First published July 2023 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
Tom Divers is the founder and creator of Vietnam Coracle. He’s lived, travelled and worked in Vietnam since 2005. Born in London, he travelled from an early age, visiting over 40 countries (he first visited Vietnam in 1999). Now, whenever he has the opportunity to make a trip, he rarely looks beyond Vietnam’s borders and his trusty motorbike, Stavros. Read more about Tom on the About Page, Vietnam Times and ASE Podcast.
Train journeys in Vietnam are more than just a means of getting from A to B: they are an experience. On Vietnam’s railways, travellers get a genuine sense of the country and start to appreciate nation-defining characteristics, such as changes in the landscape, climate, food and accent from one region to another. Unlike taking a domestic flight, train travel is richly rewarding, providing travellers with a social, culinary and cultural experience. Taking the train in Vietnam is nothing like it is in Europe, North America, Japan or China: rail travel in Vietnam is low-tech, slow, informal, and exciting. What’s more, train travel is relatively cheap, comfortable, efficient and easy to book. If you enjoy journeys and the act of travel, you’ll almost certainly enjoy travelling by train in Vietnam.
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TRAIN TRAVEL IN VIETNAM
A Guide to Riding the Railways
This guide is intended to provide travellers with a practical overview of how to travel by train in Vietnam and why it’s a rewarding travel experience. I’ve included information about train routes, booking tickets, classes of travel, food and much more in order to paint a picture of what train travel is like in Vietnam. On my map I’ve marked all rail routes and major stations, as well as some of the most scenic sections of track. You can book train tickets directly from this page using the Baolau.com search boxes and links. (For excellent historical information about Vietnam’s railways, read ‘Railways & Tramways of Việt Nam’ by Tim Doling.)
Train Routes & Stations in Vietnam
ROUTES & SCHEDULES:
Vietnam Railways operates a main south-north line and several spur lines. There are dozens of potential routes and station stops across the nation: use my train map for an overview. Schedules, times and ticket prices are easy to search, browse and book using the Baolau.com search box below, or vnr.com (the Vietnam Railways website), or at any major train station where the national train schedule is displayed on large billboards.
Reunification Express (Transindochinois):
Vietnam’s main railway line runs from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in the south all the way to Hanoi in the north, stopping at over 20 stations along the way. Roughly following the coast for over 1,700km, the south-north line connects almost all major coastal cities between Saigon and Hanoi (see map). This line is known today as the ‘Reunification Express’, and in French colonial times it was called the Transindochinois. There are at least 6 trains every day in both directions on the ‘Reunification Express’ between Saigon and Hanoi. The journey between the two cities takes more than 32 hours. In addition, several other trains ply specific sections of the south-north main line, stopping at smaller stations as well as major ones. You can easily check schedules, times and ticket prices by using the Baolau.com search box below or vnr.com or at any major train station.
In addition to the main south-north ‘Reunification Express’ route, several spur lines branch off to other destinations. These include: Hanoi→Hải Phòng, Hanoi→Lào Cai, Hanoi→Lạng Sơn, Hanoi→Hạ Long, Hanoi→Thái Nguyên, and Saigon→Phan Thiết. However, schedules on these spur line routes are irregular and subject to change, particularly in the post-pandemic period. Check schedules, times and ticket prices using the Baolau.com search box below or vnr.com or ask at the relevant train stations.
*Always book train tickets at least a few days in advance or more if travelling during public holidays or on weekends
SEARCH TRAIN ROUTES & SCHEDULES:
Booking train tickets is now very easy and efficient. You can book tickets directly from this page on almost all train routes in Vietnam by using the Baolau.com search box below. Type in your departure and arrival stations and the date of travel and click ‘Search’. This opens a new page with all train times and prices in all classes for that day and that route. Choose your train time and class then click ‘Book Now’. Next, choose your exact carriage, seat or sleeping birth on the train map, enter your details and make payment online. You’ll receive an e-ticket with a QR code in your email inbox which you can show to station staff on your phone before boarding the train. Your ticket has a carriage number and seat/bed number on it.
Alternatively, you can book tickets in-person at any train station, but not much English is spoken, or you can use vnr.com (the Vietnam Railways website) to make a booking, but their site is not as good or as easy to use as Baolau.com. (Note that there’s a small service charge with Baolau.com, but this is a very small price to pay for the convenience of using their system.)
*Always book train tickets at least a few days in advance or more if travelling during public holidays or on weekends
BOOK TRAIN TICKETS:
SEATING & SLEEPING:
There are 4 ‘classes’ of seating and sleeping on Vietnam’s railways (see below for descriptions and photos of each one). Which class you choose depends on the length of the journey you’re taking and on your budget. Most trains on most routes (even shorter spur routes, such as Saigon→Phan Thiết and Hanoi→Lào Cai) offer both seating and sleeping compartments. As a general rule, seating is fine for daytime journeys under 8 hours, but sleeping compartments are better for night trains or any journey over 8 hours. The 4 classes are:
SEARCH TRAIN TICKETS:
Typically the last couple of carriages on a train, the hard seat class is the cheapest and sparsest available on Vietnam’s railways. The wooden seats are absolutely fine for shorter journeys, such as Hanoi→Hải Phòng or Hanoi→Lạng Sơn. But on longer trips the carriages, which are fan-cooled, not air-conditioned, can become stuffy and uncomfortable. However, the ambience is informal and social: families with kids playing in the aisles, picnics on the floors, and chickens in cardboard boxes. On short hops this can be a good experience; on long-hauls it can be a test of endurance.
Soft, coach-style seating on reclinable chairs in an air-conditioned carriage, the soft seat class is ideal for daytime journeys of a few hours or more. Comfortable, cool, bright and spacious, most passengers will be fine in one of the soft seats for any medium-length journey. The windows are large, the ceilings are high and the air-con is effective. Ticket prices are reasonable and more affordable than sleeping compartments, but if you’re travelling overnight, don’t expect to get too much sleep in a soft seat. For daytime journeys on routes such as Huế→Đà Nẵng, Saigon→Nha Trang, Quy Nhơn→Đà Nẵng, soft seat class is all you need.
Separate air-conditioned compartments of 6-beds connected by a common aisle, this class allows passengers to lie down in comfort, but it can feel a little cramped if all 6 beds are occupied. The beds are arranged in two rows of bunks. Try to avoid taking the top bunk bed, which has very little space between the bed and the ceiling and can be mildly claustrophobic on long journeys. On night journeys, the middle bunk is best for sleeping, but on day journeys, the bottom bunk is best for comfort, because you can sit-up or lie-down and see out of the window. In my opinion, 6-bed sleeper class is good for shorter overnight journeys, such as Hanoi→Lào Cai or Saigon→Nha Trang. There is also good potential for social interaction as you are sharing quite an intimate space with 5 other passengers. Clean linen, a blanket and a pillow are provided.
The most comfortable class on Vietnam’s trains, these sleeper compartments have 4 beds in a private cabin arranged in two rows of bunks. The beds are comfy, the air-con is powerful (bring a sweater), there’s plenty of space on the top and bottom bunks, and it’s a cozy place to be for a long rail journey. Clean linen, blankets and pillows are provided, there’s a power outlet and USB charger for electrical devices, and each bed has its own reading light. Although the bottom bunk is slightly more expensive, if your main concern is sleeping, you should opt for the top bunk. This is because when your head is on the pillow on the bottom bunk you can hear and feel every bump on the tracks. My advice is: on a long night train, book the top bunk and enjoy a decent night’s sleep; for long journeys during the day, the bottom bunk is better for looking out the window, sitting at the table and working on your laptop. For long-haul rail journeys in Vietnam, such as Saigon→Đà Nẵng, Hanoi→Huế, or Saigon→Hanoi, the 4-bed sleeper class is by far the most comfortable and romantic.
FOOD & DRINK:
Eating and drinking on Vietnamese trains is nothing like it is on European or North American railways. Vietnam’s dining culture is sophisticated, regionally diverse, highly social, affordable, and oftentimes very informal. This is as much the case on the railways as it is in normal, everyday life. Most trains have a dining car (usually towards the back on the train), food and drink trolleys which regularly ply the aisles in all classes, and a hot water dispenser at the end of every carriage. In addition, passengers are allowed (and the majority do) to bring their own home-cooked picnic food onboard for the journey. If that weren’t enough, vendors board trains at stations, walking up and down carriages shouting their wares – hot, local specialities – for a brief few minutes before the train departs. Finally, all stations have at least one coffee shop, a convenience store and food outlet.
As is the case in most culinary contexts in Vietnam, travellers with an adventurous palate, few dietary quibbles, and an open mind will get the most out of their dining experience on Vietnamese trains. Leave your preconceived ideas of dining etiquette, cleanliness and ‘morality’ at home.
There are several ways to eat and order food on trains. If you bring your own picnic, you may consume it at your seat or sleeping birth, but not in the dining car. The dining cars (some of which are fairly grimy) only seat about a dozen passengers and they can become quite rowdy and cramped at mealtimes. However, there’s something undeniably romantic about railway dining cars. Sit down and order a drink (coffee, soda, beer), a snack (hard boiled eggs with salt and pepper, fresh green, sour mango) or a meal (hot phở or hủ tiếu noodles or steamed rice with stir-fried vegetables, meat, fish and soup) and watch the landscape roll by.
Alternatively, wait for the meal trolleys to reach your seat or sleeping compartment. Fresh rice meals (cơm) are served from a large ‘hot trolley’, including a huge vat of piping hot steamed rice and half a dozen dishes to choose from. These are all on display, so passengers can easily point and order. Typically you’ll find the following dishes: stewed pork (thịt kho), marinated pork cutlet (sườn), pork rolled in aromatic betel leaves (chả lá lốt), fried fish (cá chiên), and fried spring rolls (nem rán). Prices are 50,000-100,000vnd ($2-$4) per meal. Although there aren’t really any vegetarian or vegan options, you can try saying Tôi ăn chay (I’m vegetarian). All the food is freshly cooked, unlike the factory-prepared, vacuumed-packed items sold on UK trains, for example.
In addition, regional specialities are loaded onto the train at different stops along its route and then sold to passengers. This is a remarkable, unique, endearing and very Vietnamese aspect of railway dining. Some examples are: steamed whole corn on the cob at Long Khánh station from the fields outside your window; wonderfully exotic dragon fruit at Bình Thuận station from the plantations you can see from the train; bánh nậm (delicate steamed rice cakes) at Huế station; and nem chua (delicious cured pork sausages) at Thanh Hóa station.
Trains on the main south-north line between Saigon and Hanoi are large and long, usually 10-15 carriages in length with capacity for several hundreds of passengers. Trains on spur line routes are generally shorter, sometimes only 3-4 carriages in length, depending on the route. The trains are pulled along the rails by enormous diesel locomotives resembling the ones you might see in an old Soviet propaganda poster. I don’t know enough about trains to name or date the carriages and engines, but I suspect they’re not particularly modern; many are probably reused carriages from old Chinese and Russian trains, but that’s only a guess.
The carriages, painted white, blue and red on the exterior, are wide, high and spacious and the level of cleanliness is acceptable, if not exceptional. Most of the carriages are functional and coach-like, but sometimes they can be cozy and very comfortable. Some of the dining cars are romantic-looking wooden compartments, like something from the U.S. Pacific Railroad in the 1870s, but others are bleak and utilitarian in appearance. The dining car tends to become the train’s ‘pub’ on long journeys: loud, drunk men, cigarette smoke and a boisterous atmosphere.
Toilets vary considerably from carriage to carriage, regardless of what class you’re in, so it’s worth walking up and down the train to find the ones in best condition. There are both ‘sit-down’ toilets and ‘squat’ toilets. Wash basins are located at the end of each carriage and are fine for washing hands and brushing teeth.
Staff range from young twenty-somethings to old, weathered-looking ‘lifers’, who’ve been working on the rails for 40 years. The railway is state-run and I would guess wages aren’t high, nor is it a glamourous job. It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, that some staff, particularly older ones, can be rather brusque with foreign passengers. However, smiling and patience go a long way in Vietnam and I’ve met some remarkably kind, gracious and helpful staff on Vietnam’s trains. The general level of ‘customer service’ is informal, polite and well-meaning.
BOOK YOUR TRAIN JOURNEY:
Departing from train stations in Vietnam is always exciting, but particularly on early morning departures or night trains. There’s an atmosphere on the platform: the sound of the locomotive humming as if steeling itself for the long journey ahead; the flow of people through the station entrance and into the carriages; the sense of expectation; the hoot of the horn before departure; and the slow, grinding shift of motion echoing from carriage to carriage as the train crawls out of the station. Moving through the city at processional speed everything stops to let the train by, watch it go, honour it as it passes: traffic on the city’s busy arteries comes to a standstill at level crossings, pedestrians look up from their meals, stop their work, look out of windows trying to catch a glimpse of the train as it parades by.
Unlike highways, the railway passes through rural areas without anything between the track and the landscape. On the south-north main line in particular, because of Vietnam’s unique geography with the coastal plains to the east and the Trường Sơn Mountains to the west, the scenery is often sublime. There are moments when the track echoes the coast and the train comes within metres of the ocean; at other times, the railway detours inland through bright rice paddies with purple mountains looming behind. On long train journeys in Vietnam you get a real sense of the size, scale and topography of the nation. The train travels at just 50-80kmph – an ‘understandable’ speed – which allows you to study the landscapes in detail. Whether lying in your sleeping birth gazing out the window at an ocean vista, sitting at a wooden table in the dining car with a coffee as a monsoon shower passes over the train, or reclining in your seat staring at a waterway winding into the mountains, there’s some sensational scenery to be seen on Vietnam’s railways.
Train travel in Vietnam can be a social experience, even if travelling alone. Sharing a sleeping cabin for many hours with several strangers is an inherently intimate situation which lends itself to social interaction with your fellow passengers. I’ve met people on Vietnam’s trains many times. One of the endearing qualities of Vietnamese life is the informality of social situations. The train is no different. Children play in the aisles, teenagers huddle on top bunks with their phones, business people tap away at their laptops, extended families of eight people bundle into 4-bed compartments for a picnic lunch of grilled chicken and sticky rice, while older men stand in the narrow gap between carriages puffing on cigarettes. The charm and social cohesion you often see and experience with Vietnamese street life also takes place on Vietnam’s railways.
Taking the train in Vietnam is much more than a means of transportation: it’s an experience, and one which, for travellers, can begin to illuminate aspects of Vietnamese life and culture. From the landscapes outside the window you get an impression of the terrain and geography of Vietnam; from the passengers that come and go from your cabin you get a sense of different regional accents; from the local speciality food sold on the train at different sections of the route you get an idea of the culinary diversity of Vietnamese cuisine; from the weather – the sun that bakes the carriages, the rain that lashes the train – you begin to understand Vietnam’s complex climate from southern to central to northern regions; and you even get a sense of history from the French colonial-era stations, the Cham temples at Tam Kỳ and Diêu Trì, and the multitude of pagodas and churches you see along the way. All this is in addition to the universal magic of travelling by train, such as lying down in your bunk bed and being rocked to sleep by the rhythmic rattle of the rails and occasional howling of the horn in the night.
BOOK A TRAIN JOURNEY IN VIETNAM:
*Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like train travel in Vietnam and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and my About Page