It is hard to miss the travel agencies, all over Vietnam, advertising excursions to Sapa. The region’s draws include picturesque rice paddy terraces, the Hoang Lien Nature Reserve and Mountain range – home to Vietnam’s highest peak, Fansipan, hundreds of miles of trekking trails and distinctive ethnic minority hill-tribes. It is not hard to see why Sapa continues to draw both Vietnamese and international tourists keen on exploring this stunning area.
Most agencies offer between two and five day excursions to Sapa from Hanoi. Transport is mainly during the evening, either via a night train (to Lao Cai and then a bus to Sapa town) or a sleeper bus (sometimes stopping in Lao Cai). It is however possible to make the journey from Hanoi to Sapa during the day by bus, which we decided to do.
Having already travelled around Vietnam by both bus and train, we wanted to travel by day so that we could see the countryside. Bumpy night-time journeys in Vietnam afford little opportunity for sleep and mean that you miss out on the sights that make a road-trip worthwhile: People working the paddy fields, water buffalo being led work or rest, small villages and an evolving landscape.
Sao Viet was the only company we could find (with help from the brilliant staff at Tu Linh Palace in Hanoi) that offered a daytime service. We did however, need to take a 150,000 VND cab to the office to book and pay for our tickets for the following day. This resulted in three journeys to the Sao Viet office, costing just over 400,000 VND (thanks to a little negotiating on the return journey resulting in a discounted rate). The two return bus tickets to Sapa cost 1,200,000 VND. Let’s forget that we were originally told that we could take the bus at 8.30am, only to travel across town to reserve those seats, and then be informed that we had to leave at 6.30am (a 4am check out to make our way across town in Hanoi’s morning traffic). Still, a better choice than travelling at night with no sleep and missing out on the north Vietnamese countryside. Departing from Hanoi, our journey to Sapa took 13 hours (we were told 9-10), including rest-stops and a change of bus in Lao Cai. The last leg from Lao Cai to Sapa was a white-knuckle ride featuring some reckless overtaking manoeuvres by the mini-bus driver.
Our plan for our one full day in Sapa was for a more challenging hike, however since I wasn’t feeling very well, we decided to make the much shorter walk to Cat Cat village – a leisurely 4 hour circular route. Easily accessed from the Sapa Unique Hotel where we were staying, we simply continued downhill on Fansipan street, until we reached a small booth where a fee of 50,000 VND per person was charged for entry into Cat Cat Village (including a small map).
The Cat Cat Village walk was certainly picturesque and a lot less physically challenging than other, longer walks that are available in and around Sapa. Although it is mostly down hill, the return uphill journey can be made even easier, thanks to the countless locals who offer a motorbike ride back up to Fansipan Street for around 30-50,000 VND.
Local hawkers are in abundance around Cat Cat, selling the usual trinkets, scarves, leather goods and handbags, all of whom seem to sell the same thing. During your walk, many of the very friendly (and persistent) local ladies will offer to either guide you, or sell you one thing or another. These characters speak a good level of English and my partner found himself explaining to five women that “I might later” doesn’t actually mean “I will later”. Be sure to bargain as it is all part of the experience, but never loose face or be rude. It did become a little frustrating, having paid to walk around a village, that most of what was sold was not hand-made or local, and we did feel rather pestered.
At the lower section of the walk, you come to Tien Sa waterfall (Thac Tien Sa) and the Flower Stream (Suoi Hoa), a good opportunity to rehydrate and relax before the return journey.
Most visitors to Sapa tend to take part in the longer walks, a little further outside Sapa town. Cat Cat is usually an ‘add-on’ to most tourists trips. It is a very pretty walk, in the shadow of Fansipan, although due to the time of year we visited, only about a fifth of the rice paddies were being cultivated, leaving the terraced landscape somewhat less picturesque than we had expected.
We would highly recommend travelling by day – the journey, although long, is picturesque (especially the latter half). We didn’t have enough time in Sapa, so give yourselves at least two full days there. We highly recommend the Sapa Unique Hotel where we received some of the best service during our three months in Vietnam, thanks to Mr Hung and his colleague (check out their current trip advisor status: 5 stars, 38 excellents and 3 very goods – no negative reviews at all). Also, head over to Sapa Rooms for a hearty bowl of soup and baguette after a long walk. Do not try Lao Cai bottled beer…. I will say no more, but trust us on this one…..
Sapa Trip 19th – 21st May 2013
Sao Viet Bus Company:
For 2 people return Hanoi – Sapa 1,200,000 VND
Sapa Unique Hotel:
Double Room with stunning views incl Breakfast – 525,000 VND
Entrance to CatCat Village:
50,000 VND Per Person
Sapa Rooms (Bistro Café – Fansipan Street)
Meal for two including soup starter, main course and drink – 455,000 VND
Nature View (Opposite CatCat View Hotel – Fansipan Street)
Meal for two including a bottle of (terrible) Lao Cai Beer and soft drink – 285,000 VND