Sasha takes the Victoria's Express to Sapa in Vietnam

Staff member: Sasha // Trip date: May 2014


I was met at Hanoi airport by a person holding my name on a sign board and she proceeded to take us to our waiting private car transfer. Our bags were put into the boot and off we drove it was a 50min drive to Hanoi train station. Once I was in the car I was given an envelope which contained two vouchers and beneath each voucher were our train tickets for our journey from Hanoi to Lao Cai and back. After about 5min a call came in on the driver's mobile phone and it was handed to me and a representative of the tour company talked me through the tickets and made sure all was in order and answered any questions I had. There was no voucher for the hotel or the transfers from Lao Cai to Sapa and for our day trip but this was standard practice I was told. We only needed the train tickets, the rest was all organised and exchange vouchers not required.


We had a long wait at the train station due to flight times but passed the time reading and people watching. There is no air conditioned room but the station was not overly hot anyway. There were a few places to have something for tea and also some shops to buy snacks and water/drinks. We felt quite safe sitting at the station and never got hassled by anyone.


At 9pm we walked through the ticket check barrier then lugged our suitcases across the five train tracks, and down the platform past 13 carriages (belonging to other companies and not the Victoria Express) as we were in carriage 14, the second to last one. We were greeted by Victoria Express staff that provided us with a cool refreshing towel and checked off our names on the passenger list. Our suitcases were taken off us and onto the train and put under the beds in our carriage for us. You could easily find the carriage as they all had numbers on them and also on the side was written in large letters 'Victoria Express'.


We were taken to the cabin and shown the features and then left to settle in. Our cabin was a four berth but we booked out the whole thing so there was just the two of us alone in it and the two bottom bunks were down with the two top ones up. The cabin was all wooden inside and had a nice old style train of previous years feel to it. We only had two tickets behind our voucher which again was normal practice even though we booked out the whole 4 berth cabin.


There were personal reading lights by each bed, the cabin was air conditioned, there was a small table that could collapse to provide more space, more overhead storage space as well as the space under the lower beds and on each bed was a pack containing two nice postcards and also a bottle of water and toothbrush and toothpaste. The beds had a duvet cover on them and were all made up with a soft pillow. You could also lock the cabin from the inside so no one could enter when you were asleep.


We were offered a drink but declined, then were asked if we would like tea or coffee in the morning. We were also advised that we would get a knock on the door about 40min before arrival and tea and coffee and some croissants would be served in our cabin 35min before arrival.


The train left right on time at 9.50pm. We had had a long day so watched the passing view from bed. At some points we were so close to people's houses you could touch them! Then we slept. I sleep mostly well. I was woken up some times with jerks in the train movement and being too hot under my duvet, but for the most part it was a good trip. We arrived into Lao Cai at 8.50am and before arrival, as promised, got the knock on the door along with our tea and yum croissants. Our luggage was taken off the train for us and then we pulled it down the platform to the exit gate. At the exit gate your train tickets are taken off you so don't lose them! We saw our driver holding a sign with my name on it and we walked to his car and drove 50min to Sapa.


The drive over was great. Lots of twists and turns for the most part and really mountainous. As we got higher there was fog and mist so you couldn't see the mountains at some points. I loved the drive. 35km all up. Sapa is about 1600m above sea level.


We arrived at the 4 star Victoria Sapa Resort and Spa (the only luxury hotel in the Sapa region) just before 10am and were able to check in right away which was handy. They took our passports from us till 2pm, I couldn't quite make out why they had to do it but it was the same for all guests. Our bags were taken to our room for us and once in the room the features of the room were shown to us.


The room was a good size with a lovely soft bed (beds in Vietnam are HARD so this was heaven to sleep in), there was a sofa, table, large wardrobe, TV, minbar in the fridge, safe and a lovely balcony to sit on and see the views of the mountains and Sapa town.


We had a shower and then walked down the 100 steps (or you could walk down the road) into town and had a look around Sapa market. There are lots of different hill tribes here and around Sapa so the clothes the ladies wear are really interesting. I loved looking at them all and discreetly took some photos. We had some amazing donuts this lady made at the market which were so yum. Some local recipe which I'd love to have. The market was really good and after looking around we looked at the shops on the main street too.


Up the next day and breakfast was included in the package and the food at the hotel was large catering for western and Asian tastes. Some yum breads and fresh muffins were had along with made to order omelettes.


Then, using my new Northface backpack I brought in the market for some cheap price, we set off for Cat Cat. Cat Cat is the nearest village to Sapa. It's a steep but beautiful 3 km walk down there and you can see these amazing rice terraces which I just loved looking at. You could get driven there but you are better off walking and seeing the sights along the way.


We got to the village entrance and paid our entry fee which is a really good idea as the money goes towards the upkeep of the village. Only 40,000 dong or $2 each. Then you basically do this large circle of the village. You walk 300m down the steep steps and they have shops you can look at. You also get to see the rice terraces up close which was interesting. Then you arrive at this waterfall which was really nice as it kind of cools you down. By now you are right down in a valley. They also perform some traditional dancing near the waterfall which we watched for a while. There were local kids swimming in the river too. Then it was up some steps and we got offered the chance to go back up to Sapa on a motorbike instead of walking the 3km uphill. For $3 each we said hell yes! It was fun being on the back of a motorcycle going up the hill and it sure was better than walking. All up we spent about 2.5-3 hours down in Cat Cat. A really good morning. We did some more shopping in the afternoon and rested at the hotel with a nice strong massage in the evening.


The food in Sapa was really nice too. Some great local dishes are worth trying and even though it is not a large city the pricing was still cheap.


The following day after another nice breakfast we checked out of the hotel at 8.30am and were met by the driver and guide, Su May. We drove 2.5 hours from Sapa to Bac Ha. In parts the fog rolled in quite heavily which made for some interesting driving. The Bac Ha Sunday market is so full of colour and commerce as this is when all the people come to the market to buy and sell things. There are 10 hill-tribe groups that live around Bac Ha: the colourful Flower H'mong are the most visible, we loved looking at their detailed clothes that the ladies wore. In the market we walked around and looked at the different areas. Clothes, home wear like table cloths, cushion covers etc., then the food (so many chillies), livestock (buffalo are USD$1000-1500), horses which were tiny, chickens, birds etc. Really interesting and worth the trip to see a different market from the one in Sapa. Then we had lunch, drove 2km to another really small village and it was great having Su May to tell us things and answer all our questions. Then it was 1.5 hours back to Lao Cai.


We were dropped off at a nice restaurant in town. We had a drink and chatted then said goodbye to Su May who was a brilliant wee guide. The ladies in Sapa are so short. They don't have calcium in their diet I was told. Before Su May left she casually said we could have a shower upstairs for $1! I said $1 as thought I misheard her but she said yes and is that expensive. I was like hell no. So we had a shower which was great as we were really hot and sticky and then we had dinner.


We then walked about 5min to the train station and we boarded the train at 8pm for an 8.20pm departure and off we went back to Hanoi overnight on the Victoria Express.


This train had a Victoria Express dining car attached to it and just after departing it was open for dinner and/or drinks and snacks. This was the only negative on our trip on the Victoria Express. The service in the dining car was very poor. We waited 10min to be served and the waiter only went to two tables, seemed overwhelmed by the dinner orders and never attended to the other tables. Two couples went to the bar after 10min and told him what they wanted, two couples walked out and we did too.


I slept really, really well coming back. Never woke up till we got a knock on the cabin door 40min before arrival into Hanoi. You could have breakfast in the dining car but we had some fruit and rolls with us and water so ate in the cabin watching the countryside and then Hanoi go by.


We used the provided toothbrush to freshen up before we arrived and this was done in the western style bathroom which also had a sink in it. There was a bathroom in each carriage but no shower. The carriages on the train were not full so there was never really a long wait to use the bathroom. The bathrooms are only to be used when the train is moving and are locked prior to departure and on arrival.


We arrived into Hanoi at 8am and our driver was there to meet us on the platform with my name on a sign. We walked over the platforms and had our train tickets taken off us, into his car and he drove us straight to the airport as we were headed to Laos at midday. It took 1 hour to get to the airport. Domestic and international check in time is 2 hours in Vietnam and I would recommend 3 hour for international as they are not too fast at checking people in compared to Australia.


Each time the train arrived later than the time on the ticket, about 40min late. The drivers always wait for you but keep this in mind if you are booking flights for the same day.


In conclusion, I really, really loved Sapa and the area. It was great to see this area of Vietnam and it is different to the south and central parts for sure. They are building a motorway from Hanoi to Sapa which will take about five hours to drive, however I always would prefer the overnight train as think it's a much nicer way to go and you travel when you are sleeping, thus maximise your days to see the sights. Five hours on a so called motorway in Vietnam with plenty of motorbikes in your way, no thanks.


I enjoyed the Victoria Express train too, loved the atmosphere and the cabins were nice to be in. The Victoria Express resort was a lovely place to rest, relax and lay your head each night and that soft mattress, simply the best!


All my bookings and arrangements were made by the Great Train Journeys department at Rail Plus and all private transfers, tours were exactly as booked. Having a private transfer compared to sharing a minibus was also a much nicer way to travel and allowed for short stops if need be. It also gave us a one on one experience with our guide. We had a thoroughly enjoyable time in this special part of Vietnam.


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