While the chance to visit Sapa again was one of the main reasons we included northern Vietnam in our itinerary on this trip, we had some reservations about traveling there again. When we first visited this place a few years ago, we came away with the feeling that this was one of the most magical places we had ever been anywhere in the world. Not only was the landscape absolutely beautiful with rice terraced fields running thousands of feet down mountainsides to rivers in the valleys below but the many different ethnic minority groups who lived there were some of the most colorful & kindest people we had ever met. They seemed more like they had had been dropped there from some utopian outer space community than they had fled there to avoid thousands of years of oppression in other parts of Asia.
And even if our memories were accurate, when we were there before we knew that there was no way the place and the people could remain the same once more tourists started going there. So when we read that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spent Christmas 2011 in Sapa, it seemed that it was just a matter of time before the end of Sapa as we knew it.
But we went back anyway…and loved it again.
True enough, development is coming to the region. There is a large dam being built on the river that runs through the area and in the near future, some of the valley will be flooded and some of those rice terraced mountainsides that took generations to build will be lost forever.
And it was kind of odd seeing traditionally dressed little Hmong girls walking in the town and the nearby villages in their Adidas sneakers with a Northface book bag on their back while texting on their cell phones. But I am happy to report that at least for the time being, Sapa is still Sapa and the magic is still there.
The one thing that might delay the ruination of Sapa is that it’s not easy to get there. The most common way to go is to take an overnight train out of Hanoi to the city of Lao Cai located about a 45 minute drive from Sapa and just across the river from the border with China. There are several trains that can be taken but the SP1 is among the fastest.
In addition there are several options for carriages and seating on the trains but one of the more comfortable options on the SP1 is the Tulico carriage where many tourists opt for the 4-berth soft sleeper at a cost of roughly $70 for the round trip. Those that prefer not to share a cabin will book all 4-berths for 2 people. There is also 1 cabin on the Tulico carriage with 2-berths, which costs $140 per person for the round trip. We booked early and took that option.
It is advisable to pre-arrange transfer from Lao Cai to Sapa as it’s a bit of a chaotic scene on arrival and it is comforting in such situations to see someone holding a card with your name on it that will guide you on your way. The typical cost for a one way ride in a shared van is roughly $5 USD. Private taxis can also be pre-booked.
Tulico is reasonably comfortable but it is not a luxury train. The only luxury train option to Sapa is the Victoria Express Train but that is reserved exclusively for guests of Victoria Sapa Hotel at a cost of $140 per person 1-way for 4-berth and $290 for 2-berth cabin.
The travel agent that we purchased our Tulico train tickets from provided us with a voucher and directions on how to exchange that for the actual ticket at the train station on the night of departure. The people we were supposed to meet to do that were late so there was some confusion that night and we happen to meet a Spanish speaking tour guide who helped us along. He had attended university in Cuba and for some reason asked if we spoke Spanish. It was kind of a surreal scene sitting on a bench at the Hanoi Train Station speaking Spanglish with a Vietnamese tour guide.
Other than spend some time in the town of Sapa, on this trip we took a trek into the Muong Hoa Valley one day and went to the very colorful Sunday market in Muong Khuong on another. Read more on those days by clicking here for Muong Hoa Valley and here for the Muong Khuong Sunday Market.
On this trip, we stayed at the Cha Pa Garden located in the heart of Sapa Town. It is a nice property but our experience could have been better. We wanted to like the Cha Pa Garden. We really did. In fact, there were some things about it that we liked a lot, but some other things that impacted our experience in a negative way.
- Use of room on early check-in
- Service of hotel staff
- Small garden areas and the building itself are attractive
- Furnishings are modern and tasteful
- Unreliable transportation arrangements
- Poor communications from owner
- A/C and heat did not work in our room for the entire 3–day stay.
It wasn’t a terrible experience but based on our stay there this trip, it is hard to give it a strong positive recommendation.