebody’s front yard, because often you will be.  And remember that while this hike is a photographer’s dream, you should ask first before taking pictures of anyone you meet.  

Reality Check: In just a few years this hike has become highly popular, so expect to share the trail with your fellow travelers.  

Costs: Try to buy something from the locals, even if it’s just a lukewarm can of Coke.  They’re desperately poor and need the cash, which is one reason why foreigners must pay 10,000 dong (US$0.70) to enter the Lao Chai area.  You pay the fee at the gatehouse on the road out of Sapa.  

Guides: Though the trail has become so well established that you could probably hike it on your own without great difficulty, you’ll get more out of the hike if you hire one of the local Hmong teenagers as a guide.  These self-assured young women can explain Hmong culture, interpret what the locals say, and tell you their own fascinating life stories — and they can do all this in startlingly good English.  Keep in mind that if you go to Sapa with an organized tour, a guided version of this hike will likely be included in the itinerary.  The Kangaroo Café in Hanoi offers inexpensively priced tours to Sapa that consistently get high marks from travelers.

2. Silver Waterfall (Thac Bac) and Tram Ton Pass

Don’t pass on this one

Overview: Jeep or motorcycle ride to the 300-foot (100 m) Silver Waterfall and 6,200-foot (1,900 m) Tram Ton Pass.  

Trail Route: Drive five miles (8 km) out of Sapa to the Silver Waterfall, then continue another four miles (7 km) to Tram Ton Pass.  Retrace the same route back to Sapa.  

Hilltribes: Black Hmong live in the area, but no villages are in the immediate vicinity of the pass or falls.  

The Scenery: The waterfalls are impressive and the pass offers a stunning view of the road to China’s Yunnan Province.  

Duration: 2 to 3 hours, but confirm how long you have hired the jeep for before setting off, as the driver may have a schedule to keep.  

Fitness Level: Moderate, because while the waterfalls can be seen from the road, you will probably want to scale the staircase that climbs beside it for a better — and wetter — view.  This cleverly engineered route features a bridge that crosses in front of the cascades about half way up the falls, allowing hikers to ascend down the opposite side. The view from Tram Ton Pass can be seen from the road and requires no hiking whatsoever.  

Trail Conditions: The road can be bumpy, especially in the no-frills ex-army jeeps used by most drivers, so expect a slow ride. The trail at the waterfall consists of concrete stairs and is in excellent condition.  

Trail Rules: Be very careful if you deviate from the staircase trail beside the waterfall.  

Reality Check: The scenery is beautiful, but all of it lies in the endangered Hoang Lien National Park.  Keep in mind that the waterfall can be a washout during the drier first half of the year and that clouds often sweep over the pass and reduce visibility to near zero.  

Costs: Foreigners are theoretically required to pay 3,000 dong (US$0.20) to climb up alongside the waterfall, but nobody seems to be bothering with collecting the fee.  Jeeps to the falls and pass can be hired for US$12, which is a real bargain considering you can split the cost among five passengers.  If you want to go it alone, Minsk motorcycles can be rented for about US$8 a day.  

Guides: If you hire a jeep, your driver will know the route, so no guide is needed; if you drive your own motorcycle, you’ll want to pick up a map at the Sustainable Tourism Information and Service Centre on Cau May Street in Sapa, which sells maps of Sapa and the surrounding areas for 15,000 dong (US$1.00).   

3. Ta Phin Mountain valley outside of Sapa

Overview: Several hilltribe villages lie in Ta Phin, a misty valley nine miles (15 km) out of Sapa.  

Trail Route: Jeep or motorcycle ride down the main road to Lao Cai, with a left turn down a side road to Ta Phin.  If you’re driving your own motorcycle, be warned that this turnoff is not marked.  You’ll know you are on the road to Ta Phin when you pass the haunted-looking ruins of a burnt-out French seminary.  Within Ta Phin valley there are any number of possible trekking routes, though most people follow the main trail leading through a Hmong village and up to the Ta Phin caves.  

Hilltribes: Black Hmong and Red Dzao live in neighboring villages.  

The Scenery: Luminous green rice paddy and traditional villages set in a highland valley ringed by mountain peaks.  

Duration: Variable, as you could easily spend a whole day here.  Most people take about 2 to 4 hours total.  

Fitness Level: Easy to moderate in spots, especially in the caves.  

Trail Conditions: Generally good, as the main “roads” are mostly concrete sidewalks sized for motorbikes rather than cars.  

Trail Rules: Always ask before taking photos, as the Red Dzao are particularly camera shy.  

Reality Check: This mountain valley has an idyllic feel to it, but keep in mind that tending those rice paddies is back-breaking work barely sufficient to feed local families.  Also, while Ta Phin is a great way to get outside Sapa, it’s hardly undiscovered.  Expect to spot some of the same foreign faces you’ve been seeing in the cafes and restaurants of Sapa. Costs: Foreigners pay 10,000 dong (US$0.70) to enter Ta Phin valley, payable at the gatehouse near the ruins of the seminary.  Xe om motorcycle taxis can take you to Ta Phin for US$2 to 3 one-way, while jeeps can be hired for US$12 round trip.  Alternatively, you can rent your own motorcycle for about US$8 a day.  

Guides: You’ll get more out of your visit to Ta Phin with a guide, who will speak English and be able to offer you insights into local hilltribe culture.  In some cases, they will invite you into their homes.  Often no fee is charged, though in these cases, be sure to buy something from your guide at the end of your hike, and don’t bargain too hard when you do.  The dong you spend will help feed, clothe and school local families.

3. Coc Ly Market – Want to buy a water buffalo?

Overview: The market at Coc Ly literally lies at the end of a road that winds along the scenic Green River.  Because of its remote location, both the merchants and the customers are almost all from various hilltribe groups.  In fact, ethnic Vietnamese look almost as out of place here as foreigners do.  Aside from the expected water buffaloes, other goods for sale include a wide array of food, clothing and practical items like tools and corrugated metal roofing.  The market is in full swing only once a week, usually on a Tuesday.  

Trail Route: About 100 miles (160 km) from Lao Cai, or a three-hour road journey.  

Hilltribes: Black Hmong, Flower Hmong and Tay all frequent this market.  

The Scenery: The market sits above the Green River, which you can cross on a narrow suspension bridge straight out of an Indiana Jones film.  You can also hire a boat for a run down the river through limestone gorges and isolated villages.  

Duration: If you opt for the boat trip, this is really an all-day affair.  Expect to spend a good chunk of that time driving to and from Coc Ly.  

Fitness Level: Easy.  

Trail Conditions: The market can be jam-packed on busy days, so expect a crowd.  There’s not much to keep you from falling off the middle of the suspension bridge, so those who are afraid of heights will want to give it a miss.  

Trail Rules: Though it’s rapidly being “discovered,” Coc Ly is still largely off the tourist trail.  Try to leave a small footprint.  

Reality Check: Though they are cheerful and colorfully dressed, the locals lead extremely difficult lives marred by poverty.  

Guides: Ms. Loan, owner of the popular Cat Cat Hotel, can organize a guided minibus trip to Coc Ly.  For a bit more cash, she can send you off in your own jeep.  If you don’t mind getting lost or breaking down in the middle of nowhere, you can skip the tour and rent your own motorcycle for about US$8, plus gas and the inevitable fees for roadside repairs.

IV. How to Get to Sapa?

Sapa is easily accessed by train or sleeper bus departing from Hanoi.

  • Going by sleeper bus takes about 4-4.5 hours, costs 230,000 – 280,000 VND ($10 more or less), you can set off any time of the day.
  • The second option is by train, which takes a bit longer (6-7 hours) not including an hour to get on a minibus to move from Lao Cai train station to Sapa town but you can sleep pretty well at night with a flat bed and a thin blanket. The price is different depending on the kind of cabin you book, but slightly higher than a bus ticket in general.

V. What to Pack for Sapa Trek?

  • A good preparation is the beginning of a nice trip, Sapa hit the nail on the head. There is a list of specific things to pack for trekking in Sapa due to the unpredictable weather and unstable trekking paths. It will be a long route, so just bring along the most essential items to reduce unnecessary weight.
  • Rain jacket: It is hard to tell if the weather is nice all the time during your trek. An easily-folded light rain jacket is a must, you can find one in any market, in Hanoi or Sapa.
  • Backpack cover or waterproof backpack: In case of rain, those will be extremely useful to protect the valuable equipment inside like your camera or smartphone.
  • Comfortable hiking shoes: The trail is super muddy, rough and narrow in some parts, therefore a durable comfortable pair of shoes can protect your feet well against sliding and falling. Water- resistant ones are even better, since you might cross small streams as well.
  • Water bottles: No need to say, you don’t want to be thirsty and exhausted during your trek, do you? Bring double the amount of water you assume needed.
  • Trekking a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen: In a high altitude area, the ultraviolet index is immensely high and does more harm than good. Wear them even when it is not too sunny.
  • Insect repellent: In such a place covered by jungles, you will be provided a mosquito net at night, but in day time, apply some insect repellent to get rid of itchy rashes when you come back.
  • First aid kit
  • Clothes depending on seasons: appropriate clothes are well- needed for a convenient smooth trip.

VI. Should You Choose Homestays or Hotels During The Day Treks?

Sapa downtown boasts all modes of accommodation, from 5-star luxurious hotels, hostels, guesthouses to homestays. It is really dependent on your budget and services you are inclined to get. During holiday, the price of rooms usually doubles, but there are undoubtedly a larger range of choices for drinks and food. On the other hand, homestays tend to be more popular as this model has been developed for the past 20 years and it reaches even the most remote area. In an ethnic groups’ village, there is no hard effort to find a homestay with lavish meals and nice hosts near the trekking route and beautiful spots at around $6, though roommates and dishes have been decided beforehand.

VII. Tips on Trekking in Sapa

  • Sapa has been a touristy destination for not only Vietnamese people, but a huge number of foreign hikers and visitors, so don’t need to worry about the language barrier. People there can speak English pretty well and even be your trekking guide.
  • In Sapa town, you can get everything, from coffee to waterproof backpacks at a reasonable price compared to Hanoi, which means if you haven’t spent enough time shopping for important gears in advance, you can absolutely do it when reaching Sapa.
  • Local goods such as jewelry, scarves, clothes or rice wine are all home-made and sold by people from ethnic minority people.
  • Be well-prepared before your journey, especially of weather
  • Tipping is not required in Vietnam. But it would still be welcome to tip your guide or homestay hosts.

These are all suggested notes for a successful, safe and enjoyable trekking time in Sapa. Be prepared and you will see how amazing and special it can be. Share with us your experience by commenting below, will you?

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