Though you can get to Sapa by various means, the train for me remains the most comfortable and sensible way to get up there. It seems that along our journey, we met a lot of people who took the train and were extremely disappointed in either the accommodations or the timing. All you need to do is a little bit of research, or at best, just follow my advice.
Most people depart for Sapa from Ha Noi, and though there are trains that run during the day, I’d recommend that you take the train that leaves at 11pm. It will take about 7 hours to get there, thus you’ll get a good night sleep and you’ll be ready and set to go when you arrive. Obviously, this also does alleviate having to spend the night in a hotel. Since time is precious when we travel to Vietnam, time traveling during daylight hours is a waste.
To make things easier, please click on this link and you’ll find the train schedules for Ha Noi/Lao Cai and back. Looking at the chart, you want to stick with the first train listed from Ha Noi, the SP1 and reserve the soft berth. If you’re not from the climbers, make sure that you get lower berths and leave the upper berths for the younger bones. I have also scanned a copy of my ticket to show you what it looks like when all is said and done. For the return, you will want to reserve on the LC6, same deal, departing at 9:15pm. You’ll get into Ha Noi at about 5:30am, and by the time you reach your hotel, someone is going to be serving breakfast. We didn’t take any photos of the train itself this time, but you can get a pretty good idea if you click here .
Although the ticket reads that they will provide you with a drink, 1 fast food, 1 cake, 1 tissue and hot water, all we did get was a small bottle of Aquafina Water. I did notice that something had changed on the train from the last trip, and that is they had toilet paper rolls (outside the toilets) for the passengers. I was well equipped with my own roll, bananas and apples just in case.
Don’t get to the station at the last minute, because you will have to walk quite a bit to first get to the train, and then to your designated car. If you have more luggage than you can carry, there are plenty of people willing to haul them for you for VDN16, 000 (about US$1).
On the way up, we shared a cabin with a young couple from Denmark, and on the way back, we had New Zealanders. During this trip, most people we met were transiting through Vietnam from Cambodia, and then heading to Thailand; the French seem to have an affinity for Myanmar (Burma), despite the restrictions of travel that are imposed.
Lao Cai Province is not too far from the Chinese border, and they actually do have trains that go into China. Naturally, this fact made us salivate a little bit, but we just didn’t have time to spare. The province is home to the Tonkinese Alps whose highest peak is Fan Xi Pang, located in Sapa. During the French occupation, Sapa served as a vacation spot, and once you’ve been there, it’s a no brainer to understand the reasons. When you arrive in Lao Cai, you still have about one hour’s worth of traveling, up mostly. You'll then be assaulted as you disembark by mini-bus drivers who want to take you to Sapa. The preferred mode of transport up is the mini-bus, and the going rate is about US$2.
27 kilometers later you will have arrived in Sapa Town whose Cau May Street is its main drag. A stunning sun welcomed us on the early morning arrival, and a view of the lake surrounded by chalets and other pastel-colored buildings elicited a jaw drop. Going past the church after a quick left, you'd swear you'd fallen into a Swiss canton. The ambiance of the place is fabulous, and at first, very European. Signs that say "auberge" (French for inn), and lessive (French for laundry) make me smile. I immediately want to get out of the bus and see everything. There’s construction going on in front of our hotel, and though it’s early, people are already working. The street is quite narrow, and is host to cars, small buses, motorbikes, bicycles and the occasional ox. We get our first glimpse of the native black H’mong tribal girls and images of the Museum of Ethnology come rushing into my head. Already, I’m falling in love with their bracelets, earrings and embroidered clothing.