After arriving in Ho Chi Minh City by bus from Phnom Penh we looked at a map and realised that it was quite a long way from there Hanoi – more then 1500km in fact. Speaking to friends from home, travellers we met and researching online we did not have the highest impression of bus travel in Vietnam. We heard stories of bad roads, ‘interesting’ drivers and poor vehicles and, when combined with the distances between the places we wanted to visit, we weren’t particularly keen to try them out.
Fortunately Vietnam has an excellent railway system that seems fairly well geared up for tourists. Further research showed that all of our stops between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi were along the main line that runs from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
We discovered a fantastic resource with all the information you need for travelling by train in Vietnam (as well as many other countries) at Seat61. Using this site we were able to work out which train to get and what class of ticket (Soft Sleeper, Hard Sleeper, Soft Seat, Hard Seat A/C and Hard Seat) would be best for us. To save the hassle of going to the train station to get tickets in advance, all of the hotels we stayed at in Vietnam were able to arrange them for us, for a small commission.
Our first train journey was aboard the SE2 train from Ho Chi Minh City to Danang (the nearest station to Hoi An). The train departed HCMC at 1900 and arrived in Da Nang around midday the following day. We opted for top bunk soft sleeper tickets at a price of 1,098,000VND (approx £32) each – not bad for a 19 hour journey! The soft sleeper cabins contain four berths, whereas the hard sleeper cabins contain six berths.
We arrived at the station just over an hour before our train was due to depart. We discovered that working out which train is the one you are after is quite easy as there is usually a long gap (more than 20 minutes) between trains departing. We were able to board our train around 40 minutes prior to departure, found our coach and cabin easily, stowed our bags under the bottom buns and than got ourselves comfortable on our top bunks before the other two people we would share our 4-berth cabin with arrived. We shared with two Vietnamese ladies for the majority of the journey, but at some stage during the night they got off and a Vietnamese man joined our cabin instead. If you book a bed on a sleeper train then you get a sheet, duvet and pillow provided and they are changed between different people using the same bed. We arrived in Da Nang around 40 minutes late and were met by our prearranged driver for the 45 minute drive to Hoi An.
After 5 days in Hoi An we took the SE2 train north from Da Nang to Hue. We had booked soft seats for this early afternoon journey as we didn’t really need beds and we thought they would offer the best view of the stunning views we passed. We booked the tickets through our hotel at a cost of 81,000VND (approx £2.30), plus commission, for the two and a half hour journey.
The train pulled into Da Nang station late and only stopped for five minutes so it was quite a scramble as people were trying to get off at the same time as more people were trying to get on – they haven’t really heard of queueing here! Getting on the train was only part of the fun as we then had to try to find somewhere to stow our big backpacks. Lindsay’s was narrow enough to fit on the overhead racks but mine was a bit too fat (probably due to the clothes we had made in Hoi An). We ended up just laying my bag down in the aisle and pushing it to one side so that people could squeeze through.
Despite our seat numbers being sequential our seats were not next to each other – we had one either side of the aisle. This actually worked out better as it meant we could both stash stuff in the aisle. In the photo below you can see that the seats do recline. However, they don’t all recline how you would like them to. My seat is fully reclined back and I wasn’t able to adjust it. The seat next to me was fully forward and was adjustable, although it wouldn’t stay in the position it was set to. Every time the guy next to me moved his seat pushed him forwards! This section of the train line hugs the coast and the views are simple stunning – the train journey is worth it for the views alone. The train arrived into Hue late and we were again met by a prearranged driver to be taken the short drive to our hotel.
We had three nights in Hue and then we were on the move north again. We booked lower berth soft sleeper tickets on the SE2 train to Hanoi through our hotel at a price of 883,000VND (approx £25.60) for the thirteen and a half hour journey.
We left Hue shortly before 1500 (the train was supposed to depart at 1435 but was running late) and settled in to our cabin. We had a bottom berth each and it turned out that we had the cabin to ourselves for the entire journey! It is possible to buy food and drink on the train but for each of our journeys we had purchased supplies in advance. These normally consisted of water, Pringles and Oreos, but this time we had treated ourselves to bakery goods from little French bakery in Hue (see the Hue post for more details). We spent the afternoon reading and chatting before getting some sleep overnight. Having a bed meant we were refreshed and ready to do battle with the taxi drivers upon our arrival in Hanoi at five o’clock in the morning!
We had travelled the length of the country by train and would highly recommend it. The trains are clean, comfortable and very reasonably priced, and you don’t have to worry about the quality of the road or the bus driver falling asleep! The beds weren’t quite long enough for us but we still managed to get some decent sleep on each of the overnight trains we took.
We also took sleeper trains from Hanoi to Sapa and back. These trains weren’t quite up to the high standard of the trains we had caught from the south, but they were good nonetheless.