My first experience on an overnight train was in Thailand, when I took a 13-hour train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Kudos to my friend who agreed to do this with me back in 2014! Two years later I did it again, this time from Hanoi to Lao Cai, en route to Sapa on an 8-hour overnight train.
I like trains because of how structured and timely it is! It is easy to identify the route you need to take to get to where you want to go too. The best part is you can also see which stop you are at effortlessly without having to constantly check, unlike when I’m on a bus. I always had to constantly check my location on the map if I’m on a bus and usually end up alighting a stop too early or too late even then. How unimpressed am I with myself!
So, when there came a chance for me to experience the Sapa overnight train, I jumped onto that option with no hesitation.
The two biggest advantages of taking the overnight train are mainly:
- Saving money on a night’s accommodation as you spend it on the train travelling to your next location, and
- Saving time you use sleeping overnight to get to your next destination especially if you’re tight on your schedule. It’s fun to wake up and know you’re in a new city!
We explored Hanoi for the entire day and got to the train station at 9pm to catch our overnight train. The weather was extremely humid and especially so when we were all waiting in a small room with poor ventilation. That’s us being drenched in perspiration while waiting for our turn to board the train.
So before that, let me give you some details in terms of…
Getting the tickets
There were generally two options of how you can get your train tickets:
- Buying it yourself at VND545k (~USD25) at the Hanoi Railway Train Station, OR
- Buying it through your travel/tour agent, and that would usually cost you about USD30
Although the first option is cheaper, there are more risks involved. If you arrive on the same day as the night you are buying the ticket for, then you might face a chance of tickets being sold out by the time you get to the train station. Also, this option is only advisable if the day you are buying for does not coincide with a weekend or any Vietnamese public holiday.
The second option was more hassle-free and an option I picked then because of our tight schedule. We arrived on the same day we took the overnight train so we did not want to risk not having any available tickets then. We even had the entire day to explore Hanoi with a peace of mind before departing for Lao Cai. Our tickets cost us USD33 and we thought that the additional amount paid was worth that peace of mind.
A. A bed or a seat?
If you have watched the Harry Potter series, you should be familiar with Hogwarts Express. This was my first time on a Vietnamese train and it gave me a slight impression of the Hogwarts Express! I think it’s mainly because of the mahogany wooden cabin, yellow lighting and the windows in the center of the cabin that replicated how it looked like on the Hogwarts Express~
Anyway, as we finally found our cabin and turned in, the biggest difference with Hogwarts Express is that there were four bunk beds in place of the seats you would have usually seen in a train cabin, and of course, no magic floating around the train. We bought the soft sleeper seats so we actually had proper beds for the entire ride. My friend and I got the upper bunk beds, where we snuggled in with our backpacks.
B. The cabin
We were quite self-sufficient in the cabin. There were charging ports in the middle of the cabin (but only at the lower deck), bed lamps at each bed, and even a door for privacy as we slept. Each bed also had a pillow and a thick blanket so it was quite comfortable.
Take note to buy enough water from the convenience store or supermarket before you board too as we did not have any in the cabin. There might be a shop onboard selling drinks and snacks but I did not check that out especially when it was already dark. The aisle was also really narrow and I don’t recommend to walk down to explore too.
C. The toilet
Unfortunately, the toilet wasn’t as magical as Hogwarts. There was only one toilet that was constantly occupied because of the number of people on the train. I’m glad we brought wet wipes for the trip because we ended up not having the chance to shower and we wiped ourselves down before going to bed.
It wasn’t the best option but we made do and survived the night eventually! We also got to enjoy a warm shower at the Sapa Sisters headquarters before our hike in Sapa, so that was probably much better than a cold shower on a bumpy and squeezy train toilet too.
Is the ride safe for females?
The cabin felt generally safe. There was a lock on the door to our cabin and we locked it before falling asleep. We were also lucky that our cabin mates to Lao Cai were a pair of Malaysian girls around our age. We got comfortable with each other quickly and even got their help to charge our phones at the charging ports which were only accessible from the bottom bunk.
On our way back to Hanoi, we had a young Caucasian couple as our cabin mates. We were also quite fortunate then as we respected each other’s privacy and were respectful of each other too.
There were also not many people walking past our cabin so it was peaceful throughout the ride. The only two times someone knocked was when the conductor came by once to check our tickets, and when we arrived at Lao Cai.
Arriving at Sapa
This was about the colour of the sky as we arrived in Lao Cai, at around 5.30 am. The journey has not ended as we are still about 35km way from Sapa.
As we had a package with Sapa Sisters, we just had to look out for their signage for the designated bus to bring us to Sapa. Otherwise, there are other options of hiring a private van or taxi to bring you there too. The newest addition is the public bus that you can consider, but do your own research before you decide if that’s an option you want to take.
With that I started my 3D2N hike in Sapa and had the most wonderful homestay experience then too.