Sapa is a one of Vietnam’s most popular destinations, but with no nearby airport the only option for getting there is to travel by road or rail and, despite being only 380 kilometres from Hanoi, it’s a time-consuming exercise whichever route you take, so choose carefully.
Most visitors choose to get from Hanoi to Sapa by overnight train; it’s more comfortable and safer than a bus or motorbike, and a lot cheaper than hiring a car.
Three sleeper trains leave Hanoi’s Main Station each evening, at 20:35 (SP7), 21:10 (SP1) and 21:50 (SP3). They take around 8 hours and 20 minutes to reach Lao Cai. The final 34 kilometres to Sapa is travelled by minibus or private transfer. The return journey departure times are 17:30 (SP8), 20:15 (SP2) and 21:00 (SP4) (trains have even numbers in the return direction). Buses leave Sapa at 17:00 from near the church. The SP1, SP2, SP3 and SP4 mainly comprise privately run sleeper cabins and the SP7 and SP8 also have soft seats. Private operators include Livitrans, Hara, Orient Express, ET Pumpkin and Tulico.
What can you expect on board? The privately operated soft-sleeper cabins are generally clean and comfortable and certainly adequate for the length of journey. Each air-conditioned cabin contains four berths, two upper and two lower. Mattresses are thick enough to be comfortable and bedding is clean. Each bed has its own light and storage shelf and luggage can be stored under the bottom bunk or on a large shelf at the end of the upper bunks. Doors are lockable (usually — the lock fell off on the last train we took) but it’s still advisable to keep valuables on your person, or sleep with them under your pillow, particularly if you don’t know your cabin mates. Toilets are Western-style but not always fully functioning; you may need to shop around between carriages to find one with running water and it’s advisable to pack hand-wipes or sanitiser.
Standard soft-sleepers aren’t bad either, although not quite as nicely decked out and with no free drinking water. Hard sleepers are adequate though a bit more crowded, with six berths in each cabin.
Refreshments — including cold beer and crisps — are available on-board, though if you’re fussy about your brand, or want to save a few dong, buy them in advance before you get to the station. Eat dinner first; places outside the station serve local dishes such as pho, or fill up on Western grub in Old Quarter.
If you’re looking for a cheaper option, or can’t get onto one of the SP trains, the LC1 leaves Hanoi at 22:00 and the return LC2 departs at 18:45. This takes around an hour longer and has no soft sleepers, but does have the option of hard seats for the hardcore traveller — having done it myself I really don’t recommend it. The one daytime train, the LC3/LC4, departs at 06:10/09:15 and arrives more than 10 hours later.
Although the overnight sleeper trains can be good fun, while also saving time and hotel bills, many people find it hard to get any decent rest on-board and therefore waste the next day catching up on sleep. Bear this in mind when planning your trip.
Trains from Hanoi leave from station B, which is reached by crossing the tracks a few hundred metres north of the main station — onto Nguyen Khuyen — then turning left onto Tran Quy Cap. Agents for the private carriages will provide you with a voucher for your journey, which you will need to exchange for a ticket at the operator’s desk in the station. Make sure you’re there in plenty of time.
Seats/beds can be booked through travel agents either in advance (try Vietnam Impressive) or in Hanoi, but they do fill up so booking in advance is advisable if you’re on a tight schedule. In theory, you can also book the regular carriages at the train station, but don’t be surprised to find nothing’s available: with private operators taking over, agents buying tickets in advance and the increasing popularity of Sapa with locals means that buying tickets at the train station is not as easy as you might hope.
If you can’t get booked on the train or want a cheaper option, the bus is an alternative but is less comfortable and less safe — although there have been no reported serious accidents on that particular route that I could find. Sleeper buses come in two formats: the most common is three rows of bunk beds running from the front to the back of the bus with a wide bed at the back, and the other has two rows of double size bunk beds or twin beds. Beds are far smaller than on the train, don’t go flat and have limited storage: bags are kept in the under-bus storage. The same issue of lack of sleep applies as for the trains.
Overnight sleeper buses, managed by private operators, run between Hanoi and Lao Cai. Hung Thanh runs two sleeper buses everyday, at 19:00 and 20:00, from Hanoi’s Gia Lam bus station to Lao Cai train station. You will then need to change to a minibus to Sapa. The ticket price is 300,000 VND. Gia Lam bus station is around five kilometres from Old Quarter, across Chuong Duong bridge. Take a taxi or motorbike taxi or pick up a bus at the Western end of the bridge.
If you want more freedom and flexibility and are prepared to pay for it, then car or jeep hire is a good option. The car can stay with you throughout your trip and ferry you around — for example, to Bac Ha market, or up to Lai Chau. The disadvantage is that it’s still going to take nine hours or so and of course there are no beds on board, so your best bet is to travel during the day, with some rest stops en route — it’s also safer than travelling at night. A car is only really viable if you have some time to spare but can really open up the options in terms of places to visit and experiences.
Finally, there’s getting to Sapa by motorbike. I wouldn’t recommend driving direct to Sapa from Hanoi by bike — it’s a boring road and to be on the safe — and comfortable — side you’ll need to allow two days, unless your butt’s made of steel. And unless you put your bike on the train for the return journey, that’s a lot of driving and a lot of time on the road.
If you’re really keen on driving then try the scenic route, up through the centre of northwest Vietnam, from Mai Chau. If you stay off the beaten track you’ll be highly rewarded with amazing scenery, challenging driving and local insight — assuming you don’t get lost. Allow four days from Hanoi to Sapa. If you hire your bike from Motorbiking Vietnam they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.
Alternatively, and most expensively, book onto an organised motorbike tour or hire a guide for a private tour. Companies like Motorbiking Vietnam and Flamingo Travel are worth checking out.