We awoke from a loud clanking of the railway tracks, our train speeding fast past lush green landscape.
“Arriving in 5 mins.” A woman’s head appeared in the door.
Half-asleep, we climbed out of our bunk beds, brushed our teeth, and grabbed our backpacks as the train pulled into the station.
Despite the early morning arrival (it was barely 6am), Ha, the receptionist at the “Heart of Sapa” hotel greeted us with the utmost hospitality.
“Please make yourself at home.” Ha gestured towards a small dining room at the back of the reception. “We are preparing your room, it will be ready shortly. You can take some breakfast now, then have some rest and still have a full day to enjoy the beauty of Sapa.”
It sounded like the perfect way to begin our 3 days in Sapa.
Day 1: Chasing Waterfalls and Scenic Lookouts
A few hours of sleep was all we needed, as our sense of adventure and desire to explore made us itchy to get out of our room. With Ha’s help (and the help of an opportunistic neighbour), our wheels and the accompanying helmets awaited us outside the hotel, and we were ready to get started on a full three-day Sapa itinerary.
We never had to wonder what to do in Sapa, Vietnam, as Ha mapped out a perfect afternoon of adventure for us, including a visit to two waterfalls and time to explore the beautiful scenery of the Sapa Valley. If you want a more structured Sapa itinerary, there are great private treks and tours such as this one that takes you on a day trip to hike to the waterfalls in the Sapa, Vietnam area.
The wind tousled our hair as we zoomed past the traffic and never-ending construction of Sapa town. Our first stop, the Silver Waterfall, was located just 12 kms (7.5 miles) outside of Sapa town. The waterfall was seen from the road, but we took the time to hike up the stairs to the top.
Our second stop that day was the Love Waterfall, located a few kms from the Silver Waterfall. Unlike the Silver Waterfall, Love Waterfall wasn’t located near the road and required an additional 15-20 mins hike through a lovely forest to reach the base. We hung out at the waterfall for a while, enjoying nature and the peaceful surroundings.
On the way back to Sapa, we made a point to stop along the road to enjoy the scenic views of the rice paddies below. Staring at these vistas were one of the best things to do in Sapa. The best views were, of course, reserved for those who wanted to take the time to go to the top of Mt. Fansipan.
On foot, this journey would take a few days, but luckily a new cable car system now allows visitors to reach the top in just 15 minutes, making this a perfect activity to combine with a visit to the falls, if you’re feeling lost for things to do in Sapa.
Day 2: Trekking to Hmong Village of Ta Van
When researching what to do in Sapa, Vietnam, we knew we wanted to do a multi-day trek and Sapa homestay. On the second morning of our 3 days in Sapa, we met a local Hmong woman, Vahn, who would be our guide and our Sapa homestay host for the next 2 days, and help us learn more about her culture and the Sapa region.
Her traditional clothing, a pair of black long shorts, a simple button-down shirt and tennis shoes made us wonder how well equipped she was for our 2 days of hiking. We started our Sapa trekking just outside of town, making our way down the muddy trail into the rice paddies. We crossed rivers, passed by water buffaloes, and despite our expectations, came across no more than 5 other tourists along the way.
The trek was long (we walked close to 20km that day), although not very difficult, with an occasional steep muddy patch. Along the way, Vanh shared stories about herself, her family, and her upbringing in the Hmong community, drawing us into her life story one detail at a time.
By the time we arrived at her mother’s home in Ta Van, we felt like we knew her whole family, which enriched our Sapa homestay experience. Her mother was a weaver and an artist, known in the local community for her beautiful hemp textiles.
Her weaving and painting studio, which also served as a classroom and a shop, was located next to the main house. The door is always open to tour groups or individual travelers looking to learn more about the Hmong textile traditions, which could likely fill a Sapa blog all on its own.
Vanh’s family welcomed us into their home and put on a beautiful dinner spread to show us the best of the local cooking. Our attempts to help with the cooking were brushed off with a chuckle.
“Do you eat like this every day?” we asked Vanh, amazed at the variety of dishes in front of us. It was a picture-perfect, Insta-worthy spread for our Sapa travel blog.
“No,” she laughed, “only when we have guests.”
A part of us was happy that our Sapa homestay (and the financial benefit that came with it) allowed this family to enjoy a fancier meal than usual. The other part felt a tad bit guilty for adding extra work to their already busy day.
While they definitely put some effort into the meal, we were happy that they didn’t put on a show or change their daily behaviour to accommodate for our visit, as our intention behind doing a Sapa homestay was to truly see what their lives were like and experience an in-depth cultural exchange. After dinner, the family sat in front of the TV, watching kids cartoons while husking corn.
Day 3: From Ta Van to Su Pan to Sapa
After spending the night at Vanh family’s homestay, on day 3 of our 3 days in Sapa we continued our Sapa trekking in the countryside. The plan was to trek another 10-15kms away from Sapa, passing through more Hmong villages along the way. The rain hit hard in the morning, but we decided to push on to make the most of our last day in Sapa, Vietnam.
Vanh offered us a choice of two trails – a muddy one over the mountains, or the paved one used by motorcycles and locals to get from one village to the other. We appreciated the choice, given the weather, and opted for a better road that passes through villages along the way.
The views that day were especially beautiful, dotted with pockets of daily life. We wished we had more time to explore the area, but our time in the Sapa, Vietnam region was coming to an end.
After a simple but tasty lunch in Su Pan village, we grabbed a motorcycle ride back to Sapa, where we packed our bags and caught a minibus back to the train station for our overnight train to Hanoi.
Check out our video for more highlights from our trek in Sapa…
Are 3 Days Enough?
3 days felt like the perfect amount of time to spend in Sapa Vietnam. Even though we stayed in a different accommodation every night and spent a lot of time hiking, we didn’t feel rushed. Sapa trekking with Vanh gave us ample opportunity to learn about the region and about the community, and get a chance to interact with them in their traditional environments.
Vanh mentioned that if we had more time, we could have continued our trek further, passing through villages of other ethnic groups in the area, including the Dzao and the Tay. Her guided Sapa trekking options range from 2 days to 7 days in the region, offering something for every type of traveler visiting Sapa, Vietnam.
Even though three days was perfect for us, it seems as though you could spend weeks exploring all the things to do in Sapa. If you’re still wondering how many days in Sapa is enough, consider how explorative you’re feeling.
Essential Travel Info for Sapa Vietnam
An overnight train is the easiest way of getting from Hanoi to Sapa. The train runs from Hanoi to Lao Cai. Tickets cost just $17 and can be purchased online. You’ll get an email confirmation, which you can use to board the train (no printed tickets needed).
The train was comfortable, clean, and a great eco-friendly way to get from Hanoi to Lao Cai. From Lao Cai, minivans were available to take travelers to Sapa town.
Where to Stay in Sapa, Vietnam
There are lots of guesthouse options in Sapa and while none really follow the eco-hotel principles, many are locally owned. We stayed at the Heart of Sapa hotel, a small guesthouse on the southern side of town, and absolutely loved our stay. Our host, Ha, was instrumental in helping us plan out things to do in Sapa.
Organizing a Trek in Sapa Vietnam
Lots of agencies and providers offer planned Sapa trekking itineraries. Many offer trips from Hanoi, which includes a train ticket in the price, and many organize treks in town, such as this two day Sapa trekking tour.
No matter who you choose to trek with, ensure that your guide comes from a local community (as for many of them, guiding treks is the only source of income) and that the cut of the profits they receive from the company is fair and reasonable. We heard that Sapa Sisters is a good option.
We bypassed a company and organized our Sapa trekking directly with a freelance guide, ensuring that all of our money goes straight into her pocket and into the pockets of her family who hosted us in Ta Van overnight. Vanh mentioned that she sometimes freelances for other companies, but she always prefers independent treks, as this allows her to earn double the amount that she would when guiding for another company.