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.
Vietnam is an incredible trip. But if you are like me, 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.
As I always promote responsible travel and encourage giving back to the local communities, 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. Read more here on how choosing an independent homestay in Sapa helps the local community.
I spent a total to 2 weeks in Vietnam and I have prepared a very detailed trip itinerary you can have access here.
SAPA - A COMPLETE GUIDE OF EVERYTHING YOU SHOULD KNOW
Where Sapa is Located
Sapa is located of Northwest of Vietnam, beyond the clouds in a mountain town in Lao Cai Province which also includes 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.
- You can visit only the town of Sapa and its surrounding or
- You can hire a local guide and trek the mountains in Sapa
What are the best attractions in Sapa Town
If you decide to only visit the town of Sapa, there are several activities available to choose from. If you opt to explore Sapa Town indenpendently, you can book your hotel here.
- Cau May Street - It is the main street, where most of restaurants and cafes are located
- Sapa Market - Next to the bus station, it is a great place to visit if you are looking for shopping local products. It is open daily from 6 AM to 2 PM
- Sapa Culture Museum - It is a little museum that is worth visiting to learn more about the local story.
- Heaven's Gate - You will have the best views of the Sapa valleys, but sometimes the fog makes is challenging as it covers the stunning view.
- Thac Bac Waterfall - Close to the Heaven's Gate, you can combine a visit to both during one trip.
What are the best attractions when trekking 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.
How to get to Sapa
You can get to Sapa by motorcycle (takes about 10 hours from Hanoi), by bus or an overnight train (9 hours). I chose the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, as it is the the easiest and most convenient way of getting to Sapa . 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).
Your arrival on Lao Cai Train Station
You will take 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 you 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 trek in 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.
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.
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
What fitness level I need to be able 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.
How to choose a perfect local guide in Sapa
Prior to my trip to Sapa I did a lot of research online and I found my guide by reading this article. I started communicating with my guide via WhatsApp 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. Read more about my independent guide here, and if you are interested, just contact me and I will be more than happy to share her contact with you.
What are the other options to book a 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). If you prefer to book in advance with one of the agencies, here are some options with free cancellation up to 24 hours in advance:
- Sapa 1-day Trekking Muong Hoa Valley and Villages
- Sapa 2-day trekking and Ethnic Villages Tour
- Sapa 3-night trekking and Homestay with overnight train
What is a typical homestay in Sapa look 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 is the food 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.
Who are the ethnic hill tribes in 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 looks 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.
Will I be expected to participate in any local activity
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!
Get Travel Insurance
Whatever you go or do during your traveling, don't travel anywhere in the world without travel insurance; the unexpected can, and often does, go wrong. Be it sickness, losing your bag, theft, or even worse, having an accident, travel insurance is your best way of mitigating the issues and saving yourself thousands of dollars down the track.
I recommend reliable travel insurance through World Nomads before your trip to Vietnam.
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