Step one: arrival
Train tickets from Hanoi to Lau Cai are 540 000 if buying direct from the station. ET Pumpkin is $35 for a soft sleeper berth. Silver Hotel on Hang Bac can organise a soft sleeper for £33.
On arrival in Lau Cai, find a minibus to take you to Sapa. If you manage to get away from the touts try to find one that is almost full as you could be waiting a long time. Most of them are from hotels in Sapa collecting passengers who have booked transport. Keep an eye on your luggage. The bus price should be 50 000 and the journey takes about 1.5 hours, including a bit of waiting time.
Step two: sleeping
On arrival in Sapa town, you will get a bit of a hotel sell on the bus. The streets will be full of women who want to sell you jewellery or take you trekking so be prepared! Don’t say yes or maybe to anyone unless you’re serious. They will show up at your hotel everyday until you go. It’s a small town and you won’t be able to avoid anyone you met on day one. Have a hotel in mind with a ‘reservation’ or head to the nearest café (try Eddie’s) to make a plan.
Queen Hotel – D Muong Hoa, $15 on a national holiday, $10 after. Nice wee balcony and fireplace. Okay wifi.
Sunshine View/Tullip Family Hotel – D Muong Hoa, $8 per night. Nice large rooms, balcony, good wifi.
Step three: eat stuff
Water is 30 000 per five litre bottle but not much you can do about it. The best restaurant in Sapa is Sapa’s Kitchen. Great pho, yummy pancakes, etc. You could eat there for all your meals. Also try Eddie’s Café if you’re craving a nice glass of wine and cake. You can play board games there too if it’s raining (fair chance).
Step four: do stuff
Hiking is the big thing here. The streets will be full of women/young female trekking guides. Take your pick or organise through a hotel.
Mai – a young girl we found took me for a day hike for 310 000 plus 40 000 for a permit at a gate and 5000 for a motorbike at the end of the day. Mai showed me her village, some hills and took me home for lunch. Hikers are often followed by village women trying to sell jewellery but Mai got rid of them all and we only had her aunty in tow.
Also try Sapa Sisters.
Fansipan – Vietnam’s highest peak. While most trekking guides are women, Fansipan is guided by men. $86 per person for an overnight hike including transport to the mountain, guide, porter, tents, sleeping bag, food, mats. Organised by Sunshine View Hotel.
Cat Cat Village trekking permit – 40 000
Shopping – there is usually a market in the town square. Two silver bracelets from Hmong woman in the street, 50 000. In the market hall five scarfs from hemp or pashmina plus two small tribal earrings plus one large tribal earrings, 610 000. Two pairs of shoes from Cat Cat village, 210 000, two stuffed elephants from Cat Cat, 120 000, one large embroidered handbag, Cat Cat Village, 130 000, one old French Indochina coin from Cat Cat, 70 000.
Some people love Sapa, some people question its authenticity. Certainly we were told by a Vietnamese local (ie not Hmong) that most of the goods are bought across the Chinese border and sold as ‘handmade’. Some things are definitely hand crafted though. You can see the women’s indigo dyed hands and I saw a vat of indigo being boiled in my trekking guide’s village. The scenery is undoubtedly beautiful. Make up your own mind.
Step five: move on
Heading back to Hanoi (and probably anywhere else) is easy. The following will organise sleeper train tickets to Hanoi:
Sunshine View Hotel – soft sleeper $33 including transport to Lau Cai
Nature Trail – hard sleeper, 550 000 ($26), soft sleeper, 650 000 ($31)
Global Travel Agency – lower berth hard sleeper, 480 000, middle berth hard sleeper, 450 000, top berth hard sleeper, 410 000, soft sleeper, 560 000. All berths on the 19:30 train.
Global Travel Agency – soft sleeper, 620 000 on the 20:15 train.
There is also a bus stop for the sleeping bus but as we went by train I can’t comment on it’s advantages/disadvantages.
My tips are based on my own experiences in 2012. If you have updates, comments, different experiences, please let us know in the comments box below.