Visiting Vietnam? While flights within the country are very inexpensive, consider going from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by train! Here’s how we did it.
We love train travel, and couldn’t wait to try it out during our visit to Vietnam. Our plan to go from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City came together with surprising ease, allowing for multiple stops in several cities. This was a great way for first-timers to get an in-depth look at a fascinating and welcoming country.
It’s true domestic flights within Vietnam are relatively inexpensive and quick, but there is much more to see between the two main cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon). If you’re going to visit Vietnam, we highly recommend you consider going from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (or the reverse) on the train. Breaking up our journey into multiple stops created so many opportunities to get beyond the “often-seen” into a more realistic glimpse of day-to-day life.
Our first and main go-to resource for anything to do with train travel anywhere in the world is The Man in Seat 61, whose section about Vietnam is highly comprehensive. The information on this site includes timetables from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and recommendations which validated our instincts in wanting to slow down and see the country. You may also get information and updated timetables at Tong Cong Ty Duong Sat Viet Nam (DSVN) but not every part of this website converts in English (just choose the little Union Jack icon in the upper right corner when you navigate to an interior page, if you can). Booking tickets on the DSVN site is impossible for Westerners who do not have a Vietnamese-issued credit card.
While The Man in Seat 61 is our first informational resource, we used the Vietnam Railways System site to issue tickets for the individual stops from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Please note that this is not the “official” government site, but rather a booking agency. You will get double confirmations: one for receipt of your booking, and one for receipt of your payment. Printed copies can be shown to personnel to confirm your carriage and seat.
Types of Trains:
Vietnam trains are coded, and it’s helpful to know what you’ll be getting on a certain timetable. We booked SE trains, which are billed as a bit more modern and faster. Still, the condition of the trains and the seat-side amenities varied. We would have described none as new, although Seat 61 has indicated certain refurbishments are occurring. SE 1 and 3 trains supposedly make fewer stops than SE 5 and 7. Air temperature was relatively comfortable on each of the trains we took, and food and other refreshments were served at your seat and/or in a restaurant car.
TN class trains stop at all stops and not all are air-conditioned. This will add a lot of time to your itinerary, and you’ll be in an older carriage.
Types of Seats:
Pay attention to the types of seats offered: hard seat – nothing more than a wooden bench, soft seat – individual cushioned seats, hard sleeper – 6 berths per compartment, soft sleeper – 4 berths per compartment. For the longer distances, many travelers prefer to book night trains, thereby saving the cost of hotels. We’ve traveled on night trains by private compartment, which is arguably a bit more comfortable, and still our sleep suffered. Knowing this led to our decision to make day trips only.
Cost of Trips:
We were booking trips of one-day’s travel duration, two individual soft seats.
Hanoi – Hue was a very long day. We left at 9:00 am and arrived in Hue almost 14 hours later. With instructions provided by our hotel, we easily grabbed a taxi at the Hue station and were delivered to our hotel in about 15 minutes. While we generally try to avoid night arrivals, this couldn’t be helped and worked out fine. Cost per ticket: $45USD.
Hue – Dieu Tri (for Quy Nhon) – This was an 8-1/2 hour trip (8:56-17:26), with a ride from our Quy Nhon hotel awaiting us in the Dieu Tri station lobby. Cost per ticket: $35USD
Dieu Tri – Nha Trang – An easy-peasy 3 hour and 40-minute ride. Our Nha Trang hotel was five minutes by taxi from the train station. Cost per ticket: $27USD
Nha Trang – Saigon – Our 7-1/2 hour journey began at 8:35am, and arrival time was 4:05pm. Cost per ticket: $30USD
Total cost for two including taxes and fees: $284.96USD (for two people).
Experience On Board:
Amenities varied even in the SE class of trains. On all there was food delivery via cart, including a hot meal comprised of rice and meat or fish sauce, instant noodle packets and snacks such as sesame rice cakes, Pringles (boy, do the Vietnamese love their Pringles), local sweets. Bottled water, soda, hot coffee (beware, it’s the Vietnamese sweet coffee flavored with condensed milk, you’ll either love it or hate it) and tea are the beverage options.
The larger stations usually have a variety of food vendors, and many passengers carry their own food aboard. At least one stop allowed vendors on the train to sell food. They disembarked at the next stop, presumably to travel in reverse upon the opposite way’s arrival.
Overhead shelving is inconsistently sized, so you may or may not fit larger suitcases above you. There may or may not be luggage racks near the carriage entrances. In one case, we were able to stow large suitcases in an alcove; in another, they fit behind the last row of seats. We were grateful when there was sufficient room and a helping hand to give us a lift into the overhead. If you’re traveling with larger luggage, be ready to be flexible. Your fellow passengers will be traveling with a variety of baggage: we saw wrapped boxes, shopping bags, electronics and bulk foods, and even a bird in a large cage.
While Vietnam Railways launched a pilot onboard wifi program a couple years ago, we saw no evidence of it. Instead, we made good use of strong cellular signals and tethered other devices to our iPhones as necessary. There were electrical outlets nearby our seats on a couple trains, on others there were none to be found. Be prepared and power up your portable charging devices prior to boarding in order to ensure the use of your phone, tablet or laptop.
Don’t be afraid to book a train trip in Vietnam on your own. Tickets for the entire length of the Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City route become available 60 days in advance. Individual legs open at various times within the 60-day window. Sites like the Vietnam Railways System booking agency we used will take your information and deliver your tickets in person or via email once confirmations are acquired.
Likewise, don’t be afraid to email your accommodations to ask for information on transferring from the train station to hotel. At the very least, they will provide detailed information you can show to a taxi. Many will send a driver who will be waiting for you upon arrival. (It’s always fun to disembark and see somebody who has your name on a sign!)
Our trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by train ranks as one of the most memorable journeys in all our travels. Next time, we’d break up the itinerary into even smaller segments to stay in lesser-visited cities. While we are very happy with the segments we chose, now that we know the ropes we’re ready for an even deeper immersion.