What To Expect from Trains in Vietnam
After a total of six weeks spent travelling from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, up to Sapa and then to Laos through Dien Bien Phu, we had a few revelations about trains in Vietnam. In this post we have collected the tips, warnings and stories that we think will be most helpful for those wanting to take a train ride in Vietnam.
A few key things before we begin.
1) The Reunification Express is not a train but a route. The whole line from Hanoi to Saigon is called the Reunification Express and it has tens of trains running along each with their own number and route. Keep this in mind when booking tickets.
2) Trains run four or five times a day (more if it’s peak season) north to south and south to north.
3) There is a good chance that once you’re on the train, you’ll have to quickly put your luggage away, find your bed/seat and stay there. Make sure you have a backpack with all your necessities so that you don’t have to rummage through bags and disturb other passengers.
Like most forms of transport in Vietnam, train tickets can be booked through almost any hotel, hostel or guesthouse. There were several occasions where the tickets we bought through guesthouses were actually cheaper than the price advertised on the VNR website.
Tickets can also be booked directly on the VNR website. The process is simple, you can choose your seats and collect your tickets at the train station. The drawback here is that you can only use a Vietnamese card to buy these ticket – no international card is accepted!
12Go Asia is also very useful for buying tickets. You can use international cards to make purchases and the process is just as transparent as on the official VNR website, although perhaps less selection when choosing seats. The only sticking point here is that they do charge commission – a couple of dollars for each purchase. They will send you your tickets via email. You won’t need to print them out, just have them handy on your phone.
Trains are popular in Vietnam. This means that booking one or two days before your trip will leave you with limited availability. We booked 2 days before our trip and the three of us couldn’t get a cabin together so we had to split it. Keep in mind that it gets even busier around holidays.
It is said that children under 5 can travel free and children between 5 and 9 can get discounted tickets. We’ve never checked this assertion.
Sleepers or Seats?
When buying your tickets, you’ll be asked to choose between four options; seated hard, seated soft, sleeper hard (6 beds), sleeper soft (4 beds). All options are air-conditioned.
If you’re planning on travelling for more than 4 hours and especially if you’re travelling at night, you probably want a sleeper. It’s not that much more expensive and you will be grateful for the chance to stretch your legs out and rest your weary head.
The difference between the soft and hard sleeper is not really noticeable. The same facilities are available here (power points, a water dispenser at the end of the corridor with hot and cold water, toilets, luggage space and the chance to buy meals from the food trolley that comes around.
Soft seats are great for a day trip that’s only a couple of hours. There are power points to charge your devices and reclining chairs if you do want to have a snooze. You can store your luggage overhead and there are even small TVs in every wagon showing Vietnamese programmes.
Hard seats are exactly what they sound like – hard, wooden seats that will most likely cause discomfort to your rear end if you sit on them for more than a few hours. I, personally, would always opt for the seated soft, especially if your joints are already a bit weary from travel.
For the hardcore travelers, there are also non-air-conditioned hard seats. The windows here do open but that’s about the only advantage we could find.
If you want a bit more luxury, there are private VIP berths (4 bed sleepers) that can be booked through 12Go Asia. The companies that run them are Livitrans and Violette. This option is quite similar to the VNR sleepers with a bit more on-board service (a lamp, complimentary snacks etc.). Apparently, the price is quite a bit higher so unless you’re really desperate to be sleeping with other Westerners and not locals, there is no real reason to choose this option. For even more information and pictures, check out this detailed Blog.
At The Train Station
If you have arrived at the station and are looking to exchange a voucher for a ticket, don’t hand your ticket to anyone you don’t know. Always look for a desk with the official logo of the company you booked through. Tourists have been extorted for money after handing their tickets over to people who claimed to be ‘employees’ of one company or another.
Stations have metal chairs to sit down on, small shops with snacks and souvenirs and ticket counters. TV screens show the departure time of each train and the track it will be on. Toilets are available but their cleanliness and availability of toilet paper is highly questionable. If you are even the slightest bit squeamish, best to go before you arrive at the station.
You will most likely not be able to walk out onto the platform until just before the train arrives – the doors will be closed and locked. You can spend your time in the waiting room, reading the interesting translations of the Vietnamese signs.
Note: We have seen quite a few people spit on the platforms at various stations. Keep an eye out for this when walking around and try to avoid it.
Getting On The Train
Just before the train arrives, an employee will open the doors leading out to the platforms and the stampede will begin. It is a bad rush of people to find their cabin and get on as quickly as possible. Keep calm and wait for the train staff to display the little tableaus that show each wagon’s number (if the train arrives without these, you won’t know which wagon yours is).
If your train is arriving on platform 2, don’t cross the tracks and wait on that platform. Once the train arrives, you will cross track 1 by foot with your suitcase and board from that side. There will be a staff member to help with your baggage but it will be a mad scramble to get everyone on as quickly as possible. Again, just stay calm and make your way through the madness.
Once you’re on the train, you’ll need to wheel your luggage down the narrow corridor, looking left at the different compartments until you find your number (displayed on ticket). Open the door and scoot in, and don’t be surprised if you see several blank faces staring back at you. You may have just woken someone up. Find a space for your suitcase, climb into or up into your bunk and relax.
Note: If you are sleeping on the top bunk, don’t expect a ladder. There will be a small foot peg that will need to suffice. You will have a small pillow and a blanket that can shield you from the freezing aircon.
You can bring up to 20kg of luggage with you although we have never seen anyone police this. If you’re in a sleeper, luggage can be stored under the bottom bunk. There is limited space here and barely enough room for four large suitcases so you might end up sleeping with your bags. There is overhead space for the top bunks but good luck lifting anything heavy up there.
Our experience has been that the sleeper cabins are not particularly clean and not particularly dirty. Expect a few stains on the bedsheets and lots of dust. We were also greeted with some used chewing gum and tooth picks beside the window. To maximise your comfort, check out our tips for bus travel here: LINK
The toilets on Vietnamese trains seem to have improved in recent years. Well, at least in some trains. It seems that there are now western-style, plastic toilets at one end of the train and squat toilets at the other end, although both are quite smelly and dirty. Expect splash back and strange marks, a feeling of discomfort and the inability to do more than a number one. Also, bring your own toilet paper, wet wipes and hand sanitizer. Always.
According to some, 2-minute-noodles, coffee and tea can be purchased on board. According to others, a whole variety of snacks is available. Many claim that there is no food available at all. Your best bet is to eat before you get on and take some snacks such as chips or muesli bars with you. In any case, it’s not comfortable to eat anything hot if you’re on the top bunk and there may not be anywhere to dispose of rubbish immediately.
While it is possible to sleep on Vietnamese trains, it won’t be the best sleep of your life. You might be disturbed by the snoring, coughing, farting, spitting or throat-clearing of passengers in your and other cabins. You may also be woken up by the blaring overhead announcements.
Nevertheless, once you settle in and get used to this, you should be able to catch 40 winks. Don’t worry about missing your stop. You can set an alarm for 10 minutes before your ETA to mentally prepare yourself, but the conductor will most likely check your cabin before arriving at the station to make sure those that need to go know about it. Conductors carry phones around that show them who needs to get off, where they need to disembark and from what cabin they are leaving.
In our experience, fellow passengers have been fine. They might look at you curiously and laugh in a friendly manner at your attempt to climb up to the top bunk. They might even offer you some snacks and have a chat with you if they can speak your language.
In the best (or worst) case, you will be up all night swigging beer and sharing stories with them. Apart from the loud bodily functions mentioned in the previous point, we never had any bad experience with fellow passengers. Nothing stolen, nothing damaged.
Getting Off The Train
Getting off is similar to getting on. If you want to be prepared, wake up 10 or 15 minutes before your ETA, get yourself ready and head out to the corridor with your luggage. There may be a queue of people here already waiting to disembark. Join them and be prepared to let people pass by as they walk up and down the train.
Once you arrive at the station, you’ll be hurried off the train with a staff member assisting you with your bags.
All in all, train travel a must-do in Vietnam, especially if you’re travelling by day and can enjoy the views from your window. You will see firsthand how many Vietnamese travel and you may even get to chat to some locals.