Getting there & away
The gateway to Sapa is Lao Cai, 38km away on the Chinese border. Buses to points west such as Lai Chau and Dien Bien Phu pass through a few times a day from Lao Cai, the main transport hub. Sapa’s bus station (for minibuses in this case) is in the north of town.
Minibuses make the trip from Lao Cai regularly between 5am and 5pm (25, 000d, 1½ hours). In Sapa, minibuses wait in front of the church but do not run to any particular schedule. However, in Lao Cai minibuses wait for the train that arrives from Hanoi. If you are arriving from China, you can pick one up at Lao Cai bus station.
The advertised rate of hotel minibus services to Bac Ha (110km) for the Sunday market is around US$10 per person; departure from Sapa is at 6am and from Bac Ha at 1pm. It’s cheaper to go to Bac Ha by public minibus, changing buses in Lao Cai.
Driving a motorbike from Hanoi to Sapa is feasible, but it’s a very long trip, so start early. The total distance between Hanoi and Sapa is 380km. The last 38km are straight uphill – unless you’ve been training for the Olympics, it’s hell on a bicycle.
The train trip between Lao Cai (gateway station to Sapa) and Hanoi has become much more comfortable with the advent of a soft-sleeper class and private rail carriages hitching a ride on the main train. Currently, a sleeper ticket between Hanoi and Sapa can be booked only through hotels and agencies in Sapa, but in Hanoi you can book at the station. There is an official Railway Booking Office (871 480; 7.30-11am & 1.30-4pm) on Pho Cau May in Sapa which charges a 7000d service fee for seats, 10, 000d for a sleeper.
Ticket prices start at 79, 000d for a hard seat (bad choice!) to 223, 000d for an air-conditioned soft sleeper, and rise by about 10% at weekends. There are also several companies operating special private carriages with comfortable sleepers, including the affordable ET Pumpkin (www.et-pumpkin.com) and the more luxurious and expensive Victoria Express (www.victoriahotels-asia.com).
The day train leaves Lao Cai at 10.20am, while two night trains depart 8.35pm and 9.15pm, with the later express service including the private carriages. The journey takes about 10 hours. From Hanoi the all-stations day train departs at 6.15am and the night trains depart at 9.20pm and 10pm respectively.