With cities hundreds of miles apart, it’s understandable so many are tempted to catch flights to get the most out of Vietnam. However, the delightfully old-school railway is an experience in itself. If you’re looking for a more sustainable way to see Vietnam’s cities while enjoying some breathtaking scenery, consider riding the rails.
Vietnam is a vast country, with so much beautiful countryside to see along the way. If you want to make the most of your trip while cutting down on your carbon footprint, then consider a train journey around the country. The trains might not all be five-star luxury – but what could be better than an affordable, meandering journey through lush scenery and a place to sleep? Here’s a guide to train travel in Vietnam and some of the mesmerising destinations to hop off at along the way.
The main Reunification Express route – covering the 1,726km (1,073 mi) between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) – means a journey that likely starts or ends with one of these two must-see cities. It’s also known as the North-South railway line. You probably won’t want to do the whole journey at once, but technically you could with 33 hours on a sleeper train.
Make your start in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s hyperactive economic centre. You’ll want to spend at least a couple of days getting lost in this traffic-heavy jungle of street food stalls, rooftop bars and knock-out restaurants and museums. But after the hustle and bustle becomes too much, head to the main Saigon Station in district 3, and catch the train.
For a short and easy trip to the coast, the Reunification Express train stops at Binh Thuan in under four hours from HCMC. It’s straightforward to get a taxi from the station to Mui Ne, a beautiful laid-back coastal town. Relax at this popular resort spot, stroll over sand dunes and soak up the scenery – along with other city-dwellers searching for some peace.
If you want more beach parties to accompany your sun-lounging, head to popular resort town Nha Trang. It takes a long time to reach, over eight hours from Ho Chi Minh City and 10 hours south from central hub Da Nang. But then again, the town is perfectly located for breaking up a cross-country journey. With amazing restaurants, historical sites and even spas to relax in, it’s worth the trip in itself. With a friendly, backpacker vibe, you’re sure to meet other passengers on the same type of journey as you too.
The ‘city of bridges’ Da Nang has been voted the most liveable city in Vietnam and with its fresh air and well-organised streets, it’s easy to see why. It’s also a great halfway point and a good base for exploring this enticing area – replete with mountains, coastline and ruins. From Da Nang, there’s easy access to visiting My Son Sanctuary, a UNESCO-protected site of over 70 ancient temples as well as famous beaches, like An Bang beach. And, of course, Hoi An, the gorgeous picture-postcard heritage town, 30km (18.6mi) away which is worth a few days’ stay.
Hue is on the list of many tourists travelling the length of the country and stopping here is the best way to get a dose of imperial history in your itinerary. Hue has an atmospheric, crumbling charm and provides the opportunity to imagine life in the times of emperors while wandering around palaces, pagodas and mausoleums. Hue is stop on the Reunification Express, but a number of private companies, such as the Livitrans Express and Violette trains, also run from Hanoi – meaning you could splash out on a more modern sleeper if you’re travelling south this way.
A stop that’s not far from Hanoi, Ninh Binh could be experienced as a day trip from the capital or rushed through on the way north, but with its out-of-this world landscapes and secluded temples, you might want to stay a bit longer. Known as ‘Ha Long Bay on land’ the peaceful area has rocks jutting out of the flat earth, as well as gorgeous lakes to boat across and paddy fields to walk through.
A bustling capital city with a slightly less frenetic energy than Saigon, but all the better for its invitation to sip iced coffee and amble to different sites, Hanoi is the first (or final) destination at the top of the Reunification Express route. But Hanoi also connects travellers with several other popular destinations via train with routes up to Sapa, Ha Long and even on into China.
From Hanoi you can catch a deluxe eight-hour overnight train to Lao Cai, the gateway to Sapa, and wake up in this mountainous region. Sapa pulls in tourists who want to trek or bike through its rolling hillsides and cascading rice fields, and is the perfect place to experience a calm rural way of life.
Train booking can be done via Vietnam Railways or Asia travel site Baolua, which includes both state and private trains. Train carriages are generally air-conditioned and prices are cheap enough to go for the comfiest, most luxurious option.
A regular food trolley selling iced coffee and street food staples can be found on the Reunification Express, but you’ll probably want your own snacks too. On sleeper trains bedding and pillows are provided but you might want to bring extras like earbuds or eye-masks for a really comfortable journey.