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Why trains are the best way to get around Vietnam...


Vietnam's air-conditioned trains are safe, comfortable & inexpensive, the ideal way for independent travellers to get around and see Vietnam at ground level.  The train journeys are an experience in themselves, and become an integral part of your visit to Vietnam.  You might even meet some Vietnamese people.  Inexperienced travellers sometimes think they'll save time by using internal flights - in fact, an overnight train ride from Hanoi to Hué or Danang actually saves time compared to flying, because the train leaves Hanoi city centre in the evening and arrives in Hué city centre next morning, but it's more than this, the train journey is a genuine Vietnamese experience, flying is a wasted opportunity.  Flying takes 4 or 5 hours out of your sightseeing day in getting to a remote airport, checking in, taking the flight itself, collecting your b ags and getting back into the city centre.  And the sleeper train saves a hotel bill, too.  And what's the rush anyway?  Air-conditioned trains with sleepers and on-board catering link Hanoi, Hué, Danang, Nha Trang, and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).  Hoi An has no station, but it's just 30km by bus or taxi from Danang.  There are also trains from Hanoi to Haiphong (for Halong Bay) and Hanoi to Lao Cai (for Sapa).

Real Vietnam Train tickets

The Reunification Express?
Trains between Hanoi & Saigon are sometimes referred to as the 'Reunification Express' by guide books and tourist agencies, although there are now several trains on this route and no single train officially carries this name.  The line was completed by the French in 1936, and trains linked Hanoi to Saigon until 1954, when Vietnam was divided into north and south and the railway was cut.  The trains resumed on 31 December 1976, unifying the country once more.  You too can easily travel the length of Vietnam using the reunification railway, a travel experience in its own right.

 The Sight seeing from the train...

   

Along the coast and up into the hills...  The most magical part of the whole Hanoi to Saigon train journey is the wonderfully scenic section along the cost between Hué and Danang.  The train snakes at slow speed past beaches, islands and rocky jungle-covered cliffs, then heads through the hills over the lush green Hai Van Pass to reach Danang.  These photos were taken in poor weather at the end of the rainy season - in the bright Vietnamese sun, the vivid blue skies, green waters and yellow beaches will take your breath away...

 

 

Rice fields, palm trees, water buffalo, Vietnamese towns and villages...  You get a real insight into Vietnam when you travel by train, both urban and rural, which you don't get from 35,000 feet.  And if you're good at people watching you'll get insights on board the train, too, as the 'real' Vietnam is as much inside the train as outside...

HCMC or Saigon? 

Since the end of the Vietnamese war, the official the name for the conurbation as a whole has been Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).  However, the city centre is still officially called 'Saigon', which is the city's traditional and historic name.  In fact, the city appears as 'Sai Gon' in all Vietnamese railway timetables, it will say 'Sai Gon' on your train ticket and as you can see from the photo, it actually says 'Sai Gon' in big letters on the station itself.  The city's ruling elite may toe the line and call it 'Ho Chi Minh', but everyone else calls it Saigon.  So do what the locals do, call it Saigon!

The North - South 'Reunification' Main Line...

Over the last decade the Hanoi-Saigon train service steadily improved and there are now a whole range of daily air-conditioned trains linking Hanoi, Hue, Danang, Nha Trang & Saigon (HCMC), an ideal way to travel between these cities.  Here are the principal trains, there are additional trains at peak times such as the Tet holiday period.

...

 Hanoi ► Hué ► Danang ► Saigon (Ho Chi Minh)

 

Train number:

SE19 SE1 SE3 SE5 SE7 TN1 SNT1 SPT1
0 km Hanoi depart: 14:30 day 1 19:00 day 1 23:00 day 1 15:45 day 1 06:15 day 1 10:05 - -
116 km Ninh Binh  16:50 day 1 | | 18:06 day 1 08:33 day 1 12:33 - -
175 km Thanh Hoa  18:00 day 1 22:18 day 1 | 19:22 day 1 09:43 day 1 14:12 - -
319 km Vinh 20:25 day 1 00:49 day 2 04:12 day 2 22:16 day 1 12:01 day 1 16:54 - -
522 km Dong Hoi 01:15 day 2 04:43 day 2 08:01 day 2 02:46 day 2 15:55 day 1 21:51 - -
688 km Hué 04:48 day 2 08:02 day 2 10:50 day 2 06:12 day 2 19:12 day 1 01:18 - -
791 km Danang (for Hoi An) arrive 07:50 day 2 10:31 day 2 13:12 day 2 08:56 day 2 21:41 day 1 04:38 - -
791 km Danang (for Hoi An) depart - 10:46 day 2 13:24 day 2 09:11 day 2 21:56 day 1 04:58 - -
928 km Quang Ngai - 13:31 day 2 | 12:05 day 2 00:38 day 2 08:12 - -
1,095 km Dieu Tri (for Qui Nhon) - 16:28 day 2 18:32 day 2 15:09 day 2 03:35 day 2 12:26 - -
1,315 km Nha Trang - 20:33 day 2 22:08 day 2 19:45 day 2 07:42 day 2 16:58 19:00 day 1 -
- Phan Thiet depart - | | | | | | 14:05 day 1
1,551 km Muong Man (for Phan Thiet) - | | | 11:44 day 2 22:23 | 14:40 day 1
1,726 km Saigon arrive: - 04:10 day 3 05:00 day 3 04:40 day 3 15:05 day 2 03:03 03:56 day 2 18:40 day 1

 

All these trains run every day except trains SE7 & SE8.  Hanoi to Saigon is 1,726km or 1,070 miles.  Map of Saigon showing station.  Map of Hanoi showing station.

SE1, SE2, SE3, SE4:  These are the best trains.  They have air-conditioned soft sleepers (4-berth), air-conditioned hard sleepers (6-berth) and air-conditioned soft seats.

SE5, SE6:  These trains have air-conditioned hard sleepers, air-conditioned soft seats, air-conditioned hard seats, and ordinary hard seats.  No soft sleepers!

SE7, SE8:  SE7/8 only run at busy times, booking agencies will know if it's running a month or two ahead.  Air-con soft sleepers (4-berth), air-con hard sleepers (6-berth), air-con soft seats.

SE19, SE20: Air-conditioned soft sleepers, air-conditioned hard sleepers, air-conditioned soft seats, air-conditioned hard seats, ordinary hard seats.

TN1, TN2:  Air-conditioned hard sleepers (6-berth) & ordinary hard seats.  No soft sleepers or soft seats.

SNT1, SNT2:  Air-con soft sleepers (both older & newer types), air-con hard sleepers (both older & newer types), air-con soft seats.  Ask for a 'chat luong cao' (newer higher quality) sleeper.  Also has 'Golden Trains' high-quality sleepers attached.

Livitrans private tourist sleeping-cars, Hanoi-Hué-Danang:  Trains SE1 & SE2 have one or two tourist sleeping-cars attached between Hanoi, Hue & Danang run by private company Livitrans, see the photos & information below.  These have 4-berth sleepers of a higher standard than the regular ones, but higher fares. 

Golden Trains private tourist sleeping-cars, Saigon-Nha Trang:  Trains SNT1 & SNT2 have 'Golden Trains' tourist sleeping-cars attached between Saigon and Nha Trang.  These have 4-berth soft sleepers of a higher quality than the regular sleepers.  Fare $38 for a bed in a 4-berth sleeper, bookable through an agency such ashttp://vietnamimpressivetravel.com/

Northbound timetable...

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) ► Danang ► Hué ► Hanoi

Train number:

SE2 SE4 SE20 SE6 SE8 TN2 SNT2 SPT2
Saigon depart: 19:00 day 1 23:00 day 1 - 15:45 day 1 06:30 day 1 10:05 20:00 day 1 06:50 day 1
Muong Man (for Phan Thiet) | | - 19:07 day 1 09:45 day 1 14:14 | 10 27 day 1
Phan Thiet arrive | | - | | | | 11:00 day 1
Nha Trang 02:36 day 2 05:38 day 2 - 23:54 day 1 13:28 day 1 18:24 05:10 day 2 -
Dieu Tri (for Qui Nhon) 06:29 day 2 09:26 day 2 - 04:20 day 2 17:25 day 1 23:32 - -
Quang Ngai 09:16 day 2 | - 07:22 day 2 20:34 day 1 03:21 - -
Danang (for Hoi An) arrive 11:51 day 2 14:30 day 2 - 10:18 day 2 23:12 day 1 06:38 - -
Danang (for Hoi An) depart 12:06 day 2 14:42 day 2 16:50 day 1 10:34 day 2 23:27 day 1 06:58 - -
Hué 14:48 day 2 17:11 day 2 19:49 day 1 13:26 day 2 02:12 day 2 10:38 - -
Dong Hoi 17:56 day 2 20:08 day 2 23:35 day 1 17:14 day 2 05:33 day 2 14:06 - -
Vinh 21:42 day 2 23:46 day 2 04:52 day 2 22:13 day 2 09:31 day 2 19:12 - -
Thanh Hoa 00:19 day 3 | 07:19 day 2 01:01 day 3 11:59 day 2 22:49 - -
Ninh Binh | | 08:57 day 2 02:28 day 3 13:10 day 2 00:11 - -
Hanoi arrive: 04:02 day 3 05:00 day 3 11:25 day 2 04:45 day 3 15:28 day 2 03:05 - -

How to get to to ...

Hoi An it features on many visitor's itineraries.  It's about 30 km south of Danang, but has no railway station, so take a train to Danang, then a bus or taxi.  There are regular buses, minibuses & taxis from Danang to Hoi An taking between 45 minutes and an hour.  The bus fare is about US$3, a taxi will cost in the region of US$9-15 depending on your negotiation skills.  See map.

How to get to

The seaside town of Phan Thiet is on a 15km-long branch line from Muong Man.  There's a daily direct train between Saigon & Pan Thiet shown in the timetable above, or you can take any mainline train to Muong Man station and then a taxi to Pan Thiet.  Pan Thiet is 15.7 km by taxi from Muong Man.  For heading north from Pan Thiet, take a taxi to Muong man station.  See area map.

?

Train fares in Vietnam are cheap, and sleeper trains save on hotel bills as well as the cost of taxis to & from airports way outside the cities they serve.  The fares shown below are for the SE1, SE2, SE7 & SE8, fares for the slightly faster SE3 & SE4 are a fraction higher.  Fares for the 'SNT' trains are about the same, fares for the slower 'TN' trains are significantly cheaper.  Incidentally, the old system of charging foreigners higher fares than Vietnamese citizens was abolished in 2002.

Children aged 0 to 4 travel free, children 5 to 9 travel at half fare.  Children10 and over must pay full fare.

Fares are shown here in 1000s of Vietnamese Dong.  £1 = approx 30,900 Dong.  $1 = 21,000 Dong.

Fares from

Hanoi to:

Soft seat Hard sleeper Soft sleeper

air-con

air-con

lower berth

air-con

middle berth

air-con

top berth

air-con

lower berth

air-con

upper berth

Ninh Binh 70 103 100 84 110 108
Thanh Hoa 107 157 150 128 166 164
Vinh 194 285 273 232 300 298
Dong Hoi 335 493 472 400 520 515
Hue 442 708 677 575 748 740
Danang 508 784 750 637 828 820
Quang Ngai 570 836 800 680 883 873
Dieu Tri 672 988 945 802 1043 1030
Nha Trang 836 1352 1294 1100 1428 1412
Muong man 950 1453 1390 1180 1535 1518
Saigon 1058 1556 1490 1264 1643 1625

 

Fares from

Saigon to:

Soft seat Hard sleeper Soft sleeper

air-con

air-con

lower berth

air-con

middle berth

air-con

top berth

air-con

lower berth

air-con

upper berth

Phan Thiet 135 - - - - -
Nha Trang 277 452 433 368 478 472
Danang 630 954 913 775 1008 997
Hue 668 1030 987 838 1090 1077
Hanoi 1058 1556 1490 1264 1643 1625

 

Fares from

Hué to:

Soft seat Hard sleeper Soft sleeper

air-con

air-con

lower berth

air-con

middle berth

air-con

top berth

air-con

lower berth

air-con

upper berth

Hanoi 442 708 677 575 748 740
Saigon 667 1008 964 818 1062 1052
Danang 67 98 94 80 103 102
Nha Trang 404 593 568 482 626 619

 

Fares from

Danang to:

Soft seat Hard sleeper Soft sleeper

air-con

air-con

lower berth

air-con

middle berth

air-con

top berth

air-con

lower berth

air-con

upper berth

Hanoi 508 784 750 637 828 820
Saigon 630 954 913 775 1008 997
Hue 67 98 94 80 103 102
Nha Trang 337 495 474 402 523 517

 

Fares from

Nha Trang to:

Soft seat Hard sleeper Soft sleeper

air-con

air-con

lower berth

air-con

middle berth

air-con

top berth

air-con

lower berth

air-con

upper berth

Hanoi 836 1352 1294 1100 1428 1412
Saigon 220 360 345 294 367 357
Danang 337 495 474 402 523 517
Hue 404 593 568 482 626 619

 

How to buy tickets...
Do I need a reservation?  Can I stop off along the way?  Can I buy an open ticket and hop on and off?
Yes, yes, and no...  All trains require a reservation, so you need a specific ticket for each individual train journey you make, which will have printed on it the date, train number, car number and your reserved seat or berth number.  You cannot buy an open ticket and hop on and off trains without a reservation.  If you want to travel from Saigon to Hanoi (or vice versa) stopping off on the way, this is not a problem, you simply need to book a series of separate tickets, one for each leg of the journey, either bought in advance or bought as you go along.

Do I need to book far in advance?  Can I buy my tickets a day or two ahead?
Booking opens at least 60 days before departure, often more than 90 days before departure.  However, apart from peak holiday periods such as Tet, it's not usually difficult to buy tickets a few days in advance especially if you're not fussy about the exact date, train or class.  If you are booking for the same day or the following day, you might find the best quality SE trains full, but other slower trains may have berths available, or you may find the soft sleepers full, but hard sleepers still available, so be prepared to be flexible.  You're unlikely to get stuck as there's usually something available to your destination even at fairly short notice, but if it's mission-critical for your itinerary to be on a specific train on a specific date in a specific class, then it's worth paying the extra to book through an agency such ashttp://vietnamimpressivetravel.com/ to secure the exact tickets you want before you get to Vietnam.

How to buy tickets at the station...
It's easy to buy train tickets at the station when you get to Vietnam.  Reservations were computerised in 2002, and you can buy tickets for most train journeys within Vietnam at Saigon and Hanoi booking offices.  So for example, you can buy both a Saigon-Hue ticket and a Hue-Hanoi ticket in Saigon.  However, at other stations such as Hue, Danang or Nha Trang, you may only be able to book journeys starting at the station you're at.  At ticket offices, you pay in Vietnamese Dong, US dollars are not generally accepted, nor are credit cards.

...buying tickets in Hanoi

...buying tickets in Saigon

How to buy tickets in advance via a travel agency...

You cannot buy train tickets online from Vietnamese Railways, so if you want to pre-book some or all of your trains you need to contact a local Vietnamese train booking agency and buy tickets through them.  These agencies naturally charge a fee or mark-up for their service, but it can be worth it to be sure of a ticket for the exact date, train and class you want.

VietnamImpressive Travel http://vietnamimpressivetravel.com/ is relatively new, but has already had five very good reports from seat61 correspondents who highly recommend them, and I have used them myself.  They answer emails promptly and are very helpful.  For a typical Hanoi to Hué soft sleeper ticket they charge $51 (£33), which equates to a handling fee of about $14 (£9) over the ticket office price of 748,000 dong, which includes delivery to any hotel in Vietnam.  If you pay securely online by credit card via Onepay there's an additional 3% credit card charge. 

in a compartment to have a room to ourselves?

Privacy-loving westerners who are unfamiliar with sleeper train travel often ask this - although they'll happily sleep in a seat with 300 strangers on a long haul flight, which they somehow now find socially acceptable even though in reality it's far less acceptable than a comfy 4-berth sleeper with proper flat beds!  Yes, you can pay for 4 tickets for sole occupancy of a 4-berth soft sleeper if you like, just be aware that you may need to politely but firmly repulse any attempt by other passengers to join you, or by staff to allocate passengers to your 'spare' beds which might well be the only spare berths left on the train.  My advice is don't bother, just book 2 beds in a 4-berth soft class sleeper, you'll be safe and comfortable sharing a 4-berth soft sleeper, and might actually meet some real Vietnamese people this way, rather than sitting in isolation from everyone else.

  (for Sapa)

...

You may prefer to take a privately-run sleeping car to Lao Cai for Sapa.  In addition to the normal Vietnamese Railways sleepers & seats, overnight trains SP1-SP8 between Hanoi & Lao Cai convey a bewildering range of privately-run deluxe sleeping-cars for tourists.  If you want extra comfort & cleanliness and don't mind paying a bit more, go for one of these private cars as they're all significantly better than the regular Vietnamese Railways sleepers.

Fanxipan, Sapaly Express, King, Livitrans, Orient Express, Tulico, Ratraco, TSC, Friendly, Royal, Hara...

All these private operators offer berths in shared First Class 4-berth sleepers, and a few also offer a handful of VIP 2-berth sleepers (though if these have sold out you can always pay for all 4 berths in a 4-berth if you like, the price works out pretty much the same).  The sleepers all have air-conditioning, fresh clean bedding, complimentary mineral water and snacks, and clean western-style toilets.  These private sleepers are all very comfortable, just remember that this is still Vietnam with Vietnamese standards, you'll enjoy the trip more if you don't turn up with unrealistic expectations of 5-star western-style luxury for $35!  Most of these private tourist sleeping-cars run attached to train SP1/SP2, though one or two (TSC and Sapaly) are attached to SP3/SP4 and Livitrans cars are attached to SP7/SP8.

Which company should you choose?  How much does it cost?  There's not a huge amount to choose between the many different operators and the price they all charge is pretty similar, about $34-36 one-way in a shared First Class 4-berth sleeper or $70-79 per person for travel in a VIP 2-berth sleeper.  However, the best operators are usually acknowledged to be Fanxipan and Orient Express (both on train SP1/2) and Sapaly Express (on train SP3/4).  Personally, I prefer Fanxipan to Orient Express as there was sufficient headroom under the upper berths to sit on the lower bunk, in the Orient Express carriage I had to lean forward (I'm 6' 2").  Lower berths are recommended if you're tall, as the upper berth has a support chain taking up an inch or two at each end. 

Can I buy all 4 berths in a compartment to have a room to ourselves?  Yes, if you insist, if the very few 2-berth VIP compartments are all sold out as they often are.  But meeting fellow tourists and talking over a beer into the night is great fun.  Would I recommend paying double to miss all the fun and sit in glorious isolation?  No!

How to buy tickets:  For prices, photos and more information on each of the various tourist sleepers, as both these agencies get good reports, are reliable and respond promptly to emails.  You book your chosen sleeper by email with these agencies, pay with a credit card using a secure online payment service, and you will be emailed an 'e-ticket' which must be exchanged for an actual ticket at the carriage operator's check-in desk at Hanoi 'B' station an hour before departure.  If you're already in Vietnam, you can book these tourist sleepers via local travel agencies, but not at the station, although there's a ticket window for the Ratraco sleepers to Lao Cai in the ticket hall at the 'B' station.

Train timetable...

 Hanoi ► Lao Cai (for Sapa)

 

 Lao Cai ► Hanoi

  Every day:

LC3 SP7 SP1 SP3 LC1

 Every day:

LC4 LC2 SP8 SP2 SP4
 Hanoi depart  06:10 20:35 21:10 21:50 22:00  Lao Cai depart 09:15 21:20 19:30 20:05 20:45
 Lao Cai arrive 16:35 04:55 05:25 06:15 07:20  Hanoi arrive 20:15 06:55 04:05 04:35 05:10