Into the Waves of Green
Tips for Trekking Sapa
Sapa Valley, the home of many Vietnamese ethnic minorities (with the Hmong being the most populous, but there are up to 23 others) is a sight to behold. The perfectly manicured rice terraces cascade down steep hillsides giving the appearance of viscous green lava pouring down long stairways. The dedication to the fields is impressive.
Of course many of the locals are actually quite happy to get away from labouring in the terraces and instead take some time to introduce travellers to their land and traditions. Hiking around Sapa has become a pretty popular activity in Northern Vietnam. In fact some routes get crowded enough that you might be stretched to get a photo with out other enthusiastic explorers.
With a good guide, you have a decent chance to get away from the crowds. Perhaps even feel like you are lost to the world with no one but a Xena-Warrior-Princes-like-clad guide to lead you through the emerald green maze. She will also be the one to bring you to enjoy candid moments of a village’s nimble seamstresses make their trademark indigo dyed double breasted jackets. And share stories of their rich history while stirring the kettle of pho over a wood-burning stove.
Interestingly Sapa is perhaps one of the most unique places in the world, where almost all of the guides are women, rather than men. After numerous questions of “why is this so?” to the many guides that we met, it seems like the Hmong women are the more assertive in the family. They typically learn English faster when they start out selling trinkets in the local markets as little girls and feel much braver to interact with travellers. In fact the women there not only speak English better than the average Vietnamese, but often with perfect mimics of Australian or American accents.
Some of the guides have organised themselves into social enterprises that not only help to provide an income for their own families, but also give back to the local community. Sapa O’Chau is one such company that takes a portion of it’s profits to sponsor kids from neighboring villages in order to help them graduate from good schools in Sapa as well as provide training in the tourism and hospitality industry. They may charge a little more than the regular guide off the street, but that dollar will go a little further.
Of course there are a lot of great guides that are out there and there are good reason to go with them. We definitely found a few that we liked for a number of reasons.
You can choose from a few different types of routes in Sapa. We've broken them down by how crowded you can expect them to be.
For the 2 day option the most trekked one is this route: On the first day from Sapa trek to Ta Van Village where the Giay local peoples live. The next leg of the journey is a trek to Ban Ho village where many homestays are located and likely the resting point for the night. On the second day after trekking to Nam Trong Village of the Red Dao people travellers get a chance to swim in a waterfall and have lunch at a local village. This is an fairly easy-to-medium trek covering 12-15km on the first day and 10-12km on the second day.
The most common three-day option is: On the first day trekking to Y Linh Ho Village for the opportunity to meet the Black H'mong people. Here you can also enjoy views of Fansipan mountain. Next the trek leads to Lao Chai for lunch and overnight at Ta Van village. On the second day, trek through a bamboo forest, meet the H'mong and Red Dao people at Sun Pan village and spend the second night at a homestay in the village of Ban Ho. The third day starts with a trek to Nam Toong for splendid views along the wa and lunch at Thank Phu village. This is an easy-to-medium trek covering distances of 12-15km a day for the first two days, and 10km on the third day.
These are good options for those who are looking to experience Sapa with out a very strenuous hike.
If you would like something a little less frequented there are alternatives. Sapa O’Chau proposes a 2-day Off-the–Beaten-Path option. Sapa Sisters can help you design the perfect route that will suit your individual desires for a trek.
And finally if you really want to find yourself secluded you can head to the neighbouring province of Lai Chau. In the depth of the province, lies the village of Sin Suoi Ho, where a few of Sapa O’Chau students have started running their own homestays and guiding services. Because this place is still completely off the tourist map, this is the perfect opportunity to enjoy all the views of Sapa with out all the other travellers in your camera shot. The hospitality here is also incredible as the locals don’t see a lot of foreigners and when they do they are delighted to host you. If you can, come here on a Saturday when the village market is in session. It’s the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the local way of life.
The travel time is about 2 hours by bus from Sapa town and another 45 minutes by motorbike (or about 3 hours by private car). However, the travel is not a waste of time, as you get to see a lot along the way. You will be asking your driver to stop every few kilometres to take photos!
You can get to Sapa by bus or train. Regular buses leave from My Dinh Bus Station. There are both day and night busses and will run you around VND300-350K. There’s now also a Sapa Express Bus, which takes about 6 hours (about an hour or so less than the regular bus) and includes a pick up from your hotel in Old Quarter. Price is around VND350-400K. Buses go straight to Sapa bus station.
Overnight trains leave from Ga Hanoi at 20:35 and 22:00 and go to Lao Cai, the closest large city next to Sapa. The journey takes about 8 hours plus another 30-45 minutes by mini bus from Lao Cai to Sapa. Prices range from US$28-160 (for the VIP private suites) and include the price of the mini bus. Tickets can be purchased in advance or at the station. Hotels can also help you to arrange tickets, but they will charge a premium.
Good to know: There are only two trains that operate every night, but there are several companies that provide the hosting service on each train. They differ in the level of service and comfort of cabins. Chapa is perhaps the nicest one, with Livitrans being the modest yet comfortable option. There are no daytime trains to Sapa.