Planning a trip to Sapa and wondering what you should pack or what tour company to go with? Here are my recommendations and tips for having an unforgettable journey through the misty mountains.
- You should do a homestay.
When else in your life are you going to be able to wake up in house made of wooden slats on top of a misty mountain greeted with warm banana crepes and a story about someone’s extraordinary life? Come on, just do it. Even if you are shy or traveling alone, the kind people running these homestays will make your trip unforgettable. It’s worth giving up the privacy of a hotel room for the memory of a lifetime.
- You need to be firm, but not scared or put-off by the sales ladies.
If you’re traveling to Sapa, you’ve probably heard of the Hmong women who sell their wares in a somewhat aggressive manner. Maybe you’re even considering skipping Sapa because of it. Don’t be put off. These women are just trying to make money in the only way they can. They aren’t mean and they aren’t going to ruin your trip. If you don’t want something, just tell them no. Don’t tell them “maybe”, tell them “no”. If you’re firm, they’ll understand. Also tell your guide in advance if you don’t want to buy anything, and he or she will help ward off any unwanted attention. And if you want to chat with the sales ladies, go ahead. Make the most of it! This is a once in a lifetime trip.
- You can be as involved or uninvolved as you want at the homestay (although the latter is more fun).
At your homestay you can choose to curl up to the next to the fire after a long day of trekking and not say much. No one’s going to force you to chat and join in the evening’s activities. No one’s going to judge if you need some alone time either. But if you want more of the homestay experience, you can always ask to help out. Helping prepare feed for the pigs or putting together spring rolls for your evening meal is a great way to get involved and create stronger bonds with the homestay family.
- You need to have a good camera and probably an extra battery as well.
Your homestay will have electricity, but the last thing you want to do is to run out of camera battery on top of a beautiful mountain with mist rolling down into the rice fields below. Do yourself favor and get a second battery or you’ll be grudgingly asking to borrow your boyfriend’s camera the rest of the trek, like I had to.
- You should ask your guide lots of questions and be willing to talk about yourself too.
One of the best things about visiting a new place is meeting new people and sharing cultures. What better way to do this than learning from your guide? They are there to answer questions and no questions are too silly. Be kind, of course, but the people doing these treks expect questions. Ask them about how they live and share a bit about your own lives as well. Who knows what you’ll learn!
- You need to be fit or clear about your unwillingness to do tough treks.
Trekking in Sapa is tough. If you don’t want to climb down steep escarpments and trail through muddy rice paddies, be up front with your guide and clear about your unwillingness in advance. The last thing you want to do is find yourself on top of mountain too exhausted to hike home. Although of course succeeding at these difficult treks can also be part of the allure. When you arrive back at your homestay ruddy faced and sore, you’ll be all the more exhilarated about coming to this part of the world.
- You need to wear layers and be prepared to get muddy.
See point six. Bring clothes that you don’t mind mucking up, and keep in mind that Sapa’s weather is unpredictable. Bring a sweater, a poncho, a t-shirt, pants, and back-up shorts. In the morning, you might be sweating, but in the evening you might be wet and freezing. Look up the weather beforehand, but be prepared for its likely and sudden changes.
- Pack light.
A bag that feels slightly heavy at the train station will be painful and back-breaking when you arrive at your homestay the next night. Skip things like pajamas and extra blankets, they’re unnecessary and you’ll regret having them in your bag when your shoulder straps are digging on your hike.
- You should do your research before you book.
Not all tour groups are created equal and you get what you pay for. One group I can recommend is Sapa O’Chau, just take a look at the reviews on Trip Advisor. The money you spend here goes back to the ethnic people in Sapa and all of their homestays and guides are vetted through the program. You can also book directly with a homestay or a guide in the area to ensure that your money is going where it is supposed to go and not directly into the pockets of a tour company.
- It’s not all happiness and beauty.
Be careful not to romanticize the lives of the people in Sapa. They deal with a particular set of hardships not necessarily familiar to all areas of the world. Undoubtedly in your stay here you’ll learn about some of these problems, such as discrimination from some outsiders, including the local Vietnamese, and the horrible influences of human trafficking, http://latterlymagazine.com/stolen-to-china/.
If you want to do something, one option is volunteering at Sapa O’Chau. The volunteer section of the website is here, http://www.sapaochau.org/social-enterprise/support-us/.
- Get a motion sickness pill for the ride to Sapa.
Whether you choose to get to Sapa by night train, night bus, or some other mode of transport, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself traveling up the winding mountain roads of Sapa in a mini-bus or private car towards the end of your journey. The roads are narrow, filled with sharp turns, and painful for those prone to motion-sickness. Even if you have a strong constitution, stocking up on Dramamine before you go is a brilliant idea.
- Don’t be afraid to ask your guide to change your plans.
Are you feeling adventurous the last day of your journey and wanting to see something special before you leave Sapa? Ask your guide. They’re often willing to change plans based on your requests. Also, if your guide suggests their own change of plans to see some cultural event or new trail, don’t hesitate to agree to these changes. Your guide knows this area and can show you some really surprising things if you let them.
I hope these tips help you in planning your trip Sapa. It’s a truly magical place in the world and if you have the chance to see it at some point in your life, do it. You won’t regret it.