Sapa trekking and a hill-tribe homestay among the remarkable rice terraces nestles itself firmly at the top of any Vietnam travel itinerary. And since it’s so simple to book and arrange your budget Sapa trekking by yourself, why spend more money going through Sapa Tours companies?
Every hill-tribe homestay and trekking journey (whether arranged by yourself or through Sapa tours) will begin in the northwestern Vietnam town of Sapa (otherwise written as Sa Pa). But don’t be caught off guard on your trek! Check out our list of 10 Things You WON’T Expect from a Sapa Trek with the Hill-Tribes in Vietnam! A quick tumble from the border of China, Sa Pa is set amidst the Hoang Lien Son mountain range (otherwise known as “the Tonkinese Alps”) that house Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam.
Before the 90’s, small size agriculture marked the economic epicenter of Sa Pa. However, it has since been established in Vietnam as a trekking base for Sapa tours, attracting visitors from around the globe gearing to explore the region’s cascading rice terraces and hill-tribe villages.
Note: These photos were all taken on our DJI Phantom (obsessed) and Canon Rebel, but we have since upgraded to the Canon 80D and are in love with it. Make sure to check out our essential cameras for every traveler guide and our traveling with a drone guide for more info.
Sapa Trekking and Hill-Tribe Homestay Quick-Jump Guide
- How to Get to Sa Pa on Your Own
- How to Find a Guide and Do Your Own Sapa Homestay
- What to Bring for Sapa Trekking
- How to Get Back to Hanoi from Sa Pa
- 1 How to Get to Sa Pa on Your Own (Without Sapa Tours)
- 2 How to Find a Guide and Do Your Own Sapa Homestay
- 3 What to Bring for Sapa Trekking
- 4 How to Get Back to Hanoi from Sa Pa
- 5 Like this post?
- 6 You Might Also Appreciate…
- 7 Do you have any stories about arranging a budget Sapa trek and hill-tribe homestay in Vietnam?
How to Get to Sa Pa on Your Own (Without Sapa Tours)
If you want to do Sapa trekking and hill-tribe homestay, there are a couple ways to get there without Sapa tours. Most visitors to Sa Pa travel from Hanoi, the hub of transportation for Vietnam’s north (and the site of some of the most amazing Vietnamese food we’ve had!). The main methods of traveling to Sa Pa from Hanoi are train and bus.
Train to Sa Pa
A popular way to get your Sapa trekking tour is with an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. If you’re a budget traveler and want to save money by arranging your Sapa trekking on your own, you can use the Vietnam Railways website to buy your train ticket. Using the Vietnam Railways site to book your train tickets directly will save you $10-15, versus booking them with an operator of Sapa tours. With Sapa tours ringing up popularly on many travelers’ Vietnam itinerary, it’s smart to book your tickets online as soon as you can. It’s very possible that they will sell out if you wait until a few days before.
The overnight trains from Hanoi—Lao Cai take around 9 hours to complete the trip. A one-way ticket in an air-conditioned soft-sleeper cabin costs 384,000 VND (about $17.20 USD). If visiting Vietnam on a budget, you might want to take an overnight train to save money on accommodation.
There are two overnight trains from Hanoi—Lao Cai. The SP1 train departs Hanoi at 21:40 and arrives in Lao Cai at 05:35 the next morning, while the SP3 train departs Hanoi at 22:00 and arrives in Lao Cai at 06:00.
Sa Pa town doesn’t have its own railway station. Instead, you’ll find the nearest station in Lao Cai, about 40-50 minutes away by car or bus. A good price for a taxi ride between Lao Cai and Sa Pa is around 400,000 VND ($18). Minibuses are available to take between Lao Cai and Sapa as well. The minibuses to Sa Pa leave from a large parking lot near the train station, and cost 50,000 VND ($2.20). These minibuses will leave whenever they fill up.
1. Even 4-person cabins have more privacy than a crowded bus.
2. All trains have a bathroom.
3. The train ride is more stable than bus rides.
4. Some train cars have wifi.
1. Longer trip than taking the bus.
2. May not be as comfortable as a luxury sleeper bus.
3. If booked through a company, it will cost more than a bus.
4. Doesn’t go directly to Sapa.
Bus to Sa Pa
Sa Pa can also be reached by long-distance buses from Hanoi. Unlike the train, the buses take you directly to Sa Pa, cutting out an extra leg of travel. These buses are relatively comfortable, with seats that recline or lay back fully.
Buses from Hanoi to Sa Pa leave daily in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The ride to Sa Pa takes about 5-6 hours. For those visiting Vietnam on a budget, overnight buses are again a great way to save money on one night of accommodation, while also limiting the daytime wasted on transportation.
There are a variety of bus companies of various repute and comfort, with prices ranging from $15-45. Do a bit of online research into whatever company you choose to go with, as some companies are poorly organized and have lower levels of customer service and satisfaction. Sometimes you get what you pay for!
Some buses to Sa Pa have bathrooms or make rest stops on the way, but others do not have toilets or make stops. Again, research is key!
The cost of buses to Sa Pa is comparable to the cost of booking train tickets by yourself for most companies. If you book train tickets through a travel agency, the train will be more expensive.
1. Takes you directly to Sa Pa.
2. If you travel in the daytime it is a shorter journey than via train.
3. Can be cheaper than booking trains through a company.
4. Some buses have wifi.
1. Less privacy than the train.
2. Some buses don’t have bathrooms.
3. Riding a bus through windy roads can cause nausea!
How to Find a Guide and Do Your Own Sapa Homestay
When going on a Sapa trekking journey, you’ll want to find a local guide familiar with the landscape, weather changes, terrain, and the most beautiful spots.
Arrange Your Sapa Tour Upon Arrival
A multitude of companies exist that arrange Sapa trekking and hill-tribe homestay. Unfortunately, most of these companies don’t have much care or regard for the ethnic tribes who call Sa Pa home. This means that much of the money you pay for a tour won’t get back to the tribespeople who struggle to make a living. To get around these companies, you can easily arrange your own budget Sapa trekking and hill-tribe homestay upon arrival in Sa Pa. Arranging your budget Sapa tours directly with the people who you will stay with and guide you on your trek leads to a more fulfilling and authentic experience, and will save you money too!
Where to Find Your Sapa Guide
Most buses to Sa Pa drop off their passengers in front of the Sa Pa Market. The market and its surroundings are full of enterprising tribespeople eager to guide you to their home. Arranging Sapa tours by yourself is as simple as walking around the market until you find a price and trekking distance that suits your fancy. Just make sure to find a guide with a personality that meshes well with yours.
Cost of Sapa Trekking
A decent price for a 2D/1N Sapa homestay with a 10+km trek to the village should be between $20-30 per person. If someone quotes you a higher price, you can negotiate! Simply walk away and they will probably agree to a lower price. If not, it’s quick and easy to find someone else who can offer a more budget-friendly price. This price should include a meal on the trek and meals while at the Sapa homestay. The price will not include a motorbike/taxi ride back to Sa Pa town at the end of the trek. Be warned: a motorbike ride in the rain is definitely not recommended, as the roads are roughly paved at best and very prone to flooding.
Find more spectacular things to do in Vietnam.
What to Bring for Sapa Trekking
Raincoat/poncho: A definite must any time of the year. We like:
- Columbia Men’s Watertight II Front-Zip Hooded Rain Jacket
- Columbia Women’s Switchback II Jacket
- Mudder Portable Raincoat Rain Poncho with Hoods and Sleeves
Extra clothes: Go for a quick-drying, breathable stretch material that you can layer! The weather in Sa Pa is notorious for rapidly changing, so layers are a wonderful asset. It can be sunny and warm one minute and foggy and pouring rain the next. We like:
- Singbring Men’s Outdoor Quick Dry Hiking Shorts
- Columbia Men’s Meeker Peak Short-Sleeve Crew T-Shirt
- Opna Women’s Racerback Tank Tops Moisture Wicking Shirt
- UDIY Women’s Long Sleeve Zip Active Sports Jacket Top
- Yana Women’s 2 in 1 Running Tights with Front and Back Water Resistant Pockets
A Waterproof Bag to store extra clothes and electronics: You don’t want your clothes and valuables to get soaked if it starts to rain. We like:
- Dry Bag by ECOdept – Waterproof Lightweight Large Sack. They come in 3 different sizes to suit your needs!
Rain cover for backpack: A rain cover for your backpack will give you peace of mind if caught in rainy weather. Our Think Tank Airport Helipak came with a seam-sealed rain cover that made our bag virtually waterproof!
- Think Tank makes durable, water-resistant travel-friendly camera and other electronic bags that are perfect for a Sapa trek. For more information, make sure to read about our experience with a Think Tank camera bag on our Vietnam backpacking trip.
Long socks: In case of leeches! Our guides were even wearing rain boots to protect against the leeches! We like:
- Men’s Hiking Socks, Thick Micro Crew For Trekking
- Women’s Full Cushion Hiking/Camping/Outdoor Crew Socks
- You may also want to consider anti-leech socks, though we didn’t use any ourselves
Good walking/hiking shoes: The paths you will be trekking on are narrow, sometimes steep and rocky, and can be very muddy depending on the weather. We like:
Snacks, water: These may be available for purchase while trekking, but you don’t want to be caught without water or snacks if you really need them.
Bug repellent: Your hill-tribe homestay may have mosquito nets, but it also will likely not have screens in the windows (if there are any windows at all) or will be open to the outside, so it’s best to be prepared. Also, beware of leeches if it’s raining on the trek! We like:
- DEET mosquito repellent
- And for natural protection against leeches, you might want to try eucalyptus oil
- In case you do get any leeches, you’ll also want to have a Travel First Aid Kit
Hand Sanitizer and Wipes: The bathroom situation is unpredictable, and you’ll want to be prepared! You may also need some wipes to clean yourself off of any mud and…well…bull poop! We like:
- Purell Jelly Wrap Travel Size Hand Sanitizer
- Stall Mates: Flushable, individually wrapped wipes for travel
A walking stick: If you don’t have one, perhaps your guide will be kind enough to provide a bamboo one for you.
Toys/other trinkets to give to village children (DO NOT give them money—the children will only get a small cut of what you give, and they’ll be kept out of school as long as they’re still able to turn a profit!).
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How to Get Back to Hanoi from Sa Pa
It’s just as simple to leave Sa Pa as it is to get there. Buses and minibuses leave to Lao Cai from the stone church in the middle of town. Ask the drivers what time they are leaving (every 30 minutes- 1 hour until 18:30-19:00). Public buses also leave to Lao Cai from this church, between 6:00 AM and 18:30 PM (28,000 VND). Taxis are also readily available too (around 400,000 VND). We really lucked out and found a taxi driver who just happened to be returning home to Lao Cai for the night and ready to fill the cab for any price, which for our group of four, turned out to be 100,000 VND total (about $4.48 USD). Unfortunately, that kind of luck can’t be counted on!
If you booked a round-trip bus ticket to and from Sapa, leaving is as easy as getting back on the bus. Make sure you check where the bus will pick you up, as it could be from somewhere different than where it dropped you off.
Heading to Vietnam? Check out these thoughts on Vietnam before your trip!
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