Sapa is 380 km north west of Hanoi. You can either go by bus or train. We opted for the night train, as it’s part of the classic Sapa experience. The nearest train station to Sapa Town is Lao Cai. From here you can take a mini-bus (50k/person - 50 minutes). I was unable to find the cheaper public bus in the sea of hustlers and stalkers. My advice: don’t try to be a hero. Take the 2.5$ mini-bus. Funny enough, mini-busses going the other way, from Sapa Town to Lao Chai are only 30k.
What train to pick?
A quick Vietnamese Railways 101. Train fares in Vietnam are very cheap. You can travel in 4 categories: soft sleepers (4 berths per compartment - sheet, blanket and pillow are included), hard sleepers (same, but 6 berths per compartment), soft seaters (comfy chairs that fold backwards) and hard seaters (wooden benches). All come with air conditioning. Although sadomasochists might still find hard seaters without AC on some lines.
Don’t book the fancy companies
There are different companies operating the Hanoi-Sapa line, but it’s basically the same train pulling different wagons. Some carry fancy names like Livitrans, Orient Express or Friendly Royal. These companies offer beds in shared 4 berth sleeper compartments. Prices are around 40$/person. If you really want to show off, you can dig out 80$/person for the VIP 2 berth sleeper.
Vietnamese Railways is half the price
It’s silly to pay all that money. We paid half (20$/person) for soft sleepers in a 4 berth compartment of Vietnamese Railways. And yes, we've seen with our own eyes that the fancy companies have fancier doors and fancier bed linen. But do you really care on a night train? The whole idea is to sleep, right? My 1m80 could just fit into the top bed. There’s a reading lamp and a socket to charge your phone. The train wobbles a lot, but it’s a pleasant journey. Buy some supplies at the the local 7-Eleven before boarding. There’s a hot water tab in each wagon, perfect for a Cup-a-Noodles. The toilets are a little funny. There’s no flush. The bowl is filled with some kind of sawdust. My advice: don't wait too long to do your business, if you know what I mean.
Beware of FAKE Vietnamese Railways websites
I bet you already googled ‘trains to Sapa' and ended up on vietnamrailways.net, vietnam-railway.com or vietnamrailway.com. Watch out, these are FAKE sites from travel agencies. The official Vietnamese Railways website is called: www.dsvn.vn - the site has an English translation button and gives you a good idea of the official fares. The only problem: you can’t pay with your foreign credit card. My Malaysian card didn’t work. So we’re back to travel agencies.
I am kind of hesitant booking tickets “that will be delivered to your hotel in Hanoi” and picking up the tickets at the railway station sounds so stressful. Together over the bridge - is my motto. You take the money, I take the tickets.
Get your e-tickets
E-tickets are now accepted on VR trains. I booked ‘live’ via the www.baolau.vn - a company that seems to be reliable and accepts foreign credit cards. I picked Vietnamese Railways, 2 beds in a soft sleeper at 395k/person. I was charged an extra 2 x 40k ‘service fees’ and 44k ‘processing fees’ - the usual lingo for ‘commission.’ Total: 894k (39.8$) for 2 persons. Little later, I received the e-tickets. It is a must to book upfront, weekend trains sell out quickly.
Take the Night Bus back
The night train is a nice adventure, but for the way back, we took the direct bus from Sapa to Hanoi. This saves you the mini-bus ride to Lao Cai (and 30k/person). Plus, the bus is much faster (6 hours instead of 9) and cheaper: 210k/person (less than 10$). Go buy your ticket at the Sapa bus stop. Do it upfront, even in low-season the 10 pm bus was full. Don’t book via your hotel, as they’ll charge 50% extra (16$). The bus has 3 rows of staple beds. ‘Bed’ is an overstatement, it’s like squeezing yourself into a Formule 1 cockpit. The first 2 hours are extremely curvy. I came out of the toilet, extremely seasick. I didn’t dare to touch the water bottle afterwards. But once on the highway, it’s a straight line to Hanoi. Don’t believe the ticket sellers saying you can sleep on the bus till 6 am. At 4 am we were kicked out of the bus ‘manu military’ to continue our journey to Ninh Binh. But that’s a different adventure.
Special Note for Malaysian friends flying from KL to Hanoi
Vietnam Airlines might be cheaper than Air Asia. We booked our December trip pretty late (due to visa issues). 2 return tickets to Hanoi in Premium Flex put me back a staggering RM 3060 (without Premium Flex: deduct 400 RM). It’s a donkey flight leaving KL at 6.10 AM. So that’s bye-bye sleep and extra ping-ping for the taxi night fare. For the same money, we could have flown Vietnam Airlines.
Taxi from Airport to Hanoi centre - Use the meter
The taxi driver will propose a straight fare of 20$ (450k). Don’t take it. Then, he’ll propose the common fare of 400k (18$). If you’re going to the Old Quarter, don’t take it. The meter only showed 330k (15$) when the taxi dropped us off there. You can say: that’s only 5$ difference. Yeah, but 5$ is a meal for 2 in Sapa. Cheers.