From Hanoi, we took an overnight train to Sapa, a small town in northwest Vietnam close to the Chinese border. We got sleeper seats on a public train & spent one of our most uncomfortable nights ever on public transportation. The Victoria chain (which runs the excellent Victoria Hotel, Sapa Vietnam) runs a fancy sleeper train (The Victoria Express) several times per week which is much more comfortable. If you decide to go the public transit route, keep your belongings close, keep the train window closed while you're asleep, and look into buying a foam mattress to use on top of the sleeping platform.
Sapa itself rests on a hilltop and is surrounded by scenic mountains. We hiked around to enjoy the scenery and to visit a couple local hill tribes, who continue to maintain their traditional ways of life -- they live in wooden houses, make their own colorful traditional clothes, and farm basic crops. With our guide, we were able to stop in to one family's house and watch as the wife made the traditional dark blue fabric used for clothing in this region. We gained new respect for the clothing being sold by locals on the streets and in stores as we watched the labor that went into making a single garment.
Trekking in Sapa was a wonderful experience - much less crowded and touristed than similar treks in Thailand. We also felt that there were more opportunities to go at our own pace on private tours and to interact with locals than in the trekker-crowded area around Chiang Mai.
The Green Bamboo Hotel (871214) is a quiet and restful guesthouse. Views in this French Villa style hotel are among the best in town.
Mimosa Restaurant is a friendly place to stop in for lunch or dinner.
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