The highway to the highlands

Happy child
Happy child

InsideVietnam’s Charlotte Bower recently headed north from Hanoi to the Sapa highlands on the new express way (opened September 21 2014). The express way from Hanoi to Lau Cai is the longest in the country and cuts journey time to the far north dramatically. Here’s Charlotte…

Ta Van Village Red Dzao and H'Mong

Sapa is a stunning mountain destination with trekking and ethnic tribe villages to visit, but is commonly left off of a short travel itinerary because of the hassle that comes with using the overnight trains to get there and back; previously the only transport option. Now, the recently completed highway has opened up the north west of Vietnam and it provides a pleasant alternative to the train.

Hanoi Traffic

The highway starts about 20 minutes outside of Hanoi and this is a perfect part of the journey to spot motorbikes a little out of the ordinary. In Vietnam, the motorbike is king and is quite often used as a family vehicle. It is not uncommon to see a family of five riding one or someone carrying a ladder.

Hanoi outskirts

The beginning of the highway bridges over the outskirts of Vietnam where you can see the tall narrow houses with red roofs, typical of Vietnamese cities, along the banks of the Red River. This soon gives way to small hold farms where you can observe the farmers ploughing with buffalo or harvesting rice, depending on the season.

It is a great opportunity to sit back and observe rural life for a few hours and see a refreshing change of pace after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. With the exception of a few road cuts and tunnels, the rural views are uninterrupted for the few hours in takes to get to Lao Cai, the town closest to Sapa and the location of the train station.

Sapa new road

After passing through Lao Cai and observing the French influences architecture in the government buildings and shops, you leave the new highway and start the hour and a half drive up 2500 metres to Sapa; a road full of hairpin bends and stunning mountain views of rice terraces which more than makes up for the bumpiness – a noticeable difference once you have left the new highway.

Sapa service station

The new highway itself has been well constructed with external and internal investment. It is on a par with British roads and, although not perfectly smooth, provides for a perfectly pleasant journey. The facilities on the road are minimal at the moment. There is $2 million of local investment for the construction of service stations but these are still in the early stages of building. Currently, the locations where they will be built have local food stalls with bright signs advertising Pho Bo and plenty of coffee. There are facilities here but they are rudimentary squat toilets – As long as you know what to expect, they are  acceptable for emergencies if a five hour drive without stops doesn’t sound ideal to you. Just don’t forget your tissues!

Not only does this road provide the opportunity to see some stunning scenery you wouldn’t otherwise see (the train is all in the dark), but it opens up the northwest of Vietnam and to time constrained travellers. Sapa (and the surrounding mountians) is an opportunity not to be missed in terms of scenery and culture and the investment that has been put into this highway ensures that even the shortest of itineraries can now include it as an option.

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