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Two of the most popular tourist destinations in Northern Vietnam are Sapa, of course, and increasingly Cat Ba Island. As Halong Bay becomes overrun with backpacker day or multi-day tours from Hanoi, staying on the nearby Cat Ba Island is a welcome alternative! I even have a blog post about my stellar experience with a budget-friendly Cat Ba-based Halong Bay tour operator!
So, as more people want to get straight from Sapa to Cat Ba without having to navigate through long stopovers in Hanoi, options are arising to make the trip smooth and easy.
Spoiler alert: the main/best way to do this is with a select number of high quality bus companies operating on the Sapa to Cat Ba (and vice versa) route. That said, in this post I’ll also delve a bit into your other budget-friendly alternatives, including the train and motorbike.
Sapa to Cat Ba by Bus
As I said, this is absolutely the method I recommend for getting from Sapa to Cat Ba. Private bus companies will handle everything for you, which is huge plus for journeys requiring multiple modes of transportation (bus and boat).
Not only do these companies organize your bus trip from Sapa, through Hanoi, and to the ferry port, but they handle your ferry ticket, and deliver you straight to your accommodation on Cat Ba Island. Now, it’s just a matter of choosing the most reputable option.
If you want a company which will take you directly from Sapa to Cat Ba, or Cat Ba to Sapa, you should go with Good Morning Cat Ba. I chose their overnight bus on my last Vietnam backpacking trip and I was really impressed.
You can find their timetables here—they offer two busses a day from Sapa to Cat Ba (leaving at 7 AM and 10 PM) and three from Cat Ba to Sapa (leaving at 9 AM, 12:30 PM, and 4:00 PM). It only costs $28/person for a one-way trip, and includes a snack and water. The bus will technically stop in Hanoi, but only at their office, and long enough to transfer you to the next leg of your journey. I can’t speak to the bus from Cat Ba to Sapa, but the one from Sapa to Cat Ba dropped us off literally at our accommodation on the island.
Part of what I love about these direct tickets is that they handle your ferry ride, too, and lead you directly to the next bus at the pier once you get off the ferry.
I’ve ridden plenty of busses in Vietnam, some overnight and some not, and for this distance and quality that price is amazing. I do meticulous amounts of research and Good Morning Cat Ba came out on top by a long shot!
Pro-tip: don’t be like us and choose the (tempting) top bunks if you’re taking a night bus. I know, it’s cool in theory. However, you feel much less stable as your driver zooms around corners… the bottom bunk is much more restful.
Good Morning Cat Ba also offers routes from Ninh Binh to Cat Ba Island, the Hanoi airport to Cat Ba Island, and Hanoi city center to Cat Ba Island!
Sapa to Cat Ba by Bus (Stopping in Hanoi)
Another option, if you want to stop in Hanoi for a while, is to combine my two favorite Vietnam bus companies. You can book from Hanoi to Cat Ba (or vice versa) with Good Morning Cat Ba, as discussed above, and then book from Hanoi to Sapa with Sapa Express.
I couldn’t write about great bus companies along the Cat Ba/Hanoi/Sapa route without giving a shout-out to Sapa Express! They were one of my favorite bus companies in Southeast Asia. Now, that’s saying something. One always expects the unexpected, to put it kindly, when boarding any kind of budget transportation in Vietnam. I don’t get my hopes up. If the bus is stinky and loud, well, that’s okay, it’s an adventure.
If the bus is actually comfortable, has WiFi and air conditioning (as many claim), then it’s a pleasant surprise! Sapa Express was one of those pleasant surprises. At $24 for a round-trip Hanoi to Sapa ticket, I’m confident they can’t be beat. At least, if you want a high-quality budget-friendly option!
I bought a $12 one-way ticket from Hanoi to Sapa with Sapa Express, spent an amazing few days in the hills and rice paddies, then booked with Good Morning Cat Ba to go straight from Sapa to Cat Ba. It’s rare to have everything go smoothly over such a distance, but with these awesome bus companies it did!
Maybe I got lucky, but I also did a ton of research beforehand. I avoided any company that seemed sketchy or too good to be true. This seems to be as good a recipe for success as any when getting around Vietnam! We can’t control everything, but we can definitely set ourselves up for success.
Sapa to Cat Ba by Bus and Train
This option is a bit more complicated than simply booking a direct bus ticket. However, I’m obsessed with train travel and think it’d be a crime to miss taking a train in Vietnam. If you’re a train lover and/or want a stopover in Hanoi, you can combine the bus and train on your Sapa to Cat Ba journey. The train experience is a beautiful one. In the case of the overnight train, a truly unique and authentic one.
To combine bus and train, you’ll want to use Good Morning Cat Ba for the leg of the trip from Cat Ba to Hanoi. Done, easy, moving on.
From Hanoi to Sapa (or vice versa) is where the train will come in. You can only book train tickets from the Lao Cai train station (24 miles from Sapa) to Hanoi’s train station. The prices and timetables are on Vietnam Railways website.
Getting from Sapa to Lao Cai or Lao Cai to Sapa is the iffiest part of this journey for me. Some accommodations in and around Sapa will just arrange a car for you, which is what I really recommend. They’ll have a fixed rate which should not be more than $5-$10 USD (let me know if your experience varied)!
Otherwise, they’ll be plenty of taxis and minivans around the train station or in Sapa ready to drive the hour journey. Just be careful of scammers. Some of them will wait hours to leave, or force you to pay more once they have your luggage. Arranging with your hotel is best!
How did you get from Sapa to Cat Ba?
If you have a different experience, I’d love to hear about it. There are a couple options I didn’t write about here, namely riding a motorbike or private car transfers. I skipped the former because I dislike driving motorbike in Vietnam and so would be a phony to claim any knowledge about doing so on such a hefty journey. I skipped the latter because private car transfers, from what I’ve researched, are insanely expensive and have sketchier reviews than the budget-friendly bus companies I did write about, anyway.
If you did either of those things from Sapa to Cat Ba, let me know how it went! If you chose something I haven’t touched on at all for this journey, I’d also love to hear about that!
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