My friend, Sydney, and I traveled to Sapa, Vietnam in February. It was actually a last-minute decision to visit Sapa and I am so insanely happy that we made this choice. We initially were planning on spending more time in the city of Hanoi, but everything in the city was closed for Tết which is the Vietnamese New Year.
We decided to book a tour to Sapa with Central Backpackers Hostel. The tour was for three days and two nights. We spent the first night in a village homestay and the second night at a hotel in Sapa.
Getting to Sapa
There are two convenient and cheap ways to get to Sapa from Hanoi: night bus and night train. The night bus costs between $16-$32 and it takes about 5 hours. The night train costs about $38 for a soft bed and it takes about 8 hours to get to Lao Cai. Lao Cai railway station is about 24 miles from Sapa. You can easily catch a bus or taxi at the station and it will take about 50 minutes to get to Sapa.
There are trains and buses that travel during the day, however, it is really convenient to travel at night because you won’t waste a day traveling and you don’t need to pay for accommodations.
Since it was the new year, the bus to Sapa was not running so we had to take the train to Lao Cai then a mini bus to Sapa. On our way back to Hanoi from Sapa, we took the night bus just so we could compare the experiences.
We definitely enjoyed the night train way more than the night bus. Though the train is more expensive than the bus, it is a lot more comfortable. If you get a soft bed, you are in a cabin with four beds. My friend and I shared a cabin with two young men from Korea. They were really kind and offered us snacks and drinks. You will get more space and privacy compared to traveling by bus. It is also nice that the train takes longer to get to Sapa because you will get a good nights sleep. If you take a bus, you will get dropped off in the middle of the night.
The picture below is what it looked like in the night train.
Now the night bus isn’t terrible, however, you definitely feel like you are sleeping on the Knight Bus from Harry Potter! The bus is normally filled and sometimes they even stop on the side of the road and allow locals to sleep in the aisle. The bus is quick (sometimes faster than you want since they drive pretty crazy) and convenient. For first-time night bus travelers, just so you know: the bus will drop you off in the middle of the night if that is what is on the schedule. Make sure you have arrangements for somewhere to stay if you get dropped off at 3am or schedule a bus time that drops you off at a convenient time. My friend and I made this mistake in another city. The bus dropped us off at 4am and we didn’t have a hostel or anywhere to go so we just slept on the beach (which was actually pretty awesome) but make sure you are aware of this since there aren’t many places open at that time!
The video below shows what it looked like inside the night bus. (It was day time when we got on the night bus, that is why it is really bright)
What to Bring:
We were in Sapa in February which is the winter and it is known for being cloudy and foggy. The average temperature is around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. We were so blessed with amazing weather for the three days. It was about 70 degrees F and clear skies. Our tour guide kept telling us how lucky we were because the few days before were very cold and cloudy.
If you are going to Sapa during the winter for three days, pack warm clothes. You will need at least a pair of long pants, a jacket, and a long sleeve shirt. Though it might be warm during the day, it gets really cold at night.
There are a lot of shops in Sapa that sell name brand jackets such as North Face. If you need any hiking gear, you will definitely find something cute for cheap.
Day 1 Trek
After getting picked up from the Lao Cai railway station at around 7am, a mini bus drove us to the Roxana Sapa Hotel. This hotel had the most beautiful views of the Hoang Lien Son mountains. We ate a buffet breakfast, packed an overnight bag, and mentally prepared ourselves for the long day of hiking.
We hiked through the Muonh Hoa valley. You pass old farm houses and rice terraces. Watch your step or you will end up accidentally walking into a leg high puddle of water!Our tour guide on this trip was amazing. She was 22 years old, has two kids, and got married when she was 16. She has been a tour guide for nine years. She really put things into perspective for me since she is my age and our lives are so different. Her husband is currently studying at a university and her mother takes care of their children. She does this tour every day, which is about 8 miles a day. She was really friendly and funny. The beginning of the hike is fairly easy and it is mainly down hill. You weave through the fields and every turn you take you see an even more spectacular view.During the hike, you pass by village houses and see people working on the rice terraces and kids playing outside. You also will see lots of water buffalo, goats, chickens, and pigs. During the hike, we were accompanied by five young girls from a local village. They were really cute and used this time to practice their English, so when you visit, really try to talk to them! They made us little horses and heart-shaped decorations out of leaves during the hike. The girls seemed really genuine during the hike and I thought they were just really friendly locals that wanted to practice their English.
However, the second we stopped for lunch and the hike was over, it felt like a switch was flicked and these girls were no longer our friends. They immediately took out bracelets, earrings, wallets, and said, “Okay, now you buy from me.” I felt tricked.
The girls swarmed me and pushed their items into my face, persistently asking me to buy from them. I was completely fine with supporting them and I bought some cute silver bracelets and a little knit purse. But once I bought something, they got even more aggressive and kept trying to get me to buy more. They kept saying, “You buy from her, now you buy from me.” They expected me to buy something from everyone.
Not only do they want you to buy everything, but they really try to rip you off. One of the girls was trying to sell me a silver bracelet for 400k dong (~$18). I am so glad my friend bought one earlier and she got her bracelet for 25k dong (~$1), so I knew that this girl was really trying to take advantage of me.
When you visit Sapa, don’t let the aggressive selling ruin your experience. Just know that this is going to happen and you have to be respectful. This is how some village kids make money, so I definitely encourage you to buy something. However, you can’t buy everything, especially if you are a young backpacker, and you can’t feel guilty. You need to know that you will sometimes have to say, “No” and move on.
This situation will happen multiple times while you are going through the villages. Just know what you want to buy, how much you want to spend, and be respectful.
After lunch, we walked through a local village and learned how to grind corn, weave, and how their traditional clothes are made.
The rice terraces are so impressive and you really won’t get tired of the views. Our guide told us that the rice that is only used for feeding the villages and is not sold anywhere. I would love to visit in Sapa during the summer because this is when the rice terraces are colorful and blooming.After hiking 8 miles, we finally made it to our homestay which is in the Ta Van village of the Drazy. Our homestay was a very simple home. The family was very welcoming and the mother of the household was adorable. She was shorter than me (which I don’t see that often), was always smiling, and had her cute 1-year-old baby always strapped to her back.
Since it was the new year, everyone went to the local church to play games and sing karaoke. This was one of my favorite experiences in Sapa.
One game that they play is they strap a large bamboo tree to the church and try to walk across it. Everyone could do it! They made it look so easy. Of course, when I tried, I made it about 3 feet until I fell off!
Being in the village for the new year was such a great opportunity to see how the locals celebrate one of their largest holidays.
That night, we ate a delicious meal that the homestay mother cooked. After dinner, we sat by the kitchen fire, talked, and sang songs. At night, Sapa gets very cold and we were not prepared! I wore my jeans, 5 shirts, my rain jacket, and my baseball cap to bed because I was so cold. If you ever travel to Sapa, make sure you bring warm clothes.
If you go to Sapa, I really recommend staying at a homestay rather than in a hotel in the town. You get fully immersed in the local village and experience what life really is like out there. These people live such simple lives, but are so happy. This trip made me reflect on my life and realize I don’t need all the things I have.
Day 2 Trek
The next day we left the village and hiked up hill through more rice fields and a bamboo forest. Make sure you wear good sneakers for this hike. The bamboo forest can get pretty muddy and slippery.At the end of the bamboo forest, is a small waterfall.We only spent half the day hiking and then stopped at a local restaurant for some noodles.The rest of the day we explored the town of Sapa. The town is cute and surrounds a lake. The town was crowded for the new year and everyone was dressed in their traditional dresses. In the center of town, there was live music and games for the celebration.That night we explored the market in the center of town. Locals lie out blankets on the sidewalks and layout clothes, bags, and other souvenirs to sell. I bought a really cute elephant key chain!
Also in the center of town, there was a walk through winter festival. They had bubble machines that made it look like it was snowing and the place was decorated with lights.
Day 3 Cat Ba
On our third and last day, we hiked to Cat Cat Village. This village is more touristy compared to the other places in Sapa, however, the village is adorable.
We met a different tour guide today. Her name was Mae. She was 17 years old and was the absolute cutest. She asked Sydney and I if we were sisters because we looked alike…Do you guys see it? Nope!The day started off pretty cloudy. It was the cloudiest day while we were in Sapa. I am so thankful that we had great weather on this trip and that it was fairly clear. It is really difficult to see the beauty of Sapa if it is cloudy because it covers up all rice terraces and mountains. Though it was cloudy in the morning, the day started to warm up later on in the afternoon and we got to see the mountains we couldn’t see in the morning.The walk down to Cat Cat Village is down a long alley with lots of shops. As you walk down, there are a lot of places to take pictures such as with the Cat Cat sign, a beautiful flower garden, and a bamboo walkway.
It takes about a half hour to walk all the way down to the village from the main road. As you walk down the cobblestone steps, you will immediately be greeted by the beautiful village with its waterfalls and bamboo huts. The village has a bunch of cafes, restaurants and stores. There are lots of beautiful wood structures such as water mills, see saws, and a swing. If you look into some stores, you can see local women making their traditional clothes. Also, I saw the cutest puppy so I was really happy:)The hike back up from Cat Cat Village is pretty steep. Your hike up is about 2 miles and you are walking on a street. A few people in our group ended up taking a taxi to the top. When we were done with our hike, we packed up our things and got on the night bus back to Hanoi.
If you are visiting Vietnam, you must visit Sapa. I recommend staying here for two or three days. It is a great place to escape the cities and surround yourself with nature.
If you go to Sapa, please let me know and send me pictures! I would love to see how Sapa looks at other times of the year.