When you want to escape from the hustle and bustle of Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, take a trip northwest into the mountains and head for the beautiful town of Sapa. This former hill station was founded by the French in 1922 and is today one of Vietnam’s popular tourist destinations, known for its striking scenery and rich cultural diversity. Referred to as both Sapa and Sa Pa, the town is easy to get to from Hanoi as there are plenty of different tour companies serving this route.
What are the Options for Travel from Hanoi to Sapa?
There are basically two ways you can travel from Hanoi to Sapa: by train or by road. Having said this, this will not limit your options when it comes to choosing something that suits your budget and your schedule because there are numerous different companies operating both trains and buses. By road, the journey from Hanoi to Sapa is around 317 kilometers (200 miles) which should take in the region of 5 hours. Trains to Sapa take longer but then most, if not all of them, travel overnight so you can get some sleep. More details on the sleeper trains and buses can be found below…
By Bus from Hanoi to Sapa
There are three advantages to traveling by bus or minivan from Hanoi to Sapa: the first is that it’s cheaper, the second is that it’s faster, and the third is that the buses and minivans take you all the way to Sapa itself; something that the trains cannot do.
The company Grouptour operates both the buses and minivans on this route, and there are around six different departure times each day. There are more minivans than there are buses so you have more chance of getting a seat on a minivan at late notice, however, they do cost more than the buses and you’ll have less facilities on board. Minivans are considered a VIP service and they are comfortable with reclining seats and air conditioning, and there will obviously be less people on the van if you prefer a quieter and more individual experience. However, with no drinks, snacks or toilets on board the van will have to make several stops along the way, giving you a chance to get out and stretch your legs.
The buses also offer a VIP service and these are actually sleeper buses with reclining seats so you can snooze if you want to, but they also have a lot more facilities on board including air conditioning, plus snacks, TVs, a toilet and a steward service. There is only one bus that travels overnight from Hanoi, arriving in Sapa at around 4.30 in the morning, and, of all the bus services this is the cheapest option. The buses are scheduled to take 6.5 hours while the minivans are scheduled to take 5.5 hours so bear this in mind also when considering which one you would prefer.
Take the Train to Sapa from Hanoi
Many travelers will tell you that taking the train to Sapa from Hanoi is the best way to travel between these two destinations because the road journey is long and that traveling on Vietnamese roads is not always safe. This may have been true in the past, but a new highway has greatly improved this route, making it faster and safer to travel to Sapa from Hanoi by road. In the end, it really comes down to personal preference and budget. Most of the train options are considerably more expensive than traveling by bus or minivan, but you could argue that you are getting a better service for the money – trains should be more comfortable than a bus as you have far more space to move around in, and, if you do choose a sleeper car you will be able to benefit from an actual bed rather than just a reclining seat.
Apart from being more expensive, the other drawback with a train is that you will still have to take a bus to get you into Sapa itself. The train station is in Lao Cai, in the valley below the mountains in which Sapa is located, and there’s a very winding road you’ll have to travel by minibus or private transfer. It’s only around 35 kilometers (22 miles) but because of the many curves in the road it will take somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour, so do bear this in mind as you will need to add this transfer time to your journey.
When traveling by train from Hanoi to Sapa you have a variety of different options. The trains all run on the state-owned Vietnam Railways, but each train has different cars that are owned by private companies all vying for your business. Whichever car you choose you’ll probably be getting a ticket for a sleeper car but they do vary in price considerably so look around at the different options. The cheapest option is to stick with Vietnam Railways: they have a first-class sleeper which is only a little more expensive than the minibus from Hanoi to Sapa. But, if you prefer something a little more upmarket you could travel in one of the following cars: Fanxipan, Livitrans Express, or Violette Express. Orient Express, King Express, and Pumpkin Express all offer a similar service, while Chapa Express and Victoria Express are usually considerably more expensive but are presumably more comfortable.
Whichever option you choose you will have access to bathrooms, steward service, and food onboard the train, and the entire train ride from Hanoi to Sapa should take around 8 hours.
With a better and safer highway, getting from Hanoi to Sapa by road is not as much of an ordeal as it used to be and if you’re trying to get to Sapa a little faster and for less money, the buses and minivans are a very good option. Even so, the trains to Sapa from Hanoi are popular too, so which one will you choose?!