Why Go to Sapa
Sapa is the favorite destination in Vietnam for those interested in trekking, homestays and the culture of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. Established as a French hill station in the 1920’s, Sapa boasts incredible views of steep valleys lined with terraced rice paddies and on a clear day one can see the country’s highest peak - Fansipan. There are numerous trekking tours based out of Sapa with many including homestays at the local ethnic groups. Travelers can also visit the colorful Bac Ha market and browse the beautiful embroidered goods of the tribes from the surrounding hills that converge here on the weekends. Don’t forget to bring a good jacket as during the winter months this is one of the coldest places in Vietnam and recently has even been known to experience snowfall.
From Hanoi to Sapa
There is currently no airport in the region so travelers make the journey from Hanoi to Sapa via train or bus. It has long been one of the most popular overnight trains in the country with a number of more luxurious private train cars offering travelers varying degrees of comfort and relaxation on the night train. The train comes to a stop at Lao Cai station, about 35km from Sapa Town and there is no shortage of transportation options to transfer between the two.
From Hanoi to Sapa by Train
Hanoi to Sapa is the most popular and unique train route in Vietnam as it is serviced not only by Vietnam National Railways but also by more than a half dozen private train operators of varying degrees of comfort. Some are simply a cleaner, calmer and more relaxing way to spend the night traveling from Hanoi to Sapa while others are surprisingly luxurious and offer amenities you would not expect to find in a developing country. The level of comfort is reflected in their prices and most travelers say that the cost is certainly worth arriving in Sapa relaxed, well-rested and ready to explore the countryside. Vietnam railways has soft berths with 4 beds per cabin for USD$19. Prices on the private railways vary from $33.75 for VIP Sleeper cabins with 4 berths to $86.85 for VIP Sleeper cabins with 2 berths. All private trains will provide you snacks, drinks and a much softer bed to sleep in. They will also have wine, beer and meals available for purchase which are of a higher quality than the standard Vietnam Railways fare. The most luxurious for traveling from Hanoi to Sapa is Victoria Express which has a private lounge at the Hanoi railway station and their train cars include a bar, dinning room and library.
Trains from Hanoi to Sapa depart from the Tran Quy Cap street entrance to the Hanoi railway station, it should be noted that this is not the main entrance on Le Duan street. Passengers with the private railways to Sapa will need to exchange their vouchers for actual tickets at the respective company offices which open 1-2 hours before departure. Your voucher will give directions to the office which will be either in the Hanoi train station or across the street nearby. The majority of your fellow passengers will also be exchanging tickets and staff members at the station or other ticket booths should be able to point you in the right direction. English language skills may be very basic so remember to speak slowly, smile often and you will find the proper counter.
Departure times for the night train from Hanoi to Sapa are 9:40 and 10:00pm. All private train cars are attached to normal Vietnam National Railways trains and run on the same schedule which gives them arrival times of 5:35 and 6:20am respectively. There is a third train from Hanoi to Sapa that departs at 6:10am and arrives at 3:45pm. This train offers only a few dozen soft seats and the rest are hard wooden bench style seats which are quite uncomfortable for journeys of any length.
The train station is in the town of Lao Cai, about one hour outside of Sapa. Options for this transfer to Sapa include taxi, public shuttle and private charter. Shortly before arrival a woman will walk through the train offering to sell you tickets for the public shuttle to Sapa. Prices will vary widely from under $5 to more than $15. We can never advise to buy a ticket before actually seeing the vehicle for this sort of thing but there have not been many reports of scams at Lao Cai station. Should you choose this mode of transport be prepared for the shuttle to be overcrowded and driving to be a little too fast for the very winding roads. Another option is the regular taxi, be ready to share this with as many passengers as can fit for between $20-$30. The easiest way is to hire a private charter van or car to Sapa which can be arranged for at around $35-$50 depending on the number of passengers
From Hanoi to Sapa by Bus
A number of bus companies operate bus services from Hanoi to Sapa. Most will either depart or offer to pick you up from the Old Quarter and around Hoan Kiem Lake and will drop you off in Sapa Town but exact locations will vary. The trip should last about 6 hours, departing in either early morning or late night. There are no bathrooms on the busses but most will make one quick rest stop during the trip from Hanoi to Sapa.
From Dien Bien Phu to Sapa by Bus
Going from Dien Bien Phu to Sapa there are several small companies offering minivan and bus services. The journey to Sapa on the winding and less than perfect road lasts about 10 hours and should cost under $10. Enquire at your hotel for booking.
Where to Stay in Sapa
Your choices for lodging in Sapa can generally be split into two categories - hotels and homestays. Hotels range between cheap affairs aimed at budget local tourists for around $5 per night to luxury hotel and spas that can cost hundreds of dollars. Sapa itself is quite small with only a few main roads so there is really no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ area to stay. New hotels are popping up every year and these are usually the ones which can be counted on to have fully functioning amenities.
Homestays in Sapa and the surrounding communities are popular among travelers looking for a more unique experience. Some feel like real family homes while many more closely resemble a youth hostel in which you sleep on a thin mat on the floor and go without luxuries such as heat and running water. Usually locally cooked meals are included with the homestay but you should ask ahead if you want truly authentic food otherwise you will end up with toast and eggs for breakfast.
Things to Do in Sapa
Trekking around the trails around Sapa can be a great way to experience both the scenery and culture. You should hire a guide through your hotel and many trekking tours in Sapa include a one night homestay. Most guides are local women and don’t be surprised when you struggle to keep up as you traverse the slippery paths. Your guide may be sporting homemade flip flops, but sturdy footwear is recommended. More serious hikers may want to try to climb up to the peak of Fansipan - Vietnam’s tallest mountain. A guide is required for this and authorities control entrance to the route.
Independent travellers may want to rent a bike and explore the towns and trails near Sapa on their own. Motorcycles can be rented from your hotel and the tourist information center in the middle of Sapa has good maps. Many towns have pay stations where you can park your bike and head off on the local trails. During the high season you certainly won’t be alone and there will be plenty of people around to guide you should you need directions.
On Sundays, the nearby Bac Ha market has a great selection of local arts and crafts as ethnic groups from the surrounding area converge for the day. The most colorful group is known as the Flower H’moung who get their name from the many layers of colorful clothing they wear. The market is best known for traditional embroidery which makes for a great souvenir.
Other activities include cooking classes to learn local H’moung dishes, tours to the nearby waterfall known as Heaven’s Gate and paddle boating around Sapa lake. Tourism is the main focus of Sapa so you will have no problem arranging any activity from even the most basic guesthouse or cafe and you may even be surprised by the level of English spoken by most people as it is much higher than average for the country.
Onward Travel from Sapa
Trains from Sapa to Hanoi depart from Lao Cai station at 8:35 and 9:10pm and will cost the same. For those wishing to travel to Laos you may arrange for a minivan or bus to first take you to Dien Bien Phu (10 hours) and then onward to Laos. We would recommend taking the morning bus from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu, enjoying an evening in there and then continuing on in the morning. This may be preferable to taking an overnight bus from Sapa as the road is not very good and you will not get much sleep. Tickets for the entire journey should be purchased jointly at your guesthouse and please remember to get a receipt.