The Sapa region in North-West Vietnam is one of the most popular tourist destinations. It is located in the mountains of Lao Cai Province, close to China, about 300 kilometers from Hanoi. It is not hard to see why Sapa Regin is such a popular tourist spot. It has the iconic terrace rice paddies, magnificent views, great hiking trecks and it’s home to the highest mountain in Vietnam and the entire Indochina Peninsula – Fansipan.
How to get to Sapa
There are many ways to get to Sapa from Hanoi. A train and a bus would be the most popular form of transport. A train will get you to Lao Cai, which is about 35km from Sapa. From there a bus to the town is another 70 minutes drive. I took a small bus from Hanoi. They call it a Limousine, but it’s a large, 9 seater van with very comfortable seats. There is also a regular, full size bus that goes to Sapa. The cost of the normal bus is about 250k vnd and the limousine was 380k. I chose the limousine because of the comfortable seats, but also because they pick their guests up from major hotels in Hanoi and drive them directly to their hotel in Sapa. I found out that this was only half-true. They did drop me off at my hotel in Sapa, but in Hanoi, I had to get to a central pick-up point as they didn’t want to waste that much time in heavy traffic. That was their excuse at least.
I would be hesitant to take a bus if I went there again. The road itself was actually very good. It’s a highway almost all the way, but the driving was very unpleasant. I understand that the driver wanted to make good time, but he drove very dangerously. Overtaking other vehicles at every opportunity, whether there was actually room for it or not and driving way over the speed limit. I don’t mind flaunting traffic laws on a scooter in Hanoi at 20km an hour. But doing it on a bus with 9 passengers at 150km an hour is another thing.
A little tip for the drive up there. If you can book a seat on the bus, make sure you get a seat up front. The road between Lao Cai and Sapa may only be 35 km, but it’s winding and very steep, and most people at the back of the bus threw up. So be warned, or go on an empty stomach.
The best and cheapest option to get and see Sapa is to book a tour from Hanoi. The competition for the tourist dollar is fierce and a 2 day, 1 night trip with transport would cost about 2 Million Dong. Bargain. The bus leaves Hanoi late on the first day and arrives in Sapa at 6am. There is hiking all day and sleeping in an authentic village hut. Then hiking some more the next day until a bus takes you back to Hanoi at around 3pm. If you fancy visiting Fansipan (see what I did :)), there is another bus available 4 hours later. We found a very good travel agent in Hanoi. It’s called Green Viet Travel. Very happy with their services. and they have 5* rating on TripAdviser too.
Where to stay in Sapa
I booked a hotel called Saparis. It was 800k a night for a decent size room and it had a great view of the city and the mountains behind. It was also only a short distance from the city center. The great view was a bonus, but it also meant that the hotel was located very high over the city. I had to walk about 200 steep steps every time I wanted to go to the city. But they had a good massage place halfway up, so I wasn’t too bad, and I used their services twice.. 🙂
Hotels in the center of the town would be a much better choice if you can’t or don’t want to climb stairs every day.
What to do in Sapa
Hiking. Definitely a good option and many tours of Sapa are organised with hikers in mind. it may be the second-best way to see Sapa and all the little villages around the town. There are 3 villages around Sapa that the local tour guides will take you to. Cat Cat, Lao Chai, and Ta Van. I think it’s about 15 kilometers of walking among some of the most picturesque valleys and hills I’ve ever seen. The hiking normally starts in Cat Cat and goes to Ta Van, where a bus will take tourists back to their hotels in Sapa.
Hiking is the second-best way of seeing Sapa Villages because the best way, for me at least, was on a motorbike. I hired a bike from the hotel. Most hotels will have that option. It was d160k for a day and it was well worth it. The roads there are not what we call roads in Australia, so be careful. There are streams running along the roads, there are rocks everywhere and it’s slippery. Only good drivers should consider a motorbike all the way to Ta Van village. I loved it. The road was simply spectacular.
Remember to fill up your motorbike before you go! I made a mistake of thinking that I had enough petrol and of course I didn’t. I ran out halfway back up the hill towards Sapa. There are no petrol stations in the villages. I was petrified… Stuck on a rocky mountain road in the middle of nowhere in a part of Vietnam where people don’t even speak Vietnamese. I rolled down the hill to the nearest cafe and I tried to explain in English what happened. To my surprise, I was able to communicate. They actually speak English because it’s the language of the tourists, and tourism is their main income.
The lady asked me to stay in her cafe and wait. A few minutes later she came back with 2 coke bottles of petrol. I was happy to give her all the money I had left in my wallet, for “saving my life”, but she only wanted 50K for the bottle of petrol. Maybe twice the price at the petrol station. I gave her more than she asked, but she didn’t want it and insisted I take something else from the shop to compensate me for the extra money.
I didn’t expect that. I expected to pay a lot more as punishment for being stupid. She didn’t want to rip me off, she just wanted to help. Another thing… when she ran out of her cafe to get a stupid white man some petrol, she left her purse and her mobile phone on the table. I was humbled. This is a different world.
Some images from Sapa and villages in the Sapa Region