Nestled in the highlands is beautiful Sapa, Vietnam, home to terraced rice fields and colorful ethnic minority groups. To travel from Hanoi to Sapa, you’ll need to choose between traveling by bus or train. Here’s our guide to both options with the pros and cons.
Hanoi to Sapa by Train
The most comfortable method of traveling the 350km distance between Hanoi and Sapa is hands down by train. All trains are aboard Vietnam Railways. However, individual cars are operated either by Vietnam Railways or by private companies who have upgraded the carriages for comfort and with modern conveniences.
Trains travel between the railway station in Hanoi and Lao Cai, just across the border from China, and a 50-minute drive up the mountain to Sapa. Sapa itself does not have a train station.
There are three night trains and one day train. The night trains leave at around 10 pm and take approximately 8 hours to arrive into Lao Cai, the gateway to Sapa, between 4:30 – 6:10am, all with minimal stops. The morning train leaves at roughly 6am and makes numerous stops along the way, taking about 10 hours to make the trip.
If traveling aboard one of the locally-operated carriages, you’ll have a choice between soft seats (around VND 155,000 or USD 7) or sleeper carriages to be shared among 2 passengers (VND 860,000 or USD 37) or 4 passengers (starting at VND 385,000 or USD 17). Expect very simple, and slightly dated (worn) furnishings for this rate. Sleeper berths are cramped and only select trains have 2-passenger cabins.
The privately-operated carriages are run by several different companies and offer a wide selection as to quality and price. The cheapest rates start at USD 41 for sleeper berths all the way to USD 570 or so for a private, 2-person cabin aboard the Victoria Express Train, the nicest option which comes with WiFi, electric outlets, reading light, amenity kit, a light breakfast, clean, comfortable restroom, ample luggage storage in your cabin, and more. There’s also a private lounge where passengers can eat or wait in comfort for the train.
Pros of traveling between Hanoi and Sapa by Train:
- Train leaves from centrally-located Hanoi Railway Station
- Some private companies have their own waiting lounges for check-in
- Overnight train saves on travel time and a night’s accommodation
- Depending on the operator, the more luxurious carriages offer a very good night’s sleep, meaning you’ll feel refreshed on arrival and ready to start sightseeing immediately
- Some private carriages offer reliable WiFi to help pass the time
- There’s a mobile snack cart with items for purchase
- Private, 2-people cabins are available, making the experience ultra-comfortable, like staying in a hotel room
- You’ll get glimpses of urban Hanoi life or countryside living
- Train arrives in Lao Cai which is the jumping off point to visit the various weekly minority markets in the surrounding hillsides
- Safest method of travel
Cons of traveling between Hanoi and Sapa by Train:
- If selecting some of the cheaper options, the journey may not be very comfortable
- Some people may not like the gentle swaying motion of the train
- You won’t get to see much scenery as you’ll likely be sleeping or traveling at night
- The actual travel time is longer compared to road travel
- You’ll need to make arrangements for onward transfer to the town of Sapa
Hanoi to Sapa by Bus
While the scenery between Hanoi and Sapa isn’t particularly noteworthy, traveling by bus is the cheapest option. Thanks to the 2014 opening of the Noi Bai – Lao Cai Highway, private cars can make the journey in about 4.5 hours, but the slower buses take between 6-7 hours, including one comfort stop along the way.
The buses used for this journey are sleeper buses, typically 2-3 seats across and 2 tiers high. Be aware that while the chairs are “sleeper”, they don’t actually recline flat like a bed (more like 45 degrees) and are typically only long enough to be comfortable for smaller-sized travelers. Those with longer legs will likely find them uncomfortable, not being able to fully stretch out.
Pros of traveling between Hanoi and Sapa by Bus:
- Sleeper buses are inexpensive, typically between USD 10-16
- Buses typically leave early morning (7am), midday (1pm), or late evening (10pm)
- Night bus trips can save a night’s accommodation
Cons of traveling between Hanoi and Sapa by Bus:
- The element of safety needs to be considered when undertaking long road journeys in Vietnam, as accidents are not uncommon, especially on high-speed roads and especially at night
- Seats are generally uncomfortable and the scenery is monotonous
- Seats on the upper tier are at the same height as street lights which can make it difficult to sleep
- The bus can be noisy with passengers talking, videos being played, and constant honking of the horn
- Travel by bus can be tiring, with a lot of swerving, requiring some recovery time and negating the benefit of traveling by night
- Arriving very early morning can be inconvenient if your hotel room is unavailable for check-in
- Luggage is stored in a compartment under the bus and out of your sight
While DIY travel has its advantages, why not let the travel experts at Victoria Voyages curate your next Ultimate Northern Vietnam Experience? The 5-day, 4-night itinerary includes traveling from Hanoi to Sapa aboard the luxurious overnight Victoria Express Train, arriving refreshed and ready for a light hike through the beautiful Sapa highlands. Your private tour also includes an overnight cruise aboard the vintage 4-star Emeraude in Halong Bay. Victoria Voyages uses its own network of travel providers to ensure a consistently excellent journey while passing on the savings to you. See all the itineraries here.