We debated whether or not Sapa was worth the 10 hour (each way) train ride given our ever-growing indifference to Vietnam Railways. In the end, we decided to make the trip rather than second-guess our decision later.
We learned that there is a thriving black market in Hanoi when it comes to train tickets. Apparently all of the sleeper cars are bought out by tour companies and scalpers to be sold at a heavily inflated rate (>50%) to tourists. This was told to us by our hotel, but we thought they were just after a commission so opted to walk 20 minutes to the train station to see for ourselves. We arrived to find, that in fact, they were "sold out". Even though we'd have preferred to travel independently, it seemed cheaper to book a package tour for 3 nights (two on the overnight train there and back and one at a hotel), which we did.
Sapa was worth the trip, but the tour was not great. We were told a maximum of 8 would be in our group, but what was really meant was 8+8+8 would be bussed, walk, eat and stay together. Enough complaining and a little about Sapa. Sapa is an old French hill station where the French and other elite would go to escape the heat of summer, but today it's mostly visited for trekking and exploring the villages of the surrounding hill-tribes. We had a chance to spend several days walking through villages with local people. The reality was that we were each paired-up with a local villager, typically a young woman who walked alongside us (in John's case sticking to him like a shadow that he couldn't shake) with requests aplenty to purchase their handicrafts at the end of the trip (which we did), but also some fun and entertaining conversation. In some cases the girls that walked with us during the day, who did not go to school, had better English skills than our guide.
The main hill tribe we visited were the Black Hmong. They grow hemp, make it into string, weave it, dye it in indigo then create some beautiful clothing and wovens. It was really good to see the homes and way of life, though it's not clear to us how much is "put on" for the tourists vs. authentic. Hard to say, but lots of beautiful landscape was on view.
The best part of our trip was, surprisingly, our train ride back. We shared our sleeper cabin with a Vietnamese guy who owns a tour company in Sapa. Several of his employees/friends were in the soft-seater part of the train and were invited back into our cabin to drink beer and talk along with an Australian we had run into during the previous day's hiking. Despite staying up later than we would have, and drinking way too much beer (in John's case anyway), it was really interesting to getlocal perspectiveive on everything from the future of Vietnam, tourism in Sapa, communism vs. capitalism, the revere for Ho Chi Minh (tears were nearly shed by our friends in recounting what he meant to Vietnam), Buddhism, etc. Really nice guys who are committed to making a better future for their country. Returned to Hanoi at 4:15am and had to wait around the streets, and eventually our hotel lobby - once we were able to wake the night watchman from his bed on the lobby floor.