Trekking in Sapa is the best way to see the Lào Cai’s famous terraced rice fields. It’ll take you through the mountains, across the Mường Hoa valley, through bamboo forests, and into local villages. Most trekking tours in Sapa are private. You can trek on your own, but it comes with some difficulty (more on that below).
I went on a nearly seven hour long trek in Sapa, and that’s considered relatively short! Some visitors to the region trek for 9+ hours, or multiple days (like this 2-day trekking tour). The trek was stunning, but definitely a learning experience. Next time I go, I’ll be so much better prepared.
To make sure your experience goes smoothly, I’m sharing everything you need to know before trekking in Sapa.
What to Bring for Trekking in Sapa
Trekking in Sapa involves a lot of full sun exposure, and requires walking up narrow, steep slippery dirt paths and in some areas, light scrambling. Bring sunscreen, good shoes, and lots (and lots) of water. I do not recommend trekking in Sapa for those with physical challenges, as there aren’t really accessibility options on many of these longer treks.
We went on what was supposed to be a 4 or 5 hour trek, that turned into a nearly 7 hour long trek. While I definitely won’t complain about being in such a beautiful place, it wasn’t what we were expecting. Our extended trek was due to our guide stopping for long amounts of time to talk to friends and family, rather than a longer route. As a result, we were missing some essentials.
To make sure you have everything you need, bring the following:
- Sunscreen – always use reef safe
- Comfortable shoes or hiking boots – I wore the APL TechLoom Pro
- Bug spray – bug spray is a must. The rice fields and bamboo farms attract tons of mosquitos.
- A light layer – a raincoat is perfect as Sapa can be rainy and cool. You probably don’t want to hold an umbrella for hours while trekking
- Swimsuit – bring a swimsuit if it’s warm, and you want to swim in any waterfalls
- Lots and lots of bottled water (tap water is not safe to drink in Vietnam at all)
- Extra phone battery and charging cable
Dressing in layers is really key for trekking in Sapa. Sapa is cool in the morning and in the evening. In the afternoons, it can be full sun and warm. As Sapa is in the mountains, the weather can change quickly. During our trek, it was full sun and warm when we started. After we reached the halfway point, the weather started to turn and it began raining.
Note: Sapa gets noisy in the mornings. Be sure to throw some earplugs into your bag if you’re a light sleeper.
Click below to shop what you need to pack for Sapa:
How to Book a Tour for Trekking in Sapa
Our trek was booked through our accommodation. We wanted to make sure we were getting a reputable local guide who wasn’t going to try to scam us at the end of the trek, or force us to buy things along the way.
Talking to our guide was really interesting. She explained that previously, Hmong women in Sapa were forced to be homemakers. With the rise of tourism, women now work as guides and storeowners, while many men stay home. This is because while they were at home, Hmong women spent time learning English.
If you want to ensure that you’ll have a positive trekking experience, your best bet is to book a reputable trekking tour online in advance. Go for tours with lots of reviews. Locals operate many online trekking tours, so you can still have a guide from the area even if you book online.
You don’t need to book trekking in Sapa in advance. There’s tons of local guides on the street who will approach you offering to take you. If you decide to go this route, be careful. Make sure to choose someone you can communicate with well, who isn’t being pushy or following you. Establish a price upfront, so there’s no surprises at the end of the tour.
Discover trekking tours in Sapa below:
How to Choose a Trekking Tour in Sapa
When negotiating with a local guide, or booking a trek online, consider the following:
- What do you want to spend?
- What’s important for you to see?
- Are there any specific villages or landmarks you want to go to?
- How long do you want to go for? (Be VERY upfront about this, as popular routes can be anywhere from 4 hours to 10+ hours long)
- What is your level of physical ability? Trekking in Sapa can require some tricky maneuvering and is very uphill in some areas.
Trekking in Sapa Price
The cost of trekking in Sapa varies a lot based on how long you’re going, and if you’re booking online or through a hotel vs. with a local directly. Generally, expect to pay anywhere from $25-50 a day. This price usually includes one or two meals along the way.
Tipping Tour Guides in Sapa
Tipping isn’t customary in Vietnam. It’s appreciated, but not expected. My boyfriend actually tried to tip a bellhop at our hotel in Hanoi, and got rejected! At many restaurants and bars, tipping 10% or less is common for really good service but again, not expected.
So, do you need to tip your tour guide in Sapa? That’s up to you. Keeping in mind that the Lao Cai province really struggles with poverty, I would recommend it if you had a good experience.
Trekking in Sapa Without a Guide
Although I would suggest trekking with a guide in Sapa, it is doable without one. It’s as simple as picking your starting point, and wandering.
Many solo trekkers in Sapa like to follow guided treks out of the city to find their starting point, then wander on their own.
Trails in Sapa aren’t marked, and have little (if any) signage. I don’t recommend trekking without a guide for tourists who are concerned about making it to specific villages or landmarks. Some of the uphill trails we climbed up didn’t look like trails at all.
The obvious benefit to trekking without a guide is that you save money by doing it. Typically, I’d say that a benefit to not having a guide is being able to “choose your own adventure,” but in Sapa, most tours are private and you’re able to explain what you want.
Trekking without a guide in Sapa will still cost you some money if you want to visit Cat Cat Village, which has an entrance fee. Keep that in mind when budgeting. Entrance to Cat Cat Village is 70,000 VND ($2.98 USD) for adults, and 30,000 VND ($1.28 USD) for children.
Of course, the risk of doing this is that you could end up getting lost. If you are trekking without a guide in Sapa, I highly recommend that you download Google Maps, download offline maps for Sapa, and turn your location history on. This will allow you to view where you previously walked during the day, and retrace your steps. Cell service isn’t great in Sapa outside of the city, so offline maps are critical.
I’ve seen other bloggers and tourists frustrated that it’s difficult to trek in Sapa without a guide, but keep in mind that many of the popular trekking routs in Sapa are on local land that locals pay to maintain, not a publicly funded state park or similar. Plus, having a guide will help you learn more about the culture of the minority groups in the region, and the villages you’re passing through.
Trekking Scams in Sapa
As you’re trekking, you’ll notice tons of locals dressed in traditional clothing, hanging around trails and villages. They’re usually really friendly, and will try to make conversation with you. Eventually, you’ll realize that they’ve been following you for a while. If you’re not careful, you’ll be cornered into purchasing their goods, and it can be expensive! We had a few of these sellers following us, and it required us saying no several times for them to finally leave us.
I actually received an automated text message when near the border of Sapa, warning against buying anything from people who are clinging and following tourists. It’s a tough situation because poverty is a huge issue in Sapa, and tourism is a huge opportunity for locals to make money. To be clear: I absolutely, 100% support purchasing from locals in Sapa. I just recommend doing so at the small shops in local villages, where you won’t be harassed. There’s several stores like this along trekking routes.
In the same breath, tourists have fallen trap to picking up a local trekking guide on the street without first establishing a price.
Sometimes, local guides tell the tourist there’s no price. The local says they’re just showing the tourist their village. At the end of the tour, locals corner the tourist into buying something from every person around them. There can be as many as 4-6 people.
Don’t let this warning defer you: trekking in Sapa is a truly unique experience. At every turn, I was totally in awe of the beautiful terraced rice fields and mountain views.
Trekking in Sapa FAQ
Can you go trek in Sapa without a guide?
You can go trekking in Sapa without a guide, but some tourists may find it difficult. There are no trail markers or signs. Much of the best trekking in Sapa takes you through terraced rice fields that are owned and operated by local farmers, so it really pays off to be with a local.
Trekking in Sapa requires a lot of steep, uphill walking. It’s not uncommon for trails to be muddy or slippery. A typical trek is long—typically a full day—requiring a good amount of endurance. While I wouldn’t recommend trekking in Sapa for those who are not physically fit and able, it’s nowhere near as difficult as scrambling on a mountain. There’s also several areas that are flat, with clear paths.
Popular treks in Sapa range anywhere from four hours to two or three days. Six to eight hours is an ideal amount of time for seeing what Sapa has to offer, for those who don’t want to go on a multi-day trek.
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Eva Phan is the founder of Eva Darling, a travel and style website aiming to empower women to see the world solo while sharing on-trend, luxury feminine style inspiration. Featured in publications including Forbes, Thrillist, and Yahoo News, Eva has combined her education from Parsons School of Design with her incurable case of the travel bug to create a global destination that encourages others to romanticize their everyday.