Well, my brother-in-law had been bugging me to visit this place with him for some time. We finally decided to pack our bags during the last Vesak Day long weekend and hustle over. Sapa is located in the mountainous region north of Hanoi and close to the Chinese border. It’s famous for rice terraces scenery and the minority ethnic tribes with their colorful costumes.
Presently, the journey to Sapa is as interesting as the destination itself. After taking the flight to Hanoi from Singapore (3.5hrs), we grabbed a taxi to bring us to Hanoi Railway Station (45mins to 1hr), catch the overnight train to Lao Cai (10hrs), then board the mini shuttle bus to finally bring us to Sapa (1hr)… Phew! We took all forms of transport except ship and horse.
We booked Fanxipan Express which is considered 3rd best in terms of comfort and cleanliness. We chose the 4 persons to a cabin option and we had to share the cabin with 2 other strangers. The distance to Lao Cai from Hanoi is around 350km, but the train takes 10hrs or more to make the journey due to the poor condition of the railway tracks and the old engines in use. Think of it as the overnight KTM train from Singapore to KL in the old days, it’s pretty similar. But the cabins here are air conditioned and more comfortable, with doors that can be locked from inside the cabin. There is a common toilet for each carriage.
After a noisy and bumpy ride where we couldn’t really get to sleep much, we arrived in Lao Cai at 7am. The scheduled arrival time was 5am, so we were 2hrs late, but nobody seemed to be bothered by the delay and treated it like a normal occurrence.
Outside the Lao Cai train station you have the usual crowd of drivers/guides holding signs with your name on it, lost looking tourists (like us), and hustlers, as well as, conmen looking for their next victim. It pays to be alert.
We found our shuttle bus driver and we took the next 1hr to drive up the winding road to Sapa, 35km away. After arriving at our hotel, we booked a motorcycle so that we could travel freely on our own. Getting around Sapa is mainly by motorcycle or your 2 legs. Motorcycle is definitely faster but more risky. For larger groups, you can also rent a minivan.
We rode out into the Muong Hoa Valley which is just outside Sapa. This is famous for their padi fields and picturesque mountain scenery. But the weather was really hot and riding under the blazing sun wasn’t doing any good to our energy levels.
Very soon we were amongst the rural countryside of rice fields and small villages. More tourists equals more commercialization and everywhere we stopped, there were small children or ethnic women trying to sell us their handicrafts.
We didn’t see many adults as they were busy working in the rice fields. May is the start of the raining season and the farmers were busy tilling and planting the rice seeds in time for the rains, while the children were playing around the fields.
After a hot ride that took us nearly 20km into the Muong Hoa Valley, we decided to turn back to Sapa. It had taken us nearly the whole day to slowly take in the scenery and life of the villagers.
Once back at Sapa, we rested for a while at the hotel to cool down, before heading out to see what the town had to offer.
It was evening and almost time for dinner. After a hot day riding out in the sun, we were really hungry. At the hotel’s recommendation, we found a restaurant that serves locally bred salmon from the lake near Sapa.
After dinner, we took a walk to find the Love Market which happens on Saturday nights. Hmmm! Love Market sounds interesting…
There was a huge crowd at the town’s amphitheater that showcased cultural performances. The Love Market was here. Traditionally, the H’mong minorities would come to Sapa to sell their farm produce and goods. In the past, after selling their produce, the men would sing and perform to draw attention from the women to court and marry them. The women would also dance to attract the men, so this is how the Love Market came about. Today, it has become more of a cultural performance, and some of the H’mong who were danced ended up asking tourists for money.
The next morning we woke up early to get to Bac Ha market. This is a market for the ethnic minorities and 10 tribes gather there every Sunday to trade. The hotel arranged the transport for us at USD14/person. This was with a travel company and the costs only covers the transport with 1 guide. They really squeezed like 20 of us tourists into a mini-bus for a 2.5hr ride through the mountain roads. By the time we got to Bac Ha, it was almost 11am and the weather was even hotter…
We climbed a small hill at the back of the town and came to the cattle market. Here you find buffalo being sold. Bulls are highly desired because they are used to work the rice fields and can cost USD1,600 each. We didn’t see any active haggling. The buyers were just standing around watching the buffalos and observing them. Maybe they were looking for signs of sickness or tiredness in the animals.
We also visited a traditional H’mong village and house to see how these minorities live their lives. It seems to me that the women are the matriarchs and make the decisions. The men are more behind the scenes.
After lunch it was back to Sapa and another 2.5hr ride through the mountains, squeezed like sardines in the mini-bus. The journey back tracks through Lao Cai and we were brought to see the border crossing between Vietnam and China. A river separates the 2 countries and there is a road bridge for cargo and people, and another bridge for railway.
After this it was back to Sapa. We were moved to another smaller bus as the group was splitting up. Some tourists were taking the train back to Hanoi and remained in Lao Cai.
Next morning it was our last day in Sapa. It had been a packed 2 days since we’d arrived and I planned to take it a bit easier today. We walked over to Ham Rong Mountain Park which is just behind Sapa. You can get a good view of Sapa town and the surrounding areas from the lookout point.
And then it was time to go back to Hanoi to catch our flight home. This meant enduring another 10hrs of noisy and bumpy train ride, but this time I slept soundly, probably because of tiredness. Thank goodness!
Travel Tips for Sapa
Getting there: The starting point is Hanoi and there are many flight options from Singapore ranging from full service to budget airlines. From Hanoi, you can take the train (recommended) or drive. Driving is not recommended as it takes just as long as the train and its more dangerous due to the road conditions in the mountains.
You have to book your train tickets in advance to ensure you get a berth. Otherwise, you take your chances and buy a ticket at the train station which may be fully booked. We got the hotel in Sapa to book the train tickets for us but I had to authorize the hotel to deduct from my credit card. The hotel will also arrange the shuttle bus pickup at Lao Cai and this is highly recommended. There are stories of travelers who just go with rogue buses and they get stranded in the middle of nowhere, unless they pay exorbitant rates.
We booked Fanxipan Express which is one of the train operators to Sapa. There are several companies and I’ve heard that the standards are the roughly the same. The only difference is in the décor and cleanliness. We collected the tickets at the Fanxipan Express office which is beside the train station. The most luxurious is Victoria Express but you have to stay at their hotel.
Well, I have heard from a Vietnamese tour guide who shared the cabin with us when we were returning to Hanoi that Vietnam is building a super highway to connect Hanoi to Kunming in China. This is almost complete and should be opened by 2015. This super highway connects to Lao Cai and will cut travelling time by car to 4 hours. So Sapa should become more accessible then.
Costs: I estimate that we spent SGD600/person. Your mileage may vary depending on airfare and hotel rates.
Hotels: There are many hotels to choose from and I used Tripadvisor.com as my guide in choosing a hotel. We stayed at Sapa Paradise View which was highly recommended and were not disappointed. The staff were most helpful in arranging our every need and going out of their way to make our stay pleasant.
Health and Safety: Since Sapa is in the mountains, cold temperatures and extreme UV means you should bring sunblock and proper warm clothing. It can get really cold in winter and snow does fall here. The road to Sapa from Lao Cai is quite winding and people who are prone to motion sickness should take some motion sickness pills before the journey.
Food is not a problem as there are many restaurants here serving from western to Vietnamese food.
For the train, if you are sharing the cabin with strangers then be sure secure your valuables when you are sleeping. The cabins have 4 beds each, and it would be great if you can get 3 other friends so that you can occupy the whole cabin. Otherwise, some people have been known to book all 4 beds for so that they don’t share it with strangers. Especially true if you are a solo female traveler and end up sharing the cabin with 3 other strange men.
Once your hotel arranges the shuttle bus pickup at Lao Cai, make sure when you arrive that you check properly who is holding the sign with your name. There are scams where rogue bus drivers see the names being displayed and copy them down, then stand in front so that you see them first, instead of the official driver. If you see 2 signs with your name, one of them is a scam.
Shopping: Mostly handicrafts from the H’mong like colourful bags, bracelets, clothes, etc. A lot of shops in Sapa also sell knock-off outdoor wear (North Face).
Money: We changed our money to Vietnamese Dong at Hanoi Airport. Expenses in Sapa are not expensive (for the moment) so you don’t need to bring a lot unless you are planning to buy a buffalo.