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Your guide to hiking Sa Pa in Vietnam

girl at the top of Sa Pa in Vietnam

When it comes to magnificent natural beauty, few countries can rival Vietnam. The Southeast Asian nation is utterly blessed with dreamlike landscapes, especially in its mountainous North.

These jagged peaks and vibrant, verdant plateaus are home to many of the country’s ethnic minorities, and this combination of cultural diversity and gorgeous natural scenery makes it one of the best places to visit in Vietnam. And, out of all the gems in this vast region, one must visit area is Sa Pa.

Situated in Lao Cai province, which borders China, Sa Pa is a relatively small city that has the usual Vietnamese mix of cheap, great eats, basic but comfortable guest houses, and more motorbikes and scooters than the eye can see. The region surrounding it, however, is one of Vietnam’s highlights, and is without a doubt one of the best places to scratch a hiking itch while also engaging in sustainable tourism practices that benefit local populations.

If you’re thinking about visiting this unbelievable region and want to be as prepared as possible, then you’re in the right place. Read on for our guide to hiking in Sa Pa, which will cover all the essentials you need to know for this unmatched Vietnam experience.

Do I need to be fit to hike in Sa Pa?

Hikes in Sa Pa vary widely, not just in length and difficulty, but also terrain. You will trek through serene wooded areas, take in astounding views, and be awed by the vivid green of sculpted rice paddies.

Most hikes in Sa Pa will be over two days, and will include a home stay with a local ethnic minority family. There are a number of cultural groups who live in the region, including the Hmong people, the Tay, the Giay, and many more. Each culture has its own traditions and villages, and although there is plenty of mixing, they retain a distinctive identity.

These homestay hikes will be relatively accessible and will usually last no more than two days, but a decent level of fitness will make the experience all the better. However, it shouldn’t be too strenuous.

If you want to take it up a notch, you can organise a longer walk with a specialist group. Mount Fanspian, the highest mountain in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, is located in the area, and is a worthy opponent for even the most hardened hiker. Expect to spend at least 2-3 days on trails if you want to reach the summit, but if you’re looking for a real challenge after doing our Ultimate Southeast Asia trip, this could be the trek for you.

How do I get to Sa Pa?

Sa Pa is incredibly well connected from Hanoi. You can arrive via sleeper services (bus and train), getting to the city in the morning, or you can journey during the day from the nation’s capital and reach your destination in the evening. If you’ve bought or rented a motorbike, you can also drive up with ease. The road is well maintained, although the drive will be around 6 hours.

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When is the best time to go to Sa Pa?

Sa Pa has four distinct seasons, and each of them is beautiful in its own way.

Spring (March to June) is when conditions are fairest, with cool but sunny days. The plants will have also begun to bloom, and many local farming communities will be planting their rice, which is an interesting activity to watch.

Summer (July and August) is hot but incredibly humid, and while you can still trek, there is a high chance you will get rained on. While that might sound miserable to some, the grey outbursts contrast beautifully with the vivid green surroundings, and most of the time the sky will be blue. Plus, there are fewer people around, which is always a bonus.

Autumn (September to November) is a bit cooler than summer but retains the green surroundings, and is much drier to boot. Winter (December to February) requires some extra clothes as it can get cold, but the scenery is incredible, the air is crisp, and you might even get to see some white frost sprinkling the highest peaks.

While they are all beautiful in their own way, there is something magical about Spring in Sa Pa. So, if you have the opportunity to visit then, make sure you do!

What should I pack for Sa Pa?

If you are doing a hike and homestay in Sa Pa, you might be wondering what you have to bring. After all, despite the promise of home cooked meals and interesting cultural activities, it’s still a long walk through mountain paths. Also, what you need to pack with you will depend on the season you’re visiting.

Although the walks aren’t too strenuous, hiking boots are suggested thanks to the fact that paths and rice paddies can get very muddy. And, even though you might be visiting in the drier months, it’s always good to bring a waterproof jacket. Thick socks are also suggested during winter months.

Other than that, you don’t need anything special. Just a change of clothes, toiletries, and snacks/water for the walk. A refillable water bottle can be helpful as the homestays have purified water, but even better is a water purifying straw so you have more options to refill.

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How to find an ethnic minority guide in Sa Pa?

There are several organisations that can offer these kinds of tours, but there are also lots of independent ethnic minority families who will offer their services. If you do choose to go with the latter, word of mouth is usually the best option, as then you can be sure of a good experience. Tours done via official groups will be easier to research, but by going for a more independent option, you can ensure all of your money goes towards locals.

Hostels and hotels in Hanoi are good places to find recommendations. And, thankfully, many of the guides are contactable via services like WhatsApp, so you can get some idea of what to expect before arriving. However, be warned: these independent guides often speak excellent English, but cannot read or write it, so expect to organise things via phone call or voice notes, and make sure you write things down after they’ve been agreed to avoid miscommunication.

brown cow in Sa Pa, Vietnam

Image source:Kimia / unsplash

Why does hiking in Sa Pa qualify as sustainable tourism?

Hiking in Sa Pa not only allows you to support locals who utilise sustainable farming practices, but also gives them the economic support to continue a much lower impact, rural lifestyle. It really is the definition of taking only pictures and leaving only footprints.

What to expect on a Sa Pa homestay and hike

Most guides will advise you to take an overnight train or bus and meet them in the morning. If that’s not possible, you can spend the night in Sa Pa at a hostel or hotel, of which there are many.

The guide will meet you and take you to a nearby hotel or hostel to get breakfast. This is also where you’ll leave your larger bag (your guide will likely have a deal with this establishment that allows use of the storage), taking only essentials like a change of clothes, toiletries, water, and snacks in a backpack.

You’ll walk out of the city and soon be surrounded by nature. For the next few hours you’ll be wowed by postcard perfect scenery and green treasures, all while taking in the fresh air. There are some small food and tea stalls along the way, and after a few hours you’ll stop for a packed lunch (or at one of the stalls for a hot meal).

After lunch it’s more heavenly scenery, including fairytale-like waterfalls and breathtaking views over the surrounding valleys. You may also get the chance to meet local ethnic minority groups and purchase artisan souvenirs.

Eventually, you’ll make it to your homestay, where you’ll meet your guide’s family. You will be shown your room, and if you want you can then help to prepare dinner while getting to know your guide and fellow hikers (if there are any). A family-style meal is then served alongside tea and (optional) rice wine, and you’ll have the opportunity to learn more about your host, and how they live. It’s a truly enlightening experience, as their lives and customs are vastly different to even the rest of the Vietnamese population, let alone people from Western countries.

The next morning is an early start, but there’s coffee, an amazing breakfast, and breathtaking views to shake the tiredness away. You’ll head back down towards Sa Pa via a different path, and might even have the chance to see incredible sites like the stilt houses of Ban Ho, which is inhabited by the Tay tribe. In the small pockets of society that survive in this isolation, don’t be surprised to see a karaoke bar – these groups might have lots of cultural differences with the rest of their country people, but they retain a love of this particular activity.

Before you know it, you’re back in Sa Pa, hopefully with memories that will last a lifetime.

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