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Sapa was a bit of a mess. Clouds, rain, damp, and chill will dispirit anyone, and that's kinda what happened. You go to Sapa to see the mountains. If that's not there, then there's really no reason to be in Sapa. Overall, I'm happy I went, but would rather go somewhere else less focused on fleecing tourists.
How we got there:
- Overnight train. $70 round-trip from Hanoi to Lao Cai. We bought tickets on LiviTrain, but on the way up we were in a King Express car. I can't say the the King Express car was all that great, but it was fine. If you don't look at photos online, you won't be disappointed. Strange things were the refreshments for 4 people - 2 waters, 1 warm beer, 1 warm soda. Did you just look to see what was lying around and put that in the room? The LiviTrain on the way back actually had a much nicer car - quieter, less jerky - and had 4 waters for the 4 people in the cabin, as well as the other items advertised online.
- Shuttle to Sapa. $16 round trip (Lao Cai to Sapa), arranged by the Cat Cat Hotel. We didn't bother looking into local transport. It's about 35 minutes from Lao Cai to Sapa, pretty much straight up a windy mountain road. There are mini buses at the train station, as well as touts who come onboard the train, bang on your door and ask if you need "Mini bus".
Where we stayed:
Cat Cat View Hotel - $30/night. Views are supposed to be amazing, but with cloud and fog enshrouding the area, it was hard to see across the street. So we focused on the hotel - our room had a broken electric blanket, mildew smell, and a jammed open bathroom window. Because we were in a cloud, everything - I mean everything - was as damp as it could be without being wet. One of the people in the group had a room with a fireplace. The hotel supplies firewood, but it was so damp, the matches didn't work, nor would the wood catch. Boyscouts only ... I may go backpacking, but I use a cook stove with gas.
Places we ate:
- Viet Emotion - According to its own menu, it was votest the coziest and tastiest restaurant in Sapa. It was cozy and quaint. There were good sandwiches on the menu. I don't remember what I had. I think for 4 people with beer, a glass of wine, soup, and main meals, we paid about $10 per person.
- Cat Cat View Hotel - breakfast is included. It's the usual backpacker fare - banana pancakes or eggs with bread or perhaps fruit. The ginger and lime tea was delicious and well worth the $1/mug. I found the coffee standard Vietnamese coffee, having a hint of the chocolate after taste that I have grown to dislike but will tolerate for a caffeine fix.
- Trekking- $15/person through Cat Cat Hotel. the trek was disappointing in some ways, what I expected in others, and beautiful. We walked to Lao Chai village, then to Ta Van, before returning to Sapa.
- Expected: Easy walk, no guide needed but we had one anyway, lots of shops along the route selling stuff to tourists who come to see ethnic minorities - Hmong, Day, etc. - but most of the shops are owned by Vietnamese. Also, when you start a walk in a cloud, you won't necessarily have the magnificent postcard views.
- Disappointing: we were with a herd of other walkers. Basically every hotel that could send people out sent them out at the same time, so when you add in all the Hmong trying to selling you stuff along the way, there were about 100 people on the trek. The villages we went to were right outside Sapa and there was massive road construction going on, so there were massive muddy trails and construction equipment not too far out of view.
- Beautiful: What's not beautiful about terraced hills? When we walked below the cloud, we could see iconic terraced hillsides and 'traditional' houses scattered about. It's easy to get caught up in the scene in front of you and overlook the abject poverty most people live in. As our guide said, "You can graduate from high school and work in the rice paddy or you can not graduate from high school and work in the same rice paddy. What's the difference?"
- Wandering around: Sapa town isn't terribly interesting. It's a town geared for tourists where ethnic minorities want to sell you something and the tourist shopkeepers want to rip you off. If you go to a place that sells to Vietnamese people, they will give you a fair price. This is what happened when we bought rain boots for walking. $4 for a pair. Not bad when you consider it costs $1.25 to rent a pair for the day. There's a market that sells tourist stuff and food to people who actually live in Sapa.
You can see the photo slideshow here.