30 days Vietnam, hand luggage only: getting from Hanoi to Sapa (Sapa Express review)
Leaving the fantastic northern city of Hanoi to head north into the green mountains, I had a two main travel options: train or bus. From the blogs I'd read, people often said they wished they'd opted for train over bus. Really, I'm a train person every time, but with the SapaExpress - a "luxury" bus company dedicated to the journey between Hanoi and Sapa - it seemed much easier to get English language info, to book online, find out leaving times and the train journey took 4 hours longer than the bus. I, of course, took "luxury" with a pinch of salt given I was paying $13 for a 5.5 hour bus journey but I packed my bags and was hoping for an OK journey.
My travel gear: secure hand luggage
SapaExpress by bus from Hanoi to Sapa
I arrived at the SapaExpress office (12 Phố Lý Thái Tổ, Lý Thái Tổ, Hà Nội, Vietnam) 07:00 for my 07:30 bus. The bus goes from right outside the office. I booked online and paid via Paypal after confirming via email. The bus driver put my main luggage - the RiutBag X25 - under the bus and I took my RiutBag Crush - my super light, secure daypack - on board for the journey.
Mmmm I love it when companies think of simple and effective processes to make life easier for their customers. Vietnam is a country that is used to rain. Heavy heavy rain. That means the good people of the Sapa Express know that traipsing wet or muddy boats on to a bus does not make for a good journey.
As we got on the bus, everyone received a plastic bag to put their wet boots into. Ahhh. We all padded about the bus with bare or besocked feet. Joy. Taking off your shoes also echoes the Vietnamese and Chinese custom to remove your shoes before entering someone's home. It may sound like a small detail, but it all added greatly to the comfort and greatness of this journey.
The "luxury" bus
Wow. Wow. What? I got on to the bus with my RiutBag Crush and my boots in a bag to find exactly what I thought I wouldn't. Luxury: actual beds. Everyone had their own bed. I can tell you, we were all very happily asleep within minutes of leaving because these beds were so comfortable. If you ask me, these seats look quite a lot like the ones Elon Musk's Hyperloop will contain :) In 5.5 hours of travel at super sonic speeds, I think you might be able to get a little further than Sapa.. Anyway, they really are luxury buses. Bed means bed!
Caveat: Like on every mode of transport, I'm always comfortable because I'm not the tallest person. I saw much taller, broader guys (taller than 6 foot) get on and they seemed fine too. They couldn't stretch out their legs fully, but seemed fine just resting in the beds with a bit of a knee bend.
30 minute food and bathroom break
Forgive me for banging on about great processes, but this journey was just so well thought out I have to tell you more. We left at 07:30 and I hadn't had time for breakfast before I left. But the bus had built a breakfast break in at 09:00. We arrived at what looked like a vast plane hangar but was actually a huge food hall.
At this point, the experienced Vietnamese commuters and the European tourists on this 32 person/bed bus behaved differently. The Europeans took their bags of wet shoes, expecting to have to put them back on to get off the bus. Whereas our fellow Vietnamese passengers walked towards the bus exit with bare feet. Surely they didn't want to walk out of the bus bare foot? I mean, maybe, but all of them?
The bus had created another wonderful part of the shoe process. So that you don't have to spend ages putting your wet boots back on one by one as you get off the bus, they set this up instead: you step off the bus, without your shoes, on to a padded mat. They provide sandals for you to slip into to hang out at the food hall for 30 minutes. They lock the bus. I was overjoyed. Simple things like well thought out this make everything easier.
I slipped into my borrowed sandals (I still had my boots in a bag because I didn't realise what was coming, but not having to put them on was still great) and wandered over to the Pho bit of the food hall. I uttered the magic words "pho bo" (pronounced "fur baar"), handed over 35,000VND and had the classic Vietnamese breakfast during my 30 minute break. I nipped to the toilet - where you should put 2000VND in the box - and take the tissues from the box at the front before you go in.
All the Europeans went for expensive coffees and sandwiches. All the Vietnamese travellers grabbed a seat to have their Pho too. I'm always a fan of eating what the locals eat. The local food tends to work well in that climate, it's cheaper and it's better because they make it all the time.
Back on the bus and arriving in Sapa
I headed back to the bus, slipped off my temporary sandals, but them back in the box and got back on. If you take this journey, just leave your boots at your seat and use the sandals. It will make your journey easier.
The remaining bus journey into the mountains is just fantastic. The first 4 hours take you to Lau Cai, the final hour you weave upwards, bend by bend, into the green mountains of Fansipan. You start to see the ridges of the mountains where the rice is grown. It seems magical... until you arrive in Sapa itself. Again, I cannot fault the bus journey. It was comfortable, we all slept well, the break was perfectly timed and they did everything to make your journey go smoothly.
Did I mention good wifi, water bottle, some kind of snack too? It's excellent. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same of Sapa.
Arriving in Sapa: what it is like?
This is a hungry tourist town. As our bus arrived, local women gathered around us as we waited for our bags. Their intention was to sell us small items. The effect was one of confusion, defensiveness and irritation at every turn to try and get away. In my first moments, I felt it was an error to have come to Sapa.
For the first time in Vietnam I was actively glad to have my secure, backwards RiutBags on my back as I tried to get out of the crowd, with no accessible zips on the outside. There were too hands pushing and shoving, prying and tugging at every elbow to get a sale or pick up easily grabbed valuables. I didn't have a single moment like that in the city of Hanoi. Yet, steppin into the mountains, I had to really concentrate to on my belongings in a completely different way.
It's the beginning of October, the every end of the rainy season. Though, judging by the rivers of water gushing down every steep street, you'd like we were in the middle of it. My mood and frustration may have been affected by the weather too. Next stop: leave Sapa and head to the Muong Valley. I need a taxi.