How to get to Sapa and how to choose a perfect guide
When planning my 2 week trip itinerary to Vietnam, I didn't know much about Sapa, or anything about the Black H'Mong hill tribe family with whom I was going to spend the next 3 days.
The only thing I knew for certain was that this would be the most exciting part of my adventure in Vietnam!
I knew it would be challenging. It would involve strenuous hiking in the mountains, and I would need to figure out how to communicate and eat whatever I would be served. But the opportunity to trek among the misty rice fields and the highland villages of the hill tribes in Sapa was going to be epic.
Where is Sapa?
Sapa is located beyond the clouds in a mountain town in Lao Cai Province which also includes Vietnam’s highest peak, Fan Si Pan.
It is in a remote place in Vietnam located about 350 km northwest of Hanoi, close to the Chinese border. We were so close to China that while my phone didn't have service in much of Vietnam, in Sapa I could get on service from China.
How to get to Sapa
You have a couple of choices to get to Sapa such as night bus or a night train from Hanoi.
After some research, I found that the best option for me was the night train (we chose the Livitrans), leaving Hanoi at night and arriving in Lao Cai in the next morning. 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).
I recall the winding roads continuously climbing. The mini-bus was quite crowded (a mix of tourists and people from Lao Cai heading to work in Sapa Town), but the drive was not bad.
Arriving in Sapa I met with my guide, who I found during my trip prep by reading some awesome traveling blogs such as Bobo & Chichi .
I had been communicating with my guide via Whastapp calls in expectation of our arrival. Talking by Whatsapp was preferable for both of us because of the challenge texting in English. Some guides speak English fluently, but are not as adept in reading/writing. Ah! Wonderful technology!
Night train cabin, you have the chance to pay for the whole cabin or share it with 4 people
With my guide Bau, starting to trek Sapa
what to expect when you hike sapa
When you choose to hike in Sapa, you’ll enjoy amazing views of mountains, waterfalls, rice paddies, rivers, and cross bridges where you can see local women washing clothes.
You’ll pass small villages and meet many curious children on their way to and from school. This very remote and quiet part of Vietnam is home to many different ethnic tribal people, and you’ll see the five main groups in Sapa: the largest group is the Black H'mong, followed by Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho.
Sapa is not only beautiful, but it is also very rich in culture and a safe place to visit while you are in contact with nature and the lovable local people. It will definitely help you to travel back in time and make you appreciate a few days of quiet and inspiring nature.
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.
Here I explain this topic with more details.
how can i decide if trekking and living with a local tribe in Sapa is for me?
If you are someone who takes full advantage of your trips and you are a free-spirited adventurer who is looking for an authentic experience, Sapa could be for you. If you’re not afraid of traveling to remote areas of our planet and you appreciate the simplicity of life while you immerse yourself with the locals, respecting and learning from them, Sapa would be a great destination!
So why not take a few steps outside of your comfort zone and see a place few travelers will ever encounter? I hope that you’ll never stop exploring our beautiful planet!
How to make the most of your trek in the mountains.
If you are thinking about trek and homestay in Sapa, I have prepared this guide to help you to have the best experience of your life. Trek and homestay with the Black H'mong in Sapa was one of the best experiences of my life!
Sapa is located in the mountains in the North of Vietnam, and tourism in this part of the country has increased in the past few years due to the beautiful trek and also the opportunities to live like a local at a homestay with one of the hill tribes.
While planning my 2 weeks itinerary to Vietnam, I invested a lot of time researching, studying and creating an itinerary that would include the best things to do and see in Vietnam, and at the top of my list was to experience a homestay in Sapa.
The itineraries will vary, depending on the length of time you choose, the guide and the weather conditions, but each experience is remarkable and unique.
I chose a Black H’Mong lady named Bau to be my guide for the 3 day trek and homestay experience in Sapa and here is my detailed itinerary.
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Day 1 – Trekking from Sapa Town to the Black H’mong house
Upon our arrival in Sapa Town, Bau, our host, was waiting for us at the bus station. She was extremely warm and spoke excellent English. Her husband took my backpack on his motorbike, leaving me with less weight to carry up the mountains. I only had my photography gear and water bottle with me.
We had a hearty and much needed breakfast at a local cafe and I was ready to start climbing. It was raining a lot and it was very cold, expected winter weather in December .
As we ascended the hills leaving Sapa Town, we came upon a fork in the trail. Bau asked me if I wanted the Scenic Route, which was more difficult and had leeches, or the Easy Route without leeches or view. Of course I chose the Scenic Route – leeches be damned.
The good news is that I didn’t see any leeches, but the bad news is that I didn’t have much of a scenic view because of the heavy rain and low clouds. Even with all the rain and mud along the way, Bau took very good care of me during some challenging parts of the trek, and I only fell on my butt once. These H’mong ladies are very strong!
We passed small villages, water buffalos, waterfalls and had the opportunity to interact with many kids on their way home from school.
A couple of hours into our hike, we stopped in a small village for a simple delicious lunch and hot tea
It was just perfect. I was starving and soaking wet, but I was still amazed by the fact that I was really there, in a place I could not have imagined, and I was enjoying every moment. I definitely appreciated that short chance to rest and recharge my batteries with food before we continued our climb.
Just a detail about the menu, oh well....there was no menu and the only options were noodles or rice with chicken and vegetables, or the vegetarian option, without chicken. It reminded me of when I was a kid, and my mom would serve lunch and say "The meal today is whatever I serve you" ha...so I was not too shocked about only one option, and the best part? It was so tasty and delicious!
We got to our house about 4 hours after arriving in Sapa Town. We sat by the fire pit in the middle of the kitchen and watched Bau prepare our dinner. Because they cook with fresh ingredients, it takes time to prepare.
The kids arrived from school and we had a great time interacting with them, giving the presents I had brought with me and trying to communicate with them.
The food was amazing and the house was very simple, and I felt so welcomed and relaxed. The experience of living with the Black H'Mong for a few days was just fascinating! I became so overwhelmed at being in such a surreal and dreamlike environment, so far from home. It almost felt like being inside a National Geographic documentary.
THAT was the moment that I knew this was going to be a special and unique experience that I would cherish for the rest of my life. I was fully immersed in the present, with no distractions! I was living in the moment and feeling so blessed!
Day 2 – Trekking the misty mountains in sapa
I had one of the best nights of sleep of my life. Maybe it was the past night on the train combined with trekking in the rain. Maybe it was some magic going on at Bau’s house, I don’t know, but I slept like a baby.
In the morning Bau cooked an amazing breakfast: fresh pancakes and eggs, fruits, honey and the absolutely best Vietnamese black coffee. It was a feast.
I realized the kids normally do not eat this for breakfast. This food is only prepared for special guests. I reduced my portion in half and have to say I was satisfied to be able to share my meal with the kids. It made me so happy to see them enjoy it. After our breakfast, it was time to hike, and we left the house at 10 AM.
Bau took me through a couple of the Black H’Mong villages and I got to see their lifestyle.
I watched a family making knives and swords, visited the school in the village, crossed beautiful bridges and saw local ladies washing clothes in the river.
Pigs, dogs, water bufalos, chickens, cows…all animals walk freely or on private property and I loved seeing people respect animals and treat them as part of their family.
We trekked for about 5 hours and then the highlight of my day, we stopped at the village market to buy fresh ingredients for dinner.
We went home and watched Bau prepare another delicious meal while I spent time playing with the kids and puppies.
The very modest price that I paid for the homestay with Bau included staying in her house, a fresh breakfast and dinner, trekking as much as I wanted, and lessons about the land, people and everyday life.
I took the opportunity to buy her lunch when we stopped in village cafes and also convinced her to let me pay for the ingredients that she would use to cook our meals.
Day 3 – the memorable Black h'mong wedding day
It was another very good night sleep at my house in Sapa, and another great breakfast.
I spent part of my morning taking some pictures of the kids and flying the drone over the beautiful misty mountains. The kids were amazed to see the little “spaceship” flying in their backyard. I have to be honest, the drone technology still amazes me too.
During my stay, Bau surprised me with an invitation to a H’mong wedding party!
I decided to skip the trek on my last day, because I knew that probably I would never have an opportunity like this again in my lifetime.
The fun part started when I had to dress appropriated for the party, it means, I wouldn't wear my fancy muddy trekking clothes, but instead, I had to wear one of the traditional Black H'Mong home made beautiful clothes. I am not a big girl, but still, the clothes were small to me, considering that the Black H'Mong people are smaller than me.
Arriving at the party, I was welcomed with such hospitality and warmth. I even got invited to seat at the table with the groom and bride. What an honor!
We did many toasts with homemade rice wine, danced like no one was watching, and laughed with them even if we could not understand each other’s language (Okay, now it sounds like we had too much rice wine).
We partied for approx. 5 hours, and it was time to return to the house and pack. Bau gave me some very special gifts to remember her by, and I had many tears during my departure. But I know I will be back to visit the friends I made in Sapa, and to get to explore more the beautiful mountains of Sapa.
It was time to say “see you soon” to my new friends and head back to Lao Cai to take the night train and to continue our adventure to Halong Bay.
Expert tip: do not pack after you drink plenty of rice wine, I forgot half of my items at the house and I had a very bad hangover on the night train back to Hanoi.