Sapa, located in the far north of Vietnam, deviates from the usual north-south route that most backpackers follow. For that reason Sapa is being skipped by many. Sad, because the small detour is absolutely worth this region. From Sapa you can hike through an environment with endless rice terraces and visit villages that are inhabited by local mountain tribes.
Buy from me?
Tourism in Sapa has developed rapidly, where the local population is clearly reaping the benefits. Especially in the village itself, the sales people are, to say the least, intrusive. Be prepared to answer the questions “Where you from?”, “Buy from me?” And “Are you married?” At least every few minutes. Our experience is that to continue to respond and to make it immediately clear that you do not want to buy anything work best. If you do want to buy something, this is the place to be for handmade souvenirs.
Planning your trek in Sapa
Sapa is located in a valley in Hoang Liên National Park and is a perfect base for a multi-day trek. Several local minority groups live in the area, such as the H’mong and the Red Dzao, each with their own language and customs. The residents of the small villages that you meet along the way are often very hospitable and will not let you go until you have tasted their home-made rice wine! Proper planning of your trek in Sapa is a must to get the most out of your experience. Many travel organizations promise you groups of up to eight people, but in practice all groups leave around Sapa at the same time and you soon walk around in a group of the format coach. Do you want to avoid seeing more sweaty tourists than natural beauty? That can be happy!
Preferably do not book a trekking in Sapa through a hotel, but find a local in the village that you want to lead. The salesmen in costume you will see everywhere come often from the surrounding villages and know the environment as their pocket. Clearly indicate that you do not want to walk in a large group and that you want to avoid the standard tourist routes. Departing at a different time or walking a different route than the crowd can make the difference between a disappointment and an unforgettable experience. Without a guide on the road can be fine, but make sure that you have an idea (or better: a map) of the environment.
Sapa is located about 350 kilometers northwest of Hanoi, near the border with China. The fastest and easiest way is to take the night train from Hanoi, which will take you to Lao Cai Railway Station in about 9 hours. For a soft-sleeper bed in an air-conditioned compartment you pay about 35 Dollars. Cheaper too, but then you have to take enough with very basic variant. Then from Lao Cai you take a mini-bus that takes you to Sapa in an hour. If you want to save money, you can also choose to travel the whole trip from Hanoi in a sleeping coach, but this is a lot less comfortable.
Sapa is located in the highlands and in winter it can be quite cold. The climate is variable and even in the summer it is at most 24 degrees and it cools down considerably at night. The rice fields are at their greenest from June to September, but unfortunately this is also the rainy season and a poncho will not be a luxury. In addition, make sure you have good outdoor clothing and think about your equipment. For a trekking of 1 or 2 days, you can do well with a small daypack. Are you going for a longer trek in Sapa and surroundings then you need better preparation, especially given the changing weather conditions.
Do not make the same mistake as we do and wear sturdy shoes. This is a very mountainous area, and especially when it has rained the slopes are a bit too challenging when you wear sneakers. Finally: there is a lot of chance of fog in this area. But do not be discouraged if you arrive in Sapa and do not have more than a meter. Great chance that it opens up completely from one moment to the next and you are still surprised by the magically beautiful landscape of Sapa!
Alternatives to a trek in Sapa
Do you want to admire the surroundings but is a trek in Sapa nothing for you? You can rent a scooter for a lot of money at many hotels. It will not bring you on the smallest paths, but you can see much of the area in a short time. Keep in mind that at some minority villages you will encounter a checkpoint where a small contribution is requested from you. It feels somewhat touristy, but your contribution ultimately benefits the preservation of culture and nature in and around Sapa.
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