Taking the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, then the shuttle bus to Sapa sounds quite daunting for those not used to Asian travel. Am sure most people try and gather as much information as possible via Google or from friends that have possibly done the same trip in the past. We gathered what we could from TripAdvisor, a few travel blogs and then from the hotel.
The cab arrived and off we went. Would you believe the 'bell boy' of the hotel got on his motorcycle and followed us to the station, guided us through the crowds of people, organised our ticket to be stamped AND then took us all the way (crossing rail tracks) to our carriage AND onto the train to make sure we were in the correct cabin!!!!
If you book your ticket through any hotel or agency, the voucher that they give to you is NOT the actual ticket you need to board the train, you have to exchange that voucher against the real ticket at the railway station (and, again, read that ticket carefully, errors are frequent)
There are ladies selling drinks, beer and snacks (from mobile carts) outside the carriages if you feel you need something on the train overnight. Though there is water in the cabin.
We did not feel that it was cold, we had a comfortable cabin and the temperature was perfect. Though if you are traveling on the train, note that there are 16 vents (in the ceiling) blowing cold air into the cabin ... we shut down 14 of them.
We had no trouble at all sleeping on the train.... yes, you can hear some people walking along the corridor (many people totally ignore the idea that others maybe trying to sleep) and yes, you can hear the rattle of the train .... but overall it is quite a good train trip.
The train pulls into Lao Cai at about 5.00am and you will only have about 5 minutes to get ready, packed and off the train. Some carriages (ours was the Orient Express) have train staff on board to offer tea or coffee ( a private enterprise perhaps?) and they will come along banging on the doors to wake you, also giving you time to have one of their cups of tea / coffee!
Take ear plugs.
Dress comfortably. Loose clothing is best.
Pack toilet tissue
Do not hand your train ticket to anyone but designated station staff only.
the following maybe helpful to you, and is from the SEAT 61 website:
If you want extra comfort & cleanliness and don't mind paying a bit more, go for one of these private cars as they're all significantly better than the regular Vietnamese Railways sleepers.
Fanxipan, Sapaly Express, King, Livitrans, Orient Express, Tulico, Ratraco, TSC, Friendly, Royal, Hara...
Most of these private tourist sleeping-cars run attached to train SP1/SP2, though one or two (TSC and Sapaly) are attached to SP3/SP4 and Livitrans cars are attached to SP7/SP8.
Living in Regional Victoria