Travelling with a bicycle.
Took the 5:30am bus with bicycle from Ha Giang (great city, beautiful province) to Lao Cai. Cost of the ticket on the board at the bus station was 100,000 vnd. With bike strapped to the roof I was expecting to pay the usual tourist price of double the fare. At the halfway point with 100km to go, the driver collected the fare. I offered 200,000vnd which he wouldn't accept, insisting I pay 500,000 vnd much to the embarassment of the local Vietnamese on the bus, who are genuinely welcoming and honest people, but also realistic enough to stay quiet when still 100 km from their destination and no other bus available. I paid, but my first impression of Lao Cai was not the usual welcoming one.
The train trip out of Lao Cai was equally bad with a scam operating from Livitrans office where I paid $65 for a third rate shared hard sleeper with 3 other guys who farted and snored all night. First and last impressions of Lao Cai were not good. A real pity for the honest, kind and very friendly people in Sapa who work so hard to make tourists welcome.
Unique Suggestions: Pay for the bus at the destination or keep enough cash in your wallet for what you think is an honest price. Stash some cash elsewhere. Generally once they empty your wallet, they will leave you alone.
Definitely don't use Livitrans. After 2 emails they still haven't replied
Fun Alternatives: It is a bit difficult cycling in the northern provinces, not only the huge mountains need to be climbed, but there is so little information about hotels, guest houses or homestay in the area so planning a journey can be tricky. Local people are very friendly, but rarely travel far from their villages, so information they give may not be accurate. Buses are a good way to get around and meet some local peopl, but they can also be very crowded, like 6 people sharing 4 seats.
Normally you will buy the train ticket from Sapa travel agency if you are in Sapa. However, the travel agent will sure ask you to buy TulicoTourist train ticket. Tulico is more comfortable, of course much more expensive.
So you will ask for normal train ticket price. They will tell you the price that is much more higher than the price you expected.
Be ready for the answer "the fare for different day is different. The train ticket is more expensive on Friday-Monday coz more people go to Hanoi" ,"the government put a high tax on the travel agency", "the seats are all sold out". etc
These are all fraud when you place the bet and try your luck at Lao Cai train station at 4:30pm, you can easily get a seat.
p/s: there is no such thing as different day different charges..
Fun Alternatives: Buy the train ticket yourself from lao cai train station. The station is operating from 4:30pm. I am not sure about morning, but I was there at 12noon and the counter lady told me they are closed.
If you take a van from sapa to lao cai bus station, and the van is not organised by any travel agency ( which means there are locals on the van together with you / or you waive and board the van at sapa road side), then u gotta beware. NEVERNEVER pay before you reach lao cai train station even though all locals pay or the driver shouts at you.
The worst it can be is they drop you on the way down the mountain and what u can do is waive down another van. But if you pay the fare, for sure the van will drop you at Lao Cai bus station and you need to pay 5000D for a ride to the train station. At that moment no use for you to shout at them, they will pretend dont understand and enjoy their coffee break..
Unique Suggestions: Make sure you tell the driver your destination clearly.
Fun Alternatives: My above suggestion is quite aggresive, if you want to save all the hassle and do not mind paying more, stop at lao cai bus station and take a moto ride to train station is quite convenient. A lot of motodop will waiting for you once your van reached the station.
Agents in Sa Pa cunningly buy all sleeper train tickets to Hanoi, making the a/c sleeper tickets only buyable through them with a 50-100% mark-up, before putting you on trains that would have seemed poor by Indian standards.
Unique Suggestions: Try and get them through the train ticket office in the main street. A sleeper from Lao Cai to Hanoi shouldn't cost more than 120D. And make sure that you get the little white receipt. Better still, just go to the ticket office in Lao Cai and get a seat from about 65D