Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited!
Trekking in Sapa was a Maybe for my trip to Vietnam. The pictures I had seen of the rice paddies in Sapa were incredible – sweeping views of lush, green steppes along the mountains. The region is known for its ethnic diversity, with more than 8 ethnic tribes living here. Skipping it felt like something I would regret. And yet…it would be early December when I would arrive in Hanoi and be planning a trip to Sapa.
It would be cold.
Northern Vietnam, bordering China, can get quite cold. It snows in Sapa. It would likely be very cold when I would go trekking (possibly also raining), so I had to consider if I was up for a cold and muddy hike in the mountains.
From what I had packed, I was not fully prepared for a trek like this. I didn’t have proper hiking shoes, just sneakers. I had a rain jacket and a few long sleeve shirts, but nothing all that warm. Some leggings and jeans and sweatpants. Despite all of this, I decided to do the trek anyway. I would be fine, I told myself (and I mostly was).
In the days leading up to the Sapa trip, I picked up a knock-off North Face fleece in Hanoi and one of the MANY shops selling North Fake jackets and bags. I grabbed a pair of gloves and some longer socks just to be safe. I packed up all of my warmest clothing (which barely filled a regular sized backpack) and crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t freeze. It had been pretty chilly and rainy in Hanoi; I was a bit nervous about what was in store for me in Sapa.
My trip to Sapa started with a motorbike pick-up from my hostel. After a few days in Hanoi, this was only somewhat terrifying. I arrived at the night bus which would take us the 6 or so hours to Sapa overnight. I’d been convinced by the travel agency where I booked the trip to choose the VIP night bus rather than the regular one. This was fantastic advice. The bus came with individual sleeping pods, complete with curtains, TV, lights, outlets, and little shelves for your stuff. Of course, the bed was barely big enough for all five feet, eight inches of me (I just fit basically) and I couldn’t sleep at all, but it was definitely nicer than the regular sleeping bus. There’s also a bathroom on board which means no stopping during the middle of the night for bathroom breaks.
We arrived in Sapa around 4am and the bus pulled over so we could sleep another two hours. This was the only time I sort of got some sleep on this bus. When we were woken up just after 6, I was so tired. And so hungry. And so ready to be off this bus. I ended up standing around in the rain for awhile trying to sort out where my tour guide would meet me…eventually, I found them and the rest of our group.
I was already starting to feel the chill that morning and glad I had opted for the fleece jacket. I still worried about my lack of hiking shoes, especially after seeing that about half of our group were wearing proper trekking shoes. From the looks of it, it promised to be quite muddy. Oh well.
We had a group of about 9 people and this group is what made my trekking experience so incredible. We quickly got to know each other over a crappy breakfast and then more so as we hiked up through mud all day. And by the evening….well, that was when we really got to know each other!
Our guides were three Hmong women who live in one of the small villages near Sapa. I was constantly amazed by how naturally they navigated these steep and muddy hills (they were wearing gum boots which seemed to get them around quite easily). They spoke good English and were so, so funny. They told us about the region and the different tribes, as well as more about their own tribes’ culture. They also loved to point out that the views were not so good that day and usually we would see all of Sapa from these heights.
It wasn’t raining, but it was foggy. We climbed up and up, but could barely see anything. Opting for the harder route with the better views was really just a steep, muddy climb with clouds waiting for us at the top. We were all a bit disappointed, but we were all enjoying ourselves enough that it made up for the sort of crappy views. We just kept telling ourselves that it would get better. We had two days to trek in Sapa, we had more time for views!
After a lot of walking through fog, we made it to our lunch stop and shoveled spponfuls of noodle soup into our faces. We had built up some heat walking, but now that we were sitting down for a bit, we were all freezing again. The soup (and a bottle of the local beer) helped. The afternoon was more trekking through mud and fog, though the skies started to clear a bit as we dropped in elevation. We found ourselves walking through more towns, seeing kids coming home from school and random pigs and cows walking through the road.
We arrived at our homestay around 4:30 and couldn’t wait to settle in. The homestay was more of a cabin for our hiking group, not an actual villager’s home (which was a bit disappointing to most of the group), but it was a really nice place for us to stay for the night. There was a fire already burning inside and there were heavy blankets on all of the beds. The bathrooms, unfortunately, could only be accessed by going outside so the idea of taking a shower was quickly eliminated. We were all dirty. We were all stinky. And we would all continue to be so until we arrived back in Hanoi.
We settled into our rooms, grabbed some beers, and huddled up by the fire. This would be our position for most of the rest of the night. Our local guides made an incredible dinner for us and just as we were done eating, they started pouring rice wine aka “happy water”. The rice wine didn’t stop flowing until VERY late in the evening. But it was a perfect situation to bond as a group before our second day of trekking!
Our second day would be a half day of trekking – most of our group was only staying for one night in Sapa so we would begin our trip back to Hanoi after lunch. The remaining trekkers would stay another night at the homestay with another group who had arrived in Sapa earlier that day.
We woke up to pancakes and eggs which was quite welcome after all that beer and happy water the night before. I could barely imagine having to trek more in the cold as I was feeling a bit hungover, but the pancakes helped.
Fortunately, it was also much clearer on the second day and we could actually see something! The views that morning were pretty awesome and our group trekked much more slowly as we kept stopping for pictures. Unfortunately, the places where we were hiking were much muddier than the day before and I was sliding all over the place in my sneakers. I found myself sliding down some of the hills, covering my fleece jacket and leggings with mud, but not really caring. But by the time we got to lunch, we were all ready for a break. It had been a long morning of hiking and everyone was starving. Besides, those of us who were going back to Hanoi that night were ready to get on a warm bus and relax for a while.
The trek overall was somewhat challenging and, as much as I loved it, I would only recommend it to people who felt like they were physically fit enough for some steep climbing. I would also HIGHLY recommend wearing proper hiking shoes! Sneakers were a very poor choice. You can also buy the gumboots the guides wear from the local market in Sapa before you head off on the trek (one girl in our group did this).
We were told by the guides that there are often leeches around on the hike, especially during rainy periods. We were lucky not to see any, but it’s a good reason to wear long pants and socks.
If the weather had been better, I think I would have stayed for two nights at the homestay. But since it was rainy and cool, I only opted for one night (and I’m glad of it). The trek was really awesome and I loved exploring this area and meeting the people in my group, but the weather was far from ideal. Not only did we see mostly fog and clouds the first day, but it was also quite chilly. The benefit of coming in the winter months is that there are fewer groups of trekkers so it won’t be as crowded with other tourists. And at least it’s not super hot.