Picture this as you are trekking through golden yellow and emerald green rice paddy terraces surrounded by beautiful valleys as far as the eye can see in Sapa, Vietnam. Sounds incredible right? Well, that’s exactly what you will get when visiting the Muong Hoa Valley.
Vietnam’s Northern mountain town of Sapa is close to the border with China. This town has emerged over the last decade as a must visit tourist destination on the typical Vietnam itinerary and hiking is by far the best way to see the beauty of this gorgeous area.
But if visiting Sapa seems a little overwhelming as you plan your Vietnam adventure, don’t worry because we are here to guide you every step of the way. Our main goal is to help you successfully plan a trek in Sapa.
Since we have completed a guided Sapa trekking tour ourselves, we will show you:
- How to get to Sapa, Vietnam
- Options for booking a Sapa hiking tour
- Best time to visit Northern Vietnam
- Photo walkthrough of our hiking tour
- Where to stay in Sapa
- How to book a homestay yourself
Now, let’s begin trekking in Sapa, Vietnam!
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What Is Sapa, Vietnam?
Sapa is a small town in Northwest Vietnam located on the slopes of the Hong Lien Son Mountains. However, mountain towns usually mean long winding roads. And trust us, Sapa is no exception.
This tiny mountain town has been attracting trekkers for a hundred years, since the French developed the town as a weekend retreat from the humidity of Hanoi.
We believe trekking in Sapa, Vietnam should be on everyone’s bucket list. After reading this detailed guide about hiking in Sapa, you will completely understand why we feel this way.
Trekking in the stunning Muong Hoa Valley and spending a night at a homestay is the most popular “thing” to do in Sapa. But you will need at least one more day for Fansipan and Cat Cat village.
Another one of the major highlights for Sapa hikers is Fan Si Pan (Fansipan), the tallest mountain in the Indochinese Peninsula.
This Sapa trekking guide will cover everything you want to know about finding and booking a guided hiking tour in Sapa.
Heading to Sapa? Don’t miss our popular guide featuring the best things to do in Sapa.
How To Get To Sapa, Vietnam
The route from Hanoi to Sapa by bus and train are very similar. Both routes meet in a town on the border with China called Lao Cai. From Lao Cai, there is only one road up and down the mountain to Sapa.
See the winding road up the mountain… This road bends, curves and meanders its way up the mountain for what feels like an eternity.
Let’s just leave it at the fact you will be given paper bags in case of emergency on the bus.
The interactive map above shows the location of the Sapa Express Bus departure in old quarter Hanoi, Lao Cai and Hanoi train stations. We have also marked the Sapa drop off point.
Your decision to travel by train or bus could be based on budget, convenience or availability.
Check prices on 12Go Asia to see whether the train or Sapa Express is a better fit for your budget and schedule.
Both the bus and train were priced at US$12 per person when we visited Sapa, but remember you will pay for a bus connection after the train.
Our recommendation is to travel with Sapa Express. Ironically, despite the barf inducing roads up the mountain, this was the best sleeper bus we took in Vietnam.
Personally, we didn’t see the benefit to traveling by train and changing in Lao Cai. Especially when the bus was cheaper. Plus, the bus left Hanoi closer to where we were staying in the old quarter.
Interested in a Vietnam sleeper bus? Don’t miss our popular guide to surviving the Sleeper Bus in Vietnam.
Best Time For Trekking In Sapa, Vietnam
Vietnam is a whirlwind of varying climates. Sapa has a unique subtropical highland climate. There is no way you can plan your entire Vietnam trip based around perfect weather conditions in each city.
That being said, if Sapa is the one place you want the best chance of perfect trekking conditions, September is the month you need to plan for. Let’s take a look at the seasons:
Winter: December, January and February (Not Recommended)
During Winter in Sapa, temperatures plummet and fog moves in across the mountains. Snow can often fall on the highest peaks and in general, average temperatures are not ideal for trekking.
Spring: March, April and May
Trekking in Spring is perfect for those who enjoy warm, dry weather and fewer tourists (both international and domestic).
But you will not see the picturesque golden or abundant green rice terraces in Spring. That’s the main trade off for visiting in this time of year.
Summer: June, July and August
Summer is a time for domestic tourism in Sapa. It’s also extremely humid, hot and wet. This is the time of year when rice terraces are lush green, but you will probably spend your whole visit being rained on.
Fall: September, October and November (Recommended)
September is the ideal time to visit. It might still be on the back end of heavy rainfall, but this is the only time of the year you will see the famous and sought after golden rice fields.
By October, most of the harvest has been collected. Fall is fantastic for hiking through Sapa valley as it brings ideal trekking temperatures and clear blue skies.
When we visited in October, we had a mix of beautiful blue skies and rain. By November, it begins to get colder and rice fields are significantly less beautiful.
Planning to visit Vietnam? You might want to read our guide featuring important things to know about Vietnam before visiting.
Self Guided Or Local Guided Sapa Trekking Tour
The first thing you need to decide is how you want to explore Sapa. The main point we want to get across to you is not to worry about organizing everything before you arrive. You will not be short of options.
There are a number of ethnic minorities in the Muong Hoa Valley region, namely the H’Mong, the Dao and the Dai so there are numerous homestays available.
Staying with a family in Sapa is likely to be the main reason you’re visiting and you can do this in three different ways:
- Book a homestay before you arrive (Self Guided)
- Book a hotel in downtown Sapa (Local Guide)
- Book a Sapa trekking tour (Local Guide)
There is no right or wrong way to experience Sapa. These options will depend on your preferences and travel style.
1. Book A Homestay Before You Arrive Into Sapa (Self Guided)
This is the best option for independent travelers who want to experience a more rural, isolated Sapa with fewer tourists.
With this first option, you will stay with a local family, but you will not trek with a guide and you will be responsible for finding your own way to the homestay.
When you get dropped off in Sapa town near the Sun Plaza, you will need to hire a motorbike, take a taxi or walk to the homestay of your choice.
Many of these homestay options are located down in the Muong Hoa Valley where many of the trekking tours go.
You will be able to independently trek around the valley, but be warned, without a local guide, it will be harder to deflect vendors trying to sell their products.
Here are top rated homestays in Sapa (ratings are out of 10):
- Eco Hills Homestay – 3.6 miles from center (9.3 rating)
- Hmong Sister House and Trekking – 4.1 miles from center (9.1 rating)
- Hoa’s Homestay Sapa – 4.3 miles from center (9.4 rating)
- La Beauté Sa Pa – 5.1 miles from center (9.7 rating)
- My’s Homestay – 6.6 miles from center (9.7 rating)
- Sapa’s Soul – 5.0 miles from center (9.6 rating)
Travel Tip: For more homestay options, use booking.com. Filter by ‘homestay’ and look on the map to the South East of Sapa town for homestays.
2. Book A Hotel In Downtown Sapa (Local Guide)
The second option involves spending a night in a hotel before your trekking tour begins. We chose this option and it’s our recommended way of traveling to Sapa because you will be able to explore the region thoroughly.
Keep in mind there is more to Sapa than just trekking so we encourage travelers to spend additional time in town if possible. Check out Fansipan and Cat Cat Village then complete your Vietnam Sapa hiking experience with a homestay.
Later in this guide, we will show you some of the best hotels in Sapa as well as how to find a guided hiking tour once you arrive in Sapa town.
Hiking Tip: If you stay at a hotel before trekking, you can usually leave things you don’t want to bring on your hike at the hotel for safe keeping free of charge. Just be sure to confirm before booking your hotel.
3. Book A Sapa Trekking Tour (Local Guide)
If all of this seems like a lot to think about and you would rather someone else handle the logistics, you can book a Sapa trekking tour.
Many of these tour options include transport to Sapa as well as a Muong Hoa Valley Trek and a local ethnic village tour.
The convenience factor here is huge and is perfect for those with only a few days spare. Unfortunately, this means you probably won’t be able to do Fansipan and Cat Cat village.
But if you are short on time and still want to experience the beauty of Sapa, we would recommend booking a tour.
Here are top rated Sapa Valley trekking tours:
- 5 Hour Muong Hoa Valley Trek – This shortened hike is perfect for those with limited time.
- 2-Day Sapa Trekking Tour w/ Limo Transfer – Get to Sapa in style with this 2 day hiking tour.
- 2-Day Sapa Ethnic Homestay – This two day hike will stopover in beautiful Ta Van Village.
- Sapa Full Day Motorbike Tour – Skip the hiking and see Sapa by motorbike with this option.
How To Book A Guided Sapa Trekking Tour
Personally, we found it difficult to gather information about whether we should pre-book a trekking tour with a local guide or wait until we arrived in Sapa.
We decided to wait until we arrived in town to make a better judgement call and we’re glad we did.
You absolutely do not have to book a trekking tour and homestay with a local guide before you arrive. But if you would feel more comfortable having the arrangements in place, book in advance.
We visited Sapa in October when it was still relatively busy. If you are planning to visit during the peak month of September, you may want to book a tour in advance just to secure a spot.
It’s entirely up to how you prefer to travel. Prices will be similar whether booked online or in town. But if demand is up in town, you might be able to find a good deal online compared to bartering for a price in person.
Finding The Perfect Tour Guide
As your bus pulls up in Sapa, there will be a sea of Hmong women dressed in bright vibrant clothing waiting to inundate you with offers of trekking tours.
You can talk to as many guides as you like to discuss hiking options. But be warned, you may need do your best Moses impression to part the sea of women before moving on to your hotel.
In all honesty, it was very overwhelming and you will need to be prepared. Have a price point in mind and go with your gut feeling if this is how you choose to book your tour.
Trekking in Sapa has become so popular there are an increasing amount of options. There are also local travel agencies in town where you can book your trekking tour if that makes you more comfortable.
Alternatively, you might be able to book with your hotel owners who will be more than happy to help. Yes, they will take a small cut for themselves but it means you get a highly recommended guide.
This is how we booked our trekking tour on our Sapa itinerary and it worked out perfectly for us. Our Hmong guide was amazing, the mother of all the Mama’s!
We stayed at the Olympia Hotel and paid 1,600,000 VND (about US$ 70) total for both of us to experience a 2 day Sapa trekking tour.
New to trekking? Don’t miss our beginner hiking tips to get ready for your hike!
What To Expect On A Sapa Trekking Tour With Hmong Guide
In this next section of our guide, we will walk you through exactly what to expect when hiking in beautiful Sapa, Vietnam.
Sapa Hiking Day 1 Morning
The best part about booking the homestay through your hotel (like we did) is that you should be able to leave your backpack or luggage at the hotel. All we carried was our day pack for the overnight.
We were met by our Hmong trekking guide Mama Sung right in our hotel lobby the following morning. Once the introductions were over, we began our hike.
We left town heading East and made our way along dirt paths around mountain sides, passing houses and tons of animals. Heat and humidity took their toll immediately after we began to climb.
There are several viewpoints along the route affording spectacular views over valleys and rice terraces. We were a little unfortunate on our first day as the air was thick with a dense fog.
Lunch Break In Sapa Valley
We were literally in a cloud, all day. Don’t be surprised if that happens to you too, the climate can be quite changeable in Sapa and the surrounding Muong Hoa Valley.
We met several other tourists trekking with their guides along the same route. It’s a great place to meet like minded people. But it is touristy, so don’t expect to be out there alone.
There was a stop for lunch in a busy canteen that seemed to appear out of nowhere, probably because it was raining so heavily and we couldn’t see. We chose the vegetarian rice option but there were meat options available too.
We were also provided a drink and a banana. Beer and other foods were available for an additional charge. The meal wasn’t steller, but it was fuel for our bellies.
Our guide Mama Sung was absolutely brilliant! She taught herself to speak English and loved to practice with us. Mama Sung also showed us how to recognize an indigo plant.
This indigo is important to the Hmong tribe because they use it dye their clothing. You can see some indigo on Kristen’s hand in the photo above.
After about 6 hours of trekking, we eventually arrived into the village where we were shown to our accommodation for the night.
Overnight Homestay Accommodation
Once we arrived in the village area, we learned how the houses were built specifically around the rice terraces. These narrow paths were just wide enough for one person and one motorbike.
We walked through the skinny maze to find our accommodation for the night. The set up for each homestay will be a bit different. Mama Sung first showed us around her house and we met her husband.
She had a huge chart on the wall with pictures and the English word underneath. This was how she taught herself to speak English.
We were told we wouldn’t be staying at Mama Sung’s house, but at her cousin’s house with several other tourists.
Next, we were led to another building and shown where we would be sleeping. We shared the house with 4 other tourists.
At first we were disappointed not to be staying in Mama Sung’s house as we thought that was the point. But the other tourists staying in the house with us were great and we all ate dinner together with some of the other locals.
Dinner for us was at 6pm and it was truly superb. The homemade spring rolls we had that night were some of the best we tried in Vietnam.
Our wonderful meal also included morning glory, delicious chicken and vegetables with rice. This was such a drastic improvement over the lunch.
Happy Water Aka Rice Wine
After dinner, we all had a few beers (paid for of course!) and then Mama Sung brought out a clear plastic bottle that looked like it was the prototype of plastic bottles.
She had been talking about something called Happy Water all day, singing it to us and laughing. When she took the lid off, we understood. Wow. Is this the stuff they had in the tank of Apollo 11?
Happy water is also known as Vietnamese rice wine. It’s Vietnam’s most popular liquor made from distilled fermented rice.
This rice wine typically has a higher than 40% alcohol by volume and is often brewed by families at home. So if the happy water comes out during your homestay, get ready for it!
Needless to say, we all felt a little rough the next morning.
Sapa Hiking Day 2
Personally, we preferred the second day of hiking. The weather was beautiful, the sky was clear and the sun was beaming which was a complete contrast to the day before.
We found the scenery and actual trekking to be more enjoyable too. We ventured through the beautiful rice terraces, even though they were waterlogged and no longer golden.
It’s a mighty spectacle to look upon 90 degree angled soil and grass spread out for miles, like endless one sided green pyramids.
We walked over a dam in progress, through numerous terraces and stopped for lunch in a more hospitable wooden log cabin type canteen.
The spot was right next to a waterfall and the sun was beaming down on us. There were a few groups all trekking together on the second day.
The route became a big happy family with many tourists and locals interacting!
Following another 6 hours of hiking, we were ready to head back to town for our transfer to Halong Bay. We said goodbye to Mama Sung along with the other fabulous guides and got picked up by a minibus.
Unfortunately, our bus got stuck for 1 hour when a huge truck was offloading material on the only through road. Definitely not what you wanted after a long day of trekking.
But we finally got back to Sapa in the early evening.
Where To Stay In Sapa Valley (Before And After Trekking)
You will most likely need to find a hotel to stay in both before and after your guided tour in the Sapa Valley.
Our recommendation would be to book a hotel centrally located near Sap Pa Lake in the middle of downtown. This location will be in close proximity to restaurants as well as where you will meet your guide.
One of our favorite restaurants in Sapa town was Le Gecko which has an extensive menu and the service is excellent. Many travelers congregate here so it’s also a great place to meet others.
If you are booking your homestay online, use our recommendations from above to find the perfect place. Keep in mind you should search for homestays to the South East of Sapa town.
We mentioned earlier we stayed at Olympia Hotel, but if we ever return to Sapa we will certainly book at one of these locations we have listed below. The views look stunning and we were on a very tight budget the first time we visited Sapa.
If you are looking for a hotel in town, here are top rated lodging options for your visit to Sapa, Vietnam:
Heart Of Sapa Hotel (Budget)
If you are looking for a budget hotel in Sapa, look no farther than the Heart of Sapa Hotel. Located just a few minutes away from Sun Plaza and many of the best restaurants in town, plus it has a 9.4 rating.
Rooms at Heart of Sapa Hotel are typically US$ 15-20 per night depending on the time of year.
>> Book the Heart of Sapa Hotel here <<
Sapa Relax Hotel & Spa (Mid-Range)
Sapa Relax Hotel & Spa has stunning views of the rice terraces and travelers always rave about the gorgeous views in the reviews.
In shoulder season, superior rooms are around US$25 while executive rooms with mountain views are US$40. For those beautiful views, we think it’s worth the upgrade.
>> Book Sapa Relax Hotel & Spa here <<
Hotel De La Coupole (Luxury)
As one of the top rated hotels in Sapa, Hotel de la Coupole is a fabulous option with an indoor swimming pool, spa, fitness center, sauna and hammam.
Inspired by the minority tribes in Sapa as well as French Haute Couture, this hotel brings a unique perspective and offers a continental or buffet breakfast.
>> Book Hotel De La Coupole here <<
Want more hotel options? Search top rated hotels or homestays in Sapa for yourself.
Tips For Trekking In Sapa, Vietnam
No matter how you book your Sapa trek, here are a few important tips for you to consider before you hike:
- The weather in Sapa is extremely changeable due to the proximity of the mountains. One day could be beautiful clear blue skies with sun and during the next day, Sapa will disappear in a cold cloud of water vapor. It is worth considering adding a ‘fudge’ day just in case you need it for weather.
- Do not worry about booking a trekking tour in advance. There will be plenty of opportunity to book a tour once you arrive in town. But if you are traveling during peak season, you may want to book online to secure a spot.
- You will need robust footwear, a raincoat or poncho and a compact daypack for trekking. We also recommend taking a few extra layers and extra socks in case you get wet.
- You will be expose for most of this hike around 6-8 hours per day so you will need sunscreen.
- Leeches will be a real problem and they will be more active after rainfall. We both wished we had hiking bottoms that covered our entire legs when we trekked in Sapa. Check for leeches regularly during your hike.
- Don’t forget your bug spray because the last thing you want is to be eaten alive in the Vietnamese mountains. We bought lots of bug spray and ended up sharing with the entire group.
Sapa Trekking FAQ’s
Let’s take a look at some of the most frequently asked questions about hiking in the Muong Hoa Valley in Northern Vietnam.
Trekking in Sapa is moderately difficult because you will hike about 7-10 miles per day which will take somewhere between 6 and 8 hours. However, most of the treks in Sapa follow the roads with steady elevation changes so this does not compare to climbing a mountain with lots of elevation gain or loss. The hardest part about trekking in Sapa is the distance.
Yes, you can trek in Sapa without a guide because you can book homestays in the valley and just walk to it yourself. However, we would recommend booking with a guide for the full experience.
Most treks in Sapa typically last about 2 days. While you will be hiking all day, you will be able to get a good feel for the area and experience the gorgeous views Sapa Valley has to offer.
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We hope this guide to Sapa trekking helps you plan your own successful tour in the Muong Hoa Valley!
Please let us know if you have any questions about trekking in Sapa or hiking in Vietnam below in the comments.
Mark and Kristen
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