For my Vietnam trip, I had 2 main regions to cover – the Hanoi/Halong Bay area in the North, as well as the Central parts consisting of Hue and Hoi An. My Guesthouse recommended for me to take the train and handled all the bookings for me, so I didn’t actually give it much thought until I was in Vietnam itself.
I’d done train rides in Taiwan, France and Spain, including an ultra long one from Murcia (Southeast Spain) up to Montpellier (Southern France), but I haven’t had the chance to do a sleeper train, so I was honestly quite excited about this… here are some thoughts:
The train that I took was the Livitrans tourist carriage on an SE1 train. It’s a fancier class of train aimed at tourists and costs a little more than your usual soft sleepers in the train.
Hanoi -> Hue: The guesthouse charged me US$53 though it’s listed at US$49 on the Seat61.com site… The normal soft sleeper works out to about US$36)
Danang -> Hanoi: The guesthouse charged me US$63 though it’s listed at US$59 on the Seat61.com site… The normal soft sleeper works out to about US$40)
Even though it’s more expensive, there are perks – the carriages are usually at the ends of the train so you don’t get a million people walking past your cabin and as its name implies, it’s mostly filled with tourists. I’d read lots of stories about how you need to hug your belongings to sleep when you’re on a European train, and even then it might not be so secure, but no such feeling here! The cabin also comes with complimentary bottled water, cup noodles, a little nutty bar, toothbrush and wet tissue. The dark woody paneling gives it a more luxurious feel and the toilets in these carriages are quite decent for a train (sitting, proper flush).
Your bed is your seat for the entire journey – there isn’t a separate seat in another car, so for comfortable sitting as well as sleeping, try and get yourself a lower bunk, especially if you have a lot of luggage with you. There is space to put your luggage if you’re on an upper bunk, but lugging it up there is quite cumbersome! There are no ladders, just a little metal step conveniently placed in the middle of the wall to help you clamber up, and there’s less ceiling space so tall people might have more trouble trying to sit up there. The other option is making friends with your lower bunk mate so you can sit there till it’s time to sleep.
There are 4 bunks in the cabin with clean linen, a pillow and a thick blanket on each bed. Each bunk has its own reading light so you can stay up and read if you want to. There’s a little table on the window end with a rack of cups, as well as a convenient power source so you can use your laptop or charge your appliances (no wifi though!).
Hanoi to Hue
I had just returned from the Halong Bay trip at about 430pm, and my train was due to leave at about 7pm, so I had some time for a quick shower and dinner in between. Funny story about how I was convinced I was going to be late so I dashed out of the hostel to anearby restaurant for the quickest meal in the world. I packed it back to carry with me on the train, only to realize that I was still on Singapore time (1 hour ahead of Vietnam) and I actually had a whole hour to chill before leaving for the train station… pfft!
Hanoi Guesthouse arranged for my cab pick up to the train station, or Hanoi Ga. One of the guesthouse’s bellboys trailed behind me on his bike to make sure I was alright. He settled my cab fare, grabbed my luggage and helped me get my ticket. Then he showed me to my train, loaded me into my carriage and led me right to my assigned bed, and only left the train when he was satisfied that I was settled in. Really excellent service!
I had a British girl and a German couple in my cabin, and we spent quite a lot of the evening sitting on the lower bunks chitchatting the night away. The Brit girl also broke out a bottle of Vietnamese Vodka which sure helped to break the ice!
The train spent quite a lot of time passing through towns, and occasionally passing really close to buildings, so close you could touch them if you could open the window. After we got tired, we climbed into our own bunks, and I read and journalled a little before going to sleep. The train ride was pretty smooth overall, though fairly jerky in places. I whacked my head once against the bed light when the train jerked suddenly… ow! Still I managed a pretty good sleep without waking up too many times in the night.
The next morning, we were definitely in Central Vietnam – it was pretty gloomy overall and there was lots and lots of water where there was supposed to be land. Monsoon season in Central Vietnam means really major flooding… the train was also delayed by an hour – we had to go pretty slowly over certain areas because of all that water.
A whole throng of cab drivers and whatnot greeted us at the arrival gate so exiting the station was pretty chaotic, but my hotel had someone there to greet me at the station, and the sweet girl bundled me into a cab to take me to the hotel. I would miss the morning half of my Hue city tour from coming in late!
Overall I thought this wasn’t a bad option – it’s definitely more comfortable than taking a bus or a flight, and while flying is faster (there’s a flight to Danang that leaves about 9pm-ish), it’s more costly and troublesome as you need to take into account your 1hr transit to Noi Bai airport as well (Flight is about $US80, taxi to Airport about US$15). Taking the train, you don’t really lose that much time since you arrive in the morning, though full day tours can be a bit dicey if you encounter an unlikely delay like I did.
Total Time Taken: 14 hours (actual estimate 13 hrs, train was 1 hr late), 7pm – 9am
Danang to Hanoi
Danang is further down south from Hue, so it’s a longer journey back to Hanoi… something close to 16 hours! Unlike the Hanoi-Hue leg which was overnight, the Danang-Hanoi leg boards at about 12pm and ends up in Hanoi at 4am.
On the upside, there is a pretty good view along the way though, as it skirts the coastline and you have a beautiful sea view as you slowly wind your way back to Hanoi. The skies get dark pretty fast (about 530pm or so) so even though it wasn’t really night, it felt like it!
Not as many people take this train as the one compared to the one going from Hanoi to Hue. I thought I would be on my own, but there was an older Israeli couple in the cabin with me, and we were the only passengers taking the train from Danang. A few others got on at later stops, but much, much less people than the Hanoi-Hue where all the cabins were filled. My cabin-mates were friendly enough, but we mostly did our own thing. I caught up on a lot of journalling from Hue and Hoi An, as well as finished up my book.
I was pretty hungry – I had bought some Ritz Bits and M&Ms at the train station to tide me over for lunch, but as dinner approached, I was hungry for a little more. In search for food and to stretch my legs, I took a walk down the train from my carriage (#12) right down to #1 at the far end of the train. I got to see all the various types of carriages on the trains – the Livitrans carriage is really quite fancy compared to some of the other carriages. I came across several snack carts too, but they don’t have much of a selection, and nothing really caught my eye.
Later on though, one of the conductors came in to our cabin and offered a dinner coupon for 30,000 dong (that’s less than S$2). I bought one out of curiousity to see what they served on the train, and ended up with a packet of rice, meat, veggie and a green veggie soup served in a cup, which kept me full enough that I didn’t have to eat my complimentary cup noodles. It’s no Taiwanese Bian Dang, but still cheap and good enough to get you by a loooooong train ride.
I managed to get some sleep before we reached Hanoi Ga at 4am. Groggily, I hauled myself off the train, and found my Guesthouse rep with a little sign to greet me, right on the tracks as I emerged from the train! It was a different guy from before, but he was equally attentive as he bundled me into the cab and got me back to the guesthouse. Unfortunately the guesthouse was full up that night (it was a Friday night) and there was no room available, so I was stuck sleeping on the hard wooden bench till the next morning…
Total Time Taken: 16 hours, 12pm – 4am
Jac’s Vietnam Train Tips
– For a comfortable journey, the Livitrans is definitely pretty worthwhile because it’s pretty clean and less noisy. If you’re on more of a budget though, the 4-bunk soft sleepers look quite decent as well. I wouldn’t do the 6-bunk ones though, the top bunk is reeeeeally close to the ceiling! The carriages with the seats are probably good enough for short journeys, but there are quite a lot of people packed in them and it can get really noisy. Check out Seat61.com’s Vietnam page for a detailed rundown and pix.
– Buy some food before the ride if you get peckish! There are lots of stores selling snacks, cup noodles and lunch boxes at the train station in case you forget to buy food earlier. There are very limited snacks in the train snack cart, and if you’re not used to local food, there isn’t much of an option.
– Flying, while more expensive and more cumbersome, might just be a better idea than taking the train in some cases. If I had to redo my itinerary, I would probably have flown my Danang-Hanoi leg instead of taking the train! While I did get to enjoy the view and stretch out and sleep, I was still stuck on the train for 16 hours and wasted a good day just idling.