Why go to Hanoi
The capital of Vietnam, Hanoi comes second as far as the size is concerned, yielding to the southern sister city of Saigon. It may feel quieter, but by no means less charming. Stately colonial mansions live in harmony with a crazy maze of the narrow lanes of the Old Quarter; rich two-dollar pho bowls are sold in front of the coffee shops pouring out world class flavoursome local coffee; and while the atmosphere of austerity embraces the final abode of Ho Chi Minh, almost palpable French flair fills the air.
From Saigon to Hanoi
Yes, it is a long, long way north from Saigon to Hanoi – actually over 1140 km. The first thought which dawns upon your mind is – let us guess – to take a plane. You can do it for sure and in two hours you will reach the capital, true; but going by land, though takes much longer – about 35 hours – is an adventure you should not miss if you can.
From Saigon to Hanoi by train
Why should you consider going from Saigon to Hanoi by train? It is definitely neither the fastest way to get to the Vietnamese capital nor the cheapest one. Spending almost 1½ day on the move and paying from USD60 to USD140 may seem unreasonable; but it still makes sense to travel from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi by train and that is why.
Originating from the largest southern city of Vietnam, the train travels the length of the country. The scenery you are going to see en route is diverse and provides you with the glimpses of rural, everyday Vietnam you can miss if visiting its cities and towns only. If you opt for a berth in an ordinary sleeper of the Vietnam Railways and not that of one of the private companies serving the route – e.g. Violette Express – there will be quite a lot of locals among your fellow passengers and some of them will be happy to share some insider’s information about their country with you.
Vietnamese trains are safe and rather comfortable. All the sleeping cars are air-conditioned and feature compartments for six (second class sleepers) or four (first class sleepers) passengers. There is at least one Western-style toilet in each car. You can order meals from the dining car and dishes are ok and reasonably prices (from USD2). Trains SE4, SE6 and SE8 has been recently refurbished and now allegedly provide Wi-Fi on board. In general, SE trains are the best way to travel. Note that your luggage travels together with you in the same compartment: you just place it below the lower berth or on the shelf above the door and thus have the constant access to your belonging what is a plus.
Though there are air-conditioned soft seats and cheap hard seats without air-conditioning in many trains, it is strongly recommended to opt for a sleeper on longer routes in general and on Saigon to Hanoi route in particular. Berths in a second class sleeper cost VND1.325mio/USD60, those in a first class sleeper – VND1.5mio/USD70. Try to get the first class as the difference is not substantial; if the first class is full, do not despair as travelling in a second class sleeper you have almost the same service, the major difference lying in the number of berths per compartment – and well, you may have to queue a bit longer for the toilet.
From the point of view of the schedule, the best departures are probably SE8 at 6am (arrives to Hanoi at 3.35pm the next day) and SE6 at 9am (8pm the next day). Yes, they rob you off two days but give a great opportunity to watch a movie about Vietnam right from your train seat. Arrival time to Hanoi is also convenient. SE2, departing at 7.30pm and reaching Hanoi early in the morning on day 3, as well as SE4 (10pm; 5.20am+2), is a money-saving alternative. You spend two nights in the train and have a full day to enjoy the ride. The last option to consider is train TN2 which reaches Hanoi rather inconveniently in the small hours.
Tip If you are still unsure whether you weather through this adventure, split your long journey into two shorter ones. Danang and Hue make for a great stop and are approximately half the way between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. Which one to choose, depends entirely on your taste. At the first sight, modern Danang has little chances to win over the former imperial capital of Hue, but a closer look reveals stately colonial architecture, busy restaurant scene and some of the most hospitable people in the whole country, not mentioning its strategic proximity to Hoi An.
From Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi via Danang
Travelling from Saigon to Danang takes time, too. Most trains cover the distance of 850km in about 18 hours. On the bright side of it is that night trains SE2 (7.30pm) and SE4 (10pm) arrive to Danang very conveniently in the early afternoon, letting you sleep tight all night through. Tickets cost VND970,000/USD45 and VND1.1mio/USD50 for a second/first class sleeper. TN2 is a good choice, too, arriving in the morning (8.35am).
The remaining stretch from Danang to Hanoi takes 17 hours, with tickets sold at VND800,000/USD35 and VND900,000/USD40. Your best choice here is probably trains SE18 and SE20 leaving Danang in the afternoon (3.10pm) and early evening (6.40pm) and bringing your to Hanoi the next day in the morning (8.45am) and by midday.
From Danang, instead of buying an ordinary sleeper of the Vietnam Railways, you can proceed your journey in one of the private cars attached to the train. Check Violette Express or Livitrans Express. They cost VND2mio/USD90 but offer a more relaxed and friendly experience. Their VIP compartments accommodate four people and look nice.
Note Splitting your train journey from Saigon to Hanoi into two or more parts means paying more for your train tickets.
Tip If the sea is a must, then make a stop in Danang, not Hue.
From Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi via Hue
Hue is only three hours away from Danang, so to get from Saigon to Hue consider the same trains as for Danang. A berth in a second/first class sleeper will set you back VND1.05mio/USD47 and VND1.1mio/USD52 respectively.
After you have had enough of Hue, jump onto a train to Hanoi which takes in average 14 hours to reach its destination. Look for SE18 and SE20 in the first place, both perfectly scheduled to arrive to Hanoi before or around noon.
Getting around in Hanoi
The Old Quarter is by no doubt to be explored on foot, but if you are going to venture further afield, taxis are a great way to go. They are wonderfully affordable, but even with metres turned on, keep an eye on where your driver is going: some drivers tend to take their passengers for a much longer ride than necessary, basically showing them around the city to make them pay more money. GPS in your smartphone can help or agree on a flat fare if you know already the rates. Another common problem is metres running faster than they should. Good news: Uber is currently operating in Hanoi, offering a decent alternative to conventional taxis.
For shorter trips, cyclos are a quintessentially Vietnamese way to get around. They are somewhat safer than renting a motorbike (USD5-USD6 per day), what can turn out to be a real ordeal for those not familiar with Asian-style driving. Do not overlook local buses, which are a cheap and fast way to move around (VND7.000).
Where to stay in Hanoi
For some ideas and tips on where to stay and what to do in Hanoi check our Haiphong to Hanoi page.
Onward travel from Hanoi
Though trains do not reach Sapa and stop at Lao Cai, the final 40 km are easily done by bus or taxi. Sapa will enchant those interested in ethnic minorities and nature trails.
Haiphong is a convenient stop on the way to the wonders of Halong Bay, which possesses an undeniable beauty and is rightfully included by UNESCO in their World heritage list.