Vietnam Railways runs the country's major train line, the 1600km-long Reunification Line, which connects Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam's two major cities. The Reunification Line was completed in 1936, with services running until 1954 when war divided the country. It wasn't then possible to catch a train from Hanoi to HCMC until 1976.
Vietnam Railways is the national train carrier with responsibility for maintaining the route but in these trains there are also carriages reserved by private transport operators who you need to contact directly to purchase a ticket or to reserve a seat.
Routes served by Vietnam Railways
Almost all the major destinations lie on, or close to, the Reunification Line so it's easy to get anywhere you might want to go in Vietnam. There are five trains connecting the capital city, Hanoi, and HCMC in the south, each and every day. However, a direct train between the two cities is very long, taking around 35 hours!
There is a wide range of tickets for all trips on this line from which you can choose depending or whether you want a seat or a sleeper, air-conditioning or a fan. Fares between Hanoi and HCMC start from VND907,000 for a seat, VND1,265,000 for a hard sleeper and VND1,423,000.
Before you reach HCMC, you'll pass Da Nang (15 hours journey time with seats starting at VND552,000 and berths in sleeping compartments from VND809,000) and Nha Trang (26 hours from Hanoi with seats from VND806,000 and sleeping berths from VND1,181,000).
Hanoi to Hue is a much shorter journey, taking around 13 hours. You can catch any train headed to HCMC and they will all stop at Hue as it is one of the most popular towns in the country. Ticket prices start from VND462,000 for a seat, VND755,000 for a hard sleeper berth and VND849,000 for a soft sleeper. For all trips, the fare will be the same in either direction.
From Hue you can then catch a train to Da Nang in just three hours, costing VND67,000 for a seat, VND94,000 for a hard sleeper and VND106,000 for a soft sleeper. Further afield lies Nha Trang which takes around 13 hours to reach by train with tickets at VND414,000 (seat), VND577,000 (hard sleeper) and VND649,000 (soft sleeper).
HCMC is still a distant 20 hour ride away from Hue, priced at VND666,000 for seats and from VND957,000 for a berth in a sleeping compartment.
If you're travelling from HCMC you can reach Nha Trang in about eight hours, with tickets priced from VND297,000 for a seat and VND469,000 for a berth in a sleeper carriage.
HCMC to Da Nang take around 20 hours and is priced at VND617,000 (seat), VND889,000 (hard sleeper) and VND999,000 (soft sleeper).
If you're planning on visiting some of the smaller stations, such as Ninh Binh, always check the schedule as not every train will stop there. The train from Hanoi to Ninh Binh takes around two hours with prices from VND77,000 (seat), VND111,000 (hard sleeper) and VND126,000 for a soft sleeping berth.
Of course, Vietnam Railways also provides services beyond the Reunification Line. For example, you can catch a train from Hanoi to Haiphong to travel onward to Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island. There are three trains a day to Haiphong, taking around three hours for VND60,000.
Alternatively, you will almost certainly want to visit Sapa. Although the town doesn't have its own train station, it is around 40km from Lao Cai and there are plenty of buses heading to Sapa. There are four trains per day from Hanoi to Lao Cai, taking around nine hours, with seats from VND116,000 and sleeper berths from VND295,000.
If you are in HCMC and fancy some beach time you can head to Mui Ne by catching a train to Binh Thuan and then travelling an hour onwards by bus. HCMC to Binh Thuan takes around four hours and costs from VND130,000.
If you have the time then train travel is the best way to get around Vietnam. It's more interesting than travelling by bus and you can see a lot more of the country.
Plus, it's brilliant value for money, there's no other mode of transport where you can travel from Hanoi to HCMC for under a million dong. These trains are an experience you should have at least once during your time in Vietnam, although it might take longer, it's more interesting than flying everywhere! Plus, it will save you a night’s accommodation.
Overall, these services are pretty comfortable. Previously, carriages maintained by Vietnam Railways were considered inferior to some of the ones run by private operators but this is no longer the case and these carriages are usually of a similar standard.
Throughout the journey you'll be offered very tasty, cheap food by vendors wandering up and down the carriages. It's definitely worth trying what's on offer, after all, it's all part of the experience.
If you're potentially spending almost two days on a train, then it's essential that there are charging ports throughout the carriages. This will help keep you entertained and ensure that once you arrive you are able to contact anyone or book a hotel.
Delays are common and the journey is often very long and slow so you should take this into consideration when planning your trip. For example, if you're only in the country for a couple of weeks it won't be much fun spending a whole day sitting on a slow train.
The air-conditioning is not always the best quality, but unfortunately, this is the case with pretty much all of the operators in Vietnam. Probably a more important issue is the fact that there are no announcements when you're arriving into a station so make sure you pay attention or find out when you're due to arrive so you can set an alarm to wake you up.
Keep in mind
It's very easy to book tickets with Vietnam Railways whether you choose to do this in person or online.
Families travelling with children will be pleased to hear that children aged below four years old can travel for free, whilst those between five and nine years old get a 25% discounted fare.
Visitors were really pleased about the price of train travel in Vietnam, it's the cheapest way to see the country and is incredibly easy to navigate. Due to the narrow shape of the country, most of the main tourist sites are along the Reunification Line so it is an ideal way of getting around.
The main issues that customers have with Vietnam Railways tend to be the cleanliness of the carriages. For example, the bathrooms are often unpleasant and way below the standards you'd expect on public transport in western countries, this can be especially problematic if you're on the train for ten or more hours as you won't be able to avoid going. Another issue some visitors highlight is that the bedding isn't always changed during the journey. If you board at either Hanoi or HCMC, then your bedding will be fresh, however, if you catch the train at Hue then the bedding may not have been changed after the traveller who was previously in your bunk has left.