Why Trains?The climate of Vietnam is typically hot with high humidity. Most travellers would find themselves feeling uncomfortable and sticky after long hours of the sun. Thankfully, all of Vietnam's trains are air-conditioned, making them the perfect transport option for the climate! They are quite safe and comfortable, coming in three options: soft seats (ideal for day travel) and sleepers (hard and soft) for overnight travel.
Through train travel, you get the opportunity to witness Vietnam's beautiful landscape that includes rice paddy fields, palm trees and villages as you whizz by. The experience of witnessing everyday life through your train travel can hardly be recreated in travelling by flight! In fact, there's even a beautiful stretch between Hue and Danang that runs along the cliffside on the South China Sea before heading through lush green mountains and Hai Van Pass. This stretch is referred to as Deo Hai Van or 'ocean cloud pass'.
Aside from the natural beauty, overnight train travels help budget travellers in reducing their hotel expenses as well by not spending on night-stay. Train timings might seem odd to most Western travellers as they run as early as 4AM, but it's quite common to be awake that early in Vietnam. Taxis ply regularly at these timings, so transport to and from the railway station won't be an issue.
All major cities in Vietnam like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Danang are linked by railway. In fact, trains that run between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are each called the ?reunification express? as they ran through the country, connecting both cities till 1954 when Vietnam was divided. Post-unification in 1976, these trains continue to travel the length of Vietnam. In most railway communication, you'll find that Ho Chi Minh City is still called Saigon (often Sai Gon) on train timetables and tickets, so don't get confused!
Tickets and Train DetailsBefore 2002, train tickets used to be more expensive for foreign travellers than Vietnamese citizens. Thankfully, this isn't the case anymore. For travel within the country, the cheapest seats are around VND 50,000 while prices can go up to VND 900,000. Children below the age of 4 travel for free, children between 5-9 years of age travel at 25% less than full price, and children above the age of 10 travel at full cost. E-visas can be used, but they aren't always accepted while entering or leaving Vietnam by train, so it's ideal to carry a proper printed visa at all times.
To travel by train in Vietnam, reservations are required. Your procured ticket will have the date of travel, train number, and reserved seat or berth number. You'll be required to keep this ticket for your entire journey. Most ticket bookings begin two months in advance for long travels while shorter distances begin just two weeks in advance. During holiday seasons like Vietnam's New Year called Tet in late January or early February, bookings fill up very quickly. In the event that you choose to book tickets on the day of travel, you might end up on a slower, older train.
Aside from buying tickets at the train station, there are plenty of methods to buy tickets online. You can try out the websites Baolau which specializes in tickets for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia or 12Go.Asia which specializes in tickets for Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos. In addition, you can use reliable travel agencies like Vietnamese Impressive that accepts international credit/debit cards. The Vietnamese Railways website can be used too, but keep in mind that most foreign travellers find that their non-Vietnamese issued cards aren't easily accepted.
Train travel allows you to carry a lot of luggage during your travels. Some people even carry their cycles or motorbikes on the train, which is labelled and can be picked up from the station luggage office at the desired location. As compared to flights, train travel provides more weight allowance for your luggage.
Some travellers have inhibitions about travelling by train because of a perceived lack of amenities. This couldn't be further from the truth! In Vietnam, nearly all trains are equipped with pillows and duvets, along with reading lights and power sockets. Toilets have soap and toilet paper, and you'll find water dispensers with hot water (that can be easily used to make tea, coffee, or even instant noodles!). For a price of VND 35,000, you can opt for set meals. Alternatively, you can buy snacks or even beer from the trolley service.
In the event of any communication issues, here are some useful words to keep in mind for your train travel:
-'ngoi' or 'ghe' means seat
-'nam' or 'giuong' means berth
-'dieu hoa' means air-conditioning
-'ga' means station
Travelling to ChinaThere are three border crossing from Vietnam to China: Lao Cai in the north and Mong Cai and Dong Dang in the east. You can easily reach Nanning, Guilin, Beijing, Hong Kong, Kunming and even Shanghai by train.
There are overnight sleeper trains that travel from Hanoi to Nanning, Guiling and Beijing every day while a soft-sleeper train travels twice a week. The approximate distance between Beijing and Hanoi is almost 3,000 kms with tickets costing around VND 68,00,000 while Nanning to Hanoi is almost 400 kms with tickets for around VND 750,000. From Nanning, you can continue to Shanghai on a high-speed train that will take you 12 hours or a fast train that will take 24 hours.
To reach Hong Kong, you can take a train from Hanoi to Nanning or Guangzhou. This trip will cost anywhere between VND 17,00,000 to VND 25,00,000. Depending on your time restrictions, you can take a sleeper train that will take 2 nights and 1 day (to be spent in Nanning) or you can take a high-speed train which will only take one night with a quick transfer in Nanning.
To travel to Kunming, you can travel from Hanoi to Lao Cai on an overnight sleeper. Lao Cai is just 2.5kms from the Chinese border, from where you can travel to Hekou. From Hekou, you will find plenty of trains travelling to Kunming.
For all these travels out of Vietnam into China, don't forget that you will require a Chinese visa on entry. This can be either a transit visa or a tourist visa. Requirements for both these visa vary between nationalities. Most often than not, you will require a ticket proof in order to obtain a Chinese visa. With this in mind, be sure to book your tickets and make travel plans accordingly!
Next time you're in Vietnam, staring at the list of flights, wondering if there's a more affordable way to travel, consider booking a train ticket instead. For quick, affordable and comfortable travel options to China and neighbouring countries, the railways of Vietnam are definitely a way to go!