Planning a trip to go trekking in Sapa, Vietnam? We want to help you with our guide plan the trip painlessly and without the confusing and frustrating experience of tour companies who will try to convince you their tour is the best.
Our guide to trekking in Sapa independently will bypass the tour companies and have you book directly through a local tribal family, our guide was from the Black Hmong tribe. This is how we did our trekking experience and it was not only alot easier than dealing with hoards of tour companies trying to undercut eachother but we were able to know where our dollars were going, directly to the host family instead of a greedy middleman who takes most of the profit through the tour company.
After being treated like sheep getting herded around by a dog in Halong Bay we had enough with organized tours. They may be right for some people, but not us. We had a hard time doing last minute research on how to book Sapa independently. Luckily, we went with our instinct and decided to wing it. We ended up having the greatest time and meeting some of the most wonderful people through our homestay in Sapa.
Below we are going to break down how to book Sapa independently as opposed to a tour. We will explain why it is beneficial in more depth for the locals to book independently below after the steps.
Full Disclaimer: In no way shape or form are we profiting off recommending our readers to a local family in Sapa. This is just a referral from our own personal experiences as well as the numerous positive experiences our readers have had after sending to our host family in Sapa. The only monetization happening on this page would be from the ads.
Get to Sapa Via Bus
Most people will be coming from Hanoi, this is where we came from. It’s easy to find transportation options to Sapa as this is one of the heavily promoted and popular trips people take in the north. Don’t be tempted to buy a Sapa tour quite yet, get through this post first and decide if you want to buy an organized tour. We recommend booking Sapa independently and finding your own transportation there.
This is up to you but, we chose to get to Sapa on a bus over train because the bus will take you directly to where you need to be in Sapa to start your trek. The train will take you to Lao Cai, which is another hour bus ride from Sapa. You can easily book a bus ticket through your guesthouse like we did, or book at the bus station.
Not to mention, there are many train accidents in Vietnam. I don’t want to be a fear monger but this happened to our friends who have luckily left the train incident on their way to Sapa unharmed. Not to mention, there are numerous scams at this train station for people seeking a bus to Sapa. If you do opt to do the train, when you get to Lao Cai your bus ticket into Sapa shouldn’t be much more than around $5.
If you take the night bus, the bus may arrive at 4 am, but the driver will let you sleep on the bus until 6 am.
Find out more tips on how to get to Sapa from Hanoi.
To Hike or Not To Hike on your first day
The next step to booking Sapa independently is to make a decision on how to spend your first day. Chances are if you came in on an overnight bus you’ll be exhausted. We didn’t get the best sleep on our night bus, we had the misfortune of having a very terribly behaving tourist on our bus that kept the entire bus up all night fighting with his girlfriend and treating her poorly.
Come on bro.
Anyway, this probably won’t happen to you but you will want to consider scheduling an extra day so you can rest up for one night in Sapa, by the way Sapa’s town center is also a great place to spend a day. There are plenty of shops, markets, and great restaurants to check out and rest up before you start your trek.
We realize many people will be on a time crunch, in that case you can start trekking right away and sleep like a baby that night. If you have the flexibility and you came in on the night bus, we recommend spending one day in Sapa before leaving for your trek so you can fully enjoy your time in this unbelievable place.
Get your trekking guide and host
This is why we recommend opting out of doing an organized Sapa tour. You’ll notice as soon as you get off the bus that there are tons of different tribes here with the most popular being the Black Hmong and Red Dao ladies who are ready to try and get you to join them at their home for trekking and a homestay in their local village.
These ladies are legit. I know this goes against everything you’ve been trained in your life, not to go home with a stranger and being associated with a tour company seems more legitimate, but that’s not the case here. Thankfully we were given this advice before our visit and followed it. We are so happy we did it this way.
We actually went with the first two women, Bau and Vang, who approached us off the bus. Some of the women will have broken English but they are able to communicate enough and you’re helping them practice their English.
Since we wanted to stay the night in Sapa to catch our sleep, Bau helped us find a local hotel to spend the night in for a whopping $8 a night (it was really nice) and arrange a meeting place the next day where her husband would come via motorbike to pick up our big bag so we only had to hike with our day packs.
You will stay and live with this family for the duration of your stay. They will take great care of you and it’s not only alot less expensive than an organized tour but you’re giving the money from your experience directly to your host family.
Start Trekking SapaNow let the fun begin! We were taken to the village we will call home for the next two nights by foot. It was breathtakingly beautiful and totally worth it. You will be trekking through the sweeping landscape of mountains and rice terraces.
You will see some tourists this day doing single day treks, but as you get closer to the village you are staying in you see less and less people. Your guide looks after you, is very patient for those who like to take photos, and it was great because it was just the two of us and her.
You will be in your guides’ care until they bring you back to Sapa at the end of your stay. Our guides even helped us book our bus ticket back to Hanoi and gave us a parting gift and a warm hug goodbye. It was sad to leave!
We actually are still in touch with our tour guide to this day. She is such a wonderful human being and are so grateful to have met her through this experience.
Why you should NOT do a homestay through a tour company
The tour companies will tell you the local ladies that offer homestay do not have a license to have people stay at their house. Sure, this is true but you have to understand there’s a bit of corruption going on here. This is just a way for tour companies to get a cut of the local tribe people’s money, and they take a majority of it even though they aren’t doing the trekking, cooking, or giving up a bed in their home.
It’s actually quite sad and while there seems to be a few legitimate companies to go through that try to help the local women run a successful business I would still opt to book on my own so that ALL the proceeds go to the family and not some middle man.
By going with an independent woman you will be helping her provide for her family and often times you’ll go to a local village that isn’t on the regular day circuit for the hoards of visitors and avoid the crowds.
How to Pick Your Guide
I realize that this might sound risky or scary to go with a stranger you don’t know. I get that, we had similar feelings until we talked to multiple people we met on our travels who did the same thing and were in good hands.
If you don’t feel comfortable going with someone you just met in downtown Sapa we recommend reaching out to who we used as she is legit and we have sent dozens of people to her since our visit who have all had a wonderful experience. She was also training another girl during our visit and we spent a day with her family too, she’s also someone I trust and recommend.
We also have a secondary woman that some of our best friends used as well.
Word of mouth is the best way to get a Sapa homestay host that you can trust and use.
If you want to use our guide please send us an email at hello[at]boboandchichi.com or message us on Instagram or Facebook (@boboandchichi)
The reason why we don’t share her number publicly is because of the rampant scams by the tour companies. They will actually go after families who are doing this independently and try to force guests to go through a tour company. They bully the local women and try to get them to work through them like pimps who take a huge cut of their earnings and income instead of letting these women be independent entrepreneurs.
Because of the popularity of this article we’ve actually been approached by suspicious people wanting our guide’s contact information to which I wouldn’t provide it. I know they are trying to hurt her business and income. It’s really sad.
JUST ANOTHER REASON TO AVOID TOUR COMPANIES.
These tour companies really are shady. There are also whispers that the foreign man who helped start Sapa Sisters, one of the more ethically run tour companies in the area, who’s death was sudden and abrupt was tied to local foul play because there were some unhappy people who didn’t like someone shaking up the way business was done here.
UPDATE SEPT 2019: We have been made aware by our guide from our Sapa trek and now friend that tour companies have actually gone to extreme lengths to trick people into not going with her.
If we provide our guide’s number please ONLY follow instructions from her when you communicate via WhatsApp. Apparently we have sent some of our readers to her recently (we have sent MANY over the years without any problems) and now there are people going to extreme lengths to steal her business by showing a photo of her and stealing her bookings right from under her.
There are some terrible people out there trying to steal her and other local tribal women’s business. This is nothing to be scared of but to be aware of so it doesn’t happen to you. When you reach out, I will give some instruction on how to avoid this.
Is a homestay right for you?
This is the last thing you need to consider before booking a Sapa trek and homestay for yourself. This is something you need to seriously consider before doing a homestay. Ask yourself these questions. (This may seem obvious to some but you’d be surprised that some people are expecting a little more glamorous of an experience)
Can I trek for 4-5 hours a day straight? (some hills, but not difficult trekking)
Can I use a squat toilet with a bucket of water to flush the waste? (they do not have western plumbing)
Can I bathe using a bucket of water?
Do I have dietary restrictions and will I eat the food they prepare for me? (by the way our meals were delicious – if you have dietary restrictions you need to come prepared)
Can I sleep in basic accommodation?
*the entire family lives and sleeps in very small houses with no running water and maybe one light. This is their way of life and you’re a guest in their home. You will need to be able to adapt.
*Your bed will most likely be in an open area of the house
These are things you should be aware of before booking your Sapa homestay and Sapa trekking experience. You are living how they live. If you’re wanting a hot shower every night and a menu to pick the food you eat you will be better in a hotel in Sapa and organizing single day treks. (You also can book single day treks with the local ladies in town instead of booking through a tour company)
We loved our experience and wanted to stay longer than two nights! Our hosts showed us around their towns, introduced us to their friends and families, and made us feel like we were a part of their family for the three days we spent with them.
This had to be one of our favorite experiences thus far. Feel free to send us any questions you may have.
If you would like to use the same guides as us, please message us and we will give your information. The tour companies get very angry when they lose money being the middle man, so to protect the privacy of our guide we will not post their numbers online.
By hosting homestays independently, these women are empowered to run their own business without someone taking a huge cut of their income so they can feed and provide for their families and local community. Like many countries, ethnic or tribal communities are not treated fairly or equally and are often discriminated against.
We don’t want to preach to you how to spend your holiday, but we urge you to do your research before booking your Sapa homestay to ensure you’re tourist dollars are going to where they should go.
Don’t just take our word for it, we referred Paula to our guide and this is her experience and guide on how to plan an ethical visit to Sapa.
This report covers the violations in rights and atrocities that ethnic minorities face in Vietnam including the Hmong tribes.
Also, this piece explores the different cultures and traditions of the different tribes around the Sapa area.