Asia

How to Travel From Hanoi to Sapa in 2020: Train, Bus or Taxi?

A comprehensive guide to travelling from Hanoi to Sapa by sleeper train, bus, VIP van or taxi. This guide includes timetables, links to buy online tickets, and insider travel tips.

With its rolling rice paddies and vibrant hill tribe communities, Sapa has a way of capturing your imagination. Despite being very touristy, it’s still one of the most popular places to visit in Vietnam.

From village homestays and genuine Vietnamese hospitality, to vibrant ethnic markets and mountain trekking, Sapa is a great destination for adventurous travellers, hikers, couples and young families alike.

When I lived in Hanoi, I got to visit Sapa and many other mountainous locations in the north. Even as an expat, I had trouble figuring out the best way to get to Sapa from Hanoi. With so many options available, it can be very confusing.

In this transport guide, I’ll show you exactly how to travel to Sapa by overnight train, bus, VIP van or car. There’s something here for every travel budget and style, from the cheapest public bus to the most comfortable private car.

Please note: This post contains affiliate links, meaning I may earn a commission if you make a purchase by clicking a link (at no extra cost to you). Learn more.

Green rice fields in Sapa, Vietnam.
Ta Van village in Sapa.

Hanoi to Sapa: The basics

Where is Sapa?

Sapa (Vietnamese: Sa Pa) is a small town in Vietnam’s far-northern border province of Lào Cai. Sapa is located directly north-west of Hanoi by road or rail. The nearest city to Sapa is Lào Cai city.

Sapa sits in the Hoàng Liên Son mountains overlooking the Muong Hoa Valley. Phan Xi Păng, the highest peak on the Indochinese Peninsula, is located west of Sapa.

Hanoi to Sapa distance

The distance from Hanoi to Sapa is 319 kilometres (198 miles).

Hanoi to Sapa travel time

By car, it takes between 5 and 5.5 hours to travel from Hanoi to Sapa via highway CT05.

By bus, the trip from Hanoi to Sapa takes approximately 5.5 to 6 hours.

By train, the journey from Hanoi to Lao Cai (the nearest railway station 35 kilometres or 22 miles from Sapa) takes 8 hours and 5 minutes. From Lao Cai Train Station, it takes an additional 65 minutes to reach Sapa town by road.

Beautiful textiles for sale at a market near Sapa, Vietnam.
Textiles for sale at Bac Ha Market near Sapa.

Is Sapa worth visiting?

Sapa is known for two things: Its trekking, and the vibrant ethnic minority communities that live in the valleys and mountains around the town. If you’re interested in multi-day hikes and/or learning more about Vietnam’s ethnic minority culture, Sapa should be on your radar.

Unfortunately, much like Halong Bay, Sapa has become a victim of its own popularity. Over-tourism has become a serious issue in recent years. If you plan to visit Sapa, it’s important to know that this is a very touristy destination. If you come in expecting an off-the-beaten-track experience, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

The scenery is beautiful – there’s no denying that – but most of Sapa’s problems have to do with the local communities who have been largely excluded from tourism development. There are villages that are sadly presented like exhibition displays for tourists to gawk at (I experienced this myself when I visited Bac Ha). Popular Cat Cat village is another example.

In my opinion, Sapa is still worth visiting provided you know what you’re getting yourself into. There are things you can do to improve your experience and avoid contributing to Sapa’s social and environmental problems. If you can get away from the city into the smaller villages, you’re more likely to have a positive, rewarding experience.

If you prefer something less touristy, there are some great Sapa alternatives in the north, including Ha Giang and Pu Luong. Both offer excellent hiking and village homestays.

A blue bus makes its way down a busy street in Lao Cai, Vietnam.
Local transport in Lao Cai Province.

How many days should I stay in Sapa?

The ideal amount of time to spend in Sapa is 2-3 nights. If you plan on trekking, you’ll need at least 2 full days in Sapa.

Depending on which method of transport you choose, getting to Sapa from Hanoi can be a time-consuming and energy draining process. I strongly recommend including some time in your itinerary for rest – e.g. set aside your first afternoon/evening for recovery.

Can I do a Sapa day trip from Hanoi?

While it is technically possible to visit Sapa as a day trip from Hanoi, it’s not advisable. There are very few companies that offer this option, simply because the drive is so long. Even if you left Hanoi at 6am, you wouldn’t arrive in Sapa until after lunch. That would only give you a few hours to explore.

I strongly recommend an alternative day trip such as Ninh Binh (< 2 hours from Hanoi) or Halong Bay (< 3 hours from Hanoi).

Related: Top 10 day trips in Vietnam.

Is there a Hanoi to Sapa flight?

No – there are no flights between Hanoi and Sapa. The closest airport to Sapa is Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport. The only way to travel between the two destinations is by road or rail.

There are currently 6 different ways to travel between Hanoi and Sapa. In the next section, I’ll break down each option in detail to help you decide which one is best for you.

How far in advance should I buy my bus/train tickets?

Sapa is a very popular destination among both domestic and international tourists. It’s not at all unusual for train/bus tickets to sell out.

If you’re travelling during high season (November to January) or on a weekend, you should book your bus or train tickets as far in advance as possible (at least 4 weeks ahead of your travel date).

If your trip coincides with Vietnamese New Year (Tet) in February, know that the trains will be extra busy. There are additional services on holidays, but it’s still a good idea to book 6 weeks out.

In the next section, I’ve included links to buy tickets online. If your itinerary is set, I suggest booking tickets before you leave home so you don’t have to worry about making arrangements while you’re on the road.


Hanoi to Sapa transport overview

Here’s a quick overview of the different transport options I’ll be covering in this guide.

TransportTravel timeCostReservations
1. Sapa tour from Hanoi2–3 nightsFrom $105 per personBrowse tours online via Get Your Guide
2. Vietnam Railways train (to Lao Cai)8 hours (+ 50-90 minutes by road to Sapa)From $11 per personBuy tickets online via 12GoAsia
3. Chapa Express VIP train (to Lao Cai)8 hours (+ 50-90 minutes by road to Sapa)$42 per personBuy tickets online via Get Your Guide
4. Sapa Express Bus (coach)5.5–6 hours$12 per personBuy tickets online via 12GoAsia
5. Eco Sapa Bus (limousine van)5.5 hours$29 per personInquire online
6. Private taxi5–5.5 hoursFrom $170 per carReserve online via 12GoAsia

Option 1: Sapa tour from Hanoi

If you have limited time in Vietnam or you’re looking for an easy way to travel around Sapa, a guided tour from Hanoi is worth considering. There are a range of 2 and 3-day itineraries that include transportation from Hanoi to Sapa and back.

A major advantage of booking a guided tour is the inclusion of door-to-door transfers in a safe, comfortable vehicle with a professional driver at the wheel. Added benefits include a more specialised itinerary, and of course having a local guide to show you around and answer your questions.

Some tours (but not all) take you to smaller villages and emphasise responsible and ethical interactions with local communities.

All in all, a Sapa tour from Hanoi is a budget-friendly, straightforward option. It’s particularly suitable for solo travellers.

How to book a Sapa tour

I strongly recommend booking your Sapa tour online rather than waiting until you get to Hanoi. There are lots of tour companies and vendors in Hanoi offering cheap Sapa trips, but the quality of these tours is often questionable. Of course it’s always possible to organise something on the fly, but if you pre-book, you can give yourself time to peruse the options and read the reviews.

I always use Get Your Guide to book tours in Vietnam. This is an aggregate website that brings together different itineraries from a range of independent and international companies. You can read other travellers’ reviews, research the company to ensure they meet your expectations, and book and pay online through a secure system.

Get Your Guide has a very generous cancellation policy, allowing you to claim a full refund with 24 hours notice.

Important things to look for in a Sapa tour

  • Group size. This is extremely important. The smaller the group, the more intimate the experience.
  • Inclusions/exclusions. Check if meals and entrance fees are included or not. Remember that if you’re on a tour, you’ll be expected to tip your guide (around 10%) and your driver if applicable.
  • Transportation. Some Sapa tours offer private transfers while others include bus or train tickets in the price.
  • Ethical tourism policies. If this is important to you, I recommend opting for one of the independent tour companies recommended below.

Sapa tours from Hanoi

Crossing Vietnam offers 1 and 2-night Sapa tours from Hanoi with transfers by air-conditioned bus. The 2-day itinerary includes homestay accommodation and a short trek, while the 3-day option has a full day of trekking in Ta Van village (one of my favourite places in the area).

This longer 3-night itinerary uses overnight trains and includes 1 night of accommodation in a village as part of a multi-day trek.

Independent tour companies

Sapa O’Chau and Ethos are two independent tourism providers in Sapa that are known for their responsible tourism policies. Ethos is the more reputable of the pair and has a great track-record of collaborating with communities and giving back.

They offer trekking tours and homestays departing from Sapa, and can organise train or bus transfers from Hanoi on your behalf. More information and bookings here.

A train in Vietnam.

Option 2: Hanoi to Sapa train (Vietnam Railways)

If you don’t want to join a tour but prefer to travel DIY, the most popular option is to take the overnight train from Hanoi. Note that the train doesn’t go all the way to Sapa, but terminates at the closest railway station in Lao Cai. From there, you have to continue to Sapa by road.

There are pros and cons to taking the train. Overall, it’s a safe and reliable way to travel. Since you save on a night’s accommodation, it can also be budget-friendly. I usually recommend the train to families since it’s an experience kids in particular seem to enjoy.

There are several trains from Hanoi to Sapa every night (plus a few day services), all operated by state-run Vietnam Railways. Each train has multiple carriages: Some are normal Vietnam Railways carriages, while other (more luxe) carriages are operated by private companies (see the next section for more details).

The most basic and cheapest train tickets are for the regular Vietnam Railways carriages.

Hanoi to Sapa train times

There are four trains to Lao Cai from Hanoi every night, with additional services in peak holiday periods. The fastest trains with the least number of stops are trains SP1 and SP3.

  • SP1 departs Hanoi at 9.35pm and arrives in Lao Cai at 5.30am the next morning
  • SP3 departs Hanoi at 10pm and arrives in Lao Cai at 6.05am the next morning

How to buy train tickets

Both SP trains have VIP sleepers (soft beds; 2 berths per cabin), 1st class sleepers (soft beds; 4 berths per cabin) and 2nd class sleepers (hard beds; 6 berths per cabin). VIP/1st class tickets are still very affordable, so I recommend upgrading for a more comfortable journey.

Vietnam Railways now issues e-tickets, eliminating the need to print a paper ticket or voucher. This is the same whether you book direct or through an agent.

Buy tickets through 12Go Asia

I prefer to book tickets through an agent such as 12Go Asia. They charge a small additional fee, but their website is much easier to use. Online ticket sales open up 60 days in advance. Prices for Hanoi to Sapa are as follows:

  • VIP sleeper bed: 41 USD/adult or 31USD/child
  • 1st class sleeper: 23 USD/adult or 18USD/child (6-9 years)

Children under 6 travel free. When you reserve multiple tickets, agents will try to arrange beds in the same carriage, but note that this can’t always be guaranteed (another reason I recommend booking well in advance). 12Go doesn’t sell tickets for the 2nd class sleepers or hard/soft seats.

After you book and pay online, you’ll receive an email receipt. 12Go Asia then confirms your reservation with the railway and sends a second email with your e-tickets and instructions for boarding the train attached. The whole process is very easy.

Buy tickets through Vietnam Railways

Another option is to buy sleeper or hard/soft seat tickets direct from Vietnam Railways. You can either use the official Vietnam Railways website (there is a fake site too, so be careful), or buy tickets in person at the station in Hanoi.

Tickets are a touch cheaper when purchased direct. Hard seats and soft seats (135,000 VND and 180,000 VND respectively) are also available.

Where to board the train

Hanoi has several different train stations. Both SP1 and SP3 leave from Hanoi Railway Station in Van Mieu (not far from the Temple of Literature). See the exact location here on Google Maps.

If you hold Vietnam Railways-issued tickets, you should enter at the main A Station building on Le Duan Street. There is no need to check in – just show your e-ticket to the steward when boarding the train.

What is the train like?

Many people opt for the train thinking there will be beautiful scenery along the way. The journey from Hanoi to Sapa does indeed pass through one of the most picturesque parts of Vietnam, but the train journey is at night, so in reality you don’t actually see much.

The trains themselves are basic but comfortable enough. It’s very noisy and bumpy as the train constantly shunts throughout the night. Don’t expect to get a full night’s sleep! Linens are provided but there is no dining cart so you should bring your own food (snacks and water can be purchased on board) plus other standard train travel essentials.

There is plenty of luggage space on the trains. Technically guests are limited to one 20kg bag each, but this rule isn’t strictly enforced.

How to get to Sapa from Lao Cai railway station

Remember: The Hanoi to Sapa train terminates in Lao Cai city, 35 kilometres (roughly 50-90 minutes by road) from Sapa.

When you arrive in Lao Cai and alight the train, prepare yourself for an onslaught! Taxi drivers and guides wait at the station for tourists and descend on you as soon as you step onto the platform.

Do not book a train ticket to Lao Cai without also pre-organising your transport to Sapa. Trying to book a transfer on the fly is an absolute nightmare.

There are a couple of options for getting to Sapa, the cheapest being public bus #1. You can find the bus stop near the train station car park, on the left as you exit the main gate. The buses are red and yellow couloured. You can’t miss them.

The first bus leaves Lao Cai at 5.50am. After that, they depart every 20-30 minutes throughout the day. Tickets cost 30,000 VND and can either be purchased when you board or online in advance through Baolau (recommended for high season and weekends). The journey to Sapa by bus takes 1.5 hours.

Alternatively, you can prearrange a private transfer to Sapa by car or minivan. The mountain road from Lao Cai to Sapa is very windy and quite precarious, so if you’re a nervous passenger or you suffer from motion sickness, I highly recommend a transfer over the public bus. It’s also faster, taking just 50-60 minutes.

Most hotels in Sapa can organise a transfer from Lao Cai station. Alternatively, you can reserve a seat on a minibus through Sapa O’Chau. Don’t risk hiring a taxi at the station – tourists are regularly ripped off on this route.

By the time you arrive in Sapa, it may still be too early to check into your hotel. Most of the cafes around the lake are open from 7.30am so you can grab a coffee and some pancakes while you wait.

The return trip: Sapa to Hanoi train

For the return trip, first take bus #2 (the same red and yellow public bus) from outside Sapa church back to Lao Cai railway station. Remember to leave yourself ample time. Buses run throughout the day.

There are two nightly trains from Lao Cai to Hanoi: SP2 departs at 9.55pm and arrives in Hanoi at 4.30am, and SP4 departs at 10.40pm and arrives back in Hanoi at 5.30am. 12Go Asia offers VIP and 1st class beds, plus 2nd class soft seats for this journey. Prices are a few dollars cheaper for the return route.

Inside a VIP train carriage in Vietnam.
Chapa Express Train. Photo credit: 12GoAsia.

Option 3: Chapa Express Train (VIP)

If you want the atmosphere of slow travelling to Sapa by train but you prefer an ‘upgraded’ experience, the VIP train could be a good option for you.

There are half a dozen private companies that run special carriages on the Hanoi-Sapa/Sapa-Hanoi train. These include Victoria Express, Sapaly Express, Livitrans Express, Fanxipan Express, and Pumpkin Express.

My preferred provider is Chapa Express, which runs on the SP3 train (departing Hanoi at 10pm and arriving in Lao Cai at 6.05am the next morning). As well as nicer cabins, Chapa Express offers high-speed WIFI and snacks on-board, plus access to their lounges at both railway stations.

A bed in a 4-berth cabin on the Chapa Express cost 42 USD/person. You can purchase your tickets online well in advance through Get Your Guide.

After you book and pay, you’ll receive detailed instructions by email regarding what time to arrive at the station and where to check in for the train. Be sure to read these carefully as the procedure is different than regular Vietnam Railways ticket holders.

The return trip: Sapa to Hanoi train

Coming back to Hanoi, the Chapa Express leaves Lao Cai station nightly at 9.40pm. The price is the same, and tickets can be purchased online through Get Your Guide.

Option 4: Hanoi to Sapa bus (Express Bus)

If you prefer to travel during daylight hours, coach buses from Hanoi to Sapa take around 6 hours. My preferred company for this route is Express Bus. It runs once daily, departing Hanoi at 7am and arriving in Sapa at 1pm.

This is a sleeper bus with fully reclining seats.

If your Hanoi accommodation is in the Old Quarter, free pick up is included (be ready at 6.30am). In Sapa, the bus terminates at May Sapa Hotel in the centre of town. A major advantage of choosing the bus over the train is that there’s no need to book a second transfer from Lao Cai.

It’s a long journey, but there are two scheduled rest stops (roughly 10 minutes each) to use the bathroom and purchase drinks and snacks along the way.

How to buy tickets for the Express Bus

Tickets for the Express Bus cost 12 USD/person and can be purchased online in advance through Get Your Guide.

Are the roads safe?

Travelling from Hanoi to Sapa by road, buses and cars take highway CT05. It’s fairly flat and straight all the way to Lao Cai before the final, windy portion of mountain road into Sapa.

Express Bus drivers are professional and riding in these coach buses is generally safe. If you’re prone to motion sickness or you’re a nervous traveller, consider taking a van instead (see the next section for details).

The return trip: Sapa to Hanoi bus

Travelling the opposite way, the Express Bus departs Sapa at 3.30pm and arrives in Hanoi at 9pm. If there’s heavy traffic in the city, it may take a little longer. Drop off at your Hanoi hotel is included in the price (Old Quarter only).

On the way back, the bus passes directly in front of Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport. If you’re trying to make a flight on the same day, it might be possible to get dropped off at the airport. You should ask at the time of booking.

Tickets cost 12 USD/person and can be purchased online.

Buy Sapa to Hanoi bus tickets through Get Your Guide.

Inside a luxury van, with leather seats.
Rosa Eco Bus. Photo credit: EcoSapa Bus.

Option 5: Hanoi to Sapa limousine van (Eco Sapa Bus)

Eco Sapa Bus is slightly more expensive than a coach – but as you can see, it’s a lot more comfortable. It’s fast, getting you to Sapa in as little as 5.5 hours. If it’s within your budget, limousine van is my preferred way to travel from Hanoi to Sapa.

There are two Eco Sapa Bus vans every day: One at 7.30am, and a second afternoon service departing Hanoi at 3pm. Pick up from Old Quarter hotels is included in the ticket price. The drive takes 5.5 hours on average including two 20-minute rest stops.

This is a door-to-door service and also includes drop off at your hotel in Sapa (provided it’s in town).

How to buy tickets for the Eco Sapa Bus

Tickets for the Eco Sapa Bus cost 25 USD/person one-way. Inquire through their website or Facebook page to purchase tickets in advance.

The return trip: Sapa to Hanoi limousine van

Eco Sapa Bus runs two vans back to Hanoi, departing Sapa at 8am and 3pm. Hotel pick up/drop off is included, and the price is the same (25 USD/person).

A white van.
Ouros taxi. Photo credit: 12GoAsia.

Option 6: Hanoi to Sapa private taxi

The final option is to take a private taxi to Sapa. This is the fastest and most comfortable way to travel, taking as little as 5 hours (less if you don’t stop along the way).

How to pre-book a private taxi online

I recommend using 12Go Asia to pre-book a Sapa taxi and driver online. They accept reservations for a number of reputable companies, including Ouros and Dichung.

Prices start from $170 one-way for a 9-person van. If you’re travelling with a large family or group, this can work out much cheaper than VIP van or even the train.

Pick up is on demand, any time of day or night from anywhere in Hanoi or from the arrivals terminal at Noi Bai Airport. Upon arrival in Sapa, you’ll be taken all the way to your hotel. WIFI and AC are standard, and taxis have plentiful luggage space.


Hanoi to Sapa transport summary

TransportTravel timeCostReservations
1. Sapa tour from Hanoi2–3 nightsFrom $105 per personBrowse tours online via Get Your Guide
2. Vietnam Railways train (to Lao Cai)8 hours (+ 50-90 minutes by road to Sapa)From $11 per personBuy tickets online via 12GoAsia
3. Chapa Express VIP train (to Lao Cai)8 hours (+ 50-90 minutes by road to Sapa)$42 per personBuy tickets online via Get Your Guide
4. Sapa Express Bus (coach)5.5–6 hours$12 per personBuy tickets online via 12GoAsia
5. Eco Sapa Bus (limousine van)5.5 hours$29 per personInquire online
6. Private taxi5–5.5 hoursFrom $170 per carReserve online via 12GoAsia

Final verdict: What is the best way to travel from Hanoi to Sapa?

I’ve done this trip several ways, by rail and by road. As a train lover it pains me to say it, but I recommend taking the bus or VIP van over the night train.

Taking the train in Vietnam is a cool experience, but there are much better routes elsewhere in the country (most notably the coastal Reunification Express). For me, the discomfort isn’t worth the pricetag. The biggest drawback is having to book another transfer to Sapa – the last thing you feel like doing after an overnight train ride is braving a windy mountain drive.

Overall, VIP van is much more convenient while still being very affordable.


Where to stay in Sapa

Sapa has tons of different accommodation options depending on your budget and the type of experience you want to have. My Sapa accommodation guide brings together some of the best, including eco lodges, central hotels and more remote homestays.

I strongly recommend spending at least one night in a village homestay. My personal favourite is Indigo Snail in Ta Van village (pictured below).

A beautiful blue quilt on a bed in a homestay in Sapa, Vietnam.
Indigo Snail Hmong homestay in Sapa.

Where to stay in Hanoi

La Siesta Hang Be is a luxury boutique hotel with a very reasonable nightly rate. The Old Quarter location is ideal, and you won’t find a more stylish interior design anywhere else in Hanoi. Check rates and availability on Booking.com.

Essence Hanoi Hotel is another solid choice for the Old Quarter. It’s positioned close to ‘Bia Hoi Corner’, and one of the best restaurants in the city is located right in the lobby. Read my review of Essence Hanoi Hotel or check rates and availability on Booking.com.

A great budget-friendly hotel in Hanoi is Tung Trang Hotel. Run by a beautiful and welcoming family, it’s located right in the beating heart of the Old Quarter. Check rates and availability on Booking.com.

If Airbnb is more your thing, here is my curated list of the best quintessentially Hanoian Airbnb apartments. Remember to use this link when you sign up and you’ll get $55 AUD credit towards your first booking.


Vietnam essentials

Here are the booking sites and services I personally use whenever I travel to Vietnam.

– Find affordable flights to Vietnam on Kiwi.com, a booking site that mixes and matches airlines to find the best route (there’s a money back guarantee if you miss a connection).

– Use iVisa to check if you need a tourist visa for Vietnam and apply for an expedited e-visa online.

– Pre-book a private hotel transfer from Hanoi Airport or Ho Chi Minh City Airport.

– Pre-order a local 4G sim card for pickup at your first Vietnam hotel.

– Find the best hotel deals in Vietnam on Agoda, book a Vietnam hostel, or find a unique Airbnb.

– Reserve your Vietnam Rail tickets for the train to Sapa, Da Nang, Hue or Saigon.

– Buy your domestic bus or plane tickets in advance using Baolau or 12GoAsia.

– Find the best cooking classes and foodie experiences in Vietnam. Here are my top 15 Vietnam food experiences to help you decide.

– Find the best city tours and day excursions in Vietnam. Check out my top 10 best Vietnam day trips for more inspiration.

– Consult my comprehensive Halong Bay guide to find the best cruises & tours.

– Try an alternative tour or DIY experience with social enterprise Backstreet Academy.

– Pick up a copy of the latest Lonely Planet guidebook for Vietnam.

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