In northern Vietnam, 200 miles (320 km) from Hanoi and close to the border with China, lies Sapa. At 4921 feet (1500 m) above sea level, Sapa lies in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, close to the highest peak in Vietnam, Fansipan. The terrain makes getting to Sapa a little tricky, but the scenic views more than make up for it.
You can get to Sapa via train to Lào Cai plus a taxi, or by private transfer, tourist bus, public bus, motorbike, or rental car. You can also cross the border from China and Laos, or head to Sapa from Dien Bien Phu and Bac Ha at the Chinese border.
You can also visit Sapa as part of a tour from Hanoi, like this amazing 8-day Trekking in Rural Vietnam trip, this 7-day Best of Northern Vietnam itinerary, or this 2-week Vietnam Off the Beaten Track tour.
By Train and Bus
Duration: 8-9 hour journey from Hanoi to Lào Cai + 1-hour bus/taxi to Sapa
A great way to get from Hanoi to Sapa is to take the train to Lào Cai and then change there and take an hour-long bus or a taxi through the mountains. The train journey takes around eight hours and the train has several different classes, including hard and soft sleepers, and soft and hard seats.
You can book tickets online in advance, at the train station, or through a travel agency. If you are planning on traveling during a holiday or if you need to travel on a certain day then you should make sure you book your tickets in advance.
From Lào Cai to Sapa you can take a private car or taxi or a shared tourist minibus or van through the mountains. You can also take a public bus, just cross the street to the bus stop when you leave the train station. Be aware that when you exit the train station you might get swarmed with touts, so it is easiest to book a transfer through your hotel and have them waiting for you when you arrive.
By Private Transfer, Taxi, and Rental Car
Duration: 5+ hours from Hanoi to Sapa
It is also possible to take a private transfer or drive to Sapa. Most people start in Hanoi, where you can find transfers and taxis in the Old Quarter. Make sure you agree on a price before you leave, and bring plenty of water and snacks for the journey. It’s a long, winding road through the mountains, so if you are prone to travel sickness then you will want to make sure you take the usual precautions.
Whilst private transfers are the easiest way to get to Sapa, with pick up and drop off included and stops on request along the way. If you go on a Sunday and leave early enough then you can also visit the famed Bắc Hà Sunday Market, home to the Flower H'mong people.
It is also possible to rent a car and drive yourself up to Sapa. Be aware that the road is very mountainous and full of blind hairpin turns. Keep an eye out for motorbikes and dogs on the road and make sure you fill up on gas before you leave as gas stations can be few and far between. You will need an international driver’s license to drive in Vietnam.
Duration: 6+ hours from Hanoi, 8+ hours from Dien Bien Phu, 8+ hours from Hà Giang, 1+ hour from Lào Cai/Hekou (China).
There are several different buses that run from Hanoi to Sapa, as well as from Dien Bien Phu, Cat Ba island (via Hanoi), and from China and Laos. From Hanoi, the bus journey can take anything from six to 10+ hours including one or two stops, and there are day time buses and night buses.
Sleeper buses are comfortable and recline, but they are a little cramped. The bus usually arrives at any time between 3 am and 6 am, so it’s worth getting in touch with your hotel and seeing if you can organize early check-in. Otherwise, ask if you can leave your bags and go out for breakfast and start exploring.
You can book buses in advance before you go, through your hotel, with a travel agency, or directly through the bus company. Booking buses through your hotel or in advance usually includes free pick up.
Buses from Cat Ba include the journey to the mainland, a short stop in Hanoi, and bottled water. Buses from China might just take you to the border at Hekou or Lào Cai, where the train stops. From there it’s a short taxi journey to Sapa. The bus from Dien Bien Phu takes around eight hours on terrible roads. There are also buses that go to Sapa from Hà Giang. The journey also takes around eight hours.
Duration: 10+ hours from Hanoi, 2+ days from Dien Bien Phu
It is also possible to drive to Sapa by motorbike or scooter. The journey from Hanoi takes around ten-hours, but it might be worth breaking it up with an overnight stay in a guesthouse in one of the small villages along the way. The road into the mountains is beautiful but is definitely not for novice drivers. It can also be very cold so make sure you bring plenty of warm clothes and cover-up. Don't even think about riding a bike without a helmet or sturdy shoes.
We also don't advise renting a bike in Vietnam if you don't have much experience riding as accidents are very common. To rent a bike in Vietnam you need to have a motorbike license issued in your home country or your insurance will be invalid. You will also need an international driver's license. Watch out for dogs, traffic, and make sure you have a full tank of gas and a cell phone with credit and a copy of your ID, license, and travel insurance, just in case anything happens to you.