Footsteps in Vietnam – Sapa is nearly 400 km north-west of Hanoi. This cloud-covered town is located at 1550 m above the sea level, cool all year round. There are many magnificent mountains including the peak of Indochina – Fansipan of 3143m elevation.
The area is home to 7 ethnic groups with unique cultures, lifestyles and languages; all wearing their traditional attires, working on evergreen terraces. Hill tribes gather for the weekend market for trade and for meeting with lovers. Sapa is a good place for relaxing, for culturally touring, and/or for trekking and should not be missed on your trip.
The area was built into a hill station for the French colonialists to get away from the heat of Ha Noi in the summer. There used to be many French-styled villas in town. But most of them were destroyed during the border clash with China in 1979.
Nowadays Sapa attracts thousands of tourists from all of Vietnam and abroad thanks to the cool and fresh climate, the sublime nature beauty and the colorful hill tribe cultures.
By train: There are various options to get to Sapa from Hanoi. However there are no flights, with international visitors having to disembark at Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport and travel by rail or road to the town. The most popular is to sign up for one of the overnight trips which includes a train journey to Lao Cai followed by minibus transfer up to Sapa. The train is slow, but reserving a sleeper seat means you can enjoy the trip and the stunning scenery in relative comfort. There are daily overnight trains heading in each direction, with the journey taking around nine hours. A number of standard and tourist trains also make the overnight run from Hanoi. You can make arrangements with any travel agent for a small fee, or do it yourself at the Hanoi Railway Station. Prices range from $16 for a hard berth to $30 for a soft berth with air-conditioning. There is also the new Victoria’s Orient Express that runs between Hanoi and Sapa, offering more luxurious rail travel facilities and services. All trains to Lao Cai/Sapa depart from the Hanoi Railway Station.
To get to Sapa from the train station in Lao Cai, you’ll need to transfer by car for the 1 1/2- to 2-hour ride from Lao Cai station. The road is cut into the hillside and is bumpy and windy, but the views of the terraced rice farms of the valley are beautiful as you ascend (ride on the left side).
By road: from Hanoi is the longest option and a minimum ten hour drive by car or bus with the journey taking up the entire day. There are many possible routes to Sapa, and visitors can plan their road trip via the route that most matches their special interests. Driving in the mountainous northwest region is often dangerous, so care should be taken to avoid excessive speeds and select vehicles or bikes suitable for all types of terrain. The rainy season should be avoided if you plan an off the beaten track route, unless you are a very experienced offroader. Any tourist cafe or travel agent in Hanoi can arrange trips by private jeep or a combo jeep and train tour. Apart from Sapa, the vast tracts of the north are best visited through a tour company, many offer comprehensive itineraries. Especially for areas off the beaten track. Avoid the temptation to book budget tours with the tourist cafes
WHEN TO GO
The dry season is from January to June with March to May the best time to visit. Temperatures in January and February are regularly around 0ºC. The rainy season falls in June and August. September marks the end of the rainy season which is a good time to visit then by mid-December temperatures start to fall significantly making this September to mid-December period the best time to be there.
THINGS TO DO & SEE
Many visitors sign up for trekking expeditions out to local villages and beyond. All hotels and travel agencies in town offer half day visits to Cat Cat just 3km outside of Sapa and full day hikes to Ta Phin village which lies 10km outside town. Spectacular scenery abounds on all treks in the area. Overnight stays in minority villages such as Sin Chai are also popular options.
BANKS & COMMUNICATION
The post office is in the town center, but most hotels can send postcards and letters and have stamps for sale. There are a few storefront Internet cafes, but service is slow and unreliable. All hotels provide exchange service for traveler’s checks and even credit card cash advances. There is a local bank on Cau May where you can cash traveler’s checks for the same 2% fee as at your hotel, but there are also some ATMs here.
It can be too adventurous trying to get there as individual traveler. Arrange the trip with a reputable tour operator to ensure smooth, risk free travel.
Traveling on week days is both easier and cheaper than weekends (lower hotel costs, more relaxed travel schemes)
Always make sure you have return tickets in hand.
Get to Hanoi and Lao Cai at least 30 minutes before departure – but be ready for a sudden or late departure without any explanation.
Make sure there is something to define the person who picks you up (i.e, his name, cell number and so on)
Say “no” very firmly when someone offers you something you do not want to buy. If you show the slightest interest, they may well follow you all the way up the road, until they find anther likely target.
Expect to bargain everything down to about half the original price asked. And expect most products to be Chinese instead of being authentically local.