Sapa, set in the mountains of the far north of Vietnam, is the perfect base for enjoying some amazing mountain scenery and experiencing the culture of the Vietnamese ethnic minority hill tribes.
On the far eastern end of the Himalayas at 1500m, the town of Sapa was originally built by the French, looking for a site to build a hill station to escape the searing summer heat of Hanoi. It has an alpine feel, but with a twist - everywhere in the town you'll see the hilltribe women in traditional dress who are very good at persuading you to buy trinkets and textiles, they're great fun to bargain with.
The town has its charms, but the real joy is the surrounding stunning scenery. There are plenty of trekking and mountain biking opportunities for the energetic, but you can still experience the lifestyles of the Hmong and Dao people in other ways if you're not so keen on strenuous exercise.
There are many trekking options available from Sapa, from a short half-day trip into a local Hmong village for lunch with a family, to a full trek to the top of Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam (2 or 3 days with overnight camps). There are also excellent guided mountain bike trips.
As well as organised adventures, there is much to be said for just getting on a motorbike and riding off into the surrounding countryside and villages, or putting on your hiking boots and heading off to see what you can see.
If you have the time, you might want to consider the Ha Giang area as a side-trip, or even as an alternative to Sapa - not easy to reach, and limited accommodation options, but much quieter/less touristy than Sapa, and truly beautiful scenery.
Hanoi to Sapa Schedule
Travel Time: 6 hours
Soft seat limousine bus with 28 seats.
Travel Time: 6 hours
9 seater limousine minibus with comfortable reclining seats and personal USB chargers
There are several choices of buses for the trip from Hanoi to Sapa, and currently all have departure times at 07:00am, with some other times available on some other buses. The most expensive bus on the Hanoi-Sapa route is in a 9 seat limousine bus (a DCAR converted Ford Transit), with comfortable reclining seats. The cheapest option for your Sapa trip is a 38 seater sleeping bus. All of these options offer good value for the level of comfort provided, so take your pick to suit your budget!
For the most part, the journey from Hanoi to Sapa is on the Hanoi - Lao Cai highway (CT05) which is a pretty straight modern highway, with some nice views of the countryside, but nothing special. The last part of the drive, about 35km long (but still over an hour), is a pretty steep climb on switch-back roads through glorious mountain scenery - so definitely worth getting your sleep out of the way early on this journey and enjoying the views on the last leg. With luck, you'll get amazing views of the mountains during the climb, including a view of Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam - although its not unusual for this part of the journey to be shrouded in mist.
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