I am not a night traveller. Hate taking night flights that arrive next morning. I can’t sleep well on planes, or any vessel in motion for that matter. It drains me and leaves me zombified the next day. So, while planning my visit to Sapa, the choice of a day trip by bus instead of the more popular night train is a no brainer for me.
How to get from Hanoi to Sapa
Sapa is in a mountainous region about 320 km from Hanoi. Before the opening of the Hanoi to Lao Cai highway in 2014, the most feasible way to get to Sapa from Hanoi is by train. Most trains leave at 10pm and arrive around 6am at Lao Cai. From here you need to take a shuttle bus for the 1.5 hour ride to Sapa. A 10-hour journey that can sap you if you can’t sleep on the train, not to mention the disgusting toilet stories on some rickety trains. It’s another 7 hours wait to check in to the hotel.
With the opening of Noi Bai – Lao Cai highway there is a better alternative (unless taking trains is in your bucket list). Many express buses and private vans now ply the highway and travel time is almost halved from 10 hours to 5.5 hours. Along the way you get to enjoy scenic views of green padi fields, remote villages and misty mountains, arriving just in time to check in to the hotel.
Sapa Express Bus
Safety is high on my list of considerations on my travels. Many stretches of the route from Hanoi to Sapa consist of winding roads because of the mountainous terrain. In Vietnam where traffic rules are lax, whether you arrive at your destination in one-piece depends very much on the competency of the driver.
Not surprisingly online reviews mentioned near misses, speeding and dangerous driving often enough to cause concern. All the companies I researched had their fair share of complaints. So the best option, from safety point of view, is to opt for a large bus.
One of the biggest bus operators from Hanoi to Sapa is Sapa Express. From pictures on their website, their coaches are look relatively new with recliner seats. Many configurations are available from 16 to 38-seater buses, some with beds. I chose the 28-seater which costs USD32 return per pax.
Sapa Express provides free pickup from hotels in the Old Quarter. The free shuttle picked us up at 6.30am at Hai Bay Hotel where we were staying for transfer their main office at 12 Ly Thai To, where we were assigned seats. The coach departed for Sapa at around 7am with a full load of passengers.
The recliner seats were comfortable with plenty of legroom. Along the way the attendant distributed snacks and bottled water. Wi-Fi was pretty good too. Good enough for YouTube and streaming movies although it dropped off when approaching the mountains during the last hour of the trip.
There’s a stretch break 2 hours into the journey. The coach stopped for 30 minutes at Phu Tho for toilet visits, quick meal and Vietnamese coffee fix.
The bus arrived at Sapa town centre around 1.30pm. The journey didn’t seem long as I busied myself with catching up with friends on Whatsapp, watched a movie on my tablet and caught a few winks in between.
Returning to Hanoi from Sapa
We had a late lunch in Sapa Town and assembled at 8 Thu Dau Mot street at 15:30pm for the journey back to Hanoi. We arrived at Sapa Express office in Hanoi at 12 Ly Thai To around 9pm.
Both trips were smooth and without incidents. Not surprisingly, it is common for drivers to speed given the open roads and long drive. But seeing the drivers having the mutual understanding to give way to each other during overtaking gave me a little less cause for worry. Live and let live seems to be the adage on the roads here. Which is a good thing.
Hotels we stayed in Hanoi and Sapa:
Hai Bay Hotel – Newly opened in 2018, Hai Bay is conveniently located in the Old Quarter, close to Hoen Kiem Lake, popular eateries and quaint shops. We paid USD60/night inclusive of taxes for Deluxe Double on Agoda. Includes breakfast and free Wi-Fi. Rooms are of good size and pleasing wood decor, beds are comfortable and has a large writing desk tucked neatly at the corner. Liked the room. Prefer this to Golden Sun Suites we last stayed in.
Sapa Diamond Hotel – Also recently opened. Facilities are new. Big rooms with spectacular views from our balcony. Get the mountain view room if it is within your budget. Can see Fansipan and Cat Cat village on a clear day. 15-min walk to the town centre. Front desk staff very helpful in organising tours around Sapa valley. Nice lounge and good breakfast with a view. Paid USD41/night for Deluxe Mountain View Double inclusive of taxes from Agoda. Comes with free breakfast and Wi-Fi.
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