Many people take a trip to go trekking in Sapa, northern Vietnam, while staying in Hanoi. where you’ll find the Hoang Lien Son mountains, which includes the country’s highest peak: Fan Si Pan.
There are 54 listed ethnic groups across the country, in Sapa you will come across the Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho.
I was told these groups still live traditionally, from their clothing to their homes, to the way they farm. This is true, to an extent, but I’ll get to that.
Below I will detail what was promised on the package I paid for, before explaining what did and didn’t happen, and finally I’ll explain whether it was worth it and what I would do differently…
The two-day trekking in Sapa itinerary
7.30am – Breakfast at hotel
9am – Begin the trek to Muong Hoa Valley, one of the most beautiful, and learn about the local hills tribes
12.30pm – Picnic lunch by Muong Hoa stream
5pm – Pick vegetables with your host family and learn how to cook Vietnamese food for dinner
7pm – Enjoy your dinner and a “happy water” before staying overnight
6am: Wake up and experience morning life of a Dzay family
9am: Trek 10km into Hoang Lien Son National Park
11.30am – Visit a local village and enjoy the jungle waterfall and Rattan Bridge (you can even skinny dip before heading back to town)
12.30pm – Have lunch by the waterfall
1.30 – Walk another 2km to the bus to town
2pm – Free time in Sapa
9pm – Bus back to Hanoi
It looks great right? Don’t get me wrong, it was great, but it didn’t quite live up to everything it had promised. Here’s what happened…
How to get there
Many people buy a package with a set itinerary so you don’t need to organise anything yourself. That’s what I did.
Sapa is close to the Chinese border. It is 350 kilometres from Hanoi so most trips will offer overnight transport.
This is a usually sleeper bus (with actual beds) and most of them have pretty decent WiFi too. The beds are fairly small though, you can’t stretch out and a very large person might find them too narrow.
Coming back will usually be a sleeper bus too, but not necessarily overnight depending on your itinerary.
The bus takes approximately six hours, and will stop for food and toilet breaks once or twice so it might end up being closer to seven or eight hours. We left late in the evening and arrived at 4am, but stayed on the coach sleeping until 6am when our guides collected us (or were meant to at least).
You can get a train but despite Sapa having a train station, you cannot go directly there from Hanoi. The train, also fitted with beds and Wifi, takes you to Lao Cai, a town 38 kilometres away; so you’ll need to get a taxi or bus to Sapa.
At 6am the lights on the bus came on and we were woken up and told to get off the bus. It wasn’t really explained to us what was going to happen next. Many taxi drivers and local people were there asking us if we wanted tours and taxis and, for a moment, we thought it was all a con, that we had been dropped off with nothing waiting for us.
It turned out we would all be picked up by someone, which we eventually were. Half an hour after arriving we left with whom we thought was our guide and another couple.
We were taken to a hotel in Sapa town for breakfast and an hour later a lady arrived in the traditional clothing of her own village (each has a different style of clothing) mixed together with Nike trainers and a North Face jacket. She was our actual guide.
Another lady was with her, carrying her baby on her back, and wearing slippers! (As in sliders, not cosy home slippers). The pair helped us throughout the day when the trail was difficult or slippery. At the end of the trek she asked us to buy things from her such as a bag or a scarf and these were incredibly expensive, perhaps not in comparison to home in London but definitely in comparison to the price of things throughout the rest of the country.
You see she wasn’t a guide. She wasn’t being paid to hike with us. She had come along to help so that she could then ask us to buy something at the end. This rubbed me up the wrong way. She had been so nice and chatty and I felt like I had been tricked. I didn’t want to spend that much money, when we had already spent a lot to be there – in fact I didn’t even have enough on me to buy anything, but I did give her a small amount as a thank you.
We arrived wearing trainers, but because it had been raining the night before our guide instructed us to rent some willies from the hotel for 50,000 dong (£1.66, $2.15). We also left our luggage at this hotel overnight, for free, as carrying it on the hike would have been horrendous.
It was March and due to being so far north we were expecting freezing cold temperatures, as we had been told to. I wore leggings, jeans, a turtle neck top, hoodie AND a coat.
As we set off at 9am the sun came out and soon I began stripping off my layers and spent the rest of the day carrying them.
We walked through the mountains for 15km. Through an ocean of deep, green rice fields. I lost count of how many piglets we saw, adorably running around (often away from us).
There were homes dotted along the way and sometimes entire villages and we passed people working the land.
I have seen rice fields all over Asia, including Bali which seem to be the most popular (on Instagram at least). Trust me when I saw nothing compares to Sapa. I absolutely loved the hike, every single minute of the 15km was breathtakingly beautiful.
Nash, with wellies a little too small because size 10 and above is a rarity amongst the Vietnamese, was in pain for a lot of the day and didn’t love it so much.
We stopped for lunch just a few kilometres away from the family we would be staying with. Everyone on a hike seems to stop at the same place for lunch – there is no lovely picnic as described in the itinerary, but a massive restaurant full of tourists being fed. Drinks were not included.
We then walked another 45 minutes and were dropped off at the home we were staying in. There was no vegetable picking as listed in the itinerary, but to be honest we were so exhausted that we were both relieved and happy to have a nap.
There was a bit of a cooking lesson later that evening. We watched as the host made a vegetable and noodle mix and then we wrapped them into spring rolls and she deep-fried them. Everything else was made for us.
There was no “happy water”, which is rice wine. Moonshine versions of it were popular among farmers when clean water was hard to get.
So to answer the question of whether they really live “traditionally”, the answer is yes and no.
Like my guide, most people wore big label brands like Nike, North Face and Adidas. I young teenage girls with bucket hats and designer bags, so not at all removed from the trends of the day. They were wearing traditional clothing as well, relevant to their ethnic tribe.
People in Sapa do farm traditionally. In our hike I saw no technology or equipment to help the farmers, I only saw people working by hand.
Their homes were entirely normal, and in the evenings my family sat around a huge flat screen TV watching cartoons.
We had breakfast of pancakes and syrup before our host came to pick us up, alone this time.
We walked through more beautiful scenery and through a bamboo forest. We reached the jungle waterfall and Rattan Bridge in roughly an hour, so the promise of another 10km most definitely did not take place. Our guide was visibly tired and kept yawning and stopping every two minutes so this might have played a part in the change of schedule.
Lunch wasn’t by the waterfall either, but at another home stay (tbh it looked much more like a hotel). Again, drinks were not included.
Due to skipping the 10km trek we ate lunch at 11am and then got straight on a bus to town, arriving at midday…
Here’s the thing… I didn’t mind skipping the 10km – despite wearing our trainers on the second day Nash was still in pain from the day before so he was over the moon!
I didn’t mind having lunch super early or paying for drinks. What bothered me was being dropped off in Sapa five hours early, which meant nine hours until our bus home.
The only thing to do is the Fan Si Pan Cable Car. It is 3km out of town, so you’ll need to either do more walking, get a train for 200,000 dong (£6.50/$8.60) or get a taxi for 40,000. (£1.30/$1.75).
Also, not to scare you but I watched the train go over the viaduct at the start of my hike and I asked my guide if it had ever fallen. She said yes, a little too casually.
The cable car travels between Sapa and Fansipan Peak and is meant to be very beautiful. It costs 600,000 dong (£20/$26).
Apart from that, all there is to do in Sapa is eat, shop for hiking gear, or get a massage. Altogether this wasn’t enough to fill the time we were meant to have had, let alone nine hours!
We tracked down the man who collected us from the bus and brought us to the hotel to see if we could get an earlier bus and were told we could not.
In the end we got a cab to the local bus station and paid for the next bus to Hanoi. This meant spending £35/$45 more than we were meant to.
Sapa is absolutely beautiful. Hiking is not a hobby of mine, but I do enjoy it and so I absolutely loved the hike on the first day. Nash, who doesn’t much love hiking and then had to endure uncomfortable wellington boots for 15km, didn’t really enjoy the day.
The vegetable picking and cooking class didn’t quite live up to our expectations, nor did the home stay as it wasn’t much of a cultural experience – it was more of a guesthouse. Neither of us minded that too much. There were beers and beautiful views so it was a nice way to spend an evening.
The hike on the second day… Well there wasn’t really a hike on the second day and then we were left with nothing to do.
So in the end I was left wishing we had done a one-day trip. We could have travelled there overnight, hiked throughout the day and travelled home the following night.
This would have been a cheaper package, and two nights travelling means two nights of accommodation you don’t need to pay for!
If you love hiking then by all means go for two or more days. Just be prepared to go off on your own for some exploring if you have spare time and definitely be prepared to not get everything you paid for.