The most popular way for visitors to get to Sa Pa is by train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, then on the tourist bus to Sa Pa another 40kms away in the hills. Since there is no airport at Sa Pa, the only alternative is to take a tourist bus, which can be booked through Hanoi tour operators, or to go it alone on a rented motorbike.
There are both day and night trains, each of which has its advantages. The day train passes through the Red River Valley and passes some classic rural scenes on the way to Lao Cai, which is right on the Chinese border. The night train may not have the views, but it does save the cost of a night in a hotel and perhaps more importantly, it saves time for visitors on a tight schedule.
The bus ride from Lao Cai to Sa Pa is quite an experience in itself. The route switchbacks into the hills, opening up some superb views of terraced rice paddies that form an emerald green curtain as the crop ripens. Grab a seat on the left for the best views on the way up, and on the right on the way down.
Taking the bus from Hanoi, there’s no need to change in Loa Cai, and buses usually drop their passengers on Cau May, where most hotels are located. The downside is that it’s a long journey so can get tiring, especially if you are travelling with young children.
If you have time to visit more than just Sa Pa in the northwest, it’s worth making an adventure of the trip and following the loop road (Highway 6) that heads southwest from Hanoi and passes through Hoa Binh and Mai Chau, then goes on through Son La towards Dien Bien Phu and finally approaches Sa Pa from the east.
This unforgettable journey can be done either with a tour operator from Hanoi, a rented car and driver, or a rented motorbike. Think carefully before riding a bike around here as road conditions can be poor, especially after rain, and accidents are common. Another alternative is to put a motorbike on the train to Lao Cai, then start your exploring from there.
Getting Around Sa Pa
Since most visitors to Sa Pa have trekking on their mind, walking is the way to go here, though you’ll need to be fit even to walk around town as many of the roads are very steep. Bicycles and motorbikes are available for hire, but cycling is recommended only to those who enjoy pedalling up and down 45 degree slopes. Motorbikes are more practical, but the rough terrain demands an experienced rider.
If you are not confident enough to ride a motorbike yourself, an alternative is to hire a motorbike and rider to explore regions far from town. If you are part of a small group, then renting a 4WD vehicle with an English-speaking driver is a great option, and though rates are around US$50 a day, that’s not too bad when split between a few people.