There is little doubt that the majority of Western travelers who journey to Vietnam’s mountainous north do so specifically to enjoy the region’s breath-taking scenery. Although it’s possible to view the lush green rice terraced hills and valleys from the comfort of a tour bus, trekking gives one an opportunity to get off the main road and really experience this beautiful country and meet its charming inhabitants. Trekking in Sapa is also great exercise and, if only for a little while, reduces our carbon footprints.
The undisputed tourism and trekking capital of Northern Vietnam is the tiny town of Sapa, in the district of the same name, located in Lao Cai Province 196 miles (316 km) from Hanoi. This small, but bustling, market town lies in the shadow of Indochina’s tallest mountain, Fansipan, and has been a retreat and vacation destination since the early 1900’s when the French Colonial administration sent their soldiers to “Chapa” for rest and convalescence.
Sapa town lies among the hills at the top of the magnificent Muong Hoa Valley. Running in a roughly north to south direction, the valley is divided by the Muong Hoa River which is fed by the area’s many spectacular waterfalls. Dozens of tiny villages are nestled within the region, inhabited by at least a half dozen different minority ethnic groups including the Black Hmong, Giáy, Red Dao, Tày and Kihn. Primarily subsistence farmers, these warm and friendly people have managed to cultivate crops from this rugged landscape. The entire valley is dotted by beautiful rice terraces, carved from the hill sides, utilizing century-old farming methods.
Trekking in Sapa generally begin with an easy walk out of town along Mường Hoa Road. One of the district's principle roads, it winds through the hills and mountains, providing trekkers with spectacular views of the valley below. It is not uncommon to share the main road with herds of water buffalo on their way to plow rice terraces. A few kilometers from town, trekkers leave the main highway behind and travel on narrow concrete secondary roads leading up into the hills or down to the valley. Walking on the paved roads is easy but at some point the trek will continue on the narrow dirt paths that connect the villages. Passing between farmer’s crops and livestock grazing grounds, these rugged dirt paths are often steep and can be quite slippery. Trekkers should wear good hiking boots or some other type of solid, closed-toed foot wear. As the weather is unpredictable and often very wet, it’s recommended to carry a light rain jacket, or better yet, an umbrella like the locals do.
A common question asked by travelers planning a journey to this region is whether a trekking guide is needed or not; my answer is yes and no. Most of the villages can be reached from paved roads, allowing access by car and motorcycle. Navigating from the main paved roads is easy, particularly with a good paper map and Google Maps on a smart phone. However, finding the correct dirt trekking paths which connect the villages can be difficult or impossible for first-time visitors. For example, I followed a fairly well maintained path down towards the valley for 25 minutes before it dead ended at a small cluster of houses. I had no choice but to turn around, go back up the hill, and look for an alternate route.
The majority of visitors who go trekking in Sapa go on guided treks which can be a half or full day or multiple days with overnight stays in the villages. Many travelers book tours well before arriving in Sapa as this can easily be done on-line through agencies such as Sapa O'Chau or Sapa Sisters. Although I have not personally trekked with either of these tour organizers, they are well regarded and receive a great deal of praise on internet travel forums. Trekking tours can also be organized after arriving in town through hotels, hostels and travel agencies. Another option is to trek with the Hmong and Dao women who sell handicrafts in the town center. These ladies are more than happy to guide you to their home villages and are very flexible in terms of departure times and length of the trek. I really enjoy trekking with these ladies and feel good knowing that, at the end of the day, the cash goes directly into their pockets.