From Hanoi to Sapa

A Little Mountain Town view by a local Charlottean.

From Hanoi to Sapa

by / Saturday, 12 May 2012 / Published in Stories / Tagged ,

When we got back from Halong Bay, we ended up taking a train that evening from Hanoi to Sapa, Vietnam. And after taking an organized tour of Halong Bay for a couple days, we decided to blaze our own path when we got to Sapa though we noticed when we got there that a lot of foreigners opted for a tour.

A little mountain town

The reason being is that there is a lot to see and do in Sapa and hiking is the main reason many people go there. However the small town itself has its own charm and character that is very unique to the rest of Vietnam.

you really don’t need a tour if you aren’t planning to hike. The town is very small with a population of only 36,000 and its quite a drive to get there once you arrive to Lao Cai which is the city closest to Sapa where the train arrives. And I would definitely recommend the train from Hanoi to Sapa. Better scenery, an opportunity for good sleeping and usually tickets only slightly more than a bus.

However, once you get to Lao Cai, you then have to take a mini-bus to get into town which is about an hour drive but the drive is extremely scenic as the road winds through mountain passes and valleys. Many hill sides are terraced along the way just as they are in Sapa. That feature is very characteristic of Southern China and Sapa is actually very close to the Chinese border. When we got off the train in Lao Cai on our way from Hanoi to Sapa, we headed straight for these mini-buses as the train dropped us off around 5:30AM so there weren’t many places to go other than straight to Sapa but as soon as we asked the drivers the price to get there, we got the ‘tourist price’.

They told us tickets would be 250 Dong when in fact the true price (for locals) was merely 30 Dong which, as you can imagine, is a major difference in price. So we had to do the whole song and dance again with the drivers like we do in almost every city as we would have to walk away and then they would continually lower their price by half every time. When they finally arrived at the correct price…almost ten minutes later… we piled into the vehicle with ten other Vietnamese and were on our way.

When we arrived into town, you could immediately tell the difference in climate. This was a mountain town and was downright cold when we arrived. The fact that it was pouring down rain probably didn’t help either. And after being there all of five minutes, I was regretting having sent home all my winter gear after leaving from Everest Base Camp a few months ago but who would of though it would be cold in Vietnam in the middle of spring?

We spent about two hours running in the rain with all our bags before eventually finding a good place to stay. However, we weren’t alone during our hotel search as the local Sapa women, called the Red Dzao or Dao women, were following us around all over town. Many of them were of course trying to sell their knitted goods but they were extremely friendly, spoke good English and would usually spend about five to ten minutes having a conversation with you before ever trying to sell you anything however some were downright pushy and you would just get used to it after spending a a bit of time here.

Does this poor guy look surrounded?
We were simply curious about the 'local' wine so we ordered it. Little did we know it would be pure rubbing alcohol. Maybe you can see by the picture how opaque the wine is...Its definitely not wine at all!

In the main section of town, the streets are lined with open-air markets and small shops selling both hiking and camping gear as well as winter clothing. More specifically, they are loaded with inventory of North Face clothing. A North Face jacket here will cost a fraction of what you would pay in the U.S. or Europe with most jackets averaging between $25 to $60. Are they fake? Yes, probably. However, if you look at the quality and stitch work both inside and out, you would never be able to tell. I did some research while here and found out that North Face actually produces their clothing right here in Vietnam. I also found out that the factories that produce the clothes typically have a factory just down the street that make the same exact garment knock-offs and that the factories are typically run by the same owner. So, did I buy one? Of course I did… for $25USD. Do I need it right now? Not really, and I have yet to wear it, but while you’re here, it’s really hard to pass up. The North Face jackets here are one of the things Sapa is known for.

Another place we explored was Ham Rong Mountain which looms over the city and provides a great view for miles. We spent at least a half day exploring it as its more of a park area than anything else. There are free local shows that are put on every few hours within the park and we attended one that lasted about thirty minutes. I took some video while we were there of the Sapa locals performing : Afterward, we drifted over to an open field area to eat lunch and were soon joined by a couple local kids. They were more than impressed by my friend’s hairstyle so she offered to do it for them as well.

Cat Cat village

On another day, we hiked down into the valley that is bordered by Sapa. The name is called ‘Congkhudulich’ which is also known as the ‘CatCat Tourism Area’. It was a quick hike down into the valley and the road and paths getting down there were lined with more markets from the local women selling their handmade goods. We ended up spending about three or four hours hiking through the hills on both rock pathways as well as wooden bridges. The views along the way were amazing as there were several terraced fields leading down into the base of the valleys below. And of course, there were locals throughout with several stands set up selling everything from drinks and knives to hand knitted scarves and hats.

We loved Sapa !!

We had such a great time while here, I’d recommend this place to anyone traveling through Vietnam and to spend at least a few days here. We were soon on our way back from Sapa to Hanoi to catch a flight and were about to embark on a crazy 36 hours worth of straight traveling… that will be another story!

Rory Cummins

Local Charlottean has gone international… And currently in the midst of a round the world trip that is definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity (at least for me). So where to start?

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After 10 years of desire, a swift kick in my own ass and more planning and prep than I’ve likely ever done, I’m finally ready (I think)… And hopefully touching down on 5 continents and traveling to as many places that are on my bucket list as possible. Well, maybe not so many ‘places’ but rather as many ‘experiences’ I hope to have. And if you don’t have your own bucket list made up, maybe you should create your own….

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I’ve never considered myself a ‘blogger’ nor have I joined the Tweeting nation (or as my friend calls it, ‘Tweetering’) but I figured this may be the best way to keep in touch with friends and family - you know who you are – and if you aren’t on that list and just want to drop me a line about your similar travels or suggestions for round the world travel experiences or ideas, I’d love to hear from you; especially if I’m venturing through your home stomping grounds! And in addition to keeping in touch, I also want to share what I’ve learned and hopefully inspire others looking for travel adventure. I am living proof that if you dream of world travel, you can turn that dream into reality!

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  • Hi, we are fellow travel bloggers and run a blog called Sam and the dunes. We are currently creating a list of travel blogs and wonder if you would like to exchange links with us.
    Alex and Hanna
  • I love Sapa! I want to visit Sapa! Beautiful place, Rory. The CatCat Overlook is simply amazing. Picture postcard stuff, for sure.
    Rosanne Losee
  • Thanks for sharing Rory, I used to live in Cat cat so let me know if you're coming back. It will be a pleasure to bring you where no tourist has gone before.
    Sapa Story webmaster
  • I love the photo of the Sapalese women looking amazed at the braiding job your friend, Tatiana, did on their hair. So pretty. And I the little girls with the big raincoats, and that photo of you with the Sepalese woman.
    Rosanne Losee