Sapa – Vietnam’s answer to Zermatt, Verbier or Chamonix is a small town nestled in the mountains, about 300km north of Hanoi by road, and about 20km from the Chinese border.
Sapa has seen explosive growth over the last few years, and from a sleepy hamlet at the turn of the century, it’s now a bustling town, where every other building is a restaurant, guest house, or massage parlour.
It’s still beautiful in parts, but it’s fair to say that the rampant growth hasn’t been kind to the town. Still, complain as we might about the new cable car, it’s also fair to say that the growth, confined as it is to the town, is probably no worse than that experienced by some of the European Alpine resorts when they started to become popular those years ago, and it would be hypocritical to deny the town the chance of growth at all. It might be reasonable though to ask that some attention is paid to the local area, and that the unique way of life of the minority peoples in the area is respected, as well as the natural environment.
Vietnam’s Orient Express
Until a few months ago, the main way to travel to Sapa was via an overnight train to the border town of Lao Cai, before taking a shuttle or taxi up the mountainside to Sapa, at 1300m. The recent opening of the expressway to Lao Cai has also made express buses a possibility, taking around half the time of the laconic day train on Vietnam’s creaky metre-gauge railway.
Depending on the time of year, two to four trains still leave the Ga Ha Noi every night from around 9pm, taking about 8 hours to make the trip to Lao Cai. Most are composed of a mix of the state railway carriages and cars run by various private operators charging about twice the price. Amongst these is the well regarded Orient Express (unrelated to the top end European operator!), and whose train we travelled on.
Attached to the SP1 train, the carriage leaves Ha Noi’s “B” station (the other side of the tracks from the main station) at 22:30. We collected our tickets from the small booth to the right of and behind the Vietnam Railways ticket office, and were able to go straight onto the waiting train about 50 minutes before departure.
Our cabin was wood panelled, and whilst otherwise similar to a normal 4-berth couchette carriage, it was comfortable and with proper bedding. Most travellers on the train seemed to be Western, and we shared with a Spanish couple. Before we left, an attendant offered soft drinks, beer and a small selection of snacks from a cart – as did a vendor on the platform, banging on the corridor windows to attract our attention.
We trundled off into the night – running alongside houses, stopping at the Long Bien station, and then off into the countryside.
Then we discovered that neither of the toilets in our carriage worked!
To have paid twice the amount of the regular State Railway to avoid their seatless toilets, and then to have to use them anyway, was somewhat annoying to say the least. Fortunately we could still use their loos, but it rather makes a mockery of Orient Express’s claim to have “clean and pure private bathroom cabin[s]”!
Regardless, we arrived Lao Cai on time, and after 15 minutes hunting for our ride we were on our way up the valley to Sapa!