Why go to Hanoi
Hanoi is the bustling capital city of Vietnam full of lakes, temples and pagodas. The ancient city is also the cultural capital of Vietnam and is managing to retain much of its charm despite rapidly modernizing. Visitors can wander through the streets of the Old Quarter and around Hoan Kiem Lake or take in the grand Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Presidential Palace which dates back to colonial times. Hanoi often seems to be the polar opposite of Saigon in the south but both cities share the same energetic pace.
From Sapa to Hanoi
The only way to get to Hanoi from Sapa is overland as there is no airport nowhere in the vicinity. Travelling this route by train is a classic Vietnamese experience, but buses do a good job, too, and the choice of the means of transport depends entirely on your own preferences. The distance between Sapa and Hanoi is about 300 km but be ready that your journey will take from eight hours to 10 hours.
There is currently no airport near Sapa so travelers make the journey from Sapa to Hanoi by train or bus. The overnight train from Sapa to Hanoi has long been one of the most popular overnight trains in the country with a number of more luxurious private train cars offering travelers varying degrees of comfort and relaxation on the night train.
From Sapa to Hanoi by train
The train stations which serves Sapa is located in the town of Lao Cai, some 35 km from Sapa proper. It takes about one hour to get from Sapa to Lao Cai by taxi or 1¼ hour if going by local bus, as the road is extremely curvy, though beautiful. Take your medicine in advance if you are prone to motion sickness. Note also, that trains are often late – do not be surprised over a couple of hours delay. Expect to pay between USD20 and USD30 for a lift. Tip: share with your fellow travellers.
Note the hottest time to get back from Sapa to Hanoi is Sunday night. Expect your train be full house. Do not be surprised to find ‘extra’ people on board: if no seats/berths available, some conductors accept tips for letting them in. It is unfortunately useless to complain.
Currently there are two express trains daily from Sapa (Lao Cai) to Hanoi. Both are operated by the Vietnam Railways and both are night trains. SP2 leaves Lao Cai at 8.35pm and arrives to Hanoi at 4.45am; SP4 departs half an hour later at 9.10pm and arrives at 5.25am. Both trains feature private cars which provide a much more comfortable experience than ordinary Vietnam Railways cars – though naturally at a higher price. VIP sleepers for four passengers with Livitrans Express, King Express, Fanxipan, Chapa Express or **Sapalay Express provide more or less the same level of service and cost between USD36 and USD40 (VND800,000-VND880,000). While a berth in a first class sleeping car with Victoria Express sets you back USD170 (VND3.8mio).
There is a third train from Sapa to Hanoi (LC2) that departs at 10.05am and arrives at 7.35pm. This train offers only a few dozen soft seats and the rest are hard wooden bench style seats which are quite uncomfortable for journeys of any length.
Tip Normally there is a dining car in each train where quite decent and reasonably priced fare is served. Give it a try, anyway.
In Hanoi, trains from Sapa arrive at the Tran Quy Cap street side of the Hanoi railway station. It is located west of the main entrance Le Duan street and is known as the Tran Quy Cap train station or simply ‘entrance B’. Do not be mislead: it is one and the same train station.
From Sapa to Hanoi by bus
There are sleeper buses and express buses serving the route from Sapa to Hanoi. In Sapa they normally pick up passengers at the bus station in the centre of town close to the Cathedral or directly from your guesthouse and will drop you off in Hanoi in Old Quarter or around Hoan Kiem Lake but exact locations vary depending on the company. Travellers report that Sapa Express is arguably the best way to travel from Sapa to Hanoi with new and clean buses but no toilets on board. The trip takes from six to 8 hours. There are both morning and late night departures. Expect to pay from USD15/VND300,000 per person.
Getting around in Hanoi
Many attractions will be within walking distance for those staying in the Old Quarter but some may opt for the iconic cyclo bicycle taxi, be wary of the cost and ask your hotel about reasonable prices. The same can be said of the motorcycle taxis. To avoid confusion and conflict agree on a price beforehand and write the number (including all zeroes) on a piece of paper.
Unlike Saigon, Hanoi is not known for having a reliable or trustworthy taxi service but there are a small number of green Mai Linh taxi’s which can be counted on to give you an honest metered fare and proper route. All taxis should have a working meter but be generally aware how to get to your destination to avoid being taken on an unrequested tour of Hanoi at your expense.
The ride sharing apps Uber and Grab Taxi are both operating in Hanoi and if you are accustomed to using them or one of their partners at home, you can continue using in Vietnam without having to change anything. However, you may want to grab a cheap local SIM card(~USD5) as many drivers like to call before picking you up. Don’t worry if neither of you speak each other’s language well, the call is common courtesy in Vietnam and the driver will still pick you up.
Where to stay in Hanoi
Hanoi’s Old Quarter and the area surrounding the nearby Hoan Kiem lake are popular for travelers and tourists of all types. The area gives one an easy access to many popular attractions and has one of the more lively nightlife scenes in a city that tends to get quiet rather early. The adjacent French Quarter offers more upscale accommodations without the frenzied activity of the old quarter and is better suited for those looking to get a good night’s sleep.
Things to do in Hanoi
As the country’s cultural capital, Hanoi has too many notable temples to list them all but a popular one is the Temple of the Jade Mountain which sits in the Middle of Hoan Kiem lake and is connected to the shore by the bright red The Huc bridge. Taking a stroll around the lake is also popular with both tourists and locals alike and can take on a festive atmosphere due to the various vendors and entertainers scattered about.
Travelers can checkout the Temple of Literature, where the great scholars of the past studied and whose names are still engraved on monuments in the courtyard. During certain times of the year visitors can also witness the beauty of calligraphers practicing their craft and take home a unique souvenir. A short walk away is the Fine Arts Museum of Vietnam, which boasts an impressive collection spanning the country’s entire history from the ancient civilizations to contemporary artists.
Those interested in recent history may want to tour the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, better known as the Hanoi Hilton where POW’s were held during the American War (as the conflict is referred to locally). For a more upbeat experience, one can check out the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the colonial architecture of the Presidential Palace. Nearby is Ho Tay (West Lake) which hosts several watersport activities depending on the season and has many intriguing temples of its own.
Onward travel from Hanoi
Hanoi often serves as the beginning or the end of one’s travels in Vietnam. Those who have already explored the central and southern regions and come from Sapa to Hanoi will enjoy heading to the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Halong Bay for a cruise among the limestone islands that rise dramatically out of the bay. Cruises for Halong Bay depart from the port city of Haiphong which is a few hours by bus or train to the east of Hanoi.
Travelers just beginning their time in Vietnam will want to head south from Hanoi to Hue, the ancient capital and then onwards to the costal cities of Danang and Nha Trang. Flights are available from Noi Bai Airport, situated one hour outside of the city. Always arrange for a set price taxi to the airport or better yet, book a private charter van to ensure comfort and timely arrival. Of course many bus companies can take you from Hanoi to Hue as well as the Vietnam National Railways and the private train companies Livitrans and Violette Express who operate routes daily. Livitrans and Violette offer 4 berth VIP Sleeper cabins costing around USD75-USD85 for the 14 hour overnight journey. Passengers can expect the same experiences as provided on the Sapa to Hanoi journey with snacks, drinks and a much softer bed to sleep in. They will also have wine, beer and meals available for purchase which are of a higher quality than the standard Vietnam Railways fare. The much longer journey of Hanoi to Hue makes having a comfortable berth all the more important for your wellbeing.