Three Days Trekking in Sapa

What we enjoyed most (and least) on our three-day, two-night trek in Sapa

After a week in bustling Hanoi, we decided to leave the exhaust fumes, heat, and intensity of Vietnam’s capital for the relative idyllic comforts of Sapa—a popular vacation destination for the French during their colonial rule—and home to some of the most amazing scenery Vietnam has to offer. While we found the town of Sapa a bit underwhelming, three days trekking through the surrounding countryside was a phenomenal experience with some of the most breathtaking scenery either of us had ever encountered.

Sapa Town

A typical street in downtown Sapa, by JD Travel

The thing about Sapa is that, in order to get to those amazing views, you have to go through Sapa town. The town, despite also boasting its own great scenery of the surrounding countryside, is not particularly quaint. The main streets boast as many hostels and hotels as storefronts. It’s impossible to explore without seeing other tourists every few seconds, and English is more common here than even in Hanoi. It was, for me at least, a bit disappointing. (Daniela liked it more.)

But we weren’t in Sapa for the town itself. Rather, we’d booked a three day, two-night home stay/trek in the mountains led by the local H’Mong people—one of the many ethnic minorities in the Vietnamese north.

We arrived in Sapa on a bus filled with tourists that unexpectedly was one of the best bus trips either of us had ever taken. The bus had reclining, individual bunks that allowed each passenger to lay back almost 180 degrees. A cramped Megabus from DC to New York this was not. Six hours and two stops after we left Hanoi – with decent rest stop food, no less – we arrived in Sapa, a bit weary but excited to get out of the big city.

Bunk bed bus with reclining seats to Sapa, by JD Travel

Our plan was to spend one night in Sapa, followed by two more trekking, and then back for a final night in Sapa. Our hotel (Sapa Dragon) was a small boutique off the main strip, and we sprung (a whole $5!) for mountain views which, unfortunately when we checked in, were obscured by the intense fog that blankets the area most days. After a quiet night with a simple but tasty meal in town, we were ready for our hiking adventure.

Day 1 of Trekking

The next morning, we were met by our local guide, Miss Chi, who would guide us from Sapa to the H’Mong homestay where we were sleeping that night. She was very sweet and excited by all the questions we asked, and her English was just good enough for us to be able to communicate in basic sentences. More complex conversations, though, were nearly impossible. It was just the two of us with our guide, which was great.

As we walked out of Sapa town the scenery slowly grew increasingly local, then rustic, then rugged. First through markets not catering to tourists (who wouldn’t have been interested in buying the live frogs, fish, and snails on offer for dinner, anyway). Then through steep and muddy but paved roads up a hill out of town. And eventually for most of our day through unpaved roads connecting tiny towns of local ethnic minorities. “Town” is probably a bit of an overstatement. Each one might house a few dozen people with barely a storefront of drinks and snacks sold out of someone’s front porch.

Hiking through fields and farmland with our H’Mong guide on the first day, by JD Travel

But as interesting as the little towns were, the views of the landscape drew most of our attention. The area around Sapa—the Alps of Indochina according to the French—is rightly known for sweeping mountain passes punctuated by rice terraces; for rolling fog first hiding and then moving aside to reveal lush greens fed by the many streams and small rivers trickling down from the mountains. Daniela stopped to take photos at the vistas, each seemingly more spectacular than the last. All the while we walked by small plots of land growing corn and pumpkins and beans and—surprisingly often—pot. (It’s smoked, yes, but hemp is one of the main fabrics used in H’Mong clothing.)

One of the vistas in our hike, by JD Travel
The rice fields and mountains of Sapa, by JD Travel

On our first day of trekking we spent six hours hiking nine miles through the hillsides, occasionally running into other small groups of tourists doing something similar. Then, shortly before dinner, we arrived at our homestay. It was a surprisingly large, two story cabin with a dozen or so small “private” rooms (the walls didn’t go up to the ceiling) and, critically for us, hot showers. Another group of 10 trekkers soon joined us and we all sat down for a simple dinner of mushrooms, chicken, cabbage, and rice prepared by the local H’mong hosts.

It was an interesting group, coming to Vietnam from all over the world: a few young twenty-somethings from Ireland in from Hong Kong where they were studying; a 60-something Brit who didn’t want to accompany his Philipines-born wife back to her hometown; a 45-year old Taiwanese on perpetual travel (like us!); a 30-year old from Spain who just quit her job (also like us!!). And – who knew – a couple from about 10 minutes away from us in Washington D.C.

It’s exciting to sit at a dinner table with a group like that – in our homogenized lives back home, where else could we have arranged for that sort of community to come together, even for just one night?

But it was after dinner that the group of us started to bond. Our hosts brought out pitchers of locally-distilled rice wine—what they call “Happy water”—and we began a series of toasts. With everyone a bit buzzed from the wine, we all went outside where someone from the local village demonstrated one of their traditional instruments. Something like a cross between bagpipes and a zither, it produced a sad, almost electronic sound.

Later, out came the beer, and people started showing each other their country’s native dances: Irish jigs followed by Spanish flamenco followed by Daniela demonstrating the Wobble and Cupid Shuffle. We slowly wound down the night and retired to a restless sleep punctuated by snoring (why didn’t those walls go to the top?!), animals (what possible reason could dogs have for barking so loudly at 3am?!), and heat (no A/C).

Views of the rice paddies on our second day, by JD Travel

Day 2 of Trekking

The next morning, most of the group set out together on day two of our trek. Again, the scenery was breathtaking, but this time we walked mainly on a local road heavily used by locals transporting goods (or animals) from town to town. It was much less interesting than the day before. After lunch, most of the group headed back (they were only trekking for a day and a half), and Daniela and I headed off along with the older British man. The three of us spent the rest of the afternoon, again mainly on local roads, finishing our second day of hiking, eight miles this day.

Our second night’s homestay was much different from the first. For one, we were staying with a family from a different ethnic group – the Red Dzao, rather than the Black H’Mong. Although they speak different languages and have many different cultures, the two groups get along well, and were just as welcoming of our (H’Mong) guide as they were of us. One of the family members spoke a few words of English, and he served as our makeshift translator for the night.

Once again, the evening proved a highlight. It was the family patriarch’s birthday, and in his honor they killed a duck to serve as dinner. As you might expect, they use every part of the animal, including making a blood and heart stew that’s supposed to supply particular strength. My verdict: *very* salty. I’m glad I tried it, but once was enough.

Perhaps because of the birthday, dinner was a much livelier affair our second night, and there were many more locals in attendance. The men sat apart from the women, and they drank toast after toast of “happy water,” taking shots each time. After the three westerners finished dinner—we sat with the women—we were invited to join the men’s table for toasts and shots (including Daniela). The tradition is that the person making the toast looks at each person sitting at the table while raising his or her glass, and after the shot shakes everyone’s hand in order. We were all invited to make toasts as well, and we joined in at least a dozen of them.

Finally, after dinner, the music and dancing started. But not, as you might expect, to traditional or even contemporary Dzao or Vietnamese or American music. No, this group was rocking out to Boney M—a mediocre European 1970s group none of us had ever heard of. (Thanks to Shazam for identifying the songs.) The men all started dancing with each other, spinning each other around. I don’t know whether it was intentionally just the men, or if they were the only ones tipsy enough (the women barely drank at all).

After the music died down, the family brought out an American-style birthday cake for the father, complete with sparkler candles and heavily-accented-but-American happy birthday song. After cake, we all went to sleep in an open room upstairs with mattresses on the floor. It wasn’t particularly comfortable, and none of us slept well. This time it was the roosters crowing at 3am and even more sweltering heat that kept us up.

Day 3 of Trekking

Our last day of trekking started like the others – a quick breakfast before heading out. This time we were only hiking for few hours before returning back into town. Once again, the views were amazing, and our weary legs appreciated the abridged day of hiking.

More stunning Sapa views on day 3, by JD Travel

The family dog (Mi Ki) actually joined us on the hike, providing some additional companionship as she roamed along. After a four mile loop, we were back at the homestay, ready to get picked up and driven back into Sapa town to stay at the same hotel we’d stayed at before.

When we got back, we rewarded ourselves with a massage at the best rated place in town (about $15 for an hour!), and a delicious Indian meal—our first non-Vietnamese food since we arrived. Exhausted, we curled up into bed and watched Game of Thrones—which limited time and poor WiFi had prevented us from seeing in Hanoi.

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All in all, our Sapa experience was fantastic, more for the surrounding scenery, local experience, and rice wine than for the town itself. While we would continue to see spectacular views as we continued to explore the north (more to come), visiting with and celebrating with such warm, welcoming, and generous hosts was easily a highlight of our early trip.

7 thoughts on “Three Days Trekking in Sapa

  1. We are adding Sapa to our list for our return trip for sure. Also, I love the music choices in Vietnam. Our driver in Da Nang introduced us to Modern Talking (a German duo from the 80’s) and he sang us two of their songs. Now I have them playing in my head on a constant loop.

    • Jeremy

      Ha – we’ll have to check out Modern Talking! It’s funny how foreign countries sometimes adopt very different western music than become popular back home.

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