By Train -- Don't miss a chance to ride Victoria's Orient Express train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (from there, it is a 1 1/2-hour ride to Sapa). With wood-paneled luxury sleeping cars and a restaurant billed as the finest dining between Hanoi and Sapa, this is an exciting option. The Victoria group replaced their cars with five new ones (including two sleeper cars and one dining car) in October 2006 and increased services to the area. Trains now run daily, except for Saturday, when cars are closed for maintenance and service. A four-course meal is offered aboard their dining cars (available on a rotational basis) for an additional $22. Menus are designed by Victoria Sapa Hotel's resident executive chef, and a la carte options are also available. The train's soft duvets, fluffy pillows, and hand-knit bags containing towel, toothbrush, and bottled water make the deflated pillows and thin comforters of the standard tourist trains look second-rate indeed. Round-trip prices range from $182 to $250. Note: You must have at least one overnight stay at the Victoria Sapa resort to ride the Victoria Orient Express. Also, if you want to book one of the train's few two-berth sleepers, book at least 6 months in advance. Contact Victoria Sapa (tel. 020/387-1522; www.victoriahotels-asia.com) for details and reservations.
A number of standard and tourist trains also make the overnight run from Hanoi. You can make arrangements with any travel agent for a small fee, or do it yourself at the Hanoi Railway Station (where the western edge of Hoan Kiem district meets Dong Da district at 120 Le Duan; tel. 04/394-23949). Prices range from 299,000 VND for a hard sleeper in a six-bed berth with air-conditioning to 2,050,000 VND for a soft sleeper in a two-bed berth with air-conditioning. Trains passing through Lao Cai also continue north and make connections in China. (Important reminder: You'll need a prearranged visa to enter China.) Tulico Trains (tel. 04/382-87806) is another good bet, just one notch above the regular sleeper cars. All cars have four-sleeper berths in a pretty cramped space. If you like your privacy, buy yourself your own private car (and some breathing room) by purchasing all four beds and using only two of them.
To get to Sapa from the train station in Lao Cai, you'll need to transfer by bus for the 1 1/2- to 2-hour ride from Lao Cai station. This can mean anything from a 25,000 VND fare in a rattletrap Russian castoff, or a price of $60 for a ride in a Japanese Pajero Mini (SUV) arranged through the Victoria Hotel. The road is cut into the hillside and is bumpy and windy, but the views of the terraced rice farms of the valley are beautiful as you ascend (ride on the left side).
Note: All trains to Lao Cai leave from the Hanoi Railway Station at 120 Le Duan St., which is often confused with Hanoi's other station. Be sure to show any taxi driver the address.
By Bus -- Hanoi's tourist cafes all run frequent buses to Sapa for 300,000 VND one-way. Some include Sapa as a stop on a seat-in-coach tour around the Dien Bien Phu loop (usually a 4- or 5-day adventure stopping in Lao Cai, Son La, Dien Bien Phu, or Lai Chau and Sapa before returning to Hanoi). The train is, however, the best option if just connecting from Hanoi.
By Car -- Any tourist cafe or travel agent in Hanoi can arrange trips by private jeep or a combo jeep-and-train tour. Apart from Sapa, the vast tracts of the north are best visited through a tour company. Ann Tourist Co., Buffalo Tours, and Handspan all offer comprehensive itineraries. Especially for areas off the beaten track, avoid the temptation to book budget tours with the tourist cafes.
Visitor Information & Tours
For tours and trekking in the region, the Danish outfit Topas Adventure Travel (24 Hmuong Hoa, Sapa; tel. 020/387-1331; fax 020/387-2405; www.topasvietnam.com), with offices worldwide and experienced guides, is one of your best options (with Handspan being your other best choice). Office managers are usually tour leaders with regional experience who have been dispatched from Denmark and have worked with Topas for several years. Whether it's a day trek to nearby villages, an extended tour with homestays in villages, or the 5-day push to the top of Fansipan, these guys cover it.
Handspan -- a large eco-tour outfit based in Hanoi with a good branch office overlooking the valley -- is the most consistent choice for arranging day treks and transport. Find them at 24 Dong Loi (inside Chau Long Hotel) (tel. 020/387-2110; www.handspan.com).
Small budget-trekking offices line busy Cau May Street in Sapa, and you have your pick of guides and guided tours at budget prices. Just about anyone can hook you up with a Minsk motorbike for a 1-day rental or connect you with a guide. One of long standing and with a good reputation is Dan Trung Auberge (7 Muong Hoa St.; tel. 020/387-1243). Francophones mostly, there is also a good contingent of English speakers, and they can arrange the standard itineraries at midrange prices from their busy little guesthouse, restaurant, and tour center (long a Sapa fixture).
New is the Tourist Information Center (2 Fansipan St., in the center of town; tel. 020/387-1975; fax 020/387-1976), which can arrange an affordable guide ($10) for 1-day treks. And you'll support local villagers by booking through this center: Guides are local ethnic-minority members, few of whom speak English, but all of whom can take you on the classic day treks around the valley. The agency supports sustainable tourism in the valley and works with large international relief agencies to minimize the impact of tourists on the surrounding hilltribe cultures and customs.
Banks & Communication -- The post office is on Cau May Street (tel. 020/382-1206), but most hotels can send postcards and letters and have stamps for sale. There are a few storefront Internet cafes, but service is slow and unreliable. All hotels provide exchange service for traveler's checks and even credit card cash advances. There is a local bank on Ma May where you can cash traveler's checks for the same 2% fee as at your hotel. There are two reliable ATMs in town, one in front of the Royal Hotel and another one 500m (1,640 ft.) north of the hotel on Cau May street.