There’s something about rail travel that makes it less stressful than flying or going by road; you don’t have to worry about being hi-jacked or having an accident at every bend of the journey. Thus many people choose this option above all others, and with over 2,000kms of track throughout Vietnam, travelling by train makes good sense.
The Vietnamese rail network is not extensive; there are no routes through the Mekong Delta or the Central Highlands, for example. However, the main line between Saigon and Hanoi passes through or near many of the country’s most popular destinations, such as Nha Trang, Da Nang and Hue.
In the north of the country, branch lines from Hanoi fan out east to Haiphong (near Ha Long Bay), northeast to Dong Dang (for onward travel to China) and northwest to Lao Cai, which is the easiest way to visit Sa Pa and other towns in the Tonkinese Alps.
There are various classes on Vietnamese trains – hard seat and soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper, with prices reflecting the degree of comfort offered. Most foreign visitors would not be comfortable in a hard-seat compartment, which can get very crowded, and usually opt for a soft seat or soft sleeper for longer journeys.
Travelling by train can be a great way of getting to know the Vietnamese, particularly on long journeys such as the Hanoi-Ho Chi Minh City route, which takes between 30-40 hours. It’s also a good way of seeing something of the countryside, as well as sampling tasty snacks from food vendors who hop on and off.
A couple of potential problems to watch out for are bag snatchers who target individual travellers, pouncing while they sleep, and kids throwing stones at the windows. Fortunately the conductors know which stretches of track to look out for and will usually ask passengers to close windows while passing these pockets of hostility.
Because of its popularity, train travel should be booked some days in advance to guarantee the class of seat you want. While prices are quite reasonable, the fare wars among budget airlines makes flying almost as cheap these days.