A little bit of Harry Potter magic in Vietnam: taking the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai

croppedimage500300-train-sapaly1“You’re a wizard, Harry.” That’s what I swear I heard coming from the mouth of every stranger as we followed a random Vietnamese man across the dark and dirty train station in Hanoi  (I forgot to take a night shot so I pinched this daytime one from another site).

Like Harry Potter heading off to Hogwarts we were about to spend the night on a sleeper train to Lao Cai, before heading on to Sapa for our trekking with the organisation Sapa O’Chau. Our overnight train tickets were presented in Vietnamese via email and we booked through Sapa O’Chau.

The Sapaly Express Train carriages are run by the Best Western hotel chain and are supposed to make up the “high-class tourism train from Hanoi to Lao Cai.” I’ve taken plenty of horrible buses across South America over the past year, so I wasn’t expecting much better quality from an overnight train across northern Vietnam to be honest – even one run by Best Western – BUT I can honestly say it hasn’t been too bad. It cost just U.S $35 one way for the 8-9 hour journey and our cabin looked like this when we boarded…


Our carriage was number 12. We were assigned a bottom bunk and the one above it, so we had to share with two strangers on the other side who turned out to be a French couple. The bloke snored like a sledgehammer (take ear plugs) but anyway… before we even boarded we were accosted by a man wanting to lead us to our carriage. We just assumed he worked for Sapaly.  He took our tickets and with barely a nod of his head he was speed-walking up the platform ahead of us. We struggled after him with our bags until we reached number 12, at which point he thrust the tickets back at us and pointed us up the stairs.

Once we reached our cabin he proceeded to bang on the window, demanding tips. Er… tips for what? You didn’t even carry my frickin’ bag!

Don’t let anyone take your ticket or lead you up the platform in Hanoi. Your train probably won’t leave for another hour and you’ll be forced to sit on your bed while an irritating man taps menacingly on the glass like an oversized demon pigeon. Never a good thing.

You can always draw the curtain of course. Ours was a beautiful golden colour which looked particularly fetching in the lamplight. We also had air-conditioning and plenty of plug sockets so it wasn’t long before we’d left the demon pigeon behind and were watching a movie on the laptop on our way to Lao Cai.

Sapaly also provided this little pack, including a toothbrush, toothpaste and a comb, oh and a wet wipe in case you’ve left your toiletries at the bottom of your rucksack and you can’t be bothered to fumble for it in a cabin the size of a wardrobe.


The coffee in that photo was given to me in the morning. It’s “fully sized”, overly-sugared and cost me 20,000 dong. I asked if they could perhaps fill the cup up, seeing as it had been a long night and I’d spent most of it being orally abused by the snoring French man. But our lovely server simply nodded his mis-understanding, smiled that adorable Vietnamese teen-smile and disappeared, never to return. Oh well.

As well as the snoring French man, I should perhaps mention that we were all subjected to some seriously loud… and I’m talking head-fuckingly loud… banging ALL night. This was not the kind of banging you might be thinking of. This was the banging, I think, of the carriage rattling at full speed over broken railway tracks. Either that or an army of armed demon pigeons were clinging to the undercarriage cracking whips at every opportunity. It was so loud it turned to gunshots and whiplash in my dreams and then woke me up roughly every hour or so.

All in all though, I think if you avoid dodgy men on the platform, take your own coffee for top ups and remember to insert a pair of industrial strength ear plugs before bed,  the train from Hanoi to Lao Cai with Sapaly is a pretty good option.

And even if you don’t get any sleep, at least you get to feel like Harry Potter for a bit, which always makes everything more fun in the end.