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 Haiphong to Hanoi
Whenever you decide to go from Haiphong by train, you will have to connect via Hanoi as the Hanoi–Haiphong railway line terminates at Haiphong. From Hanoi, you can hop onto a train following Hanoi–Saigon leg calling en route to Hue, Danang and Nha Tranh, or go north to Lao Cai for Sapa, home for Vietnamese minority tribes and excellent trekking routes.
From Haiphong to Hanoi by train
Similarly to Hanoi–Haiphong trains, there are four daily trains from Haiphong to Hanoi. The most popular one is HP2 leaving Haiphong at 6.45pm and arriving to Hanoi railway station at 9.10pm. Three LP trains (LP2 at 6.05am, LP6 at 9.05am and LP8 at 3pm) all call to Long Bien train station and the two latter terminate at Hanoi railway station eight minutes afterwards. All trains take from 2¼ to 2¾ hours to get from Haiphong to Hanoi and offer soft seats in air-conditioned cars, which is a decent choice for a not-so-long journey. Prices vary insignificantly and are about VND130.000/USD6.
In Haiphong, all the trains depart from the colonial Haiphong train station, located in Luong Khanh Thien street, 75.
Tip: If in Hanoi you are staying in the Old Quarter north of Hang Bong street (predominantly mid-range hotels), it is much handier to get off the train at Long Bien train station. From there it is just a short walk to your accommodation.
From Haiphong to Hanoi by bus
There are three long-distance bus stations in Haiphong, two of which serve buses from Haiphong to Hanoi. Buses from Tam Bac bus station depart every 10 or 15 minutes. Lac Long bus station is closer to Haiphong city centre and also serves buses to Hanoi. The driving distance from Haiphong to Hanoi is just less than 110 km and buses take about two hours to get to Hanoi. Tickets cost VND70.000. These are ordinary local (not tourist) buses; so do not expect extra comfort.
Your onward travel from Haiphong by air
If you are not planning to make a stop in Hanoi but need to continue your journey south, e.g. to Danang (for Hoi An) or Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), note that there are direct flights from Cat Bi airport to the both cities. The airport is located six km southeast of the centre of Haiphong, so you do not need to get to Hanoi first, what can save you a bit of time. Vietnam Airlines offer one-way tickets from Haiphong to Danang and Saigon from USD50/USD70 and the local low-cost airline VietJet Air does even a greater job with fares from Haiphong to Danang, Nha Trang, Dalat and Saigon starting from as low as USD20-USD30, with even more attractive deals during promotion periods.
Before you leave Haiphong, visit Cat Ba island
The largest island of the bay, Cat Ba is a great beach escape from Hanoi and a welcome quiet harbour after cruise-craze of Ha Long City. Covered by National Park in a larger part, Cat Ba has decent beaches and good trekking routes. You can choose to spend several days in Cat Ba and then embark on a cruise around the bay from Cat Ba without calling to Ha Long City. Apart from beaches, Cat Ba treats its visitors with outstanding bay views and freshest seafood. Do not expect great value in accommodation, but there are acceptable deals in all price ranges nevertheless.
To get to Cat Ba from Haiphong, take a boat from Haiphong (Pha Binh) ferry terminal. Regardless the price indicated on the ticket (VND150.000), you are likely to be asked to pay more: in this case try another agent.
To proceed with your journey from Cat Ba to Ha Long City, take a tourist boat from the island to Ha Long City. It can be painfully slow and take up to six hours – never less than three hours anyway (VND220.000). A cheaper way to get to Ha Long City from Cat Ba is via Tuan Chau, southwest of Ha Long City. A ferry to Tuan Chau takes 45 minutes only and costs VND60.000. From Tuan Chau, hop onto a local bus to Ha Long City. The ferry for Tuan Chau departs from Gia Luan harbour.
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. Negotiate the cost of your ride before you get in. It is an unforgettable experience to be pedalled along the heavily trafficked streets with myriads of motorbikes rushing literally into your face.
Renting a motorbike is also an option (USD5-USD6 per day), though it is better to avoid renting one if you a) are not an experienced rider and b) have never ridden a motorbike in Vietnam before. If you are still sure you want to get your own two wheels, first go on a ride as a passenger of a motorbike taxi (xe om) to get an idea how bad the traffic is. Note also, that parking may not be free in Hanoi and cost from VND2.000 up to VND10.000 (on weekend around Hoan Kiem Lake). ...And always wear a helmet!
Finally, there are local buses in Hanoi. If you figure out which one you need, you can enjoy a very cheap and scamless ride, quite comfortable and fast. Use a map of bus routes available from the shops in the Book Street (Trang Tien), or check online. Pay for your ride when on the bus (VND7.000).
Where to stay in Hanoi
The main tourist activity in Hanoi is centred around Hoan Kiem Lake and accommodation options are also clustered there. Backpackers headquarters in Hanoi are located in the Old Quarter, which lies to the north and to the east of Hoan Kiem Lake. Guesthouses and hostels for just under USD20 dot the area. You can find dorms for about USD4. Do not rely on touts’ words and always check the room before checking in. Many guesthouses and hotels include free Wi-Fi and breakfast in their rates and accept cash only.
The Old Quarter is also a good area to search for mid-range digs (up to USD50); while for more up-scale accommodation check the French Quarter, south of the lake.
A fair mix of accommodation in all price ranges is found to the west of Hoan Kiem Lake around St Joseph’s Cathedral.
What to do in Hanoi
Hanoi and its surrounding area have enough sights and attractions to keep you busy for weeks if not months. Here are some ideas to spice even a short visit with remarkable local flavour.
Spend the early afternoon wandering around Hoan Kiem Lake or come in the morning to join people practising tai chi there. The red bridge to the pagoda in the middle of the lake makes for a signature Hanoi pic.
It may sound childish, but even adults will definitely enjoy visiting Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre. You may like it or not, but it is an undeniably special experience; do not miss it anyway (close to Hoan Kiem Lake; tickets are about USD4).
Though not exactly as famous as the Chinese one, the Vietnamese cuisine is outstandingly tasty and diverse. Foodies should by all means join Hanoi food tasting tour (shop for one in tour agencies around the lake) or, if you are strongly against tours, do try street food delicacies!
There are quite a few war and communist era sights in Hanoi, and even if they are not among your top interests, do visit Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Admission is in the morning hours only with no photos allowed inside, but even in the evening the beautifully illuminated building is very impressive.
Take a day off and go out of the city to the Cuc Phoung National Park. The biggest national park in Vietnam, Cuc Phong boasts great biodiversity and makes for a rewarding day trip. Try caving and trekking, check botanical gardens section, see how the endangered primates are treated at the park’s rescue centre, or try to spot some of the 100 species of mammals, 300 species of birds or 50 species of reptiles and amphibians inhabiting the park.
Your onward travel from Hanoi
The principal North-South Railway line connects Hanoi with Saigon, making destinations south of Hanoi, including Nha Trang and Danang a convenient next-to-visit entry in your Vietnamese itinerary. Sapa, north of Hanoi, can also be reached by train with a short final 40 km leg to be completed by bus or taxi.
A train journey from Hanoi to Saigon takes you through the whole country and lasts about 36 long hours.