Everything you need to know about trek & homestay in Sapa

Paula Martinelli Blog, Travel, Vietnam 8 Comments

Sapa, Vietnam - Find your complete guide of everything you should know

Thinking about going to Sapa but doesn't know where to start? What trekking should you do? Is a homestay with a local hill tribe for you? Look no further, here you can find everything you need to know about trekking and homestay with a Black H'mong family in Sapa, and I hope it helps you to take one step closer towards your great adventure in Sapa!

You must have places that you visit that you keep forever in a special place in your heart and mind, and Sapa in Vietnam is one of those places to me.

Sapa is a lovely hill station town in Vietnam near the Chinese border. It is an unique place, very culturally rich with different hilltribe minorities, lush mountain ranges, rice fields, and overall, breathtaking views! Once there, you’ll easily understand why I love it so much.

A home stay simply means an overnight stay in the home of one of the local ethnic minorities. I always promote responsible travel and encourage giving back to the local communities, and trekking and homestay with a local Black H'mong family is extremely important to the area and this type of tourism benefits the entire community.

Hiking and enjoying nature, while you immerse in the lifestyle of the hill tribes. The most prominent attraction in the area around Sapa is Fan Si Pan, which is the highest mountain in Vietnam. It's only 19km from town. This may seem like a short distance, but the trek is not easy; the rough terrain and unpredictable weather present some difficulties, specially in a rainy day, and endurance is a must.
Trekking the misty mountains in Sapa

Sapa, Vietnam - The Ultimate Guide of Everything you should know

What are the best attractions in Sapa?

  • Hiking & Trekking,
  • Visit tribal villages
  • Fan Si Pan Mountain
  • Hoang Lien National Park

Despite its commercialization during the last seven years, Sapa is still a must-see on any northern Vietnam itinerary. On a clear day, you will be treated to views of steeply terraced rice fields, towering verdant ridgelines, primitive mud-thatched villages, raging rivers, and astounding waterfalls


Everything you should know about Sapa
Rice paddies in Sapa

Where is Sapa?

Sapa is located of Northwest of Vietnam, beyond the clouds in a mountain town in Lao Cai Province which also includes Vietnam’s highest peak, Fan Si Pan, the highest mountain in Vietnam with a heigh of 3,142m above sea level. Sapa District is dominated by the Hoang Lien Son mountain range which is at the Eastern extremity of the Himalayas. Sapa is in a remote place in Vietnam located about 350 km northwest of Hanoi, close to the Chinese border, and 19 km from the town. The city of Sapa lies at an altitude of about 1,600m, bringing in a cool foggy site.


Overnight train to Sapa

How to get to sapa?

You can get to Sapa by motorcycle (takes about 10 hours), by bus or an overnight train (9 hours). I chose the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai.  But tickets need to be booked in advance from Hanoi Train Station, for more information, click here. I had a good night sleep in my private berth. The car had a shared bathroom available and it was quiet at night. Upon my arrival in Lao Cai train station, I took the mini-bus up into the mountains to Sapa Town, which takes approximately an hour. Mini-bus tickets can be purchased in the train station when you arrive (just get in line with other people catching the mini-buses).


What happen when you arrive at Lao Cai Train station?

You will take an approx. 45 bus ride up to the mountains, and expect it will be packed with local people going to work, as well as tourists doing the same as you are. If you make arrangements earlier, your guide will be waiting for your outside the bus station, and with a possible sign with your name or just saying your name. You will see many local guides there too asking if you want to go trekking, therefore, if you still don't have a guide, this is the perfect time to make arrangements with a local lady from any of the hill tribes of Sapa. From here you start your trekking...


What to expect when you hike Sapa?

Hiking and enjoying nature, while you immerse in the lifestyle of the hill tribes. The most prominent attraction in the area around Sapa is Fan Si Pan. It's only 19km from town. This may seem like a short distance, but the trek is not easy; the rough terrain and unpredictable weather present some difficulties, specially in a rainy day, and endurance is a must. While it is possible to trek on your own, it is better to have the assistance of a local guide to guarantee a more enriching experience. When it comes to long hikes or overnight stays in villages, the knowledge of a local will come in handy.

What are the options to book your tour in Sapa?

You have an option to book a tour in advance with a travel agency or directly with a local lady, but if you don’t have the chance don’t worry, you still can book a tour with one of the trustworthy local ladies upon your arrival in Sapa. They’ll be waiting for guests at the bus stop in Sapa Town (your first stop). I highly recommend booking directly with them because of the experience you will have with them is the most authentic, they are very knowledgeable about the mountains and villages in Sapa, they can cook very well, they will take good care of you, they speak good English and the most importantly, you will be giving back to the community.


HOmestay with Black H'mong in Sapa

How to choose a perfect guidein Sapa?

Prior to my trip to Sapa I did a lot of research online and I found my guide by reading this article Living with the Black H'mong a Sapa Trekking Experience. I started communicating with my guide via Whastapp calls in expectation of our arrangements and arrival. I strongly recommend your trekking and homestay independently, since these women are empowered to run their own business without someone taking a huge cut of their income so they can feed and provide for their families and local community. Like many countries, ethnic or tribal communities are not treated fairly or equally and are often discriminated against.

How is the Weather in Sapa?

The dry season begins from around January and lasts until June. January and February are the coldest and foggiest months of the year.  The best time to visit Sapa is between March to May. Sometimes the temperature can drops to almost freezing, and it can even snow in the mountain, and you can find yourself blocked by a thick wall of fog. June and August , often rains, especially in the mornings. If possible, choose to visit during the week, when the town is less crowed. The average temperature of the Sapa area is always 15-18°C, with a maximum of 30°C and min of 1°C.


Everything you should know about Sapa
Trekking in Sapa in a very foggy day

How fit do I need to trek in Sapa?

I recommend some basic fitness prior to your trekking in Sapa, so if you are not relatively fit, it is a great opportunity to get into a habit of walking. Trekking is defined as a category of adventure travel, this typically involves visits to remote areas, it is more strenuous then walking but less than hiking. Trekking in Sapa is considered moderate, due to rapid changes in the weather, and the local terrain. You will be trekking an average of 4-5 straight hours per day.


What to pack for the trekking in Sapa?

Make sure that you have packed everything need to make your stay more comfortable: a small bag for a change of clothes, a mirror, flashlight, toilet paper, socks, hat, underwear, personal medication, sunscreen, insect repellent, wipes and some snacks. Some warm clothing is needed as the mornings and nights can be quite cool. A rain jacket is a must. Dry fit clothes and layers are also a great idea. Shoes with a good grip, hiking boots is a great option for wet season, it will be very muddy. Ideal shoes for heavy rain is rubber boots, you can buy at a local market for approx. US$4.00


Sapa- Complete Ethical travel guide
Sapa- Complete Ethical Travel Guide

How the house in Sapa looks like?

The houses are very simple, but very clean and well taken care. They are made of wood boards (barn boards) with a kitchen, a living room and bedrooms. They may have a separate room for you, or at least, your own bed. The kitchen has a fire pit in the middle of the floor, which is used to cook meals, warm the house in the winter and to hang our clothes and shoes to dry after trekking on a rainy day. Probably  no refrigerator and no running water inside the house. Bathroom can be adjacent to the house, and it can be a western style, or not!


What will the food food be at the homestay?

YUMMY! They use only fresh ingredients at a village markets and also rice grow on their own land. Animal protein is not very common, but they do serve it when they have special guests. They have good options if you like chicken or pork, and they also have many vegetable options. They use pork fat to cook and it makes the food taste amazing. Expect to have noodles, vegetable spring rolls, veggie soup, steamed vegetables. For breakfast they serve pancakes with fresh eggs and banana.



What is a suitable gift to a homestay family?

This is the most common question I have, and giving gifts is appropriate when staying with a host family in Sapa. Some appropriate gifts include: something unique from your original country such as small t-shirt or a picture book. School supplies such as notebooks, pens, color pencils. For the kids I gave color books and pencils and they absolutely loved it! For my guide I have her an English grammar book which she uses to learn how to write in English.


Is homestay in Sapa considered ETHICAL TOURISM?

Absolutely! Ethical travel is about creating better places to live and better places to visit. When trekking in Sapa, hire a local guide directly, stay with the family and see where your money is going. This is a great way to help the local community!  When you choose by going direct to the local people, the families and community benefit directly from the money you spend, rather than a small portion coming from a tour company. You can also find ways to contribute to the tribes financially or through spreading the word of your experience to attract more ethical travelers to visit this beautiful region and experience the amazing culture.

Sapa- Complete Ethical Travel Guide

Who are the Ethnic hill tribe of Sapa?

Some eight ethnic groups inhabit Lao Cai province: Hmong, Dao, White Thai, Giay, Tay, Muong, Hao, and Xa Pho. The most prominent in town is the Red Dao, easily identified by the coin-dangling red headdresses and intricately embroidered waistcoats worn by the women, and the Black H'mong, distinguished by their somewhat less elaborately embroidered royal blue attire. Groups of ethnic Hmong youngsters and women can be seen hauling impossibly heavy, awkward baskets of wood, stakes, bamboo, bricks, mud and produce.


What the Black H'mong Culture look like?

The Black H’Mong people dress in black and they make their own clothes. The fabric is made of hemp and they use indigo to dye the fabric, and everything is handmade. In many houses you can see a big vat of indigo and big wooden looms that they use to dye their clothes. They plant and harvest rice to sell and eat. Each tribe speaks their own languages and they can not communicate with other hill tribes.

Sapa- Complete Ethical Travel Guide

Will I be expect to participate in any local activities?

It really is up to you how involved you wish to be. It is though, very rewarding. Some visitors can participate in the fields and planting rice. You can befriend local people and visit their houses to have tea. I was invited for a local wedding and I had to dress up like a Black H'mong lady in order to attend and shared the special meal with the bride's family and had many shots of home made rice wine to celebrate the big day...also ended up dancing, laughing and having the best time of my life!


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Comments 8

    1. Post
  1. Hi Paula,

    Just read your blog post on Saya, Vietnam. Planning on heading there in a couple weeks. But had one question– Are all tours with homesteads 3 days? If so, what is the arrival time back usually like?


    1. Post

      Hello Bailey – Not all the tours need to be 3 days. You can do a full day only, or a day and a night at homestay. They are flexible with the days and time, I was back at the end of the day but you can choose what works better for you.

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