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Getting away: Overland to Hanoi

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One of the perks of living in Kunming is being able to board a bus or train, go to sleep and wake up somewhere completely different – be it at the base of a Himalayan peak, a beach on the Gulf of Tonkin, or border areas with Burma, Laos or Vietnam. We recently traveled overland by bus and train to Hanoi, the sprawling but charming capital of Vietnam.

To the Border by Bus
The first stage of our overland journey to Hanoi was an eight-hour express bus from Kunming's east long distance bus station to the Yunnan-Vietnam border crossing at Hekou (河口), located at the confluence of the Red River (红河) and the tributary Nanxi River (南溪河).

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As we prepared to board our overnight bus in Kunming a rail-thin young man approached us in an oversized security guard uniform. The man, who may or may not have been a legitimate bus station employee, claimed in broken English that there was a luggage fee for stowing modestly sized backpacks under the bus.

Reasonable amounts of baggage are included in the fare for long distance buses and none of the Chinese passengers were paying anything to stow their luggage. After the man was told in Chinese to stop his scamming and bug off he apologized and tried to strike up a conversation. This would-be scammer was operating with impunity in front of bus station employees and the driver of the bus.

Unfortunately, we weren't awake the next time somebody tried to steal from us. In the night a thief sliced open our backpack, which was underneath our legs, which were covered in a blanket, and made off with a considerable sum of money. The police in Hekou said such thefts are common.

Into Vietnam
The Hekou border crossing is a low-tech affair. A few trucks cross the bridge over the Nanxi River, but the majority of cargo flows across the border on human backs, wheeled carts or large tricycles.

After crossing the border from Hekou to the town of Lao Cai, travelers can take a bus trip to the scenic frontier town of Sapa or continue on to Hanoi by train or bus.

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The bridge across the Red River meets up with Duong (road) Nguyen Hue in Lao Cai, the street on which the train station is located. Vietnam time is an hour behind China and after spending an hour locating a working ATM, the 30-minute march down Duong Nguyen Hue landed us at the train station just in time for the 9:15am to Hanoi.

After skirting the scalpers milling about at the entrance to the train station, we went straight to the ticket window where soft seats to Hanoi were available for 135,000 dong (about US$7 at 18,800 dong to the dollar). The 10-hour train ride from Lao Cai to Hanoi along the winding French-built railroad is slow, but follows the Red River for most of the journey and offers some pleasant views of the Vietnamese countryside.

Hanoi
Once in Hanoi, we decided to get away from the frenetic tourist area north of Hoan Kiem Lake and spend some time wandering Hanoi's tranquil back alleys.

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After a bit of walking, we had worked up a thirst. In addition to the low-alcohol fresh draft beer known as bia hoi, there are decent pilsners and dark lagers made by local Hanoi brewers. Walking back from the Chinese embassy to Hoan Kiem Lake one can stop in at Goldmalt Restaurant, located two blocks south and a little east from the embassy at 34G Tran Phu, for a refreshing brew served in a chilled mug.

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Beer aside, Hanoi is also a staging point for a two- or three-day tour of Halong Bay, which usually consists of sleeping for a night on a boat anchored in the bay. Although we never take package tours in China, a package tour appeared to be the best option. The tour had some of the downsides of packaged tours such as bad food and forced activities, but it did afford the chance for swimming in the ocean and viewing a stunning sunset from a boat.

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Practicalities
Buses from Kunming to Hekou depart from the new East Bus Station. There are 11 buses daily between 9:40am and 8:20pm. Departures during the evening are sleeper buses. Strangely, the Hekou bus station lists only seven daily return buses: 8:45am, 10:50am, 12:30pm, and 1:00pm for day buses; and 8:00pm, 8:10pm, and 8:20pm for sleeper buses. What happens to the four extra buses is a mystery.

Signs posted outside the Hekou long distance bus station are in Chinese only and the station might be difficult to find for people traveling from Vietnam and who can't read Chinese characters. To get to the back entrance, walk straight out from the border bridge, taking a detour to the right to go through customs, and then returning to the road, it is about 150 meters down on the left side. Keep your eyes peeled for a parking lot with buses. Alternately, after crossing the border, follow the road alongside the river for a few blocks and it is on the right side.

Chinese Renminbi and Vietnamese Dong can be exchanged at the Bank of China branch in Hekou, two blocks northwest (away from the border crossing) from the bus station.

The Hekou border crossing opens at 8am China time and closes at 6pm. That's 7am and 5pm in Vietnam time.

There are several ATMs in Lao Cai, but many of them do not accept certain international cards. Chinese Union Pay cards tend to work on ATMs that are labeled as accepting Union Pay. There are also money changers positioned alongside Duong Nguyen Hue just down from the Lao Cai entry and exit building.

If you find yourself in Hanoi on a Chinese visa mission, take note that the consular services section of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi does not issue tourist visas to non-residents of Vietnam.

It is possible to obtain a Z visa with an invitation letter that indicates one should apply in Hanoi, as well as supporting documents, but other applicants will be turned away. Visa agents in Hanoi send passports to the Chinese consulate in Saigon for processing, which takes several days.

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Comments

Very nice report .
The worst thing is the thieves .One i was taking the same route and as i don't sleep well in buses i felt the thief tiring to steal from my bag .I went to his place and shouted to him no one from the Chinese care!! or open his eyes or ask what happened even the thief hold a knife later.I was dirty horrible experience to use such bus

bochi

I have made this trip twice. My recommendation is to not take the infamous night bus from Kunming! Not only is it uncomfortable, but as noted it is plagued with thieves. I also got ripped off on that bus.

Instead take the 9:40AM day bus and you will arrive in Hekou at 5PM. The border is open until 11 PM, not 6PM as said in the article. China time.

Do not deal with the hustlers at the Hekou bus station. Buy your train tickets in Lao Cai and change money there.

Proceed to the train station by taxi or motor bike taxi 10,000 dong. Get a ticket for the night soft sleeper to Hanoi about 400,000 d leaves Lao Cai at 9PM, arrives Hanoi 6AM. There are some nice cafes in front of the train station to eat and drink while you wait for the train.

Return to Lao Cai from Hanoi on the 9PM SP1 train. Arrive Lao Cai at 6AM. Have your guest house or an agent get tickets for the soft sleeper a couple of days in advance.

Border opens at 7AM VN time. Try for the 8:45 bus back to KM. If it's booked you will have to hang around Hekou until the 10:50 and I have nothing nice to say about Hekou.

Thao

The best way to get to Hanoi is not going through HeKou but get a train ticket to Nanning, then get onto a bus to Hanoi. The time frame is the same and less trouble. For the last 2 years, I've always went home by that way and all I have to say is awesome! No more bumpy road, no more thieves and no more slow ride!

Ray

When you are in Hekou; you can take a trip to Sappa, the highland resort of Vietnam

Tom

The border is indeed open until 11pm China time, not 6pm. I crossed at like 7.15pm China time in December last year, no problem. I also recommend catching the day bus only as it is more comfortable than the night bus and the possibility of thieves doesn't sound very attractive. I think one issue is that on the sleeper buses you store your luggage on the bus itself (making it easier for thieves to access), whereas on the normal ones it goes underneath, so in theory, that largely eliminates any potential for theft.

Eventually the bus journey may become a thing of the past for most travellers once a new high speed rail line links Kunming with Hekou. Also, the upgrading of the entire 440km stretch between Kunming and Hekou to expressway should cut travelling times significantly too. Instead of 8 hours now then maybe only 5-6.

John

Only problem with travelling by bus on any journey in China that involves any 2-way non-expressway road is the number of delays caused by accidents. I took the said bus trip to and from Vietnam recently, and on the outbound journey, a three hour traffic jam was caused by a fatal accident somewhere north of Kaiyuan (开远) when a speeding car crashed into a truck or something. The police cleaned up the scene first, and only then allowed vehicles to pass, rather than the normal practice of trying to keep traffic flowing around the accident site (then again, the road is quite narrow, but still)..we finally arrived at the border at 8.45pm. Traffic was backed up for about 10km on either side.

On the way back, another accident only 20-30km north of the first site was more minor, but kept traffic waiting for 30-40 minutes in our case. Therefore, assume that what should be a 7.5-8 hour journey from Kunming to Hekou may actually take 10-11h instead.

Also, I have never seen any other westerners or non-Vietnamese foreigners taking that bus (it's only ever me or my travelling companions)...I wonder why that is, when you have hundreds of foreigners in Lao Cai, but not a single one dares to cross to Hekou (it seems). Come on people, Hekou is a nice enough place to visit, why not see for yourselves? That's another reason why the immigration staff in Hekou (who are very friendly and professional) take so long to process foreigners with passports, because they aren't used to seeing them. Almost all traffic across that border consists of Vietnamese traders on day passes.

Borrawan

Brilliant trip, didn't get robbed, nice people in Lao Cai...

I just did this trip last week; the Hekou-Laocai border is still open until 11 pm China time.
Also recommend the day bus from Kunming and then a sleeper train to Hanoi, prices have gone up a bit and a soft sleeper ticket is now 515,000 VND

This is an update on getting from kunming to hekou and then across the border in the Vietnamese town of Lao cai to Hanoi. 

Overnight bus from kunming to hekou
My wife and I took the overnight bus from kunming to hekou last Friday night, a week before Chinese new year. It cost about 150¥/person. The bus wasn't that crowded and was clean. The beds (not recliners) are in three rows, are slim and not uncomfortable. They provide a pillow and blanket (not sure how clean these were). If you are tall and wide, you may be sleeping with bent knees.

The bus departed around 9p, stopped at 11p for bathroom break and again at 1a for an ID check by Chinese authorities. The bus arrived in Hekou around 2a and there was no bathroom near there that I could find. Most other travelers left at that point but we and a few others slept on the bus until around 6a.

As for being unsafe, i didnt have that impression. Everyone on the bus slept and there was a security camera. We and others stored our big backpacks in the under storage. We kept an eye on activity outside but when we arrived there was no sign of tampering. However, as with any mass transit, be sure to take precautions; I didn't leave valuables that weren't on or near me at any time. Don't give the thieves reason to give the bus a bad name. In my opinion the bus is a good, cheap option though you shouldn't expect a great night of sleep.

From Hekou to Laocai
When we left the bus, there were were several taxi drivers desperate for our business. We decided to take one because we didn't know the border was only 30min-1 hour walking distance away. Being near chunjie, the driver charged us double the normal price, 10¥/person.

We had gotten our Vietnam visa in kunming so at 7a we passed through the giant Chinese customs building (to the left of the bridge), across the symbolic dividing bridge, and into Vietnam. After going through customs on that side we were able to change some money at the counter in the same building (the rate there is about  30% less than a bank near the train station in Lao cai.). 

Getting to the train station in Lao cai
Outside of the customs building, we found several taxi drivers. We offered 20,000dong, a fair price, but they wanted 100,000! We laughed at their absurdity and started walking towards the street (the train station is to a kilometer from the border if you take the street to the right). Eventually one of the drivers  followed us and took our offer.

After arriving, we walked to the tucked away train station in a square. It was packed and there were no tickets available until the next morning. They only accept dong so we had to exchange more money at the Western Union bank on the corner. The soft seat day train cost us around 200,000d. We stayed the night in one of the many guest houses in the square. It cost 100,000d. It seemed that most of the hotels in that area are small and not well kept, probably because they cater to travelers staying only a night.

The day train from Lao cai to Hanoi
The soft seat on the train was actually a bunk in a cabin. We departed around 9a. There was one other family in the cabin when we arrived but by time the train departed there were 12 other people (men, women, babies) with us! However, this became one of our favorite memories as the other travelers were very friendly, exchanging food with us several times and never complaining about the cramped conditions. We were also able to see the picturesque countryside. This was a rich cultural experience for us. 

Arriving In Hanoi
When we arrived in Hanoi around 7p, we followed the massive, departing swarms to the station exit and were greeted by taxis. One of our cabin friends told us that during Tet 70,000d was reasonable to pay to get to the Old Quarter. We found a taxi and gladly arrived at our hotel.

We apologize for all of this information but we hope it helps you in your travels to Vietnam. We hope you enjoy the country as much as we do!

#jp+22 : thanks! very useful info

Just completed the journey today (Sept. 2014)
- bus from Kunming to Hekou left at 1:30 PM, 149 yuan, no thieves, 2 police checks (only foreigners)
- arrived in Hekou at 8 pm
- took taxi to border, 10 yuan (5km, totally worth it)
- crossed border at 8:30 pm (chinese time)
- money exchangers offered better rate than official rate !
- took taxi to lao cay train station, 40k dong (5km, absolutely fine)
- took train to hanoi leaving at 8:20pm vietnam time
Tickets were 280k for soft seat and 640k for hard bed. Someone offered us 2 beds for 400k each, took the offer and everything was fine
- arrived in Hanoi at 6am

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