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  • Writer's pictureMark

Sapa, Vietnam

We left a hot and humid Hanoi on the 10pm train headed north with Sapa as our goal. Trains run daily and take about 8 hours to Lao Cai. From Lao Cai, where we arrived at 6am, you need to take the local bus or a tourist van to to the city of Sapa. The tourist van takes a little over an hour to wind up through the hills into town. It is easy enough to arrange once you get off the train, we didn't know that as the time so we booked one through the conductor for 50,000 Dong per person ($2.18 USD each). I'm sure the local bus is cheaper, but it would also take longer - we passed a few on the drive into town as they stopped to pick up & drop off riders.

We had booked our train and then a return van online back when we were in Laos, in looking at everything the internet has to offer it sounded like most people opt to take the 5 hour van rides between Hanoi and Sapa, we, however, chose to take the overnight train to offset the cost of an additional night in a hotel since we both enjoy the train and don't mind the sleeper car at all. However, the night before taking the train the front desk clerk at our hotel in Hanoi explained that most people don't take the train anymore, choosing the vans or overnight sleeper buses, and that finding a van from Lao Cai might be troublesome. He was incorrect, a train that was empty when booked 4 days ahead of the trip was packed on the night we went, and as I mentioned above, it would have been easy for us to book a van once we arrived.

Sapa is a quaint little mountain town, it's great to get to your hotel and not immediately be drenched in sweat once you step out of an air conditioned vehicle. We were happy to see hotels and restaurants that advertise having a fireplace as something to draw you in, we've been in the oppressive heat for almost 2 months and to say this was a welcome reprieve would be a huge understatement. We walked the hill down the main street and just enjoyed the cool air and chuckled at locals and tourists in light jackets - the cool that we are so welcoming is a 22C (72F), which back on a normal day we probably would have referred to as being a little warm out.

The area is known for hiking trails in the mountains, the amazing terraced rice fields, the collection of multiple ethnic groups in the immediate vicinity, and their markets and villages. A lot of people come in spend a night in the town, hike through the hills and rice fields, spend a night at a home stay in a local village, and then hike some more before being picked up and returned to Sapa for another night. That's what we did 8 years ago when we were here, it's a great way to see these villages and the people that are still holding onto their local customs. We looked at a few of these tours and decided to skip them this time around, part of what we've mentioned before about returning someplace that you loved, we knew that the tourism and years would have changed the experience and we didn't want to dilute our memories from the amazing visit the last time we were here.

That said, the town itself has changed immensely since we were last here:

Some good -

  • more food options (including wine choices)

  • less knockoff outdoor gear stores (although they still exist)

  • a brand new cable car that takes you to the top of Fansipan Mountain (this used to be a two-three day hike)

Some bad -

  • gigantic hotels are still being built

  • prices are more expensive then Hanoi

  • everyone is trying to sell you something (Motorbike?, Jewelry?, Massage Mister?)

  • Ethnic minorities wandering the streets selling handmade items (including using their children to try and sell items)

I don't want to get into a rut of always complaining about how tourism ruins places, it's a mixed bag and being tourists we're part of the problem, and on this trip one benefit we took advantage of in coming back this time is the brand new Fansipan Legend Cable Car. The cable car opened in 2016, and it has a couple of world records for being the longest, and largest height differential for a non-stop 3-rope cable car. There is a lot online about the cable car, we looked at different options of getting there - it's about 3km outside of town, approximately an 80k taxi ride ($3.50 USD) - and I discussed potentially walking it with Tina since when we look at maps as to where it is located it didn't seem like it would be that bad of a walk.

This is where we got lucky, the overly friendly hotel staff (which drive me nuts and Tina keeps telling me to calm down and let them be nice) were hovering over us at breakfast and asking about our plans for the day. We (Tina) mentioned the cable car and inquired if the taxis would take a set rate of just use their meter, they responded with "Are you going to take the train?"

We hadn't head about a train in anything we'd read, and for a second wondered if they were talking about heading back to Lao Cai for a train from there, we figured we had lost something in translation. Tina finally said "Tram?" and we got an affirmative response, but the tram costs 100,000 Dong per person ($4.40 USD), each way, but is "much better, different route, more views". The girl working the front desk shortly after breakfast corrected us in that our thought of a tram was incorrect, and that there really is a train we can take from the center of Sapa.

Yes there is - too new to be mentioned on any websites - but the company that built the cable car, Sun World, is also building the new massive hotel in the town center, and they also built a funicular to connect that hotel to their larger resort complex at the base station of the cable car.

New hotel being built - the new funicular leaves from here

This new funicular had just opened on the last day of March this year, not even two months ago. We booked the full round trip package for both of us, funicular and cable car, it totaled out at 1.7 million Dong, ($74 USD), but that price can with two coupons for 100,000 Dong ($4.40 USD) each to use at one of their restaurants.

Unfortunately, I'm over the 1.3m restriction for the 1/2 price fare

We wandered past empty store fronts, a few just opened touristy knickknack stores, and then through corrals that let you know they are expecting masses of tourists. We can see that they are working hard to have everything opened by the start of high season in November.

Corrals just waiting for the crowds

The funicular holds up to 200 people, and they run every 15 minutes, the cable cars hold probably a maximum of 30 people and pick up people about every 3 minutes. There were 6 of us on the funicular ride up, we didn't dawdle between the funicular and the cable car, and on the ride up we had the full cable car to ourselves. The ride is spectacular, we were lucky that we had clear weather as we headed up the mountain.

View of the rice fields from the lower funicular

Funicular from town to the lower cable car station

New funicular station at the base station for the cable car.

As we were pulling up to the top station, that's when we entered the clouds, and as we walked out of the cable car we stepped into a cool wet mist that offered a visibility of around 200 feet. From there it's some 600+ steps up to the top of Fansipan mountain, the tallest in the Indochinese peninsula (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), and they are kind enough to have plenty of signs warning you to go slowly due to the altitude.

We slowly walked up, and at a point near a temple where we stopped and Tina contemplated just heading down to the restaurant while I ran up to take a photo of the little plaque marking the peak in the thick fog, a group heading down said "You've got to go up, it's totally worth it. There's a train to take you up in about 50 steps, a Buddha statue, and other things to see."

That was enough encouragement for us, and when we found out that our complete package ticket didn't include this upper funicular ride, we decided to just hike up the rest of the way, albeit taking breaks as we went because we were both feeling the thin air. The upper funicular was 150k per person ($6.60 USD) and we did feel at that point it wasn't worth it. It's not, do the stairs. We arrived at the top and just reveled in the fact that for the first time since the Winter Olympics we could honestly say we were a little cold.

We stayed at the top for close to an hour, when we first got there we took a few photos of the 3,143 meter plaque marking the peak and just stood there surrounded by the fog.

The peak - this one is roped off, but they have similar ones for photographs

A few minutes into it and there was a flash of blue sky off in one direction - we moved over to take photos and shouted "blue sky" to the few other tourists up at the top. That lasted maybe 30 seconds before the clouds shifted and blanketed the top again, then another opening of blue sky off to our right. If you wait the clouds out - it took a while, and like I said we were fully enjoying the cold - but you would get these breaks in the clouds when almost the whole range opened up in front of you. It was stunning to see the valley with the sun and the clouds, and you would see the next cloud being blown up from the valley and soon you would be engulfed inside of a cloud again.

Eventually we wandered back down to the cable car station where we tried to use our restaurant coupons, only to find out they are only accepted at the restaurant at the base station. So back to the cable car we went, we held back as a couple of other tourists entered a car and then a good transportation car was filled with racks of dishes for their ride to the base. The stalling worked as we were watching who else was heading into line and we managed to snag an empty car to ourselves on the ride back down to the base. This is the way to cable car, we bounced around the car like to kids high on sugar, taking photos from every direction and shouting to each other like "look at this.." and "ohh, waterfalls.".

Back at the base of the cable car we had a quick lunch - you can grab a bowl of Pho and a beer for less then the coupon is worth - and then we headed back to the new funicular to that that back to the city center.

Back in town it's still pretty relaxing, you can stroll around the lake and there are plenty of little restaurants and bars. We found one where we could get a nice bottle of wine for a price that wasn't outrageous and enjoyed watching the crowds stroll by. It's a mix of returning tourists, locals, and the minority women or children that are trying to sell you goods. We shooed away two little girls, maybe each about 8 years old, and one carrying a baby on her back, as they came onto the stoop to try and sell bracelets. Another younger couple sitting behind us started to entertain the idea of buying from them but we explained to them how it's exploitation - there are signs everywhere not to buy except in the markets or if you go to their small towns.

Children using children to sell goods

Warnings posted in our hotel

Kids working the night shift to sell goods

Outside of that is was a great break, we learnt that laundry costs double what it costs in Hanoi, but when you need to do laundry you pay the going rate... We took the bus back the following afternoon, and this is where I needed to once again be reminded that a 2pm pickup doesn't really mean 2:00 exactly. Trains and large buses are on schedules that are timed to the minute, the VIP buses pick people up at hotels and don't hold themselves to meeting any time requirement. We were the first pick-up, around 2:15, and then we drove around Sapa for another 50 minutes to pickup 4 more people - some who apparently weren't ready when the van arrived at 2:30 and we had to wait 10 minutes for them. At the end of the day the bus left, it is a nice ride for the first 2 hours before it gets to the highway, but even then you can see some great views of small towns as you're cruising back to Hanoi. One final note, for the bus out of Sapa, sit on the passenger side of the van, as you're winding down through the hills this side provides the best views of the landscape as you are leaving.

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