Catching a train in Vietnam
First published 10th April, 2008
One of the best ways to travel in Vietnam is by train. Vietnam's rail network extends to most destinations of interest to a first-time visitor in Vietnam and it's safe, comfortable, not too expensive, and allows you to see the countryside at a leisurely pace. What more could you ask for? Read on to find out just how Vietnam's train system works -- where the trains go, what they cost and how long they take -- along with a swack of other useful information.
Vietnam's train system serves a large swathe of the country -- only the Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta are left out. The first length of 71km of track was laid in 1881 and ran from Saigon to My Tho -- a service which no longer runs. The route, more or less as it stands today, was completed in 1936 and stretches for 2,600km in its entirety.
Where do the trains go?
Officially the Vietnamese train system consists of seven rail lines, but of those only three are much used by foreign travellers in Vietnam.
Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
This is the main north-south running line and is by far the most popular for both foreign tourists and Vietnamese travellers. A mind-boggling variety of trains run on this line -- everything from express services to local trains even goats think are slow. While there are over 100 stations on the line, the popular and fastest trains service around 20 stations, into which most major coastal stops are covered. The stations include Hanoi, Vinh, Dong Hoi, Dong Ha, Hue, Da Nang (for Hoi An), Quang Ngai, Dieu Tri (for Qui Nhon), Nha Trang, Thap Cham, Muong Man (for Mui Ne) and Saigon. While trains running this route are sometimes referred to as the "Reunification Express", the title doesn't belong to any particular train nor service.
Hanoi to Lao Cai
This line, striking northwest from Hanoi, terminates at the border town of Lao Cai. From here it is a straightforward run up to the hill station at Sapa -- one of northern Vietnam's most popular spots. Most of the trains run at night, and, somewhat strangely, different cars are owned and run by different companies, meaning while you're all on the same train, the quality of service and comfort can vary considerably.
Hanoi to Dong Dang
Dong Dang is the border town, in Lang Son province, on the Chinese frontier and this train, running northeast of Hanoi, is the most popular way to reach it.
The lesser routes are:
Hanoi to Hai Phong: a large port city southwest of Ha Long Bay.
Hanoi to Quan Trieu: in Thai Nguyen province, due north of Hanoi.
Kep to Ha Long: Kep is northwest of Hanoi on the line to Dong Dang. This spur does run to Ha Long, but the train stops well short of anywhere particularly useful -- making this just about the slowest possible way on earth to get from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay short of walking.
Kep to Luu Xa: We couldn't even find the town of Luu Xa on any map, so this one's a bit of a mystery to us.
What classes are available?
The main classes on Vietnamese trains are hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper, though these are broken up into a number of sub-classes.
You get what you pay for certainly holds true when it comes to hard seats on a Vietnamese train. It is a hard seat -- actually a wooden bench seat to be exact. The cheapest class on the train, hard seat is also the first to fill up and is invariably packed.
Next cheapest off the rack, soft seat are considerably more comfortable and are more than adequate for day-travel. The seats are quite difficult to sleep in though. Soft seat comes in three flavours -- reclining air-con, air-con and non air-con.
Despite how it sounds, you won't be sleeping on a plank of wood but on a rather thin mattress. We'd say they're more than adequate for the budget traveller, though you won't be planning to fit a hard sleeper into your bedroom back home. Hard sleeper comes in a six-berth configuration with both a fan-cooled and air-con option. The cheapest bunk it the top one, then the middle one, with the lowest bunk being the most expensive. The compartments do not have a door, so you need to be extra careful with your belongings.
This is the most comfortable class and comes with surprisingly soft beds in a four-bed configuration, with or without air-con. Unlike hard sleepers, these compartments do have a door so are considerably more secure. All soft sleeper bunks are priced the same.
Aside from the above there are also a few classes peculiar to the Sapa and 5-star Express trains. See the relevant sections below for more information.
What are Vietnamese trains like?
Train types are distinguished by their prefix -- the most likely of which you'll come across are the 5-star, SE, SP, TN and LC services -- though there are many others. The prefix is followed by a number -- odd numbers run in one direction, even the other. So for example the SE1 runs from Hanoi to Saigon while the SE2 runs from Saigon to Hanoi.
Cabins are furnished with four or six bunks, with upper bunks reached by a small ladder. Upper bunks are generally more secure when you're asleep, but you'll be closer to the air-con unit, so dress accordingly. Shared storage areas are provided underneath the bottom bunks -- these should not be considered overly secure.
Carriages come with two bathrooms -- one with a squat toilet, the other with just a basin and mirror. Getting a seat or berth in the middle of the carriage (as far as possible from the bathrooms) is a good idea. Pack your own toilet paper.
The 5-star and SE trains are uniformally air-con, while the SP, TN and LC services are a mix. The windows cannot be opened in an air-con carriage, so if you're keen to have an open window (say for photos) then an air-con car is not for you. That said, the windows in non-air-con cars often have their metal shutters drawn -- kids throwing rocks at trains remains a problem and so some opt to shutter the windows for protection -- on occasion the conductor may insist the shutter is closed.
On the Hanoi to Saigon run, the SE services are the best. They are fast, they stop at most of the tourist hotspots and the prices are not unreasonable. The TN services are okay -- they're slower as they stop at a lot more stations than the SE trains, but they're also cheaper and come equipped with a better range of the more budget-orientated classes.
There are three night trains and one day train every day between Hanoi and Lao Cai. From Lao Cai it is a straightforward undertaking to get to Sapa. The vast majority of travellers opt for the night train as it saves on the cost of a night of accommodation and the day train offers only hard and soft seats. The night trains offer all the available classes, though, just to complicate things, there are also a number of private cars which may be attached to your train. Private cars include Fansipan, Friendly, King, Pumpkin, Royal and Tulico -- but there's precious little to separate one from another. The exception is the Victoria service, which is a good deal above any of the others, but is available only to guests of the affiliated Victoria Sapa Hotel.
This is a private express train with new cars, which runs between Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang, stopping at only Muong Man (for Phan Thiet and Mui Ne) and Thap Cham along the way. Trains come with four classes -- the imaginatively-named A,B,C and D classes -- with D class being more than enough for most travellers. The service runs overnight from Saigon to Nha Trang, but the return service is during daylight hours.
Do the trains run on time?
They leave on time, but often arrive late. Be sure to get to the train station a good half an hour before departure.
How long do the trains take?
The fastest trains trundle along at a maximum speed of around 70 km/h, but the main issue is that, as much of the line is single track (most of the time there are not separate lines for each direction) long delays can occus if your train has to wait for a train coming the other way.
Rough trip times are (depending on the class of train and number of stops):
Hanoi to Vinh 5-7 hours
Vinh to Dong Hoi 3.5-5 hours
Dong Hoi to Dong Ha 2-3 hours
Dong Ha to Hue 1-2 hours
Hue to Da Nang 3-4 hours
Da Nang to Nha Trang 10-12 hours
Nha Trang to Muong Man 4-7 hours
Muong Man to Saigon 3.5-4.5 hours
What about Hoi An and Mui Ne?
Two very popular and one less popular destination are not directly serviced by the railway -- Hoi An, Mui Ne and Qui Nhon. The most convenient station to Hoi An is Da Nang, for Mui Ne the closest train station is Muong Man and the best station for Qui Nhon is Dieu Tri.
Do you need to make a reservation in advance?
Generally speaking yes, but through most of the year a day or two in advance should suffice -- if you're planning on just buying a ticket on the day, as long as you're flexible regarding which train and class you'll get, you'll probably get a ticket, but showing up 30 minutes before departure planning to get a four-berth air-con ticket on the SE1 will probably not yield a lot of success. If you're planning on travelling by train across the Tet national holiday, book your ticket now ... we mean that ... pick up the phone right now! Train reservations are essential across Tet and should be made absolutely as far in advance as possible.
If you'll be needing reservations before you arrive in Vietnam, numerous online travel agencies offer that service -- though be sure to compare prices between agencies. A better method though is to bypass the agents and go straight to Hanoi or Saigon train stations and make your reservations there in person. In doing this you'll save money and avoid a number of scams one may encounter dealing with a travel agent -- this is especially applicable in Hanoi, where the travel agent scene is a veritable snake pit.
How do you buy a ticket?
The best way to purchase a train ticket in Vietnam is to go to the train station in person and buy the ticket. In Vietnam, train tickets are priced in Vietnamese dong and at the station you can only pay in dong. Travel agents and hotels often offer this service -- normally for a small fee -- but we recommend doing it in person as it avoids the need to worry about scams. Never buy a ticket off a tout at the train station.
What do the tickets cost?
In the past the Vietnam Rail service had a two-tier fare system: one price for locals, a massively inflated price for foreigners. This is no longer the case. As long as you purchase your ticket at the train station you should be charged the exact same amount as a local.
Fares vary considerably in cost depending on the type of train and class of seat or berth. For detailed price information, download our Vietnam Railways timetable and pricelist (PDF), or see the Vietnam Railways website.
Can you buy a through ticket in Vietnam?
Well, you can buy multiple tickets at one time, so you can buy Hanoi - Hue, Hue - Nha Trang, Nha Trang - Saigon all in one go -- as long as you're set on your dates. However you can't buy an "open ticket" that allows you to get off and on when you want -- which is a shame.
What should you be wary of?
Aside from scamming travel agents, the number one concern is theft, though that's not to say people are being robbed left, right and centre, rather that you should endeavour to keep an eye on your stash. Here are some tips:
a) Never, ever leave a cabin if another passenger asks you to leave for privacy while leaving your bags in the cabin. Either tell the other passenger to use the toilet for changing, or take your belongings with you.
b) Try to secure the door handle of your cabin at night -- for instance with a coat hanger -- to deny theives access while you sleep.
c) Be wary of leaving valuable items near the window as when the train is stationary, someone may reach in and grab stuff off your lap -- they'll be long gone by the time you find your way out of the carriage.
d) Chain, or tie your bags together.
e) Sleep with your valuables with you in your bunk. Do not stow expensive goodies in an easy-to-open bag out of your reach.
f) Don't drink to excess and stay in control.
What are the best journeys?
The trip between Da Nang and Hue is easily the most beautiful stretch in the country -- we'll not bother trying to describe it as Paul Theroux does it so perfectly here:
"'No one knows it,' said Cobra Two. No one in the States has the slightest idea how beatiful it is. Look at that -- God, look at that!'
We were at the fringes of a bay that was green and sparkling in bright sunlight. Beyond the leaping jade plates of the sea was an overhang of cliffs and the sight of a valley so large it contained sun, smoke, rain and cloud -- all at once -- independent quantities of colour. I had been unprepared for this beauty; it surprised and humbled me in the same degree the emptiness had in India. Who has mentioned the simple fact that the heights of Vietnam are places of unimaginable grandeur? Though we can hardly blame a frightened draftee for not noticing this magnificence, we should have known all along that the French would not have colonized it, nor would the Americans have fought so long, if such ripeness did not invite the eye to take it."
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, pp 289.
The second trip isn't so pretty, but it's very convenient -- that's the Hanoi to Sapa night-train. You save on a night's accommodation and the trains are timed very conveniently.
The trip is from Hue, Dong Ha or Dong Hoi to either Ninh Binh or Hanoi isn't stunningly beautiful, but the north-central part of Vietnam sees very few travellers -- if you were ever going to be covering one big stretch of Vietnam in a hit, this is probably the one. Another popular long-haul leg is Nha Trang to Da Nang.
Which is better train or plane?
Well, it depends. Train is cheaper and slower than flying, but for the shorter trips, it's not all that much slower than flying -- especially once you factor in the time getting to the airport, checking in and so on. Of course if you want to get from Hanoi to Saigon as quickly as possible then flying is the best option, but if you've got a bit of time and plan a lot of stops, trains are often the best choice.
Hat-tip to prolific Travelfish-member, CatBa, for his many informative posts, suggestions and advice regarding the rail network in Vietnam -- thankyou.
If you've got more questions about the trains in Vietnam, please make a post on the Travelfish forum for Vietnam and we'll do our best to help.
Read 8 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (17)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- Blue Dragon Children's Foundation
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (9)
- Cambodia (23)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (19)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Weaving and textiles in Luang Prabang
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (10)
- All stories
- 10 great hostels in Singapore
- Singapore on a budget
- Singapore's best happy hours
- Singapore's Hip Haji
- Singapore: Escape the urban jungle
- The best hostels in Singapore: 2013
- The best places to stay in Singapore
- The Festivals of Singapore
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 1
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 2
- Thailand (81)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok craft villages
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Day trips from Bangkok
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (33)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay or Sapa?
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (21)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (16)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.