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Hanoi / Bac Ha / Sapa trip report

Adelaide, Australia
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Hanoi / Bac Ha / Sapa trip report

A big thank you to the regular contributors to TA, those that answered PM's and to those that post a trip report. We gained so much from reading this forum.

We didn’t stray from the beaten path on our recent trip (so possibly not much new to add), but, if we can encourage families to consider this as a great family holiday, then fantastic…

Our boys are 12 and 15 and had previously been to Thailand. My husband and I have been to Africa and Europe a few times, but limited travel in Asia.

One week north Vietnam in late September/ one week Cambodia early October, added a few days travelling on - 17 day trip altogether.

DAY 1…(Thursday)

Adelaide to Kuala Lumpur with Malaysian Airlines. Efficient processing through KL immigration and a 5 minute walk later we are in the massive lobby of the Pan Pacific Airport Hotel. This was the most luxurious accommodation we had on our entire trip, and it was courtesy of Malaysian Airlines due to ‘misconnection’ … we certainly enjoyed the indulgence.

DAY 2… (Friday)

Kuala Lumpur to Hanoi with Malaysian Airlines. 9.50am departure and lunchtime arrival. We had our Visa on Arrival letters and $100 US .

Met by driver arranged through hotel as we had read on this forum about taxi scams and who needs the annoyance? Set price to Old Quarter. No meters going crazy or going the ‘long way round’.

Chaotic traffic, as expected. Welcome to Hanoi… horns blaring, crazy overtaking, so much traffic.

Joseph’s Hotel is behind the cathedral in the Old Quarter. Lovely, small hotel, in a quiet alley. This was really what sold it to me, just off a busy road, so much quieter than other hotels. Surprisingly spacious rooms, spotlessly clean. Wonderful staff. Booked direct by email, they also purchased our train tickets for us. Can’t recommend highly enough. About $50 per room. We had a queen bed and balcony, boys had twin beds.

Wandered out for ATM and much needed coffee. Withdrew 5.5 million Dong and felt like kings. Street life is fascinating.. barber sets up mirror and chair on footpath for very public haircut/ shave/ ear cleaning, food vendors, locals on tiny plastic stools drinking beer and chatting, huge loads on scooters; we walked around the lake to see the famous red bridge.

Early night, as early start tomorrow.

DAY 3….(Saturday)

Taxi at 5.15am as our train heads north at 6.10am. It’s actually only a 5 minute drive, the station entrance is chaotic, no order to the traffic coming and going, it’s still dark and the street vendors are clogging up the footpaths so we battle the traffic to cross to the station. No one spoke English, but showing our tickets to various people in uniform got us pointed to the right platform, have to cross the train tracks in the dim light. No problems.

Our ‘first class’ carriage is rather shabby, uncomfortable seats (obviously our Western backsides a bit pampered), grubby, broken armrests, tray table that keeps dropping in my lap and is wedged there for the trip… It is air conditioned, though, not cool, but not too hot either. The ‘first class’ rating is relative, checking second class had us grateful for what we had… it is hard wooden benches and no air conditioning.

And, the first class tickets are only 198,000 Dong, about $10 US.

(Our lovely host at Joseph’s Hotel arranged a packed breakfast for us, as we missed their excellent on site one).

Locals seem to use the day train and tourists the night train. We seemed a bit of a novelty.

It was noisy, and the train rattled and rolled, stopping about 25 times. It was a 9.5 hour endurance test.

We had pre arranged a tour through our accommodation in Sapa, to include: a pick up from train, drive to Bac Ha, hotel for us plus guide and driver, tour of Bac Ha market next day, local village tour and drive to Sapa (we paid $125 US, now $165).

Having checked Google Earth, we opted to disembark at Pho Lu, rather than Lao Cai, as it shortened the train ride and the drive to Bac Ha.

It was a great relief to find our lovely Black H’Mong guide, Lan, waiting at the station for us. A charming young woman, with excellent English, she is 18 and pregnant with her first child. Quietly spoken, gracious and tiny. Our driver did not speak English. We had a bumpy drive in the minivan from Pho Lu until we met the main Bac Ha road. A 1 hour drive, gradually rising to the mountains. Dodging potholes, fallen rocks, bicycles, scooters, water buffalo.

Our hotel in Bac Ha (Ngan Nga) is so much better than expected. Really clean (yes, I checked the sheets after reading a few poor reviews) and as requested by the boys, has wi-fi. Is located in the main street.

We had beer/ soft drinks and excellent spring rolls (and lots of entertainment in trying to be understood) nearby for 120,000 Dong (about $6). My 12 yr old and I strolled the streets as there were market preparations and we bought some new fruit to try.

DAY 4…(Sunday)

Breakfast included was simple pancakes/ jam/ coffee.

Lan takes us to the market before 9am. It’s bustling with locals, but not tourists, as most day trip from Sapa and arrive later (it’s a 2.5 hour drive). Very colourful with Flower H’Mong in traditional dress. Beautiful embroidery, clothing, bags, hats, tools, fruit and veg, freshly butchered meat (horse/ dog/ pork), livestock (water buffalo/ pigs/ poultry), horses, medicinals (dried roots)…. It’s not necessary to have a guide, but we found it more interesting and insightful. The H’Mong ladies are very persistent, and if you are seen carrying a newly purchased embroidered bag then clearly you need another 3 or 4 of them…

I noticed mothers carrying babies in beautifully decorated baby carriers on their backs, so we bought one for Lan as a gift.

After a few hours at the market, we headed to Ban Pho, and walked through some farming land, and into a locals’ house for an eye opening reality check as to the hardship endured by these people. Dark homes, with 1 light globe, corn storage inside, very basic kitchen and living quarters. This is really an amazing opportunity for children to see the lives of others in non Western countries. No comforts inside, lots of hard work outside, with animals and crops to care for.

It was a lovely, but hair raising, drive to Sapa. Overtaking on blind corners while on a narrow mountain road with trucks, water buffalo, children, to avoid.

Our accommodation at Sapa Gardens Bed and Breakfast is lovely. 3 rooms available for guests. We paid $40 per room, but I believe it is now $65.

Wi-fi to keep the boys happy. Excellent breakfasts and can eat dinner for $8 per person if booked ahead. It is an interesting and easy 2 kms walk to town from the B and B.

Interesting homes, some very basic, others French villas, a boy herding his buffalo in the main street, a couple herding their pigs, lots of traffic, again, great street life. The arrival in Sapa quite surreal, across the lake, the French villa architecture and mountain backdrop belies its’ location. Really beautiful.

Sapa is 1500m above sea level, and the road to the Tram Ton Pass is at 2500m, so expect changeable weather. We had mists, rain, sunshine, all in 1 afternoon. It is a long journey to Sapa however you get there, it’s so beautiful and worth investing time here.

DAY 5 (Monday)….

Picked up by Lan and driver for the bumpy ride to the nearby valley and our walk via her village of Lao Chai to Ta Van. This is the standard tourist route, so expect to be followed by local H’Mong and Dzao ladies, wishing to sell you goods. It’s a stunning landscape, rice terraces (mostly harvested already, if you want lush green terraces, come in August or early September), mountains, mist, lush greenery, ethnic minority groups, people working in the fields, young children looking after younger siblings, boys tending buffalo.

Lan takes us to the market in Sapa where the locals eat. They can’t afford ‘restaurants’, however cheap we find them. Had to overcome my anxiety about the food hygiene, the cooked chickens sit out on the benches (no refrigeration, how long have they been sitting there?), locals spitting bones onto floor (lovely meal for the rats later), dishes being washed in the 1 big bucket of grey oily water, and thankfully, I did not notice the dead rat in the gutter until after we ate. It was a lovely chicken pho, though, really tasty and no one got gastro afterwards …. We did get a roll of toilet paper as serviettes, I think as we were tourists (!)

Went to Ta Phin village that afternoon. (Left boys in B and B. Agreed that half days enough for them).

This is a red Dzao village, a nice walk to the cave. We knew by now that we would be accompanied by local women wanting to sell goods, and as we had enough bags to last a lifetime, we made it clear we didn’t want to waste anyone’s time and that we would not be buying, no need to follow us… in the end only 3 ladies did the full walk with us and our guide. Strange how that felt quite normal already, and not as intrusive as it sounds.

Cost for today 800,000 Dong for the driver, 600,000 Dong to Lan.

The guides seem to freelance and have mobile phones, it seems that hotels arrange most day trips/ guides on your behalf. I don’t have contact numbers for any of our guides, sorry. In hindsight, I wish I had asked, perhaps guides would have more ‘control’ if their numbers were published and tourists could ring them direct ??

(Another couple we met arranged a driver to take them to Bac Ha from Sapa, then they were doing a private tour to Ba Be National Park and the Ban Gioc waterfalls, and someone else was travelling west, that is returning to Hanoi eventually, but not the same road … but generally people seem to go in and out of Sapa quite hurriedly when there seems to be so much more to see).

DAY 6 (Tuesday)…

Rained in, poor visibility. Walked to town.

DAY 7 (Wednesday)…

Packed and breakfasted only to find that the road to Lao Cai is blocked due to landslides. Those arrived in Lao Cai on the night train are therefore unable to get through to Sapa.

So, another day in Sapa and we miss our train. As our flights leave Hanoi on Friday, we decide to not try to reschedule train tickets but hire a minivan driver to drive us to Hanoi the next day, assuming road is clear. More flexibility as if there are more delays, we aren’t bound by departure times from Lao Cai train station. But a costly one ($260).

It’s still wet, but we get a guide (Dom) through our B and B for a short trip to the Tram Ton Pass lookout…(wow, stunning mountains, how I would have loved to keep driving through that pass), and we walk to the Love Waterfall. How beautiful. Much like the rainforest in Tasmania (well, if you discount the H’Mong guide and the giant bamboo). Truly gorgeous. The mists rolled in, blocking those mountain views, such a tease.

DAY 8 (Thursday)…

As driving to Hanoi wasn’t part of the master plan, I had done no research. 378 kms, how long could that take? (… 10.5 hours!!)

My assumption that the road from Lao Cai would be straight was completely misguided. But first, we had a few landslides to manoeuvre around, and were held up at one for an hour while an excavator completed clearing a track. The rain, the narrow winding roads, trucks broken down, landslides, water buffalo, buses, bicycles, scooters, pot holes… help explain why the distance travelled bears no relationship to the time it takes (8.15 hours to travel the first 287 kms).

Having said that, the new road being built will surely transform northern Vietnam.

The road trip is stunning, mountains, terraces, tea plantations, villages, but not for the squeamish and younger son is car sick en route.

Back to Joseph’s Hotel. Amazed to find that they did not charge us for our booked (but missed) previous night.

Missed our full day in Hanoi and our planned day out with ‘Hanoikids’, unfortunately.

DAY 9 (Friday)…

Our flight to Cambodia leaves today, so only a part day in Hanoi. Army Museum, meant to be visited yesterday, was on our list, but found it closed. Boys disappointed.

But Hanoi bustles with life and just walking around is fascinating, but a little overwhelming.

Hanoi airport old, but a new one being built. Hopefully, they’ll get new computers, noticed check in staff had whiteout liquid paper on the worn out keyboard as the lettering had worn off.

PART 2 soon in Cambodia forum.

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1. Re: Hanoi / Bac Ha / Sapa trip report

That is great review from your trip, it sounds good and you met really friendly local guide and careful driver... I do hope much more tourists enjoy their trip as your family.

Looking forward for your Cambodia trip also,



Warners Bay...
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2. Re: Hanoi / Bac Ha / Sapa trip report

Hey ozzie2010, great JBR so glad you had a wonderful time in Sapa, it truely is a stunning place and aren't the markets at Bac Ha an eye opener, but I would not have missed it for quids, just loved it....looking forward to see what you think of Cambodia, I hope you all enjoy it.

Cheers Sylvia

Adelaide, Australia
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3. Re: Hanoi / Bac Ha / Sapa trip report

Thanks Sylvia, I read your jbr numerous times, I am jealous of all that time you had !

Perth, Australia
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4. Re: Hanoi / Bac Ha / Sapa trip report

Ozzie 2010, Thank you for your JBR. So enjoyed reading it. The scenery round Sapa is really beautiful and we also are so glad we went. Looking forward to your Cambodian JBR.

Hanoi, Vietnam
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5. Re: Hanoi / Bac Ha / Sapa trip report

Hi ozzie2010

Excellent !!! Thanks for your report, cheers

London, United...
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6. Re: Hanoi / Bac Ha / Sapa trip report

Thanks for the great review, made me look forward even more to my trip in two weeks time.

Sydney, Australia
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7. Re: Hanoi / Bac Ha / Sapa trip report

HI Ozzie, thank you for sharing such an excellent Trip Report on Hanoi. We are heading there in Jan with an itinerary quite similar to your except we have a night at Halong Bay. Your excellent report give us an idea what to expect! Thanks

Eindhoven, The...
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8. Re: Hanoi / Bac Ha / Sapa trip report

Yes, Sapa, it's still number 1 on my list despite it's touristy.

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9. Re: Hanoi / Bac Ha / Sapa trip report

I was interested to see that you disembarked early to shorten the train and car ride to Bac Ha. How did you ever think to google that? And how did you find that ride? I would have thought the roads weren't necessarily conducive to a ride like that where the oft-traveled Lao Cai to Bac Ha would have been.

Adelaide, Australia
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10. Re: Hanoi / Bac Ha / Sapa trip report

I guess my motivation was to minimize travel, so fiddling about on Google maps was my way of limiting both train and road trips. Given we were going on the day train (which has a lot of stops !) it was a case of not back tracking. Then emailed our hotel and just asked if they could pick us up there. The road was a bit rough, admittedly.