To the north-west of Hanoi is the mountain getaway destination of Sapa.
An area very different from most of the Vietnamese countryside you will find along the traditional journey from Hanoi to Saigon in the south.
Rocky, mountain roads are flanked by deep valleys with walls covered in rice terraces and scattered villages.
The mostly inaccessible terrain that surrounds offers a diverse range of activities to enjoy.
But we only had 24 hours!
In This Post:
- Planning your Trip to Sapa
- Our 24 Hours in Sapa
- Recommended Sapa Itinerary
- Final Word
Planning your Trip to Sapa
How to Get To Sapa from Hanoi
There are travel options to suit a range of price, comfort and convenience. But for any western traveller you will find the prices all quite reasonable with the most expensive options being less than $25 US.
- Cost: $10-$22
- Times: Multiple AM/PM options
Depending on the level of comfort you want you can take a bus with reclining seats, or a full sleeper bed.
It is a comfortable ride as long as you are on a road. The last hour of your journey will be far more windy and a bit bumpy.
The only real trade off being that you will have to make your way to the bus terminal.
Travel time is about the same and you have some more flexibility in terms of when you travel due to the number of bus companies that service this route.
- Cost: $10-$35
- Times: Multiple AM/PM options
This is the safest, but slowest transport option.
Trains will take you from Hanoi to Lao Cai train station and you then have to transfer to another bus to make it to Sapa.
You can take an overnight train, which takes 8 hours, and will save you a night of accommodation.
The day train we don’t recommend as it makes more stops and will take up your whole day.
- Cost: $18-$20
- Pickup: Hotel
- Times: 7am & 3pm
These small vans include four VIP seats with a deep recline, USB, and water provided. Then three more seats at the back, which do not recline, but are still very comfortable.
Being a smaller vehicle you can just ask the driver if you need additional stops, plus the pickup directly from your hotel saves you time and money.
The van also has WIFI available, but this is only reliable for the first half of the trip. Once you hit the mountains it will drop in and out constantly.
Due to the lower number of people who want the higher priced service you will find limited transport times available.
The range of accommodation options will all give you a very different kind of experience.
There are homestay’s both in the city of Sapa and in the villages.
Personally, I would reserve this option for if you wanted that authentic village experience.
This will probably mean a long walk with your luggage so perhaps not for everyone. But if you want some genuine immersion in the village culture it will be worth the effort.
There is an abundance of low to mid range hotels in the middle of Sapa.
We did not book anything in advance and just asked the van driver to take us somewhere (probably his buddy’s hotel).
I think we may have been the only guests there.
The rooms were big, and the facilities adequate for what we needed. A nice, cheap, option.
High End Hotel
The Mường Hoa street on the edge of town has a number of hotels with views overlooking the valley.
If you have the money to spend this would be a spectacular view to wake up to every day!
Some options here include the aptly named Sapa Stunning View Hotel, and Sapa View Hotel…
With most activities being outdoor you will want to check the forecasts before traveling.
The best time of year to travel is between March and May due to the warm and dry spring time weather.
In Summer the warmer weather can bring with it lots of rain. It is also peak season for local tourists.
We visited in early November. The weather was cool with lots of fog and cloud around, but no rain for our visit.
It was good weather for trekking and when the sun came out it did get quite warm.
Being up in the mountains you will find that it gets cold at night no matter what the time of year so make sure you pack accordingly.
We found the internet to be poor in most places. You will struggle to stream video or use any kind of live video chat software.
However, for basic web browsing it is fine.
Sapa is well known for its BBQ restaurants.
You will find many of these scattered around town. There will be large tables of raw food on display out on the street.
You simply select what you want and it goes straight on the grill in front of you.
Read on for our experience in one of these restaurants.
You will find a handful of bars sprinkled in between the restaurants in the main part of town.
They mostly cater to the backpacker crowd so if that’s your thing then we would encourage you to just walk around and stop off wherever looks to your liking.
We walked into Relax Bar, and walked straight back out again coz it was too loud in there for a relaxing drink.
Didn’t live up to it’s name…
Other places to check out:
- Hmong Sisters – pool tables & music
- Mountain Bar & Pub – cocktails, beer & a foosball table
- Color Bar – for a more Reggae vibe
- Spider Bar – for live sport
- Karaoke Domison – we were the only ones there… so great service!
Our 24 Hours in Sapa
We quizzed our van driver on the way to Sapa about the recent weather patterns and when would be the best time to head up to Fansipan.
Apparently morning fog is the heaviest so we decided to drop our bags off on arrival and head straight to the mountain.
The taxi driver also told us not to worry about the fog around the town as the weather can be completely different when you get up high, and it changes fast.
Transport to Fansipan
The journey will take you about 10-15 minutes.
We noticed the flagfall (starting fee) on the taxi meter was much higher than it was in Hanoi.
Starting at 18k and climbing up to 95k on arrival.
Most drivers will be happy to pick you up and take you back into town, so get their phone number to organize pickup.
Note: We have since found a number of online sources that quote taxi costs of 250k so don’t be too surprised if you are asked for a fixed fee around this mark.
We may have gotten away with a lower fare due to Anh being a Vietnamese speaker.
You can avoid all of this by just taking the newly built mountain train from Sapa to the Cable Station at Fansipan Peak.
The train leaves from the MGallery Hotel and will get you to the peak in just four minutes, offering some stunning views along the way.
Unfortunate this will not save you any money with tickets costing 200k per person, with discounts available if you combine with a cable car ticket.
If you are travelling with more than one person then a taxi may be a more cost effective option.
We opted for the cable car option due to the time constraints.
It would be a long and challenging hike with three days to complete being the norm. Given the cold, foggy and wet conditions we encountered on the way up there I was happy to be in a cable car.
At this time of year there was discounted ticketing available for locals. So we got away with a cheaper ticket for Anh.
Some may baulk at this kind of discriminate pricing, but I don’t mind it when they are upfront about it.
It is the random price jumps at vendor’s discretion that piss me off.
There is a small additional fee for the mountain train to take you up the summit rather than slogging it out on the steps.
- Cost for tourists – 700,000
- Cost for locals – 300,000
- Mountain Rail –
The cable cars would easily hold 15-20 people when full, but ours was completely empty!
So we had full mobility to jump around the car and take in the 360 degree views on offer.
The moment when the cable car springs out of the loading dock over the valley the wow factor is instant!
You are launched over a broad plain of farms and rice terraces with views on either side reaching long into the foggy valley.
From there the cable car begins a climb up into the clouds with visibility that goes from zero to stunning in the blink of an eye.
What you see will change with every ride I am sure.
The ever-changing combination of fog, clouds, steep mountain ridges and thick forest was just as much of a highlight as the destination itself.
As you exit the cable car station you walk up on to a large, flat, viewing platform overlooking the steep drop back down the mountain.
Over your shoulder are the temples that continue to climb up to the summit.
At this point we were surrounded by fog which gave the whole area an eerie mystique, and views that looked different every time you looked up or down.
After climbing the steps to the train station I immediately thanked Anh for insisting we took the train instead of walking up.
When climbing stairs I tend to bounce up them in a springy, light, jog. When I hit the top I was instantly light headed…. Could I have got that unfit in a week on vacation?
After this happened for the second time I had the realization that the air is thinner up here. While its no Mount Everest at 3,100m above sea level, its noticeable.
So just walk like a normal person!
We took the train to the summit and would walk our way down via the various sights.
There are two main areas with multiple platforms. Each vantage point providing a 270-degree view.
After doing the rounds and taking some great, but foggy pics, we were to head off to the summit cafe.
This is just under the summit viewing platform, has decent coffee, and stunning views.
You can pull up a seat at any of the floor to ceiling glass windows and watch the clouds and fog float by as you relax and just take it all in.
From our seat we again experienced a near complete blackout, only to have a full view down the valley to a village town way, way off in the distance moments later.
After caffeinating ourselves we started our descent towards the first of the Buddha statue on our descent.
As we stood at the top of the staircase that snaked its way down towards the monument the clouds swept away and the glorious sunshine took over.
The staircase, the temple, the Buddhist statue, with the backdrop of a sea of clouds was one of the finest views I have seen.
My previous attempt to find a sea of clouds was at the Philippines’ Mount Pulag, and that all night trekking effort was met with haze and fog.
So this was some kind of personal redemption (with a lot less effort!!).
We continued along the walkway on the edge of the mountain face and on the way finding two men who had somehow made their way onto a rock outside of the guard rail.
I have no idea what they were doing, but it looked dangerous AF!
There is a series of monk statues next to the walkway that face down the mountain. All pulling odd faces…
Unfortunately the information boards under each one are all in Vietnamese. Anh told me that they represented people from the temples in the past and not any type of God.
This made me wonder what kind of personalities these guys had considering the bizarre faces that memorialized them!!
The trail then leads up to the Great Amitabha Buddha statue, which had an entry in the base that you can walk around.
The surrounding platform offering another area to take in the surrounding mountain views before heading down an epic staircase with a waterfall flowing through the middle.
After resisting the urge to roll a slinky down these stairs Ace Ventura style we headed back towards the cable car station for another stop at the now sunny viewing platform, before starting our journey back down.
We again managed to get a cable car all to ourselves and were met with a different blend of scenery on the way down as we did on the way up.
But quickly this led back into the dark foggy blanket awaiting us below…. Visibility zero!
After resting in the hotel and a refreshing shower we hit the town to check out the local restaurants.
Most of the action was around Sapa Lake with a number of waterfront BBQ places. Just past this was a busy three way junction with bars, restaurants and hotels a plenty.
We decided on a BBQ place that looked less flashy that was in this area.
There was a selection of skewered meat, prawns (shrimp), and some Vietnamese specialties like (name) rice, (etc etc.)
We also ordered a plate of green vegetables drenched in a garlic sauce which was sensational!
Pro Tip: Order in smaller stages so that you can eat everything fresh off the grill. We ordered everything at once which means some of it sat there until we could get around to eating it.
We also sampled a bottle of a locally made plump wine. This came in a regular plastic water bottle, but what it lacked in presentation it definitely made up for in taste (and cost!).
We intended to head to a bar for a quiet drink before deciding our next move. But we could not escape the loud music in each bar.
There is not an abundance of nightlife in Sapa and as we walked we found ourselves back near the hotel in no time.
The rice wine had been working its magic on us and we were not ready to call it just yet, so we ventured into a karaoke place a block away from the hotel.
The drink selection included some actual red wine and after polishing off some of this and a few beers as well we had stretched our initial intended hour here into well over two.
Never was the cultural difference between Anh and I so obvious as it was in this period. She sung Vietnamese songs mostly – which helped me learn at least a few new words.
We stumbled home near midnight and set an alarm for an early rise.
Muong Hoa Valley
The Taxi drivers of Sapa double up as tour guides that will take you out to the villages for a fixed fee.
We remain uncertain as to what they are meant to do for this fee as our guy drove us out to the top of the main road and pointed us down a side road that would take us through the valley via two villages.
We came across other groups who did have an actual guide with us so not sure if our guy was just lazy, or wanted to save time not having to walk back.
Either way, we still had to pay the price that was quoted to us from more than one source:
- Cost of Tour Guide – 750,000
- Entry to Valley– 50,000 each
Even with Anh speaking Vietnamese like a local I am sure we got shafted here as it was only 10kms out of town and all we needed was drop off and pickup.
The villages themselves I didn’t think were anything spectacular.
If you have traveled anywhere else in Asia where there are dirt roads, rice fields and lots of chickens then you may not see anything new.
What did make it worthwhile was the views of the rice terraces themselves. But you can see this from many different vantage points without doing the walk through the village.
Perhaps there was more to learn along the way if we had an actual tour guide. If there was, please leave us a comment below the post because we would love to know!!
Famous Chicken Lunch
There was a chicken restaurant that was recommended to us by multiple taxi drivers called the Nha Hang Hai Lam.
So we had just enough time to squeeze in a meal here before leaving Sapa.
This was the best chicken we had in Vietnam!
You are presented with a tray full of chicken pieces sitting on top of their famous sauce, and you eat with your hands (with plastic gloves on of course).
My kind of place!
There was very little conversation for the next half hour as Anh and I ripped apart chicken pieces, and nibbled them down to the bone.
Sucking out all the juiciness along the way.
It was fun, as well as delicious!
And with that we headed back to our hotel for our van pickup to head back to Hanoi ending our brief stay in Sapa (technically 27 hours total).
Recommended Sapa Itinerary
Most of the tours you will find in the local Hanoi travel agents show a three day, two night itinerary. For most people this would be sufficient.
We needed one more day so we could also head to the Silver Falls and Love Waterfall but just didn’t have the time to squeeze it in due to a wedding we were attending back in Hanoi.
Given that most of the activities are outdoors you may want to give yourself the flexibility of staying an extra day or two if the weather is bad.
- Morning – Hanoi -> Sapa
- Afternoon – Fansipan
- Waterfall trek
- Morning – Village tour
- Afternoon – Sapa -> Hanoi
For those looking to do some more heavy trekking activities you could stay in Sapa for weeks and not run out of trails to explore.
What other activities are available in Sapa?
There are plenty of additional activities available in Sapa.
We have included all worthwhile trips we could find but have not commented as we were not able to experience these for ourselves:
- Hike up to Mount Fansipan
- Tribal Villages
- Cat Cat Village
- Ta Van Village
- Sin Chai Village
- Silver Falls
- Ham Rong Flower Garden
- Sapa Night Market
- Sapa Museum
- Sapa Love Market (Saturday only)
- Cherry Blossoms of Tea Hills (December only)
- Stop by Café in the Clouds in Sapa
Day Trips from Sapa:
- Bac Ha Market
- O Quy Ho Pass
Should I book a tour?
We found the DIY route to be very easy. We didn’t book anything in advance and just figured it out as we went without a hiccup.
But we also didn’t get the best out of our village experience either. So you are likely going to be in safer hands with a tour guide.
If you want a hassle free option then you can book a tour for a reasonable price from the following:
<Insert tour operators>
Which BBQ Restaurant is the best?
There are so many to choose from that the only criteria that we would use to rate each one is what selection was available.
All BBQ restaurants have their raw food on full display in the street. Walking around and comparing them is half the fun.
Once it goes on the grill I doubt you will find much difference in cooking skills so we encourage you to just find the selection that appeals to you and drop in.
Given the serving sizes per piece are small you could probably try them all if you wanted to!
Where is the best Coffee?
If you want Vietnamese coffee then you will find plenty of places for this that are pretty much the same.
For a more westernized coffee, we found a nice café overlooking the lake at the Monaco Hotel Café overlooking Sapa Lake.
You can get a decent breakfast Banh Mi right next door to go with your morning brew.
This is a quick and easy getaway from Hanoi and worth a couple of days if you can spare it on your travels.
The climate and mountain landscape as you get close to the Chinese border provides an experience unlike most of the more popular destinations in Vietnam.
Fansipan mountain is worth the trip on its own, but give yourself time to check out all of the activities on offer and make sure you try that chicken!