Monday, 17 September 2012

by train from Hanoi to Lao Cai ......

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 best way to get to Sapa is to take the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, then transfer the final 38 km (24 miles) from Lo Cai to Sapa by bus, car or taxi.  There are both daytime and overnight sleeper trains between Hanoi & Lao Cai, and on the sleeper trains you can use a regular Vietnamese Railways soft or hard sleeper or choose from a whole range of privately-run sleeping-cars of a higher standard aimed at tourists.  

One of the best websites for any train travel in Asia is SEAT 61 ..... 

and the page for Vietnam is titled a beginner's guide to Train travel in Vietnam . . . you will find everything you need to know there. Some of the info I have lifted and placed here (in brief) but do suggest you take note of all the information located on his website.

When we booked our hotel - The Royal Palace Hotel - in Hanoi, we asked if they could suggest a Tour Company that could help us with a trip to Sapa and the overnight train. Within minutes they replied saying they could help us ...

We did not have any thought or idea as to who to use, so agreed.  They came back with reasonable prices that included the overnight train, the trekking, the overnight homestay, the guide .. in fact, everything!
We then sent many emails asking different questions re the train, the type of trekking, if there would be a shower we could use etc... they answered all our questions without delay.

One of our concerns - as with most Westerners - is the lack of privacy in a 4 berth cabin on the overnight train. But that was quickly sorted out as the hotel suggested we book the four berths both ways. We were so glad we did as we heard many tales from people on the train about noisy guests in the same cabin, or one young woman with three older men, etc ..

Our train was to depart at about 9.00pm from Hanoi ..... so we went down to the reception desk and asked if they could organise a cab....  "all organised" we were told!!

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)

see following images from the train station to the cabin!
 Hanoi Train Station

Train ticket for Vietnam Railways.

Remember there are four trains per night going up to Lao Cai, you will need to know what train and what carriage you have been allocated. 


above: walking across the tracks at night to locate the correct train, carriage and cabin ....

below: our cabin


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.

It had been suggested we carry very little in the way of luggage, so we each had a day pack. A good tip as there really is not a lot of room in the train cabin. Especially if there were four people. The cabin locks securely from the inside, so security is not a problem.

We had four water bottles, clean bed linen, bedding etc .....  not so sure about the floor of the cabin though .... would advise anyone to take 'slippers' (as in flip flops) so your bare feet do not touch the floor if you need to get up to use the toilet during the night.

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.

It is not easy to use the toilet as the train rattles along, but by being 'careful' and holding onto the rail ... it can be managed.  We also suggest that you take some tissue with you.

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.

We do suggest you take ear plugs or ear phones so you can listen to music (on your IPhone etc) as you drift off to sleep!

The line from Hanoi to Lao Cai (296 klms) was built by the French and opened in 1910 as part of the Vietnam to Kunming railway.  The Lao Cai to Kunming section is currently out of commission following landslides in 2002.
Set your alarm for 4.30am .... yes, FOUR THIRTY in the morning!

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!

It will be dark when you alight, but follow the other passengers to the exit point and remember to have your train ticket ready to hand to the gate staff.
Hopefully your shuttle bus / cab / bus etc is waiting for you at this point ... we were very lucky as we had booked through the hotel and we could guarantee someone would be waiting for us ... and yes .... there was our shuttle bus and driver ready to take us on the 38 klm journey to Sapa ....

Below: Lao Cai Train Station early morning.

Remember to only pack a small bag for your trip to Sapa and the train journey.

Take camera!
Take a flashlight / torch (there are lights are on the train though)

Take ear plugs. 
Maybe eye shades too?

Dress comfortably. Loose clothing is best.

Pack toilet tissue
Slippers (light flip flops) for over night on the train.
Music on your IPhone.
Playing cards perhaps.

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:

Hanoi to Sapa by privately-run tourist sleeping-car...

You may prefer to take a privately-run sleeping car to Lao Cai for Sapa.  In addition to the normal Vietnamese Railways sleepers & seats, overnight trains SP1-SP8 between Hanoi & Lao Cai convey a bewildering range of privately-run deluxe sleeping-cars for tourists. 

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...

All these private operators offer berths in shared First Class 4-berth sleepers, and a few also offer a handful of VIP 2-berth sleepers (though if these have sold out you can always pay for all 4 berths in a 4-berth if you like, the price works out pretty much the same).  The sleepers all have air-conditioning, fresh clean bedding, complimentary mineral water and snacks, and clean western-style toilets.  These private sleepers are all very comfortable, just remember that this is still Vietnam with Vietnamese standards, you'll enjoy the trip more if you don't turn up with unrealistic expectations of 5-star western-style luxury for $35! 

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.
Can I buy all 4 berths in a compartment to have a room to ourselves?  Yes, if you insist, if the very few 2-berth VIP compartments are all sold out as they often are.  But meeting fellow tourists and talking over a beer into the night is great fun.  Would I recommend paying double to miss all the fun and sit in glorious isolation?  No!
(we were happy we booked the four berths to ourselves, everyone has their own thoughts on this though)
The Man in SEAT 61 (website on train travel)
HANOI KIDS- volunteer tour guides - hotel can organise if you book well ahead.
KOTO Restaurant  - hotel can book a table for you.

This is the 15th blog posting of our visit to Hanoi and beyond. 

So stay tuned for more updates!!
(especially our trekking outside of Sapa)

Since February 2012 we have started a new blog titled
Living in Regional Victoria

No comments: