Sapa Trip Report

Old Oct 20th, 2008, 12:16 AM
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Sapa Trip Report

My husband and I just completed our trip to Sapa. After getting some quotes from travel agencies in Hanoi and reading other trip reports, we decided to do a DIY trip. I think this was the best option for us—because we scheduled treks and activities based upon the weather and our stamina! I have broken this report into several segments for easier reading.

Train Travel: I went to the Hanoi train station and booked our tickets myself. It was fairly easy. I had one of my students write the dates and options (soft sleeper, AC) in Vietnamese plus the dates of our travel. If you decide to do this, when you arrive at the train station, look for the ticket windows….but don’t get in line! At the far right of the ticket windows is a box with red buttons and Vietnamese and English instructions. You pick the option you want…international, domestic, north, south etc…push the red button and a numbered ticket comes out. You sit down and wait for your number to appear over one of the ticket windows. I waited about 5 minutes and then saw my number. I gave the lady the paper with the instructions and she printed out four tickets (two Hanoi- Lao Cai and two Lao Cai- Hanoi). The cost was 300,000 dong--$18 each way per person.

I had a student go with us to the train station to catch our late night (10pm) train to Lao Cai. You can board the train an hour early—we arrived about 9:15pm and were able to go right to the train. As you go through the station and onto the platform area, look for the board with the trains listed. Next to your train (ie SP 4; SP 2) is a platform number. That is where you need to go. I thought the platforms would be nice walkways next to the trains. Wrong again! Basically you drag your suitcase along the platform until you can get across the numerous tracks. If you have a suitcase with wheels and want to keep it that way, pick it up and carry it. I tried rolling mine across the many tracks (we were platform 7—so we had to cross about 4-5 sets of tracks) and it didn’t do so well! It is very dark, pretty dirty and people are running all over the place. Once you get to the platform with your train, you walk along the train until you find your car. There will be someone at the car door to check your ticket and if you are on the right place they will let you get on. Otherwise they will yell and point….and though trial and error, you should be able to find the right car. If you want to do this trip without a travel agency, you can do this by yourself, but it is far easier if you have someone who speaks Vietnamese go with you.

The soft sleeper train was fine. My husband and I had sleeping bag liners and we were happy we carried them with us. The covers on the beds and the pillows and blankets were “somewhat” clean….but having our own linens made things much better. Toilet was at the end of each car and it was ok…not nasty…but also not a pleasant place to hang out for a long time. On the trip up we shared our compartment with two Chinese men on the trip out..they were very nice—no English, but everyone just sleeps anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal. On the trip back we shared our compartment with a Vietnamese man and his 16 yr. old son -who was reading Harry Potter in Vietnamese. The train left on time and arrived pretty much on time.

So… was cheap, somewhat clean and I would probably do it again. We didn’t really see many other Westerners in these cars. Most tourists buy their train tickets from travel agencies and use their private cars that are attached to the end of the train. I looked at these cars as we walked along and they seemed very nice. Much cleaner and fancier, but also more expensive. I think you also get picked up at your hotel and delivered to the train station…so it might be worth the extra expense just for that piece of the puzzle. I don’t think paying hundreds of dollars for the train trip is worth it. Go low-mid range and save your money for a nice hotel!

Transportation from Lao Cai to Sapa and back: We didn’t book anything in advance so faced dealing with the “scrum” at the train station on Lao Cai. I saw a travel desk and paid 30,000 dong for each of us (total 60,000 dong) for the 1 hour trip to Sapa. What you get for this low cost typically is a 12-16 passenger mini-van STUFFED with people and luggage. It is not pleasant and you are not comfortable. On the trip back down to Lao Cai, my husband and I ended up in the front seat with the driver. He was driving like a bat out of hell down the curving road (10% grade most of the way) hooting his horn at everyone, passing on curves (but everyone does this) while text messaging and smoking! I had to grab onto my husband and hold tight or else I would have been tossed back and forth around all the curves. Needless to say, it was quite a trip….and hey, for $2 what do you expect! On the return trip from Sapa to Lao Cai they drop you about 2 hours before your train at a specific restaurant near the train station. I think it is some type of a system ..because the restaurant people come rushing out and want you to sit down and eat. I didn’t want to eat there because I saw a much nicer and cleaner restaurant on another corner, so we grabbed our luggage and rolled it across the square. Needless to say, the bus people and the restaurant people were not happy with us. But we had a couple of cold beers and a very good meal prior to the departure of the train. So don’t think you must eat where they drop you!

And…..if you want to avoid the hassle of being stuffed into a mini-bus, then you might want to consider pre-arranging travel for this leg of the trip. My husband and I felt that the low cost of the transportation ($2 each way per person) and the stories we can now tell…well worth doing it this way. A private car is pretty expensive….although some hotels do provide transportation. Our hotel did not—but offered to supply a private car at a cost of about $50 each way.

Hotel: We stayed at a wonderful hotel called Cha Pa Garden Boutique Hotel. It only has four rooms so if you are interested in this place, book it early. We stayed in the larger room at a cost of $80 a night. I can’t say enough about this hotel. The rooms were very nice…clean and we had a wonderful view of the mountains off our balcony. The hotel is a former French villa that the owners have very tastefully redone with beautiful wood and furnishings. It is only yards off the “main drag”, yet its gardens and thick walls made it a very peaceful place to spend time. But the best is yet to come! The food---ah, the food! The breakfasts are unbelievable. Pancakes, omlets, homemade bread, jam, mango juice to die for, fresh fruit and yogurt, coffee, tea. All made to order and served with style by young girls (really really young girls –8-12 years old!) . The breakfasts were worth the price of the room. We also had two dinners there….about $10 per person….and again, the food was absolutely wonderful. I had trout one evening that was the best I have tasted. It is raised locally in ponds higher up in the mountains. It was cooked to perfection.

The owners of the hotel are a young fellow from Norway and his wife who is a member of one of the ethnic minority groups in the area. They both are very young and very friendly and helpful. The day we arrived—at 7am!—we were able to get into our room. It was sunny and warm and Tommy, the owner, recommended that we take a trek that day since the weather can be unpredictable. He arranged for a guide…and she arrived in about 30 minutes. So we went from train to van to breakfast to trekking in about two hours! It was a wonderful day. We took motorbikes to a set of villages about 5k away from Sapa. From that point we walked through 3-4 villages with our guide who was a member of the Hmong tribe. She took us into houses….introduced us to people she knew along the way…and basically did an excellent job showing us the area. We were trotting through rice paddies with the water buffalo….climbing up the steep hillsides with the tribes people who were hauling rice (on their backs!) to their homes. We saw schools, farms, craftspeople working and even a wedding along the way. At the end of this long day (14k) we took motorbikes back to Sapa and collapsed!

It rained the next day, and our poor ol’ bodies were pretty stiff and sore from all the walking and climbing. So we gladly stayed close to “home”…. Slept in…. read….ate…. walked around town….had hot chocolate and French pasteries at a local hotel… and ended the day by climbing up the mountain in back of the village for awesome views of Sapa and the surrounding mountains.

Day three we booked a long tour to see a Thursday Market. This entailed driving back to Lao Cai and then several hours more to a small market village on the Vietnam – China border. The drive was beautiful! But, it was a long day in the car and fairly expensive…worth it, I think…but not something I would want to do again.

Day four we were feeling comfortable in the area, so we hiked ourselves down to Cat-Cat a small village near Sapa. We spent the day walking through rice fields…up and down the mountainside and ended up at a beautiful waterfall. We ambled through the countryside and ended up taking a motorcycle back up to Sapa because we were so trashed by all the climbing and trekking. We ended up having a late lunch (pizza!) at a restaurant called Delta. The pizza was very good! I am sure some of you might be saying “How can you eat Pizza in Vietnam!”. Well, I have been living in Hanoi for several months and really wanted something different. I love Vietnamese food…but after all the hiking, pizza and beer sounded too good to pass up!

The pizza brings me to another observation: Sapa didn’t seem like Vietnam at all! After living in Vietnam for awhile, I was really taken back by how “western” Sapa seemed. Most people spoke English….whereas in Hanoi—especially where I live, English is not common at all. The French settled Sapa and much of their architecture still is visible. I really felt like Sapa was a mix of the French Alps and Bali. Mountains and rice fields. Oh, and mix in a healthy dose of ethnic minority tribes. The H’mong, Dzao,, and other tribes people are EVERYWHERE. And they will continually shadow you trying to sell their goods. My husband and I discovered that the first day in Sapa. We were continually followed, harassed and bothered to buy. Actually, it wasn’t harassment—but rather people trying to sell their wares. What was interesting is that we did buy several items –well lots of things…and after the first day, they didn’t bother us at all. I watched these people “attack” the newcomers…. And the newcomers I am sure wondered how my husband and I could just walk down the street and not be bugged by anyone. The minority people are great at remembering faces. They knew we were not new to town and that we did buy some items. So they left us alone.

Our hotel was located very close to a Catholic church…in fact the bells woke me up one morning. As I had said previously, I have lived in Hanoi for awhile and have seen little, if any outward sign of religion. I do see Buddhist shrines in some stores…but nothing like other Asian places I have visited. So….to find a large Catholic Church in Sapa was interesting…and also a carry-over from the French. On Friday night we were out for a late evening walk and wandered by the church. We could hear singing, so I walked up to the door and was met by a “standing room only” crowd of people. They were bunched outside the front door…..gathered at the side doors…everywhere. I am short and couldn’t see…so I asked my husband to see if the church was really full or if it was just curious people at the door. He said the place was totally packed. But here is where it gets interesting. The place was packed with Hmong people. Wall-to-wall….singing traditional sounding hymns…taking communion…. Sharing the peace with all. I was totally floored. Never expected to see Hmong in that environment.

Well….. this report has gotten long…and I apologize for getting off track a bit. But I wanted people on this board to know how much I appreciated the advice I received from them. I saved a ton of $$$ by booking this trip myself. But we did not scrimp in any way—except the train. By doing this ourselves, we were able to build our trip based upon our wishes; our hotel selection; our timetable; the weather (which can be variable) and how well our ol’ bodies withstood the climbing and trekking. If I was living someplace besides Vietnam, I would have done everything the same (hotel, transportation, treks) except probably the train. Book the train though a travel agency…then you don’t have to deal with getting tickets and you can be picked up and delivered to the correct train. I probably would go with a mid-range ticket price…but don’t get sucked into the very expensive ones unless you typically travel first class. You do not need to pre-book treks and tours. Wait until you get to Sapa to see how you feel…what the weather is like. There are dozens of companies just waiting to work with you. And if you are lucky like we were, you can also book tours with a minority guide who will give you a very personal and honest view of life in the region around Sapa!
gailmo is offline  
Old Oct 20th, 2008, 02:25 AM
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Nice, detailed report - thanks so much for posting. We will be spending 3 nights (not including train travel) in the area next April.
Craig is offline  
Old Oct 20th, 2008, 02:45 AM
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Thanks for the trip report. The detail was enthralling. The train info was very helpful. Timely report, no penalty.
Gpanda is offline  
Old Oct 20th, 2008, 11:02 AM
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Thanks for the report. I really appreciate all the details. It sounds like you had a great time.
Kristina is offline  
Old Oct 20th, 2008, 01:05 PM
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Thank you for this thoughtful, nuanced report.
marya_ is offline  
Old Oct 20th, 2008, 01:12 PM
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Thanks for the report and the hotel info. Congrats on navigating the regular train - although I don't remember having much difficulty with the trains from Hanoi, I think both of mine left from the platform next to the station building.
thursdaysd is offline  
Old Oct 20th, 2008, 04:39 PM
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Pretty good description and great details that I hadn't thought to add to my report. I now remember that I did see a lot of the hill tribe women wearing crucifixes (sp?)
I also noticed this with the hill tribe women in Thailand.

I often wondered how I would have made my way if I hadn't booked through an agency. Rather complicated to sort through travel from Hanoi to Sapa.
Femi is offline  
Old Oct 26th, 2008, 05:29 AM
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Topping this for gailmo who could not find it. Please add more details!
Kristina is offline  
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