Trekking Sapa, Vietnam in Winter (Jan 2018) – Part 1

Sapa. Honestly, I’ve never heard of the place until my friends suggested to travel there so I really don’t know much about the place. But many of my other friends seem to know and want to visit Sapa so I thought it’d be good to have one post about my 2-day trekking at Sapa. Especially because there’s not much info about trekking Sapa in winter on blogs.

This is Sapa in all its glory. This is NOT Sapa in Winter. You’d see what I saw when I trekked on 27 Jan 2018 in the rest of this post.

Firstly, my friends booked a 4-day tour online that included a return transportation from Hanoi to Sapa and Halong Bay.

Here’s our tour itinerary:

  • Night 0: Overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Chai + 1-hour bus to Sapa
  • Day 1: 12km trekking in Sapa + overnight at hotel
  • Day 2: 5km trekking in Sapa + 1-hour bus to Lao Chai + overnight train from Lao Chai to Hanoi
  • Day 3: 3.5-hour bus from Hanoi to Halong Bay + activity + overnight on cruise
  • Day 4: Activity + 3.5-hour bus from Halong Bay to Hanoi

This post will talk about Night 0 and Day 1.

Night 0: Overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Chai + 1-hour bus to Sapa

Our tour agent picked us up from our hotel in Hanoi at about 8pm. Shortly after we arrived at the train station in Hanoi, we boarded our sleeper train! I’ve been a fan of sleeper train since my first ride in Malaysia years back so I was excited for this one.

Orient express Hanoi train station
Our tour agent for this leg of the tour! Basically, he picked us up from the hotel and sent us to the train. Literally because he pretended to be a passenger (carrying an extra ticket) and walked us to our cabin. 👏 We never saw him for the rest of the trip already.

Orient Express (or Oriental Express or Oriental Impress on different collateral) looked like an old metal train. Cool~ The interior was wooden and reminded me of Murder on the Orient Express. Creepy but cool~

Orient express train to sapa vietnam
My mind went “Murder from the Orient Express” every time I see this aisle and how tiny it is. There’s attendant working on the aisle too but dressed not so glamorously and made free instant coffee and tea in a basket. Haha.

There were 5 of us travelling together but the biggest room they had on board could fit 4 only. Thus we got 1 additional bed in a separate room which shares with strangers. I wonder if the single bed bookings are gender-specific. We wanted to send RK to sleep with strangers but 2 girls were sharing the room so Mab took the single bed instead.

orient express train sapa
One window to one room. 4 beds in 1 room. The two upper beds can be folded up to fit only 2 persons in 1 room.
sapa train snacks and water
We got bananas, biscuits and bottled water for our ride/stay. RK and I loved the biscuits; took them all and ate them throughout our trip in Vietnam.

There’s toilet on board but you can bet it’s pretty stinky. We decided to go to bed in whatever we were wearing, right after the train started moving because (as I like to describe sleeper train) it’s like a rocking bed. The beds, especially the upper decks, shook the entire night.

It’s never more comfortable than a hotel sleep but I’d take this anytime vs a 5-hour bus ride. I feel that sleeper train is safer, saves time (travelling while you sleep), saves money (save 1 night at hotel) and is more comfortable than sitting in bus for 5 hours.

We arrived at Lao Chai at about 5am. The train attendants went knocking at every door 30 min before arrival so don’t worry about missing the stop. Plus, Lao Chai is the last of 5 stops for this train.

It was 21°C when we left Hanoi. Lao Chai was just slightly colder at 19°C, much warmer than expected. I have been checking the weather regularly way before we travelled to Vietnam because it was my first Winter experience. I’ve quickly learned that the temperature fluctuates too much in Winter and weather forecast changes by the hour.

We hopped into a van that took us through the misty weather across the hilly roads to arrive at Sapa 1 hour later. I slept for most part of the ride so I can’t say much about the journey but it was an introduction to the misty Sapa.

Day 1: 12km trekking in Sapa + overnight at hotel

Sapa was 16°C when we arrived! We were brought to our hotel, Paranoma Hotel, for a hot shower at the waiting room. Interesting. We had not checked in yet so we had no hotel room to use. However, there’s a well-equipped area in the hotel, called the waiting room, where travellers like us could freshen up. Hot shower, towel, toiletries, hair dryer, luggage storage.

I was contemplating to take a shower in the cold weather (don’t judge me) but the comfortable facilities and my dirty oil hair (no thanks, Hanoi) changed my mind.

boots rental sapa trekking
Say YAY to boots rental! It was only VND30k per day (about USD1.32) so it was definitely a great deal. Saved my sneakers from the unruly mud of Sapa terrain.
panaroma hotel sapa view
Check out the mist amongst the trees at the back! My eyes brightened when I saw this moment. The mist moved fast so the scenery pretty much changed by the seconds.

We took our little day pack and proceeded to the dining hall for breakfast provided by the hotel. Then we were joined by 2 other travellers for our 12km trek.

Actually, a whole bunch of local women dressed in traditional costumes followed us during the entire trek from the town till our lunch place; about 7km in distance. Firstly, they can speak English. We didn’t know until one of them chatted with me a few km into our trail. Secondly, they were tagging along and helping us throughout the way so that they could sell us things when we arrived at lunch place. Omg. That’s too much effort for non guaranteed sale because we didn’t buy anything from them. ☹️ Well, they told me they were going the same way as us to go to work… Ok. My bad I know. God bless them.

Back to the trekking, it was more difficult than expected. More difficult because I thought we’d stay on paved trails. We were walking on the rice terrace like nobody’s business. We were going up and down the slippery slopes, which was scary. I was super glad that we rented rubber boots from the hotel because no way I’d step into mud in my own shoes… 😣 Imagine having to pull my boot out from the mud while standing next to the cliff. 😵 As a backup, we’d even looked up on some Running Shoes Under $50 and had bought a pair. The trail wasn’t really challenging in overall; just these few portions of scary trails that made me afraid and made my weak abdomen muscle ache. In fact, I injured my worn abdomen muscle the day after our trekking.

walk in mist
Whoaaa. Bad visibility from the start. Funnily, our hair got wet from walking in the mist. Even our eyelashes were wet.
sapa trekking downhill
Thankfully we were going downhill more than uphill so it was less tiring. But it was terrain like this that needed me to engage my core muscles and injuring them along the way.
local sapa on rice terrace trekking
The local people who followed us during our trek. In this photo, we were stepping on the bare rice terrace. Certain rice terraces had wet and soft mud so we had to walk on the little trail next to the rice terrace. Tested my balancing skills.
sapa trekking terrain difficulty
Beautiful bamboo along this downhill trail. And the huge group of local people who trekked with us…

On top of that, we were trekking pretty fast for a sightseeing trek. Midway through the trek, I knew I’d take so much longer to walk the same trail without a tour guide because I’d stop a lot to wander and take photos. But with the tour guide walking pretty fast in front, I felt I was chasing him even though I didn’t even stop for photos or sightseeing.

sapa trekking in winter weather
Can barely see the people 10m in front of us. Can’t see the terrain too so just walk~~~

At that speed of walking, it was definitely a blessing in disguise that it was so misty in Sapa during winter. Based on the terrain we trekked and the photos that I saw of the hilly rice terraces, Sapa during harvest season would 100% be amazingly stunning. I imagine myself stopping at every 50 steps for photos without the mist.

heavy mist in sapa
Oh look! There’s nothing to see but mist!

We trekked through 3 villages on the first day. The first village was very sparse. It didn’t even look like a village to me. 😂 The houses were far apart and the hills were distant from one another. I guess that’s where most of the best panaromic views of Sapa can be seen. However, the trek during this portion was also the toughest, considering the slippery and muddy trails and rice terraces we had to go through.

sapa scenery mist
This photo was taken seconds after our tour guide suddenly shouted, “photo!” He described the moment as magic because the thick mist was blown away for a couple of seconds.
And by the time we gathered for a wefie, the mist was back… 🤣
sapa paddy winter season
Our second “magic” moment and my best shot of Sapa rice terrace during this entire trip. The mist covered the top half of the view but oh well. Good enough! Imagine the hills during harvest season~~

trekking attire sapa winter
The trekking increased my heart rate and body temperature so I ended up removing my jacket and scarf during this leg of the trek. I put it back on during easier trail.
sapa village bridge misty
I felt like I was walking into another world at the end of this misty bridge. Actually, there was a beautiful stream between rows of rice terrace hills underneath the bridge. As usual, we spotted buffalos and black pigs on the rice terraces too.
winter football
Feeling cold? Football seems to be the genius solution to quickly warm up. Especially when they had fake grass to stay dry during winter.

The second village was my favourite because it looked more like a village? LOL. The indigenous people still resided on the hill but they had paved trails and we could walk through and by the rice terraces properly. I was telling the tour guide I found this village more scenic, perhaps because I wasn’t looking on the ground to watch the mud anymore. It was still misty regardless. But with more dense civilization, there were more things to see. Buffalos, chickens, ducks, black pigs, fresh animal waste, houses, abandoned tombs, indigo flowers, villagers, naked babies.

sapa trek lunch
Lunch break! Simple homecooked meal at an eatery.
sapa trek village souvenir
Passed by a few shops for local products and handicrafts but did not stop to shop as shopping was not in the tour itinerary? LOL. I don’t know but we didn’t get any shopping break.
river sapa trekking
Moss moss everywhere. Spot the 2 ladies picking stuff from the water.
sapa rice terrace children
Kids were playing spin top by the rice terrace and dropped it into the water. He nonchalantly dipped his hand in the water to pick it up.
sapa village calf buffalo
Our tour guide was a full-time farmer (like most people here) before he became a tour guide so he was familiar and comfortable with animal. He told us how the villagers raised calfs like this.
sapa rice terrace in winter
Imagine walking here during harvest season. 😍
sapa rice terrace winter
So beautiful during harvest season. I can imagine spending so much time taking photos here.

The third village was tourist friendly. The roads were wide enough for cars. There were a lot of homestays. In fact, we visited one of the first homestays in that village and had a tea break with the host. It was a really simple wooden house with 20 mattresses laid on the upper deck of the house. The host had over friendly dogs. One of them kept going around, sniffing and jumping onto us. The dog probably loved our tour guide because it went off with us for at least 500m across the village when we left.

In this third village, we walked past many homestays, one scenic resort and one riverside accommodation. There were simple pubs and cafes as well. I thought it’d be so relaxing to stay a night here but we opted for hotel stay already so a car picked us up after the 12km trek.

river sapa village winter
Would be nice to jump into the stream for a dip when the weather is warm.
building house sapa village
During the entire trek, we mostly saw women at work. I think this was the rare time we saw men building a house. Spot the manual pulley.

It was about 3pm when we were done. We started at 9am so it was a 7-hour trekking including 1-hour lunch break. My feet were quite sore from walking on paved roads in rubber boots as the sole was quite thin. I suggest inserting your own shoe sole in the shoes for added cushion.

The traffic was slightly busy in the town, which was where our hotel was located because everyone was out watching the football final between Vietnam and China.

It was about 3.30pm when we finally arrived at our hotel to check in to our rooms. I have to say that our room was very comfortable. It was spacious. It had all the amenities needed.

We rested until 5pm then explored the town area. It had a little park in between two long rows of shops, mainly occupied by restaurants, cafes and bars. Then there was a church and Sapa Square nearby where most people were gathered for the love football match. We visited a small souvenir market and then another two long rows of shops, mainly occupied by restaurants, made-in-Vietnam “branded” retail and souvenir shops.

The tour covered our dinner as well so we went back to the hotel for a scrumptious seafood steamboat. It was a good weather to eat steamboat.

Mab wanted to go for a massage so we booked massage services at our hotel. They catered the masseurs from the massage place next door. RK thought it was one of the most cincai (simple) massages he ever had so he wasn’t satisfied. I thought it was the best massage I ever had because they didn’t torture make me scream or giggle much with their relatively soft touches. Haha. I’m clearly not a fan of proper massage.

foot bath sapa
The rubber boots were amazing on rough terrain but on paved roads, the thin soles definitely made me felt like I was almost barefoot.

Anyway, we decided to spend our only late night in Sapa with some drinks. We walked down to a pretty cafe very near our hotel for some weird drinks; one of them being hot wine. LOL. Wrote about it in Best of Hanoi Trip.

The night ended at about 11pm. Oh I slept so tight that night thanks to the long trek…

Shall continue Part 2 of trekking at Sapa another day because there’s so much to talk about!

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