Vietnam’s third largest city after Saigon and Hanoi and the closest seaport to the Vietnamese capital, Haiphong is definitely not a prime tourist destination. A couple of city museums can hardly draw any crowds to the city; but Haiphong is also a gateway to one of the most beautiful places in the whole country, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Ha Long Bay. As such, Haiphong is an inevitable stop on your way to the jaw-dropping beauty of the world-famous Ha Long Bay if you choose to cover a part of the distance from Hanoi to Ha Long by train.
From Hanoi to Haiphong
The distance between Hanoi and Haiphong is about 110 km, add more 80 km to reach Ha Long Bay. There are no direct tourist trains to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi, though voices in support of launching this route are constantly heard. At the moment trains from Hanoi bring you up to Haiphong only.
Note: Yes, technically speaking, there is a direct train from Hanoi to Ha Long. It is a cargo train, which departs from the Yen Vien (Gia Lam) station found outside the city at 4.30am and reaches Ha Long City terminal close to Bai Chay bus station at 11 km. From there, it is about five km to the harbour. This train is supposed to run on a daily bases but is often cancelled or delayed. Going via Haiphong is a far better, faster and more convenient way.
If you need direct transport from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, you can either join a tour or buy a bus ticket from Hanoi to Ha Long.
From Hanoi to Haiphong by train
There are four daily trains from Hanoi to Haiphong. They all take from 2¼ to 2¾ hours to get to Haiphong 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.
Note that HP1 at 6am, LP5 at 3.20pm and LP7 at 6.27pm depart from Hanoi railway station located in Le Duan Street, 120. The fourth train, LP3 at 9.20am, starts from Hanoi Long Bien station in the centre of the Old Quarter, three km northeast of the main train station. LP5 and LP7 call to Long Bien, too – both 10 minutes after they start from the main train station.
In Haiphong, all the trains arrive to Haiphong train station, which has a distinctive French colonial appearance and is located in Luong Khanh Thien street, 75.
From Haiphong to Ha Long Bay
You can cover the remaining 80 km from Haiphong to Ha Long by bus or by taxi. Taxi from Haiphong to Ha Long Bay City will cost you about VND800.000 – both from the Cat Bi airport or from the city.
Travelling by bus you have a choice of ordinary local buses and more comfortable tourist buses. Cheaper local buses depart from Lac Long bus station (about VND70.000). They head to Ha Long bus station. You can either walk to the main tourist activity area or take a motorbike taxi then. Do not pay more than VND20.000 for a motorbike trip (about five km).
Tourist buses from Haiphong to Ha Long Bay operate from Ben Binh bus station. Is it located right next to the jetty to Cat Ba island. Tourist buses are quite comfy and a bit faster, but tickets cost triple compared to ordinary buses, and cases when you need to bargain prior to be given more or less a fair price are not heard of. Tourist buses normally leave when full, and during weekend they fill up very quickly.
Where to stay in Ha Long City
The main tourist activity is found in Bai Chay part of Ha Long City where there is an abundance of accommodation, restaurants and tour agencies. Hon Gai part, which has more of a local scene, lies on the other side of the bridge. Though there are hundreds of mini-hotels around, it is highly advisable to book ahead during holiday periods otherwise – true! – you can find absolutely no vacancy. A good area to check for great digs is Vuon Dao street, aka Hotel Valley. There are many rooms with air-con, hot water, fridge and TV for USD10-USD20. Normally they are very similar and quite cramped.
Tip: Ask for both VND and USD rate. If you pay in dong, you can often save a bit due to the exchange rate.
More expensive hotels with breathtaking views over the bay are located closer to the pier. Expect to pay somewhere around USD100 per room.
Tips for choosing your cruise around Ha Long Bay
– If you have spare time, do not hesitate to opt for a two- or a three-day cruise. One-day cruise would do, too, but you will miss the most spectacular moments at Ha Long Bay, including sunrise and sunset and have very little time (if any) for exploring Cat Ba island.
– Before committing, shop around and talk to your fellow travellers. Prices – and quality of cruises – tend to differ greatly depending on what is included into the program.
– Always check whether your cruise includes transfers, meals, hotel room (in case of several-day cruises), etc.
– Decide on which activities you would like to be involved in during your cruise. Visiting a cave? Canoeing between the islands? Spending a couple of hours on the beach?
– If you are absolutely short of time (why should you be? – but well, if), there are four-hour cruises around the bay.
Theft alert While on a cruise, especially if you have booked the whole boat for your party, always keep your money safe. It often happens that a couple of banknotes strangely disappear from your purse. If you are used to keeping some cash in your pocket, you can easily fail to notice the loss immediately. It is next to impossible to prove that you have been robbed off by some of the crewmembers. To escape such an upsetting situation, do not leave your valuables unattended.
A day of Sea-Sand-Sun at Ha Long Bay: a visit to 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.
Onward travel from Haiphong
The two most popular destinations for further travel from Haiphong include Sapa in the north and Ninh Binh to the south. For both you will need to connect via Hanoi if you choose to go by train.
If karst scenery of Ha Long Bay is not enough for you, check Ninh Binh. Explore the countryside around Tam Coc village dotted with green humps of limestone hills. For Ninh Binh, take a train to Hanoi and then change for Hanoi–Ninh Binh train. It may seem illogical, but this combo train+train travel will most probably take you less time than a direct local bus from Haiphong to Ninh Binh.
The favorite destination in Vietnam for those interested in trekking, homestays and the culture of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, Sapa is about 440 km from Haiphong and the whole journey from Haiphong to Sapa including the layover in Hanoi and the final leg from Lao Cai to Sapa will take you between 15 and 16 hours hours.