It is the old cliche but it entirely depends on what you want to get out of your visits to either place.
I visited both and found them great for different things.
Halong Bay is very scenic and the limestone karsts are magnificent, there are a couple of great beaches there and you can try your hand at kayaking. Some tour operators let you fish, and the people we had on our junk were great and very friendly.
I would say that it is best to spend a little extra on your Junk to make sure that you get a good tour.
When on trips out to various sites in Halong Bay you will see a monstrous amount of boats vying for the best spots, which of course brings a lot of pollution and an untidy feel to the place, definitely not the paradise mecca many would believe.
Sapa is a fantastic and very beautiful place, full of colour, great food and great hiking. It is a much cheaper trip than going to Halong Bay and whilst there you can create your own itinerary.
There is a lot more culture to see and many other small mountain villages to see.
The path is still well beaten, so don't think you will be getting away from the crowds.
Therefore i would base your decision on whether you want to enjoy fantastic scenery in Halong Bay (which you get in Sapa but not on the same scale) or if you would like to enjoy some culture in Sapa.
#2 intrepidmanxie has been a member since 8/1/2013. Posts: 5
Well done for acknowledging that you won't be able to do all three in that timeframe.
It is a personal choice but I prefer Sapa (food, hiking/trekking (relax MADMAC), villages, homestays).
If you're not a very active person you may prefer HB as the hikes around Sapa are quite tough in parts.
#4 chinarocks has been a member since 17/6/2011. Posts: 738
I agree - had a more enjoyable time at Sapa. It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been - hike out into the mountain villages and feel like you've been tossed back 200 years in time. Fabulous photos to be shot there if you're into that.
Ha Long Bay stunning for sure, but it can feel like a ride at a tourism theme park. If you go, I'd recommend a day or two motorbiking around Cat Ba Island.
Having done both in the one holiday, I would say if I had to choose again, it would be SAPA easily. The train ride, the car through the hills to this town in the middle of nowhere and then the village of SAPA. You wont regret it and will be able to get out and enjoy the sights and smells when you like and for however long you like. If it is raining, snowing or sunny SAPA is fantastic. If it is rainy on Halong Bay, you are restricted to your boat and can be a bit of a bore.
My vote and recommendation goes to SAPA.
#8 Benno has been a member since 18/1/2012. Posts: 36
It is a really tough call! Consensus seems to be drifting towards Sapa and I won't argue with that but I do agree with chinarocks that if you don't want to trek a trip to Sapa could be a bit of a waste. It is possible to tour around on a motorbike, which also provides some excellent experiences, but it's the trekking that really provides the most rewarding opportunities. And don't expect it to be all untouched by tourism - but choose a trek that gets you away from that if you can.
I also agree that if you do decide to go to Halong it's worth going for a luxury boat if you can afford it: friends who visited recently took a 3 day Halong Bay trip with Bhaya Cruises and they raved about it.