Overland from Hong Kong to Hanoi… Xin chào Vietnam!
China and South East Asia are one of the best regions in the world to travel overland, not least because you get to see, hear and feel much more of it than you would if you simply hopped on a plane to get from one city to the next.
Going overland is easier than you may think…
…it just takes a little planning and experimentation to plot out a route. Many people have struggled with how to get out of China and across the border to Vietnam, so we thought we’d get you started with our own experience of travelling from Hong Kong to Hanoi overland by bus and train.
First things first – make sure that you have all the paperwork you need to make your journey run smoothly; namely, your visas! If you need to get these sorted out before you set off, here’s how to go about it.
How to get your Chinese visa whilst in Hong Kong
Once you leave Hong Kong, you’ll be entering mainland China which will require a new visa (unless you have already organised a double entry visa). There’s no need to use a travel agent or visa agency to obtain this on your behalf – it really isn’t necessary and you may end up paying over the odds.
Just go along to the Chinese Embassy on Hong Kong Island (Wan Chai district). Starting from the Star Ferry Pier, go over the footbridge and head towards the China Resources Building on Harbour Road (big red building – you can’t miss it) then follow the signs to the visa office.
The visa office is on the 7th floor – you have to put your bags through security first, then you can go straight up in the lift. Once you get into the office, get a visa form from the back right-hand side of the room. There is usually someone there handing them out. Once you’ve filled in the form, show it to the person there and they will give you a piece of paper with a number on it.
Take a seat and wait for your number to be ‘called’ (there are big red, digital signs in front of the counters). Note – this could take a couple of hours. Once it’s your turn, go up to the counter with your passport, one photo and your completed form – you don’t need to pay now, only when you pick up the passport again.
Visa processing time
Normal processing time is 4 working days (including the day you submit the form). The fee is dependent on the passport you hold – e.g. for British passport holders it’s HK$400 plus HK$150 processing fee*. You can choose to pay an extra HK$150 for the Express Service, which gets you your visa in 3 working days or an extra HK$250 for Rush Service, which takes 2 working days*.
One little tip – most people seem to go to the Chinese embassy to apply for their visas on a Monday – if you do the same, you’re likely to come across a massive queue stretching all the way down the road! So go on a Tuesday morning and you’ll have no problems getting inside.
Time to get your Vietnamese Visa
Once you’ve got your passport back, you’ll need to organise your Vietnamese visa (if you haven’t already). The Vietnamese Embassy is also in Wan Chai district and is located in the Great Smart Tower, 230 Wan Chai Road on the 15th floor.
You’ll need to get the form from the counter, fill it in and hand it back with your passports and one photo. If you decide to opt for an Express Service visa, which only takes 30 minutes, there is a small waiting room inside the office for you to take advantage of. The Express Service costs HK$500* and is great if you don’t have long in Hong Kong. The normal processing time, if you have lots of time to spare, is 4 working days at a cost of HK$230*.
Overland to Hanoi
So paper work sorted, you’re free to plan the 865km trip to Hanoi. You’ll do this with a combination of trains and buses. The route is fairly straightforward: Hong Kong to Nanning (via Guangzhou), then Nanning direct to Hanoi.
First, go to Hung Hom station in Kowloon and find the China Railways desk – it’s relatively well signposted and the ladies behind the counter are extremely helpful. Just tell them that you want to go to Nanning and they will issue you with a through ticket (Hong Kong – Guangzhou – Nanning).
Guangzhou is only 2 hours from Hong Kong and there are about 12 departures a day – you can get the times from the information desk at Hung Hom Station. The train will drop you off at Guangzhou East Station, so you need to get the metro to Guangzhou Main Station where the overnight train to Nanning departs from.
Once at Guangzhou Main Station, you may need to ask somebody which waiting hall you need as the signs are all in Chinese. The sleeper train will take around 13 hours (so if your train is scheduled for 5pm you will arrive in Nanning at about 6am (we recommend that you try to stick to these times as they fit in nicely with the Bus timetable for Hanoi).
Don’t be too concerned when you arrive in Nanning in the early hours. You will probably find that it’s quite an eerie place and that there are lots of people asleep in the floor of the departure halls – just step over them and make your way towards the exit! Outside, there will be LOTS of taxi drivers and other people milling around all offering you lifts – just walk away from the crowds slightly and go up to a taxi driver yourself. You need to get to the Nanning International Tourism Distribution Centre (aka Lang Dong bus station) which is literally about 5 minutes down the road so don’t pay any more than 10-20 Yuan (they will likely ask for a lot more).
As soon as you enter the bus station you’ll see the ticket counter on your left – they have sheets up with the Nanning to Hanoi or Halong Bay bus route, price and times written on. The bus for Hanoi leaves at 7.30 am and costs 148 RMB*.
When you get on the coach, you’ll be allocated a seat number and then the hostess comes round and gives you a free bottle of water and a snack bag. It’s a fairly comfy journey as the Chinese roads are quite good and takes around 3 hours to reach the border.
Arrival in Vietnam!
Your overland journey is almost complete…
Once you get to the border you will need to get off the coach and get into a ‘golf buggy’ which takes you to the China Immigration office. You will get your passport checked twice, along with your luggage, then you get back into the golf buggy, which will take you to the Vietnamese Immigration office. Here, you need to fill in an arrival card and get your passport checked. Once this is done, get back onto the golf buggy which will drive you over to your new coach!
It’s all much more organised than it first appears to be but if in doubt just follow everyone else and keep giving your passport to people in uniforms!
The onward trip to Hanoi won’t be the most comfortable bus journey you’ve ever had – those North Vietnam roads are pretty basic, but the scenery will hopefully keep your minds of the bumps and bruises!
The bus will drop you off in what appears to be a random residential street and in fact, it IS a random residential street – but don’t be alarmed – you’re not that far away from the city centre.
Ignore the gaggle of taxi drivers and touts congregating by the bus stop – again – you will probably end up paying over the odds to them for a relatively straightforward journey. Just walk away from the and head towards a main road where you can wave over a passing taxi driver and ask him to take you to your hotel (if you have one pre-booked) or to Hanoi’s Old Quarter where you are more likely to find a whole host of accommodation options!
So that’s it – going overland from Hong Kong to Hanoi overland is really simple, as long as you can cope with a bit of actual ‘travelling’ by train, metro and finally a bus! Two days of bumpy buses, sleeper trains and haggling taxi drivers is a small price to pay for an adventure like this and you’ll have a great sense of achievement when you do get to Vietnam, knowing that you’ve done it all by yourself!
Tips and Hints:
- Carry plenty of water to keep dehydration and tiredness away – you’ll want to keep your wits about you
- It’s a good idea to take some dried snacks too as you won’t have many opportunities to stop and buy lunch
- Before setting off on either leg of this journey – ask a friendly Chinese person to write down the names of your destinations in Chinese – it will come in extremely handy as they are often difficult to pronounce
*ticket prices as of September 2010 therefore may be subject to changes – take these as your ‘baseline price!’
A few months ago, Lonely Planet published an article on the world’s worst travel advice which got me thinking – what is the world’s BEST travel advice?! I asked a few people – both first time travellers and experienced nomads – what is as the best advice you have ever been given, and put their answers together with mine!
On our last full day on Koh Samui we set off bright and early and drove up to the highest