When going to Vietnam, the North has to be on your itinerary. In fact, it was one of the best things we’ve done in Vietnam. If we think about North Vietnam, the small town of Sapa immediately comes to mind. This pretty place just can’t be skipped, because it’s the best place in Vietnam to see the rice terraces, the ethnic minority villages and to hike the highest mountain of Indochina. A lot of travelers book packaged tours in Hanoi to get there, but this breaks the budget very quickly. We’ve made this comprehensive Sapa travel guide to make your journey towards Sapa easier and more importantly, much cheaper.
HOW TO GET THERE
Sapa is a small town in the mountains on a height of 1500m and is only accessible by bus. Its closest town with a train station is Lao Cai, a border town close to China. Getting to Sapa is actually very easy. Most travelers go from Hanoi to Lao Cai by night train. A lot of tour operators in Hanoi offer train tickets at different prices, which will set you back for a soft sleeper in a 2-berth or 4-berth compartment. We suggest buying your tickets directly in Hanoi’s train station. You’ll end up paying less and have a good soft sleeper in a 4-berth compartment.
When booking a train ticket with a tour operator, you’ll pay more and have a bed on the same train as the travelers that bought the cheap tickets in the train station. This is because the train is divided into separate compartments owned by Vietnam Railways (non-touristic and inexpensive) and private companies (touristic and more expensive). Sometimes, these beds or compartments are exactly the same as the non-touristic compartment. So be sure first that the compartment you’re paying for is worth it.
Travel Tip: Tour operators can charge up to 8x the average price for the more exclusive berths. So make sure you shop around first before agreeing on a price. Just know that at the train station prices will be between 150,000-385,000 VND.
This train journey takes 8 hours from Hanoi to Lao Cai Railway Station, where you’ll arrive around 5.30 am. From here, you’ll need to take a minibus or taxi to Sapa. It won’t be hard to find one because dozens of hawkers will ask you to get a ride with them. Be aware; there’s a lot of scamming going on. A trip costs 50,000-60,000 Dong with a minibus. A lot of them will try to let you pay 3x the price. You’ll arrive in Sapa after a beautiful 1-hour ride through the mountains. If you’re lucky you can see the sun coming up from behind the hills.
Travel Tip: Try to arrange a pick-up with your hotel or stay in Sapa. They will make sure that you pay the correct price for your transport from Lao Cai to Sapa.
WHERE TO STAY
Sapa itself has become more touristic the last couple of years (luckily you won’t notice much of this when you’re out of town), and prices for accommodation are because of this, higher than in most of Vietnam. But don’t worry, there are also beds available for less than $10! We suggest staying in a real guesthouse in Muong Hoa Valley to experience how the minority people live. You can also do this when you’re planning a multiple days hike.
To be honest, we don’t have an experience with a guesthouse here, thus we can’t give any good recommendation. We stayed in a great hotel called ‘Heart Of Sapa’, and we can’t recommend it enough. It’s right, as the name suggests, in the heart of Sapa in an alley off the main street. The rooms are super clean, the staff is always happy to help you with any question, and the breakfast is fantastic (all you can eat)!
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit Sapa is March-May and September-November. In the summer months, between June and August, a lot of domestic tourists go to Sapa so it can get more crowded in that time of the year. Harvesting season is in September, that’s when the rice terraces are the greenest, which means it’s the best time of the year to spice up your Instagram account!
Sapa and its region will always be colder than the other parts of Vietnam, so make sure you don’t forget to bring warm clothes. Particularly in the winter months (December & January), when temperatures can drop under zero in the night.
HOW TO DISCOVER SAPA BY YOURSELF
Most of the people book a packaged tour in Hanoi or a (multiple days) trekking in Sapa. But these options cost a lot of money. We found out that you can do everything by yourself without spending heaps of cash. You even get to see the same things and get the same experiences. Maybe even better, because the encounters with the locals won’t be forced as it would be with a guide.
We recommend renting a motorbike for $5-$7 because this is the easiest and fastest way to get around. Just ask your hotel if they can help you with getting one. You can rent one in Sapa town yourself, but the motorbike rentals are done by young boys that just want to get a lot of money out of you. They want your passport or $250 as a deposit. But when you want to give the bike back, they’ll point things out on the bike that you supposedly have broken and use your passport as leverage to let you pay more money.
10 TIPS TO ENJOY YOUR TIME IN SAPA
- Sapa is known for its great hiking trails, but getting around with a motorbike is easier and faster.
- Bring a plastic bag for emergencies if you’re sensitive for car sickness.
- If you want to do a trekking, hire one of the hill tribe women in Sapa town to show you around. It’s often much cheaper and gives a more authentic experience.
- Never, ever, say something like ‘maybe tomorrow’ or ‘later’ to the street hawkers. They will take your word for it and stalk you until you get back on the train in Lao Cai.
- Stay in an authentic guesthouse in Muong Hoa Valley to get the real experience with a local.
- Download the app Maps.Me so you won’t get lost. It’s up-to-date with the most used trails and will help you with not getting lost.
- If it would get too cold and you haven’t packed the right clothing, don’t worry, in Sapa town, numerous shops sell fake jackets and other gear from The North Face at low prices.
- If you don’t like the idea of taking a night train, there are also sleeper buses that go from Hanoi directly to Sapa.
- Bring a poncho because the weather can change quickly.
- If you want to hike Fansipan Mountain, the highest in Indochina, make sure you’re well-prepared and fit enough for the long climb.