320 kilometers to the northeast of Hanoi is Sapa; This is where you can truly experience Vietnam. Before you think about venturing to Sapa, keep in mind that from May to August is the rainy season; rainfall, typhoons, and mudslides are frequent and they can lead to accidents and unpleasant experiences.
Travelers can choose between a shuttle, minibus, sleeper bus, private car, a combination of train and cab, or renting a motorbike to get to Sapa from Hanoi. I will break down these options based on how much effort is required to make plans through three categories: ease of booking, interior comfort, and expected experiences.
How to get to Sapa from Hanoi?
Minibus/shuttle bus, express bus, sleeper bus
Ease of booking: 5/5 – anywhere, anytime
- 2/5 for minibus and shuttle bus – bad seats but the cheapest option
- 3/5 for express bus – soft, comfortable seat
- 4/5 for sleeper bus – lots of space and ability to sleep
Expected experiences: 3/5 – non-stop ride, hard to take pictures of scenery
Ease of booking: 4/5 – may require some arrangement and negotiation
Interior comfort: 3/5 – soft seat but still a long ride
Expected experiences: 4/5 – stops on-demand, easy for sightseeing
Take a look at their services on the websites I provided and give them a call for more details.
The private car option is as comfortable as it gets, so of course, it will be much more expensive than the other options available, therefore you can arrange with the operator and the driver if you want to visit sites along the way and have breaks on-demand as well. If you are traveling in a group or with your family, this will be the most comfortable option! Moreover, getting a private car pickup is available at any time whereas other transports are limited by set schedules.
Train to Lao Cai and Transit to Sapa
Ease of booking: 3/5 – needs to be booked beforehand and beware of bus scams from Lao Cai to Sapa
- 5/5 – luxury car gives you a lot of space
- 3/5 – normal/mid-range cabins have soft seats
Exterior experiences: 1/5 – Night trip, there is almost nothing to see apart from flickering lights and stations. For transit from Lao Cai to Sapa, the experience may vary from 3/5 (non-stop ride) to 4/5 (stop on demand) depending on your choice of transit.
Traveling by train is a must-try experience in Vietnam. From Hanoi to Sapa, you must stop at Lao Cai train station, from there you have to hop on a second transport to your destination. It takes around eight hours on the express train and another 1.5 hours to actually get to Sapa.
If you would like to have a better experience, try private-owned cars. They range from refurbished standard cabins to five-star, colonial Indochina-style luxurious cars.
Once you arrive at Lao Cai Railway Station, there are many transportation options waiting to take you to Sapa, usually at a ‘fixed’ rate of around 100,000 VND (5 USD) for busses and 500,000 (25 USD) for private cars. However, there are aggressive scammers that quote 100,000 VND (5 USD) initially and then charge up to 200,000 - 300,000 VND once they have your luggage in the trunk. It is difficult to pick these scammers out of the crowd but they are often pushy and will try to pull you over to their bus. You can try bargaining also. If the bus is not completely full on departure, drivers will sometimes stroll around the city to fill up empty spaces. Therefore, it is best to have your hotel arrange pick up for you that guarantees a fixed rate.
There is also a public bus to Sapa, which runs frequently starting at 5:20 AM and costs no more than 30,000 VND (1.5 USD). The official bus stop is just across the street from the train station. The public buses are red and yellow, parked in the bus station, so avoid anyone trying to get you on their “bus” in the train station.
The ride to Sapa takes more than an hour. This is where the views begin. Spectacular vistas follow you into the mountains: clear sky, colored terraced fields, and vast green mountains. The road traverses a mountainous area, so you should expect continuous curves. Take motion sickness medication if needed.
On your own by motorbike – for hardcore riders only!
This is considered the most challenging trip with 0/5 comfort yet it the most rewarding 5/5 experience. Avoid riding during the night for your own safety. The trip will take up to 10 hours. This of course depends on how many times you want to stop for rest and photos.
Getting a bike
Bikes can be easily rented in Hanoi, check our Getting around in Hanoi article. Make sure to thoroughly check your bike before tackling this 400-kilometer adventure. Keep in mind that topping up fuel regularly is essential, as petrol stations and garages are far apart. Bring along a 1.5-liter empty bottle to fill up with fuel in case of emergency, and you should buy petrol from official stations rather than local vendors. Local vendors sometimes dilute the fuel and this could lead to problems with your bike.
Route to Sapa
Since Sapa is very rural with little data coverage, you cannot rely on technology for the whole way. I highly recommended having this information with you: a compass (if you take the first route below), and a printed map detailing the route from Hanoi to Sapa. Do not depend on Google Maps, since it only displays the route to get to Sapa via Express Highway, which bikes cannot enter.
Getting to Sapa on your own bike is fairly pleasant; you just need to be extra careful on mountainous curves, markdown every guiding landmark listed below and take frequent rests to take care of your body. There are two common routes from Hanoi to Sapa on a motorbike:
- Follow QL32, passing Mu Cang Chai district of Yen Bai. This is one of the most spectacular landmarks of Vietnam. You can conquer two of the four legendary mountainous passes of the northwest region before reaching Sapa. This is a longer route (440 kilometers), but it has better sight-seeing.
- From Hanoi, take QL32 (national road 32).
- Stay on QL32 until you reach QL4D and turn right to get to Sapa. That’s it!
- I recommend writing these important words down in order to show them to the locals in the following order: “QL32”, “Mu Cang Chai”, “QL4D”, “Sapa” – cross them out as you go. The route diverges in every direction, so the compass is useless. Use the map and these words to reach your destination.
- For your reference, this is the link to the route on Google Maps.
The first route should be faster yet sometimes frustrating with so many turns and landmarks. Since it runs along the river, you pass through nice towns and villages, making for a peaceful ride.
If the first guide is too complicated and you would like to enjoy more sightseeing and conquer passes, then the second option is for you. Keep in mind, that the second route is 100 kilometers longer. You will have to keep your bike well-maintained and refueled whenever possible. On the way, apart from the grand spectacular panorama of Mu Cang Chai district, you can also visit some ethnic villages and hidden waterfalls as well.
There you have it, all the information you need to safely arrive in Sapa from Hanoi. If you’re looking for a thorough guide to Sapa, you’re lucky! We have one.
What is the key to a perfect holiday in Sapa? Booking ideal accommodation is the first step and I have a great recommendation. Be our guest at Christina’s Sapa and explore this incredible town with our lovely hosts! Moreover, whenever you need transportation, contact Müvv. We have three mains services which are airport transfer, car rental, and tickets (airplane, bus, train, ferry). Okay, now get ready to travel like a true local!
- Go Northwest along the Red River to Lao Cai, then continue onto Sapa. This is the fastest route (334 kilometers only), yet the trickiest route. I suggest writing down all road names in Vietnamese in case you have to stop for guidance from a local.
- From Hanoi, find your way to QL32 (national road 32).
- Stick to the road until you reach the first landmark – Tam Nong Garden Park in Phu Tho province: “Vuon Hoa Tam Nong, quan Tam Nong, tinh Phu Tho”. You have made it 25% of the way.
- Take the route on the left of this triangular park. Turn left again at the end of it to continue on QL32.
- There will be an intersection where QL32 turns left, continue straight onto QL32C.
- Follow QL32C, the Red River should always be on your right, until you get to the second landmark: “Cau Yen Bai, Hong Ha, tp. Yen Bai” – which is the Yen Bai bridge of Yen Bai city. You are 45% of the way there.
- Cross the bridge, circle the roundabout and follow the route on the left – “Duong Nguyen Phuc – DT163” and continue straight, keeping the Red River in your sight to the left. You should see the railway also.
- Once you reach “Ga Trai Hut, An Binh, Van Yen, Yen Bai” – Trai Hut Railway station the road (DT163) turns left. Keep straight, with the river to your left.
- The next landmark will be “Lang Khay, Lam Giang, Van Yen, Yen Bai.” Just keep going straight once you pass it, and again, you should be riding with the river on your left until you reach Lao Cai province.
- Continue straight until you reach “Thai Van, Bao Ha, Bao Yen, Lao Cai.” The route stops following the river here and it turns right. Follow the big road and do not bother with any routes to the right, until you reach a three-way intersection. Turn left at the intersection. If you are unsure where you are, ask a local about “Song Hong” – the Red River. It should be west of your position. You are now 80% of the way there.
- Continue on the road again. “Pho Lu, quan Bao Thang, Lao Cai” town is the next landmark. Once there, ask for QL4E road, which crosses the river out of town.
- Follow QL4E until you reach “Thanh pho Lao Cai” – the Lao Cai city.
- Drive to “Cho Kim Tan, thanh pho Lao Cai” – Kim Tan market of Lao Cai city and turn onto QL4D – your road to Sapa!
- For your reference, this is the link to the route on Google Maps.
Finally, there’s getting to Sapa by motorbike. I wouldn’t recommend driving direct to Sapa from Hanoi by bike — it’s a boring road and to be on the safe — and comfortable — side you’ll need to allow two days unless your butt’s made of steel. And unless you put your bike on the train for the return journey, that’s a lot of driving and a lot of time on the road.