Sapa is one of the most popular destination in the north of Vietnam. The town 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 Hanoi 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.
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).
From Hanoi, it 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.
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