Rice paddys at Sapa
Rice paddys at Sapa @ Alan Brownbridge / Vietnam Is Awesome

Sa Pa town is located in Northern Vietnam in Lao Cai Province which sits along the Chinese border. Hungry trekkers can arrive either by bus or train from Hanoi which is just a few hours away. Lao Cai, and Sa Pa, in particular, are known internationally as top tourist destinations due to the spectacular landscapes around them. The terrain is rugged and the ethnic minorities that live in the region are exceptionally friendly and welcoming. All of this makes trekking in Sapa Vietnam an unforgettable experience.

The 5 best trekking routes around Sapa town

There are many Vietnam trekking experiences but few compare to what trekking in Sapa has to offer. The region is full of easy to access routes, but here are the best:

  1. Trek to Cat Cat falls and experience the Cat Cat tourist village
  2. The Sa Pa Valley Trail - an easy introduction to mountain life
  3. Bathe in Silver Waterfall and Love Waterfall
  4. Conquer Fansipan Mountain - the top of Indochina
  5. Trek to Lao Chai, Ta Van Village, and Giang Ta Chai Village to see Cau May Waterfall
Sunset valley in Sapa @ Alan Brownbridge / Vietnam Is Awesome 

Self-guided treks in Sapa Vietnam

When you arrive in Sa Pa you will see an abundance of Sapa trekking tour companies. If you are a solo traveler or just feel more comfortable with a guide, then you can easily book an organized tour at any one of these places. However, if you prefer trekking in Sapa without a guide then there are a couple of easy routes to choose from!

Top tip - It is fairly common for the local people to offer to be your Sapa tour guide for the day and show you some less common trails in the area. At the end of the tour remember to tip your guide or you could buy a souvenir from them.

Trek to Cat Cat Village

Visiting the Cat Cat Tourist Village is a must when visiting Sa Pa. The route is fairly short, but for a longer day trek, you can continue to head north to the neighboring village of Xín Chải.

On this hike, you will see many Hmong people, who are one of the ethnic minority groups in Northern Vietnam. Most likely you will see some stalls run by local families selling traditional clothing and an array of souvenirs.

Route

The hiking route starts at the Cat Cat View Hotel and Restaurant, where you begin a fairly leisurely downhill walk on the road. To your right, you can see some spectacular views of the surrounding mountainous areas and rice fields.

After you reach the Hoang Lien National Park building lookout for a staircase next to a cafe named Sky Sa Pa. These steps will lead you to the falls. There is an entry fee of 70,000 VND per person you will need to pay at the top of the steps.

Cat Cat village
Cat Cat village @ Tuan Duong / Getty Images

During your descent, there are many cafes and restaurants along the way for refreshments. When you reach the bottom you need to cross a narrow suspension bridge before reaching the falls.

To turn this trek into an enjoyable loop continue straight and follow the well-paved path up to Fansipan Road. Here you can turn right and simply head back into Sa Pa Town. If you are looking for more adventure, at the main road turn left and head straight to the neighboring village of Xín Chải.

The Sa Pa Valley Trail

If you are looking for a beautiful day trek through the surrounding rice paddies, then this trail is for you. It will lead you through a stunning mountain valley and conveniently commences straight from the town. This route is fairly easy and suitable for people with a moderate level of fitness.

Route

You can begin your hike in Sa Pa Town and follow the road, or if you prefer, you can take a taxi to the trailhead which begins just before Lầu Vọng Cảnh Fansipan coffee view and bar. You will see a set of stairs that lead to the trail.

Sapa lake at Sapa town
Sapa lake at Sapa town @ Alan Brownbridge / Vietnam Is Awesome

This trek is a paved road the whole way, but be aware that if it rains, it can be a little slippy. At one point on the route, you cross a small waterfall. After about 4km you will reach the road. At this point, turn left and follow this route all the way back to Sapa. The entire route works out to be approximately 8.5 kilometers.

If you would prefer you can take a taxi back from the main road. There are many guesthouses along the way where you could take a rest and ask them to call one for you.

Silver Waterfall and Love Waterfall

This hike is short but packed with some fantastic sightseeing. You will need to take a taxi from Sa Pa town as the start of the route is about 12.5km / 25 minutes drive away. You need a moderate level of fitness due to the number of stairs on this trek.

Route

Love Waterfall is conveniently located right close to the road, you will spot the ticket booth and can request that your driver let you out there.

The entry fee is 15,000 VND, which you will need to pay before you can enter. Follow the steps up to get a great view of the cascading water. When you are ready to leave this site, you can exit the area and cross the road. About 1.8 km down you will see the entrance on the left. You will need to pay another entrance fee here, this one is 70,000 VND.

Love waterfall
Love waterfall @ Kannapon1860 / Getty Images

This route is well marked and easy to follow. There are options to deviate from the route, however, if you chose to do this be aware that some of them can be difficult to follow. When you reach the bottom you will have a stunning view of Silver Waterfall. If the weather is hot and sunny you can choose to swim.

Silver waterfall
Silver waterfall @ NanoStockk / Getty Images

After relaxing and soaking in the nature, head back up the stairs to the main road and take a taxi back to the town.

Sapa trekking tours

If you are looking for more than just casual day treks and want to explore some steep mountains and get off the tourist trail, then you should look to hiring a professional trekking guide. Usually, one is included as part of a Sapa trekking tour and can take you to some mind-bending places that you wouldn't find on your own. Meals and accommodation will likely be included in your tour, but personal trekking gear is not, so bring good trekking shoes and enough warm clothes.

Fansipan Mountain

Fansipan is the tallest mountain in Indochina standing at over 3000 m above sea level. Located in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, it is one of the only places in Vietnam with the right snow conditions. Also known as Phan Xi Păng in Vietnamese, Sun World has installed a whopping 6.3 km cable car that reaches the summit, but for hard-core trekkers who consider this cheating, there is another way.

Route

Pickup is organized from Sapa town or Lao Cai train station, and from here tours are taken to Cat Cat village to begin the 3-day route. As trekkers enter the Hoang Lien National Park they are met with some of the most stunning scenery on the planet. Huge rice fields fill the Muong Hoa valley and tribal villages perch on the mountainside.

The trek begins as a gentle wander through a Hmong village before disappearing into thick bamboo forests. The first day usually ends at around 2,300 m in a pre-organized campsite or homestay after 6 or 7 hours of hiking.

Fansipan - View of Lao Cai
Fansipan - View of Lao Cai @ Alan Brownbridge / Vietnam Is Awesome

The second day involves a hard trek at altitudes of 2,500 m. The total distance covered is rather small but it takes another 8 hours to reach the next base camp where porters prepare a hearty meal and a well-deserved tent.

On day three, walkers wake up early to finish the ascent of Fansipan. This final push takes you to over 3100 m and has the most breathtaking vistas of jagged mountains poking out the clouds. On a clear day, China is visible to the north. After a brief but necessary rejoice, the trekking tour begins the descent. This only takes around 4 hours and concludes at the Tram Ton ranger station where mini-buses are ready to take you back to Sapa.

Fansipan
Fansipan top @ Alan Brownbridge / Vietnam Is Awesome

One or two-day guided treks start at the Tram Ton ranger station and end there too. This point-to-point trail is around 10 km one way and takes up to 12 hours return depending on your fitness level. Alternatively, tired walkers can opt to take the cable car down from the top to close the loop.

Trek to Lao Chai, Ta Van, and Giang Ta Chai Village

Lao Chai village is nestled in the Muong Hoa Valley. The area is rich in culture and the perfect place to immerse yourself with the local people.

You can organize a tour guide before setting off on this trek, or if you'd prefer to do the first part solo you can find a local tour guide partway through. Though this could be a self-guided trek, though there are some hidden gems that only a local guide will know.

Lao Chai village
Lao Chai village @ Alan Brownbridge / Vietnam Is Awesome

This route is only around 4.5 kilometers in length and is suitable for people of a moderate fitness level. If you leave early in the morning you can make it a half-day excursion or turn it into a day trek by stopping for a leisurely lunch along the way.

Route

To get to the start of the trek you will need to take a taxi to Thuyền Mây Homestay Sapa. Just after this, you will see a road branching off to the right. Follow this road as it winds all the way down the valley, until you Linh Ho village Throughout the descent, you will have spectacular mountain views and breathtaking sights of the rice terraces. Make sure to stop in Linh Ho village for a unique shopping experience in local artisan stores that sell some pretty interesting trinkets and souvenirs.

Continue for a few kilometers to Lao Chai Village. When you reach the village, cross a large bridge and continue up the opposite side of the Valley. Stay on this road as it passes many restaurants, home-stays, and small stores which are perfect to relax and refresh. Finally, you will reach Ta Van, take the right fork until you pass Phori's House. At this t-junction turn right again and follow the road round until you leave Ta Van and pass through Giang Ta Chai village. At the end of the trail, you will see Cau May Waterfall.

Giang Ta Chai village
Giang Ta Chai village @ Alan Brownbridge / Vietnam Is Awesome

Cau May Waterfall and the surrounding area are picture-perfect. When you are ready to continue, simply cross the narrow bridge and follow the path until you reach the main road. On the main road, there are usually many taxi or bike drivers waiting to take tourists back to Sapa.

Cau May waterfall
Cau May waterfall @ Alan Brownbridge / Vietnam Is Awesome

Top tip - In Ta Van, there will likely be many local guides offering to show you the way. If you opt for this ask them to take you through the bamboo forest. This is an alternative route to the road. You will trek on an interesting trail through gorgeous rice paddies and tall bamboo trees.

Ta Van rice paddys
Ta Van rice paddys @ Alan Brownbridge / Vietnam Is Awesome

Best time to visit Northern Vietnam

Avoid the rain - Although Sapa town is beautiful all year round, if you want to make the most of your time trekking in Sapa, it's best to plan around the rain which occurs mainly during the Summer season from June to August. This is not the ideal time for trekking in Sa Pa as rice paddy fields are muddy and the rocky terrain will be slippy. Daytime temperatures will rise to around 25°C and at night drop to a cool 15°C.

For the chance of snow - If you enjoy cold weather, the Winter season runs from December to February. During this time fog usually covers the mountain peaks, and if you're lucky, you might see some snowfall on the highest points in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range. Average day temperatures are 15°C while at night it can get as low as 5°C in Sapa town.

Relaxing dog with a view in Sapa
Relaxing dog with a view in Sapa @ Alan Brownbridge / Vietnam Is Awesome

For hiking - The perfect time to visit Lao Cai for the best Sapa trekking experience, is either in Spring from March to May, or, Autumn from September to November. The weather is dry and the countryside surrounding Sapa is breathtaking. Spring flowers bloom and the scenery is filled with peach and plum blossoms. In Autumn it is equally as spectacular as the rice terraces are bursting with yellow brightness. The day and night temperatures in Spring and Autumn are on either side of 15°C.

What to pack

You may be surprised by the weather in Sapa. It can be quite hot and sunny in the daytime, but at night time, the temperatures can drop. One moment there could be icy-cold rain, and then the most brilliant blue skies. So it's important to pack right.

Shoes - To truly traverse the incredible terrain on a Sapa trek, you will need to have proper shoes. For most treks, just simple sneakers will do as long as you don't mind them getting a little dirty or wet. For the most mountainous areas, you will need dedicated walking boots. You don't want to slip on a wet rock and sprain an ankle in the middle of a three-day trek!

Warm weather clothes - A good rain jacket is a must especially if you go during summer when rain is usually in the forecast. In the daytime, the weather may feel warm but at night it drops low enough that you will need a few extra layers such as a jacket and pants.

Shopping clothes at Sapa market
Shopping clothes at Sapa market @ Alan Brownbridge / Vietnam Is Awesome

Cold weather clothes - Winter in Sapa is fresh and brisk. The 'feels like' temperature is much colder than you expect. Make sure you bring a thick winter jacket, warm pants, a hat, gloves, and a scarf. Bring an extra jacket and pants that you can change into if your first ones get wet or dirty.

Top tip: It is always good to come prepared with comfortable worn-in hiking boots and some lightweight clothing that you can easily add or remove as the temperature demands.

Where to buy last-minute gear

If you arrive in Sapa and feel ill-equipped, don't worry, Sapa has many stores that sell high-quality trekking equipment where you can purchase everything you need.

A great place to get kitted out is inside the Sun World funicular station on Fansipan street. Here, many legitimate stores sell big-name brands like North Face and Osprey. Alternatively, there are dedicated trekking stores throughout the town.

Morning Sapa lake
Morning Sapa lake @ Alan Brownbridge / Vietnam Is Awesome

The Sapa market, which is located on the corner of Dien Bien Phu and Thach Son, is a vibrant night market that offers many cold-weather clothes like hats, gloves, and scarves. It also has a bustling street-food scene with unique and delicious dishes and rather potent rice wine that are perfect for a cold night of bargain hunting!

Visiting Sapa

Whether your goal is hard-core trekking when you visit Sapa, or simply just to have a nice wander through the hills and neighboring villages, you won't be disappointed with this destination. Sapa is much more than just a trekking destination. It's full of culture, unique cuisine, and world-class accommodation too. If you want to know more about the incredible attractions that Sapa has to offer, then be sure to take a peek at our guide.