The 2,600-km (1,612-mile) rail system, built by the French, runs north–south, servicing coastal towns between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The main drawback of rail travel is that it's slow. The quickest train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, the Reunification Express, takes about 34–41 hours, depending on how many stops it makes. Trains are better for the shorter hops between Hanoi and Hue; Hanoi and Lao Cai, which gets you to Sapa; or Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang.
Train travel through Vietnam can be an enjoyable experience, not to mention a time saver if you take overnight trips, provided you can get a soft sleeper or at least a soft chair. Designed just for tourists, the more luxurious Livitrans that run between Hanoi and Danang, the Golden trains that connect Ho Chi Minh and Nha Trang and the privately run tourist sleeping car services between Hanoi and Sapa make for a far more comfortable experience than the Reunification Express, where regardless of what class ticket you hold, the bathrooms are often dirty and noise is often a problem; day and night, when the train stops, vendors may pop into your compartment to try to sell you soda, beer, and cigarettes. Smoking is permitted in some compartments.
Security is another concern. At all times keep the metal grille over the window shut. If you are concerned about eating food from the local vendors who board the train at every station, selling everything from rice crackers to soup, you should bring food and water with you, especially if you have cumbersome luggage that makes trips to the dining carriage impossible.
There are several seating and sleeping options on the train and most come with air-conditioning: the best are soft-berth sleepers, which generally have comfortable, 4-inch-thick mattresses and contain only four bunks; next are the mid-range soft sleepers, which also have only four bunks but with 2-inch-thick mattresses; then come hard-berth sleepers, which are exactly the same as soft sleepers, but come with six bunks (the top ones are cheapest); after that are soft seats, which are reclining soft seats, perfect for shorter trips; next are air-conditioned hard seats, which provides slightly uncomfortable wooden seats more attuned to short distance, daytime travel, and finally, hard seats, which are just what they sound like.
Fares and Schedules
As everywhere, fares vary based on the length of trip and the class of travel. You can purchase tickets at train stations and travel agencies can also help you make reservations.
Train service runs daily between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (34–41 hours, $99 for soft sleeper with air-conditioning), daily between Hanoi and Hue (12–14 hours, $59 for a soft sleeper), daily between Hanoi and Lao Cai (9–11 hours, $43 for soft sleeper), and daily between Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang (15–22 hours, $43). It's also possible to take a train from Hanoi to Nanning in China (twice weekly on Tuesday and Friday, 11 hours, $22–$38), from where you can continue to Beijing. The northeastern border crossing is at Dong Dang, just north of Lang Son. Visas for China need to be arranged before you leave home—at the time of writing, the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi was not issuing visas to foreigners.
The Victoria Sapa Resort and Spa's deluxe train carriages leave Hanoi on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings. They depart from Lao Cai on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and on Sunday evenings. Acquiring a berth requires that you stay at the hotel for at least one night. On Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday a four-berth compartment costs $50 and a two-berth compartment costs $80; on weekends, the price is $70 and $120, respectively.
Danang Train Station. 202 Hai Phong, Danang, Da Nang. 236/382–3810; www.vietnamtrain.com.
Dong Hoi Train Station. Thuan Ly, Dong Hoi, Quang Binh. www.vietnamtrain.com.
Hanoi Train Station. Le Duan St. at Tran Hung Dao St., Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Ha Noi. 24/3942–3949; 090/4619–926.
Hue Train Station. 2 Bui Thi Xuan, Hue, Thua Thien-Hue. 234/822–175; www.vietnamtrain.com.
Saigon Railway Station. 1 Nguyen Thong St., District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Ho Chi Minh City. 28/3931–8952; www.gasaigon.com.vn.
Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa. Sapa, Lao Cai. 214/387–1522; www.victoriahotels.asia.
It's a good idea to book ahead, especially for overnight travel, although for some trips you can only reserve a few days in advance. Tickets can either be booked at the train station, through a local tour company, or with an online booking resource such as Vietnam Impressive, Vietnam Train, or Vietnam Railways. Train tickets must be paid for in dong, unless you book through a tour company. Foreigners are charged higher fares than Vietnamese nationals. Once you disembark you may need to show your ticket again, so don't throw away your ticket stub or you may face major hassle when trying to leave the station, and may even be forced to pay again.
Vietnam Impressive. 24/3974–7543; www.vietnamimpressive.com.
Vietnam Railways. 090/4619–926; www.vietnam-railway.com.
Vietnam Train. 096/960–6606; 24/3577–2907; www.vietnamtrain.com.