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.
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