With plenty of green space, rolling hills, and incredible scenery, Sapa is an active destination. Sapa is the home base for trekking day trips to surrounding villages and overnight homestays with local families. These journeys range from leisurely to challenging, with Mount Fansipan being the mother of all treks, but there’s also room for cycling and, when the weather takes a turn, a hard-earned massage.
Trekking in Sapa
With dozens of small communities peppering the mountains and valleys of northwestern Vietnam, gaining access to the more authentic, untouched villages of the area requires at least some travel on foot up the steep inclines of the surrounding hills and along the muddy dirt paths that lead to Sapa’s more remote residences. In town, easier walks to Cat Cat Village and around Dragon Jaw Mountain are blessed with paved roads and stone steps. Once you leave town the highway branches off into smaller, rockier trails that bring you away from the buzz of Sapa’s tourist center and out to peaceful paddies and stunning mountain vistas. For standard day-long treks and one-night homestays, bring along water and a sturdy pair of shoes. For longer excursions, especially to Fansipan, you’ll need to stock up on proper trekking gear. Scores of shops in the area sell North Face goods, most of them knockoffs but some genuine, as well as a host of hiking boots, first-aid essentials, and the like.
Towering above its surroundings, Mount Fansipan is often referred to as the “Roof of Indochina,” standing well above any other peak in neighboring Laos or Cambodia. Looming over the opposite flank of the Muong Hoa Valley, its silhouette can be seen from the town’s hillside windows on a clear day and has begun to attract a growing number of ambitious travelers hoping to reach the summit. Though its trails are a little worse for wear, cluttered with rubbish and beginning to get too well-worn for some, the enigmatic mountain remains a point of interest among many adventure-seeking tourists.
Guided excursions to the top can be attempted in as little as a day or as long as 3-5 days, depending upon your level of fitness and your willingness to sleep in the rather damp and dingy camps that hover around 7,000 and 9,000 feet. One-day treks up to the summit are not for the faint of heart: It’s a 10-hour hike at best and the gently rolling trails at the start of the journey soon give way to steeper climbs and a final push up to the summit. Instead, reasonably fit travelers may want to opt for a two-day trip, while those who’d prefer to take their time can venture out into the wild for longer. Shrouded in a bluish haze, the view from 10,311 feet can be fickle even during the summer months, as wind, rain, and other elements have a mind of their own up here. Standing next to the pyramidal marker that signals the end of your uphill climb is well worth the wet shoes and chilly temperatures.
Climbers who sign up for a trip to the top should invest in a sturdy pair of hiking boots and some warm clothes. A decent jacket is still recommended in summer, as the air cools down significantly at this height. Most guided tours begin around VND1,050,000 per person for a single-day excursion, including transportation, entry fees, a guide, and, for overnight trips, a porter or two. When booking your Fansipan trek, it’s important to be clear about what’s included in the tour, as you’ll want to know whether things like water and snacks are provided or you should be packing your own.
It’s highly advised that you pay for the necessary guide for this trek. Going it alone is not only forbidden, but could easily become dangerous. In 2016, a young British hiker went missing during an unguided Fansipan trek and was later found dead. There is little to direct you once you set out for the summit and, particularly in foul weather, the trail becomes a treacherous, rain-soaked path.
If you’re really not up for the physical challenge, a cable car (tel. 02/0381-8888, 7:30am-5:30pm daily, VND600,000 round-trip, VND400,000 for children) makes the trip up to Fansipan’s peak as well. While the 6,292.5-meter system managed to break two Guinness World Records (longest nonstop three-rope cable car and greatest elevation difference by a nonstop three-rope cable car), its presence has taken a bit of the magic out of scaling the Roof of Indochina. Cable cars depart from a station located between Cat Cat and Sin Chai villages.
Cycling in Sapa
There are a small number of local companies that arrange cycling tours or rent mountain bikes to individuals. These excursions are expensive, a fact justified by the quality of the equipment, but then take all the challenge out of the trip by driving travelers uphill before allowing them to roll down to the bottom. Some companies offer customized tours.
To combine cycling with a bit of sightseeing, rent a mountain bike and blaze your own trail up to Silver Falls and Tram Ton Pass. For more in-depth excursions, book a tour, as the area is remote and finding your way can be difficult without someone to guide you.
Two companies providing bike tours of the area are Sapa Pathfinder (13 Xuan Vien, tel. 02/0387-3468, 7:30am-7pm daily) and ETHOS (79 Nguyen Chi Thanh, tel. 016/6689-2536, 8am-11am and 1:30pm-6pm daily). Sapa Pathfinder rents out well-maintained Trek mountain bikes (VND225,000/day).
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hanoi.