The minute I heard about trekking in Sapa I couldn’t wait to go. Sapa is a small town that’s located about 350 km northwest of Hanoi. Sapa is surrounded by rice paddies, forest, and mountains. It’s home to quite a few ethnic groups and the main ones are the Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho. Hiking up Fan Si Pan mountain (Vietnam’s highest peak) and trekking in Sapa are extremely popular among tourists.
After hours of research, I came to the conclusion that it’s probably best to book a tour. I am usually not one to book tours and this was going to be my first ever tour as an adult. Friends of mine booked with Sapa O’ Chau and that’s the company that I ended up going with. What they are doing is truly inspiring!
What’s particularly unique about Sapa O’ Chau is the fact that they are the only not-for-profit tour operator in Sapa. I booked their “Off The Beaten Track” tour and joined a small group of 5. I booked it at their office in Hanoi and ended up paying $55 (1,237,000 VND) for two days of trekking in Sapa.
Getting to Sapa
Although Sapa O’ Chau can help you with booking bus or train tickets I decided to arrange my own transportation. I wanted full flexibility when it came to booking my transport and only needed Sapa O’ Chau to take care of the trekking in Sapa. I ended up taking the bus from Hanoi and booked my ticket in person with Sapa Express. The bus departed at 7 AM and I got to Sapa at around 12:30 PM. To my surprise, it ended up being a sleeper bus (with reclining seats).
The great thing about Sapa Express is that their buses take you straight to the city center. Other bus companies will drop you off just outside of Sapa, in Lao Cai. Most buses take around 5-6 hours whereas trains usually take around 8 hours. I ended up paying $28 (630,000 VND) for my return tickets.
Bus vs. train
- Round trip tickets are between $20 and $30
- The journey from Hanoi to Sapa takes only 5-6 hours
- Sleeper buses usually come with toilets
- Drops you off in the center of Sapa town
- Night buses and day buses
- Beautiful views if you take it during the day
- Round trip tickets in a sleeper Sleeper 4-Berth from $40
- The journey from Hanoi to Sapa takes around 8 hours
- Trains always come with toilets
- Drops you off in Lao Cai, not in Sapa town
- The trains depart only in the evening
- You won’t enjoy much of a view
I looked into both the trains and the buses and for me taking a bus from Hanoi to Sapa was the obvious choice. It’s a lot cheaper, faster, you’ll enjoy beautiful views and it’s probably just as comfortable.
Where I stayed
After hours of research, I ended up booking a “capsule” at the Sapa Capsule Hotel. It has amazing reviews and is in a great location. For a night at the Sapa Capsule Hotel, I paid $6.50 and I booked it a couple of days prior to my arrival on Booking.com.
I arrived in Sapa at around 12:30 PM and was going to start my trek the next day. I spent the day wandering around Sapa town and had a delicious lunch at Nha Hang Chay. Unfortunately, the town itself is very touristy and if you truly want to experience this place and everything it has to offer then I highly recommend booking a tour. Trust me, that’s solid advice right there and it’s coming from someone who’s never even been on a tour as an adult!
Off the Beaten track
The next morning I had breakfast at Nha Hang Chay and went straight to the local Sapa O’ Chau office. When I got there I got asked to wait and to my surprise, got a refund of $5. At the time of booking I joined a group of 5 and because an additional person joined the price of the tour dropped to $50. The more people join (the maximum is 6 people), the cheaper the tour. The price included our guide, van transport, village entrance fees, permit fees, homestay and meals (1 breakfast, 2 lunches, 1 dinner).
At around 9:45 AM our tour guide greeted us and we got on a bus that would take as deeper into the valleys. We started trekking after a 30 minutes ride and the scenery was breathtaking. We trekked for several hours, had lunch at a local’s house and continued trekking.
When I booked my tour with Sapa O’ Chau they asked me to write down any dietary restrictions. I wrote down that I was vegan and don’t consume any animal products. The booking agent assured me that I’d be able to eat heaps of food and I just kept my fingers crossed. To my surprise, Su, our guide, was incredibly attentive and made sure that I always had vegan food.
At around 4 PM we reached our homestay in Suoi Thau village and were warmly greeted by our host. An hour after our arrival the second group of trekkers reached the homestay. We enjoyed a fun evening full of stories and heaps of delicious food. The ower of the homestay was incredibly lovely and so was her daughter, Vi. The homestay had four private rooms with double beds and a bigger room with more beds in a shared space. We were the first group to arrive and occupied the private rooms.
I woke up at around 6 AM and slept surprisingly well. Our host made pancakes for everyone and because she didn’t know how to make them vegan, I got to join the locals. I ate rice and vegetables with our tour guide, our host, and her family.
After our breakfast, we were asked to pay for any bottled water or beer we consumed. Water was 10,000 VND for a small bottle and 20,000 VND for a big bottle. This is the most I’ve ever paid for water in Vietnam. Tea, coffee and a welcome drink were free of charge. At around 9:30 AM we started our trek again and walked through valleys and small villages. We walked uphill and downhill and reached our final destination four hours later.
We had lunch at a local restaurant in one of the villages. After our lunch, a small van picked us up and drove us back to Sapa town.
Trekking in Sapa
I am so glad that I ended up going to Sapa. It was definitely the highlight of my trip to Vietnam. If you are thinking of going, do not hesitate, it’s a truly beautiful place. I was thinking it may be overrun with tourists and couldn’t have been more wrong. Aside from the second tour group I didn’t see a single tourist during my 2-day trek.
Cost of trekking in Sapa
- Sapa O’ Chau “Off The Beaten Track” tour – 2 day (small group of 6): $50 (1,143,750.00 VND)
- Bus from Hanoi to Sapa and back with Sapa Express: $28 (630,000 VND)
- Accommodation at Sapa Capsule Hotel for one night: $6.50 (150,000 VND)
Total cost: $84.50
What to bring
- Rainjacket: The weather is unpredictable and this is a must.
- Waterproof hiking boots: I ended up hiking with sandals because I didn’t have hiking boots and it was alright. If you have some, do bring them.
- Sunscreen: Make sure to bring heaps of it and don’t forget a single spot!
- Small daypack: You’ll be trekking all day. Make sure the backpack you are bringing is small.
- Water: Prior to starting the trek you’ll be given a big 1.5-liter bottle. Make sure to bring even more than that, you’ll need it on the trek.
- A hat: It’s great for extra sun protection.
If you are thinking of going to Sapa, do not hesitate. I am really impressed with Sapa O’ Chau and highly recommend their tours if you are thinking of going. I always aim to support companies that are doing good and Sapa O’ Chau is doing just that. Sapa is a truly magical place. The people I met were incredibly lovely, the views were breathtaking and I’ll forever remember it all.
Hello, I came across your blog post because we are considering doing a trek with Sapa O’Chau, and their “Off the Beaten Path Trek” option is at the top of our list (we are also looking at their “Red Dao Homestay Trek”).
Would you recommend the “Off the Beaten Path Trek” in terms of the scenery? Your photos are absolutely gorgeous, and seem to be just what we are looking for in terms of panoramic views of rice terraces, mountains, valleys, etc.
Did you feel it was an authentic experience even though you were staying in more of a guesthouse situation with multiple other tourists? Were you still able to spend time with the family that runs the homestay and help them cook?
How difficult did you find the trek? We are hoping for one that is at least somewhat challenging (i.e. not completely flat).
Thank you in advance for your advice!
Hi Erin! Great to hear from you!
Yes, I fully recommend the “Off the Beaten Path Trek” tour. On the day that I went Sapa O’Chau had two small groups that did the “Off the Beaten Path Trek” tour and apart from seeing the second group on the trek and later at the house I didn’t see a single tourist. The views were beautiful and we also got to interact with heaps of locals, which was lovely!
Yes, it was as authentic as it’s gonna get I would say, even more so for me than for other people in the group. In the morning, after spending the night at the guest house, the 2 groups were served pancakes. The pancakes weren’t vegan and so I got to eat a traditional (vegan) breakfast with the family and our tour guide. It was a lovely experience!
The guesthouse itself was pretty neat and even had a shower (which none of us were expecting). The family that runs the homestay hung out with us in the morning after breakfast and a bit at dinner. The woman leading the homestay cooked everything and only wanted help with bringing food out and empty plates back.
The trek had its difficult parts, absolutely. We wandered through very narrow rice fields and because it rained the previous days we had to be careful not to trip and fall into the water. There was a lot of mud and certain areas were rather slippery so we had to be careful not to fall. They have rubber boots on site that you can wear free of charge in case you need sturdier footwear. I would say that the hike is moderate. There was a lot of flat ground, the challenging rice fields, and bits of steep hiking in between. None of us were hardcore hikers and we could feel our legs quite a bit after two days of hiking.
I think it’s a great tour if you are looking for an authentic experience as we didn’t see any other tourist on this route. I talked to others that did different tours and other trails seem to be a little more crowded (with other tourists). Whether the hike would be moderate, easy or difficult for you is dependent on your past experiences though. It was definitely one of the easier hikes I’ve done, however, all the mud and puddles, as well as the narrow rice fields, made it a little more difficult which is why I’d say it’s moderate.
I do highly recommend the company itself as well. It was really well organized and they are really giving back to local communities. I loved that aspect of it and that’s the main reason I chose to take a tour with them.
I hope that helps! If you’ve got any more questions feel free to ask away! 🙂
Thank you, that was very helpful! I think we are going to book!
I am so thrilled to hear that! 😀
Not sure if my other post went through or not, but I just wanted to thank you for your very detailed and thoughtful response! I also have one more question, from one non-meat eater and animal lover to another: I am completely mindful of the fact that this remote village likely relies on animals that they raise for a large portion of their diet and I am wondering whether you witnessed them killing any animals for food while you were there (either for dinner for the other guests at your homestay or otherwise). I am absolutely not judging this lifestyle whatsoever, I just want to mentally prepare myself for the possibility of seeing this ahead of time :).
No worries at all! I just saw your response to your comment! 🙂 I greatly enjoyed the trekking tour and could talk/write about it all day! 🙂 No, I didn’t see a single animal getting killed. The host that I stayed at also didn’t seem to have any animals, although other people in the village, of course, did. I only stumbled upon a handful of cows and I believe chickens. I didn’t see a single animal getting killed though.
The meals that we got at the homestay weren’t particularly heavy in flesh either. I wish I’d taken a photo! Quite a bit of it was naturally vegan and most of it was just rice with vegetables .. and for the meat lovers .. a bit of flesh. It was by no means excessive though. They seem to be eating a lot of rice and vegetables and from what I’ve seen, not an intense amount of flesh.
It was overall an absolutely amazing experience! I was actually a little bit concerned at the beginning regarding the food that I may or may not be served. Luckily they took a note of me being vegan all the food that I ended up eating at the homestay and during the trek was amazing! 🙂
Hope that helps! 🙂
Yes, it does – thank you so much! I felt a little silly even asking the question but like I said, I just wanted to mentally prepare myself if it was a possibility :).
We did go ahead and book the tour for next spring and your photos and post have gotten me really excited!
It’s an absolutely valid question! 🙂 That’s awesome! I am so excited for you!! It’s a really great tour, you won’t regret it! 🙂
Thank you for sharing this! As a fellow vegan, I would naturally shy away from opportunities like this, as I assume I wouldn’t be able to eat anything. How wonderful that you were catered for! Can I ask what time of year you went and how difficult the trek was? I’m not the fittest of people and not been any professional hikes like this, so just wondering about the ability level required, and if it’s bearable in the heat! I used to live in Tokyo, so very used to hot and humid weather, but it doesn’t make it any nicer! Also, did you leave your main luggage at the Capsule Hotel? Just thinking about how to do this as part of a trip I’m planning on taking. Thank you so much 🙂
Sure thing! I went in June and the trek had definitely difficult parts. Well, maybe difficult parts isn’t the right way to put it. We walked through rice fields and there the paths were incredibly narrow. One foot at a time, two feet next to each other wouldn’t have fit (most of the time). That went on for about 30 minutes to an hour though so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I left my main luggage in Hanoi, in the apartment where I was staying, so it was all good! 🙂 I highly recommend the tour! I am not used to hiking for days and really enjoyed it. I didn’t have any appropriate footwear and did the whole thing with sandals, and it was OK. The more appropriate your footwear the better though! 🙂 Of course, it was extremely hot. I recommend bringing tons of water! 🙂
Hi Nina, Erin, Shauna, I read your posts and questions and Nina’s responses with interest, and Erin the same questions you have were bothering me too, as an ardent animal lover and vegan. Thanks, very reassuring!
I am thrilled to hear that you found it reassuring! Definitely ensure to mention it when booking your trip, to give them a heads up! 🙂 Everyone was aware of me being vegan, my guide made sure to communicate to everyone and it went smooth and was lovely! 🙂 A more local experience even, because I got to have breakfast with the family (veggies and rice) as opposed to pancakes (I believe) which weren’t vegan and also very American and not so much Vietnamese! 😉