Plan for the next four days
The plan was to spend four days three nights in Sapa. On the first day we would travel by express bus for about 6 hours from Hanoi to Sapa. On the second day we would ascend Fanispan in the morning and spend the whole day there. On the third day we planned to visit CatCat Village and on the fourth day we would leave Sapa in the mid afternoon.
By end of the day
Sapa town was bigger than our expectation. It was a “touristic” town with hotels, restaurants and shops everywhere. On our visit to Fanispan, it was cloudy and misty so we did not get to see the fantastic scenic “on top of the world view” anyway we still enjoyed our time at Fanispan. Catcat village was a pretty scenic “paddy planting” village.
Getting to Sapa
We went on a day-bus to Sapa on Sapa Express. Sapa Express sent a smaller bus to pick us and our luggage directly outside our hotel. Our hotel, Classic Street Hotel, was just about 270 metres (5 minutes walk) to the bus Station which was also one of reasons we booked our stay at this hotel.
Though we were near the station we did not walk there, we decided to take up Sapa Express offer for a bus-transfer to the station to avoid wheeling our luggage on the road. We were down at the reception area at 6.30 am and picked up the simple pre-pack breakfast (water, fruit and sandwich) that our hotel had prepared for us. Since the small-bus had yet to arrive, the hotel receptionist invited us into dining room to eat whatever food/fruit that were already laid out on the buffet tables and she would alert us when our small-bus arrived. The bus arrived 15 minutes late which gave us time to help ourselves to some nice fruits, noodles and vegetables in the dining room.
Apparently we were the first customers in the Old Quarter to be picked up probably since our hotel was nearest Sapa Express Bus Station.
For the next 20 minutes it was a interesting morning bus ride all over the Old Quarter to pick up the rest of Sapa Express customers. It was about 6.45 am in the morning and the town was alive! The grocery markets had opened and early shoppers were out. Bikes and bikes were everywhere already clotting up the narrow streets.
At about 7.10 am our small bus arrived at Sapa Express Bus station and we boarded Bus No 2. Each of us had an assigned seat. There were a column of one seats and a column of two seats separated by a alley. The bus was huge and comfortable.
The bus came with an English speaking guide and free wifi on board. On Sapa Express website a one way transfer between Hanoi and Sapa was usd16 per person. We got Lily Travel Agency to book our tickets and they costed usd14 each.
Sapa Express also offered another bus service to Sapa which was a 38-bed bus at usd12 per person per way. We had not chosen the bed-bus as we read that it was not as comfortable as the 28-seat bus.
We left Hanoi Old Quarter and crossed the enormous Red River. The river water had a reddish brown tint because of the silt laden water.
We were on our way to a new highway, Lao Cao Expressway, linking Hanoi and Sapa. This highway was opened in 2014 and was a safer, more comfortable and faster than the old road. It had cut the travelling between Hanoi and Sapa from 9 hours to 4.5 hours.
Our guide told us that there was a land slide on one section of the highway which meant we had to make a slight detour and that would add another hour to our travelling time. Along the journey our bus made two stops to allow us to come down for coffee and toilet breaks. The toilet was pretty clean but we were required to pay vnd2000(usd0.09 or sgd0.12) per person to use the toilet.
We found the bus journey rather pleasant. On the bus our guide gave every customer a bottle of mineral water and a small bag of simple snack. The seats were comfortable and could be inclined very low. The highway was straight and not bumpy and the wifi worked pretty well. The two breaks allowed us to come down and stretch our legs. Near the end of the journey we could see paddy terraces on the opposite hills.
With the opening of the new highway many visitors opted for bus over train to get to Sapa. The express bus transfered visitors directly to Sapa town, as for the train it stop at Lao Cao which was located at the foot of Sapa. Train riders would have to complete their journey to Sapa via a taxis or jeep.
We had considered going to Sapa by night train on a sleeper coach. The coach came in 6-berth hardbed type, 4-berth softbed type and 2-berth VIP type and the cost ranged usd35 to usd80 per person. The 2-berth VIP coach looked luxurious but after some consideration we thought it would be a waste to travel by night as we would not be able to see much of the scenery and to spend a whole night in a coach with no ensuite toilet was simply not appealing enough. The final decision was to go by bus to Sapa.
Sapa Town (Day & night)
By the time we reached Sapa it was about 1.30 pm. After we checked in and rested it was close to 3.30 pm. We left our hotel and went for a long-long walk around the town.
We had selected our hotel based on the fact that it had a balcony view the Sapa Valley. The valley view was highlighted prominently on the hotel listing of booking.com. It was only on arrival that I realised that many hotels in the vicinity offered great valley view from their balconies too.
From our hotel (Phuong Nam Hotel) we walked down a road leading downhill and away from the center. The road was filled with shops, cafes and restaurants. One particular cafe “Color Bar” stood out so prominently. It was a “straw” roof hut where the rest of the buildings around was made of bricks and concrete. It was too early for us to stop for a coffee break so we walked on.
Further down we came to another cafe/restaurant, “Cafe in the cloud” which had a fantastic view of the valley. We walked as closed to the cafe as possible to take some shots of the beautiful valley below. For the whole day the weather was very misty so the scenery though was fantastic was not clear, no blue sky and no white cloud.
A cafe with a gorgeous view of Sapa Valley
As we reached the intersection between Fanispan road and Violet road we heard the arrival a train. Along the road there was a very high monorail track and above it a monorail train “zoomed” by.
A signboard on the road pointed that Catcat Village was ahead. Our plan was to visit Catcat village two days later so we decided not to continue in that direction. As for Violet road it looked like it would be leading to another paddy village. It was too late in the day to go trekking to any village so we turned back to Sapa Town. We retraced our steps back to where we came from and soon we passed our hotel going toward Sapa town center.
Earlier in the day we alighted from the bus near the Sapa Express Office which was next to a huge majestic yellow building. At that time we were lugging our luggage and wanted to reached our hotel as soon as possible. This time on passing the huge yellow building we realised that it was a Train Station. The interior of the station was also very grand it had high ceiling and granite/marble floors. We found that the Fanispan monorail train we saw earlier actually started here!
A short walk later brought us at a huge sunken atrium and we saw many young boys playing soccer. On the other side of the atrium was the Notre Dame Cathedral (Nhà Thờ Đá Sapa)
The huge round atrium was actually the Sapa Town “Square”. From the atrium we crossed the road and walked passed a small Sapa Park (Công viên Sapa). The park was bordered by two main roads and one of them had a long row of cafes. The cafes looked very inviting and were a huge bonus/inspiration for coffee-&-cake lovers like us. Yummy…yummy…
It was still early so we continued our way towards Sapa Lake. Around the lake was a park and there were many people sitting about enjoying the view of the park and lake. There were leisure paddle boats along the lake but no customer in sight.
We walked till the end of the lake before turning back. We had been walking for about 1.5 hour and covered a distance of 3 km. The weather was misty and so the walk was relaxing and enjoyable. We stopped outside a “Japanese Restaurant” and decided to go in for its buffet. We were in Vietnam and should be eati g Vietnamese food, but the Japanese buffet price was just too attractive to ignore.
The cost of the buffet for two was vnd401000 (usd17, sgd24). The food spread was good and we just love BBQing. Pork, beef, duck and many other things. The service was good too, a waitress stood practically beside us all the time cooking our food, till we explained to him that we would preferred to do our own BBQing.
We were done with our dinner by about 6.30 pm and the sky had already darkened. We took a slow stroll back to our hotel but in less than 250 m we saw a lovely cafe “Le Gecko” and went in to have dessert!
The cafe was lovely outside and inside. We got a sofa seat corner and it was so cosy and relaxing to lie back to enjoy our tiramisu, cafe latte and soothing inhouse music. Unlike the cafe nearer to the town center this cafe was relatively quiet. We were the only customers. The total cost was vnd170000 (usd7.30, sgd 10.00)
Some 45 minutes later we reluctantly left for our hotel again. The night had fallen and the town became more alive than before. At the Sapa Park a group of people were dancing. It was not any traditional or cultural dance but some form of line dancing.
Crossing the road from Sapa Park we were back to to Sapa Town Square. With the lighted BB Hotel Sapa and Sapa Station forming the backdrop of the square the place looked bright and cheery. Notre Dame Cathedral on the left side of the square was beautifully lighted so we walked over to take some photos. It was still early, before 8 pm, and we did not want to end our exploration of the Sapa Town too soon, so we decided to take an alternative road back to our hotel. The first alternative road did not look interesting so we crossed a cobbled step alley to another road.
The cobbled alley was brightly lighted from the lamps of the shops along the alley. We passed a shops selling traditional products. The second alternative road was a more interesting touristy road, (Cau May Road). There were many cafes and restaurants lining both sides of the road. We walked all the way to the end before heading to our hotel.
Our Accommodation at Sapa
We had booked a room with a panaromic view at Phuong Nam Hotel from booking.com. The price of the room was vnd2648814 (usd113 , sgd156) for three nights and it came with breakfast every morning. We paid this higher price to get a room with two walls of full height windows that would give us a fantastic view of Sapa valley.
The walked from the Sapa Express Bus stop to the hotel was about 300 metre and took no more than 5 minutes. As usual the houses/hotels along the road were narrow units. Phuong Nam Hotel had a high sign board so we could already see it from far.
As usual the interior of the hotel looked so much better than the exterior. After checking in we were showed to our room which was surprisingly on the fifth level below the entrance level! The hotel was built on a steep slope, the front entrance was at road level, the rooms were at the back and they faced a huge valley.
Though our room had a panoramic view, I wished it was at a higher level because further below us on the slope were roof of other houses and one of the houses was rearing pigeons on its roof. The pigeons’ “poo” were all over the roof and when the wind blowed by we got a wisp of “bird shit” smell. This made staying out on the balcony not as pleasant.
The ensuite toilet was large and clean. The shower was good.