Sapa is 320 kilometers northeast of Hanoi; This is where you can truly experience Vietnam. Before thinking about venturing to Sapa, remember that from May to August is the rainy season; Rain, typhoons, and landslides are common and can lead to accidents and unpleasant experiences.
Travelers can choose between a shuttle, a minibus, a sleeper bus, a private car, a combination of train and taxi, or renting a motorcycle to get to Sapa. I will detail these options based on the effort required to make plans in three categories: ease of booking, interior comfort, and expected experiences.
Here are the means of transportation:
From Hanoi to Sapa by train
Traveling by train is a must-have experience in Vietnam. From Hanoi to Sapa, you have to stop at Lao Cai station. From there, you will need to take a second transport to get to your destination. It takes about eight hours by express train and an hour and a half to get to Sapa.
Vietnam Railways operates two daily express trains connecting Hanoi to Lao Cai: SP1 (9:35 pm from Hanoi – 5:30 am in Lao Cai) and SP3 (10:00 pm to 6:05 am). The train only stops at major stations, so the journey should be smooth and straightforward.
In high season and on holidays, there are more trains such as SP5 and SP7 that are available to meet demand. The train has standard cars operated by Vietnamese Railways (VNR) and custom cars operated by private railway companies. VNR cars consist of different classes: soft seats, six-berth sleepers and four-berth sleepers ranging from 155,000 VND to 400,000 VND ($6 to $17), all equipped with air conditioning, decent toilets, and hot/cold water dispensers.
The carriages operated by private railway companies typically range from four or two-bed sleepers costing from 500,000 VND to 3,500,000 VND ($20 USD to $150 USD), depending on the quality and standards.
Be aware that there are scamming companies that sell regular VNR berths for higher prices and bluff about the quality. Always plan ahead and book round-trip tickets if you wish to return to Hanoi by train, to avoid situations of full booking.
For a standard VNR seat, the best way to check availability and book online is to do it through the official website – dsvn.vn. The English button is located at the top right and the site is easy to navigate. Payment is securely processed online and you can receive an e-ticket or opt to pay later and collect the physical ticket at the station. In addition, there is also a bus service option from Lao Cai to Sapa available for an extra 45,000 VND ($2 USD) that accompanies the ticket.
If you wish to have a better experience, try private trains. They range from refurbished standard cabins to five-star luxury carriages in Indochinese colonial style. Here is a list of four trustworthy companies offering good services:
Price: $22 USD for a berth in a luxury four-berth cabin, to $97 USD for a private VIP two-berth cabin
Hotline: (+84) 94 725 0025 – Ms. Linh
Price: $35 USD for a berth in a luxury four-berth cabin up to $70 USD for a berth in a VIP two-berth cabin
Hotline: +84 43 929 0999 / +84 43 929 0597
Price: $79 USD for a berth in a luxury four-berth cabin to $135 USD for a berth in a superior two-berth cabin
Hotline: (+84) 214 387 1522
Once you arrive at Lao Cai station, numerous transportation options await to take you to Sapa, typically at a “fixed” rate of about 100,000 VND ($5 USD) for buses and 500,000 ($25 USD) for private cars.
However, there are aggressive scammers who initially quote 100,000 VND ($5 USD), then charge up to 200,000 to 300,000 VND once they have your luggage in the trunk. It’s hard to single out these scammers from the crowd, but they are often aggressive and they will try to get you to their bus.
You can also try to negotiate. If the bus isn’t completely filled at departure, the drivers sometimes roam around town to fill empty spaces. Therefore, it’s best that your hotel arranges the pickup for you, which guarantees you a fixed rate.
There is also a public bus to Sapa, which frequently starts at 5:20 am and costs no more than 30,000 VND ($1.5 USD). The official bus stop is right across the station. Public buses are red and yellow, parked at the bus station, so avoid those trying to get you to take their bus inside the station.
The journey to Sapa takes just over an hour. This is where the views begin. Spectacular panoramas follow you into the mountains: clear sky, colorful terraced fields, and vast green mountains. The road winds through a mountainous area, so you should expect continuous curves. Take motion sickness medication if necessary.
From Hanoi to Sapa by bus
These buses are easy to book and hard to be scammed, making them good options. Book directly through your receptionist in Hanoi for ease. You can also get a ticket at almost all travel agencies in the Old Quarter.
You can also try booking online. But I only recommend booking the ticket over the phone and paying later when you get on the bus. Online payment often leads to scams and service provider issues.
The price varies from 220,000 VND ($10 USD) to 450,000 VND ($20 USD), depending on the amenities of the bus (wifi, outlets, water and snacks, toilets, etc.). The air conditioning is excellent and the bus usually stops once at a gas station where you can grab snacks and stretch your legs.
Many websites will mislead you into thinking the journey only takes 5.5 hours but it should actually last from 6 to 6.5 hours, due to traffic and weather conditions. It’s also important to note that sometimes minibuses or shuttles circle around Hanoi for about an hour to gather more passengers before actually taking off. You might be crammed with too many passengers.
I’ve compiled the departure times of express buses and sleeper buses throughout the day; pick-up from your hotel is also widely available, you can ask the reception about booking:
- Morning, 6:00 – 7:00, arrives in Sapa at noon
- 12h – 13h, arrives at sunset or early evening in Sapa
- Night, from 21h to 22h, arrives early in the morning (I do not recommend this choice as you will miss the beautiful scenery on the way)
There are numerous bus options, but I recommend Sapa Express as the best option, followed by Queen Cafe VIP Open Bus, EcoSapa Limousine, and Ha Son Hai Van. You can check their schedules, amenities, and prices here.
From Hanoi to Sapa by private car
If you’ve already booked your stay in Sapa or are staying in Hanoi, ask your accommodation if they can arrange a private car for you. Let them know the pickup address. This could be the airport address or your hotel in Hanoi. A car will be sent to you at the indicated time for your convenience. The fees vary, but this is the least stressful option.
You can also arrange a private car from any travel agency in Hanoi’s old quarter. Always ask the price before booking. For your reference, I recommend Hanoi Private Car, which responds in French and has English-speaking drivers:
It offers one-way trips for 152 € for a four-seater car and 160 € for a seven-seater car. Most agencies should go from 150 € to 200 € for a single trip, but this also depends on the quality of the car.
From Hanoi to Sapa by motorbike
Getting to Sapa by scooter is quite enjoyable. You just need to be extra careful on the mountainous curves, note all the guiding landmarks listed below, and rest frequently to take care of your body. There are two common routes:
Go northwest along the Red River to Lao Cai, then continue on to Sapa. This is the fastest route (only 334 kilometers), but also the most challenging. I suggest writing down all the road names in Vietnamese in case you need to stop for help from a local.
From Hanoi, head towards QL32 (National Highway 32).
Stay on the road until you reach the first landmark – Tam Nong Garden Park in Phu Tho province: “Vuon Hoa Tam Nong, quan Tam Nong, tinh Phu Tho”. You’ve made it 25% of the way.
Take the road to the left of this triangular park. Turn again at the end to continue on QL32.
There will be an intersection where QL32 turns left, keep straight on QL32C.
Follow QL32C, the Red River should still be on your right until you arrive at the second landmark: “Cau Yen Bai, Hong Ha, tp. Yen Bai” – which is the Yen Bai Bridge in Yen Bai city. You’re 45% of the way.
Cross the bridge, go around the roundabout, and follow the path to the left “Duong Nguyen Phuc – DT163” and continue straight while keeping the Red River in sight. You should see the railway too.
Once you reach the “Ga Trai, An Binh, Van Yen, Yen Bai” – Trai Hut train station, the road (DT163) turns left. Keep going straight, with the river on your left.
The next landmark will be “Lang Khay, Lam Giang, Van Yen, Yen Bai”. Keep going straight once you’ve passed it and, again, you should be riding with the river on your left until you reach the Lao Cai province.
Keep going straight until you arrive at “Thai Van, Bao Ha, Bao Yen, Lao Cai”. The route stops following the river and turns right. Follow the main road and don’t bother with the routes on the right, until you reach a three-way intersection. Turn left at the intersection. If you’re unsure of where you are, ask a local about “Song Hong” – the Red River. It should be west of your location. You’re now 80% of the way.
Continue on the road again. “Pho Lu, quan Bao Thang, Lao Cai city” is the next landmark. Once there, ask for QL4E road, which crosses the river out of the city.
Follow QL4E to “Thanh pho Lao Cai” – Lao Cai city.
Go to “Cho Kim Tan, thanh pho Lao Cai” – Kim Tan market in Lao Cai city and turn onto QL4D – your road to Sapa!
For your reference, here’s the route on Google Maps.
Follow QL32 going past Mu Cang Chai district in Yen Bai. This is one of the most spectacular landmarks in Vietnam. You can conquer two of the four legendary mountain passes in the northwestern region before reaching Sapa. This is a longer route (440 kilometers), but it offers a better view.
From Hanoi, take QL32 (National Highway 32).
Stay on QL32 until you reach QL4D and turn right to go to Sapa. That’s it!
I recommend writing these important words down to show to locals in the following order: “QL32”, “Mu Cang Chai”, “QL4D”, “Sapa” – cross them off as you go. The road diverges in all directions, so a compass is useless. Use the map and these words to reach your destination.
For your reference, here’s the route on Google Maps.
The first route should be faster and sometimes frustrating with so many turns and landmarks. As it runs along the river, you pass through pretty towns and villages, for a peaceful ride.
If the first ride is too complicated and you want to enjoy more sightseeing and conquer passes, the second option is for you. Remember that the second route is 100 kilometers longer. You will need to keep your scooter well maintained and fuelled as much as possible. Along the way, in addition to the grand panorama of Mu Cang Chai district, you can also visit ethnic villages and hidden waterfalls.