Sapa Vietnam

Sapa Trek with the Hill-Tribes in Vietnam: 10 Things You WON’T Expect

Sapa Trek, Unexpected Things, Vietnam

A Sapa trek with the hill-tribes in Vietnam will take you through the scenic Hoang Lien Son mountain range near the Chinese border. We’ve talked about the tremendous beauty of Sapa in our post about how to arrange your own Sapa trekking without tour companies.  On a Sapa trek, you’ll walk through tribe villages and cascading rice fields that may be a rich vibrant green if you visit in the summer, or strikingly yellow immediately before harvest. You can expect magnificent mountain vistas stacked with rice terraces, landscapes so beautiful they’ll take your breath away. You can expect to be astounded and amazed.

But what about the things you won’t expect?


On our Sapa trek with the hill-tribes in Vietnam, we came across several things we never even considered would’ve been part of our trip—some of them pleasantly surprising, and others…not so much. If you’re planning on taking your own Sapa trek, review the list and see if there’s anything you’ll want to bring to prepare yourself—after all, it’s impossible to prepare for the things you never expected!


Sapa Tours of the Rice Terraces in Vietnam

10 Unexpected Things You’ll Find on a Hill-Tribe Sapa Trek


1. Leeches

Yes. Leeches. You will almost definitely have leeches. Especially if it’s raining.

I didn’t even think about leeches being on the Sapa trek beforehand—which is a complete fail on my part, considering my trek in Thailand also had leeches and it wasn’t even raining then. I should’ve known better. But alas, I’m human.

Sapa Leeches

Our Sapa trek was during August, and it was pouring. The leeches were relentless. Ben and I were both wearing hiking boots with thick hiking socks, and would still find leeches burrowing in through the socks and onto our skin.

How Can You Prepare?
Bring long socks. We like:

At the very least, you’ll want to wear a pair of thick, long socks on the Sapa trek. However, if a leech makes its way up your shoe and onto your sock, it still may have the chance to burrow through it. If you’re concerned, you might want to consider bringing anti-leech socks, but this may only be necessary when it’s raining.

Wear ankle-high boots.

We like:

We had our hiking boots on our Sapa trek, which guarded against the leeches significantly more than our low-top wearing companions. Still, they’re not leech proof. If you’re feeling serious, you might want to wear a pair of rubber rain boots, like a few of the guides from the hill-tribes were. Alternatively, you might want to consider anti-leech pants.

Personally, if I did the Sapa trek with the hill-tribes in Vietnam again, I wouldn’t bring rain boots or anti-leech pants, as they’d be too bulky for my backpack. I would, however, wear an extra pair of socks at least, and consider a pair of anti-leech socks at most.

 Walk fast.

A Hmong woman guiding a different group walked past us and saw Ben’s blood-soaked socks. “You walk too slow!” she laughed. “Take one off and many more come,” she continued, gesturing to his sad socks.

It’s really one of the soundest pieces of leech-prevention advice that we heard in Vietnam.

After discovering we had leeches on us on the Sapa trek, we became obsessed with stopping to check ourselves and pick them off. The problem is, each time you stop to pick one off your shoe, 3 more have the chance to sneak on! The faster you walk, the less opportunity you provide for a leech to wiggle its way onto your body.

Walk fast and stomp. Now on my Thailand trek, when it wasn’t rainy, we were told that stomping hard on the ground can shake up the leeches and bring them out. However, on our Sapa trek, on which it was incredibly rainy and the leeches were already quite shaken up, I stomped my feet to shake off any leeches that managed to catch a grip on my shoes.

Bring insect repellent.

We had a small bottle (small enough to take in our carry-on!) of DEET mosquito repellent with us on our Sapa trek, but it wasn’t until after we reached our homestay in the hill-tribes that we realized this could’ve also been used to stave off the leeches.

Additionally, you can try rubbing eucalyptus oil on yourself, or sprinkling a bit of salt on the leeches you find.

Bring basic first aid supplies.

We like:

Though we didn’t ourselves, you may find it prudent to pack some band-aids and a small bottle of antibiotic ointment, in case any leeches do get you!





Leeches blood on Sapa trek in Vietnam


2. Weed

Maybe you’ve heard of the “happy water”—a homemade rice wine frequently offered to tourists on their Sapa trek by the hill-tribes in Vietnam. You may, however, also come across the “happy plant,” otherwise known as marijuana, cannabis, reeeeeeeefer, or more commonly, weed.

Marijuana plant, with the hill-tribes homestay in Vietnam

On your Sapa trek you may come across entire fields of the marijuana plant—our guides from the Vietnam hill-tribe frequently pointed them out to us. We did learn, however, that they’re not planted for recreational use, but rather to make hemp for making clothes and embroidery.

You may even be offered to have a puff of the happy plant out of a bamboo water pipe after your shots of happy water, but keep in mind you’ll probably be given dried leaves!

Weed on Sapa trek in Vietnam

3. Buffalo Poop

And lots of it.

You’ll come across many buffalo on your Sapa trek with the hill-tribes in Vietnam, and of course the piles of poop that follow them.

Buffalo, Sapa Trekking with the Hill-tribes

The problem with the magnificent beauty of the rice terrace Sapa trek scenery is that too often you’ll be so enraptured by the view, you won’t notice the giant pile of bull crap you just stepped into.

Buffalo on Sapa trek in Vietnam

Guess those rain boots would come in handy for more than just leeches. You should probably bring a travel-size pack of wipes for any bull-crappy accidents (and these may also help with #9 on the list).

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4. “Zombie” Kids

Go on a Sapa trek with the hill-tribes in Vietnam and you’ll know about the zombie kids. As you walk through a village of the hill-tribes you will inevitably be approached by a group of 5-10 young girls all chanting in the same slow, monotonous tone, “You buy from me. You buy from me,” into oblivion. The group of girls will follow you, wrap around you, obstruct your path, and continue chanting until they find someone new or you break down and give them money. The girls are so adorable, and your heart will go out to them and you’ll want to buy from them. Here’s why you shouldn’t.

Sapa trek, unexpected children

Despite your urges, you should not give these children money! In doing so, you’re actually promoting these girls being taken out of school to work. In fact, the money you give doesn’t go directly to them—the children get a cut for their family, and the rest goes to their boss.

How Can You Prepare?
Bring small gifts or snacks.

If you would like to give something to the children, come prepared with small gifts or snacks to give instead of money!

Bringing small toys and treats will allow you to provide something to the children if you feel so inclined, without supporting their employment over education. While we didn’t think to do this beforehand, our Belgian companions had been forewarned by friends, and had come prepared with several little trinkets and colorful pencils to hand out to the groups of girls.

Remember your host family may also have children.

And if you would rather not give gifts to the “zombie” children, you may still want to come prepared with treats for the children of your homestay hosts from the hill-tribes! Our homestay host had several sweet and adorable children that we thoroughly enjoyed playing with during our time with the hill-tribes in Vietnam. We were so glad that we had brought several snacks and sweets with us on our Sapa trek that we didn’t end up eating, and the children were so happy to receive them as gifts!


Hill-tribes homestay children in Sa Pa, Vietnam

 If you like kids you’ll love reading about our experience splashing adorable Korean kids with water while Teaching English abroad!

5. Shamans

Though missionaries have converted some of the H’mong hill-tribe to Christianity, most H’mong people continue to practice shamanism, including our guide and her family.

Hmong Shaman, Hill-tribes homestay in Sapa, Vietnam
The spiritual reverence for objects both animate and inanimate was highly evident in the respect paid by our host family to everything around them. For the hill-tribes that practice this kind of spirituality, the shaman is the top figure of communication with the spirits of the non-physical world.

When we came to our homestay with the hill-tribes in Vietnam, we learned that the mother of our guide was, in fact, a shaman. We also learned that this was unusual, as the shaman is usually a man.

Hmong Shamanism: Altar at hill-tribes homestay in Sapa, Vietnam

A warm and smiling woman, the shaman didn’t speak a word of English, but she did show us her sacred wall paper altar, complete with worshippings and offerings. She gripped onto my hand as she gently urged me forward to see the silver and yellow designs.  It was such an unexpected pleasure being walked through and shown such a revered element of the Hmong culture!

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6. Phone Service

Surprisingly enough, our Australian and Belgian companions, who had both purchased sim cards for their phones for their time in Vietnam, were able to find phone service on the Sapa trek. When you’re immersed in that stunning natural landscape of your Sapa trek, you feel so far removed from everything else that phone service just isn’t something you’d expect! But turns out, many of the guides from the hill-tribes had smart phones—we’re actually friends with our guides from the hill-tribes on Facebook!


The quality of service you get will depend on the company you buy your sim card from. Our Belgian companions purchased their sim cards at the Hanoi airport, and their service was weaker than the Australians. If phone service is important to you, you’ll definitely want to research the most reliable companies.

7. Four Seasons in One Day

The Sapa billboard is said to speak of its ever-changing weather: “Four seasons in one day.” In the morning, it feels like a brisk, cold autumn; after sunrise, a light spring; a hot summer in the afternoon; and at night, a little taste of winter.

Ben and Ruth walking in the Sapa rain

For our August visit, we didn’t experience the cold winter parts so much, but we did experience dramatic changes in weather. The month of August is notable for the amount of rain it gets—this is when the rice fields are at their greenest and most vibrant—but our guides from the hill-tribes told us that the rain typically stops at the end of the morning. Of course, they were right. While our mornings were dreary, gray, rainy, our afternoons were much warmer with beautiful blue and sunny skies.


How Can You Prepare?
Wear layers.

You’ll want to have different layers that you can peel off as the temperature warms up. Aim for quick-drying, breathable stretch materials! We like:

Definitely bring a waterproof jacket for the rain, and you might also want to pack something to keep you warm at night. We like:

Keep your clothes dry.

Store your clothes in a dry bag inside of your bags, which you may also want to get a rain cover for. Your hosts may offer to take your bags by motorbike to the village you’ll be staying in, which should be perfectly safe, and is great for bags with your clothes. However, you’ll still want to consider getting rain covers and/or dry bags for the things you’ll be carrying with you. We like:

Keep your electronics safe.

If you’re planning on bringing photography equipment or a laptop, you’ll want to keep your things safe in water-resistant, high-quality bags with rain covers. Think Tank makes durable, water-resistant travel-friendly camera and other electronic bags that are perfect for a Sapa trek. Our Think Tank Airport Helipak came with a seam-sealed rain cover that made our bag virtually waterproof!

Make sure to read about our experience with a Think Tank camera bag on our Vietnam backpacking trip.


8. Corn

We were given tons of food by the hill-tribes on our Sapa trek, but something we really didn’t expect was how much corn the H’mong use.

Corn fields on Sapa trek in Vietnam

Corn just isn’t something I ever associated with Vietnam, but we learned that corn is actually a staple among the H’mong hill-tribes. In fact, we saw people from the hill-tribes carrying giant baskets of corn cobs on our Sapa trek.

Corn, Hmong hill-tribes on Sapa trek in Vietnam

We also had the chance to eat some delicious Mèn Mén on our Sapa trek, a dish made of ground corn that we ate wrapped in banana leaves. We watched the production of the ground corn by our H’mong hosts in a large stone grinder. After being ground, the corn powder is then sifted to remove any shells or kernels. It’s certainly a labor-intensive process, but the result is quite tasty!

Learn more about Vietnamese food you’ll love!

Hmong Hill-tribes grinding corn in Sapa, Vietnam


9. Bathrooms that are different

Now this is something I actually did expect, but it’s a fair warning for anyone who doesn’t!

The bathroom set-up of your homestay with the hill-tribes in Vietnam will vary depending on your guides, but it will most definitely be some variety of…different.


Our homestay actually did have a shower, with running water from a tube that connected to a nearby waterfall. The toilet at our homestay was a squatter toilet, and toilet paper was available but in very limited quantities.

How Can You Prepare?
Bring the things you can’t live without for your…bathroom activities.

If you’re a germaphobe, bring some hand sanitizer and wipes. We like:

You may even want to bring some extra toilet paper, just in case! Take the cardboard roll out and stick the toilet paper in a ziplock bag to make it compact and water-proof.

How Can You Prepare?


10. The Time of Your Life

Okay, fine. This may not actually be that unexpected. But gosh golly darn, it is certainly true.

When you see pictures of a Sapa trek with the hill-tribes in Vietnam online, it seems too good to be true. Before arriving in Sapa, part of us feared that the Sapa trek would be overrun with tourists, that it wouldn’t be as beautiful as the photos, that we’d be hassled by people trying to sell us stuff the entire time, or that it’d be too difficult to find a good guide from the hill-tribes (make sure to read about how we found our incredible H’mong host for our Sapa trekking, without a tour company).

Homestay with the Hill-tribes in Sapa, Vietnam


We feared that our Sapa trek wouldn’t live up to the hype, that the photos of the mountain vistas and rice terraces were only so amazing because they were taken by professional photographers.

Sapa Trekking through rice terraces

Luckily, Sapa really is that amazing.

And luckily, we had a wonderful guide: a kind and sweet woman who had the most incredible home atop a mountain encircled with rice terraces. Yes, we had some “zombie” children, but our meetings with them were very brief, and yes, there was some buffalo poop and some leeches. Yes, the morning of our first day of trekking had torrential rain, and yes, the bathrooms are a little different. But for us, every single part of the Sapa trek was worth it for the pay off of the miraculous vibrant green landscape! We were lucky that our Sapa trek was during August, while the rain was plenty and the rice hadn’t been harvested yet, as the shockingly verdant rice fields matched our expectations and truly lived up to the hype.

And even better, now that you know exactly what unexpected things you should expect, you can plan accordingly and make your Sapa trek even better!

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Sapa Trek with the Hill-Tribes in Vietnam: 10 Things you WON'T Expect


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  • Reply
    November 8, 2016 at 8:13 am

    I’m glad I encountered no leeches when I was there in January (2014)! 🙂

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      November 8, 2016 at 8:26 am

      Oh you’re so lucky! The leeches were quite the obstacle. How was the weather during your visit?

      • Reply
        November 10, 2016 at 6:11 am

        Weather was really good! In Sapa the weather was simply perfect for hiking: sunny, but not TOO warm. It got cool in the evening.

  • Reply
    Faith Coates
    November 8, 2016 at 11:08 pm

    Your pictures are phenomenal and I really like the way you did each section of the trek with How to prepare for that is a great idea. The zombie kids are quite sad its a shame that survival in many of these places puts children at such risk and never allows them an escape. Oh and the “bull crap” LOL we are touring England and finding the same issues with both sheep and cows, give me sheeps any time much smaller.

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      November 16, 2016 at 2:59 am

      Yes “bull crap” definitely comes in LARGE quantities! And yes, it’s a terrible shame to see how profitable it can be to pull children out of school to work.

  • Reply
    Kate Carter Hickey
    November 8, 2016 at 11:41 pm

    I definitely didn’t expect any of those! I would totally have freaked out about the leeches. The zombie kids are super sad. I wonder how a permanent change can be made…

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      November 16, 2016 at 3:00 am

      I wonder that myself! But yes, the leeches definitely got some squeals out of me!

  • Reply
    Sara Essop
    November 9, 2016 at 1:31 am

    The landscape is so beautiful. But the leeches would’ve freaked me out. I really want to visit Vietnam though.

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      November 16, 2016 at 3:00 am

      It’s definitely worth it–leeches and all!

  • Reply
    November 9, 2016 at 2:38 am

    Isn’t it crazy how people can go to the same place and have different experiences? I never saw leeches or weed… though that is probably me just being naive haha. It is such an incredible part of the country. Your pictures are gorgeous!

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      November 16, 2016 at 3:01 am

      Yes, fully! Time of year and the path each guide takes their travelers has a lot to do with it, I’m sure. But I was happy to take the leeches once I saw where we were staying! The view made up for it!

  • Reply
    Pamela Arsena
    November 9, 2016 at 8:24 am

    Well I can see the weed portion really sounds nice. However the leeches really scare me! I really enjoyed reading this and the photography was awesome.

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      November 16, 2016 at 3:02 am

      Thanks for dropping by! And yes, the leeches were not fun at the time!

  • Reply
    November 9, 2016 at 9:36 am

    Wow! Great photos and some really good advice you are giving! I have never even heard of this trek, but I am set on going after reading this article! A bit scared about the leeches though! I have pinned it for the future! Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      November 16, 2016 at 3:03 am

      I promise it’s worth it, even with the leeches!

  • Reply
    November 9, 2016 at 10:29 am

    You are not selling me on this at all! I have never encountered a leech and never hope to lol. Crazy bathrooms and buffalo poo are not something I generally seek out. I feel so sorry for those kids being made to sell atuffZ it happens all the way through SE Asia and Ai never buy. On a positive note the scenery looks amazing and the fields are sooooo green it’s incredible!

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      November 16, 2016 at 3:04 am

      To each their own! I’d rather have known what to expect beforehand so I could prepare–I think a lot of our leech trouble was simply from lack of preparation!

  • Reply
    November 10, 2016 at 1:25 am

    Thank you for great insight tips!! What a beautiful place to be except leeks!!!

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      November 16, 2016 at 3:05 am

      The view is definitely stunning!

  • Reply
    November 11, 2016 at 1:28 am

    Some of the things mentioned by you were not really expected. Specially about the leeches!!!

  • Reply
    Holly Campbell-Smith
    November 11, 2016 at 2:06 am

    Would not have expected the leeches at all!! Absolutely loved this post. Photos you took are beautiful, really makes me want to go more now!

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      November 16, 2016 at 3:06 am

      I’m glad the leeches didn’t deter you!

  • Reply
    Maja | Mexatia
    November 11, 2016 at 4:03 am

    I needed to Google what leeches were and ijuuu! I can imagine it was not the most pleasant experience. Those incredibly green fields helped a bit, I guess 🙂

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      November 16, 2016 at 3:06 am

      Oh it was terrifying at the time, but I can honestly say after going through that experience, leeches do not freak me out as much as they used to!

  • Reply
    Day 1: A Winter Trek in Sapa, Vietnam | Travel Moments
    December 7, 2016 at 10:54 pm

    […] Be aware though about the trek, here are some things that you wouldn’t expect on a Sapa trek to guide you. […]

  • Reply
    Television of Nomads
    December 17, 2016 at 9:23 pm

    […] Sapa Trek with the Hill-Tribes in Vietnam: 10 Things You WON’T Expect […]

  • Reply
    April 24, 2018 at 2:50 pm

    Do you happen to have contact information for your homestay host? I am looking to learn more about shamanism through a Sapa homestay. Do you think I could ask around and arrange it upon arrival to Sapa?

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