Sapa and Lao Cai
Sapa and Lao Cai are the destinations to be visited in the north west of Vietnam. Even if you have limited time, you should spend a day or two in Sapa to explore the minority culture in the mild climate of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range.
Lao Cai is the border own with Hekou, China, (south west Yunnan, see also my Tonghai - Jianshui page in south Yunnan) but it is Sapa where you want to go to.
It is a small market town at the border of Vietnam and China. The area is the domain of the minorities like the Hmong and Yao groups who live all over in south Yunnan, north Laos and parts of Myanmar (Burma). It is likely it were these groups who founded the town.
For many centuries this area was only known to on going traveler to and from China. In the early 20th century the French build here a sanatorium and with that, Sapa became a health destination and an escape from the tropical for westerners.
Getting there and away
Nowadays Sapa is a major tourist destination for travelers, still mostly foreigners. For cyclists Sapa is a beautiful ride. From Hanoi it's 350 km but it is still easier to take a train and cycle from there to Dien Bien Phu and back to Son La, Hoa Binh and Hanoi. This is a highly recommended road!
You can join tours to Sapa in Hanoi. Some tours do the whole loop in the north west and it is certainly easier although traveling on your own here is not impossible though not very comfortable (except on bicycle).
For most travelers Lao Cai is the entry point to the north west. There are 6 direct trains from Hanoi to Lao Cai.
Hanoi - Lao Cai Route
Lao Cai - Hanoi Route
The price of the tickets depends on the type of train and the quality of the seat or bed. Expect to pay US $82 for the most expensive beds while the cheapest can be US $20.
Accommodation, hotels in Sapa and Lao Cai
Both Sapa and Lao Cai have accommodation however, you will probably want to stay in Sapa as that is where "it" all happens.
Things to see and do
Sapa is a small town where you can easily spend a lot of time in wandering over the market, watching locals doing what they are doing. There are easy hiking trails around Sapa which can bring you amazing experiences with local Hmong and Yao people. Many of the villages around Sapa are no more then a few houses big.
The paths are clear and as there are plenty of villages on the mountain slopes you will always be able to find your way. A guide might be useful but is not essential. I did it without one.
Bring good walking boots, especially in the rainy season it can be a muddy business as I know from experience.
The road to Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu may not be the most exciting place to visit, it has certainly earned its place in history in the First Indochina War, when the French colonial troops were defeated in Dien Bien Phu. There isn't a lot left, although the museum is worth a visit.
The most interesting part of the loop from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu, Son La and back to Hanoi are the minorities living here.
I found a lot more good photos of the people and the scenery in the north west of Vietnam, click here to see those photos.
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Ha Long Bay on land, that's what Ninh Binh is called. The beautiful limestone mountains with caves and pagoda's is worth a visit.
Vietnam Maps, including Hanoi
More photos of north west Vietnam