Experience Train Travel in Vietnam or Not – Keynotes & Guide to Decide

Experience Train Travel in Vietnam or Not – Keynotes & Guide to Decide

Train travel in Vietnam has a long history dated 19th century under French colonial time. Today, railway system in Vietnam belongs to government ownership and operated by Vietnam Railways Cooperation (VR). The train switched to travel-related purposes is now most popular with 2 routes: Hanoi to Sapa (actually Lao Cai railway station is 35 km from Sapa town), about 296km long with 111km curving; and Hanoi to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city), barely 1730km along the length of Vietnam.

Vietnam train and railway’s key technical information

Vietnam is one among a few countries currently using narrow track gauge – that means the width between two rails is only 1,000mm - while US and most EU countries use standard track gauge, 1,435 mm. There is a minority of countries still operating narrow gauge railway systems including Japan and Australia for instance. The narrow gauge is best for the low population density between stations, many curves along the tracks and not requiring high speed transfer. In Vietnam, it was cheap and quick to build during French colonial time and moreover, it was very suitable for the typical feature of Vietnam geography – that stretches along various attitudes with most of the topographical map is highlands and mountains.

Today, among many train tracks departing from Hanoi and Saigon such as: Hanoi – Sapa, Hanoi – Saigon, Hanoi – Hai Phong, Saigon – Loc Ninh, etc, Hanoi – Sapa and Hanoi – Saigon are the most popular ones for travel-related purposes. The others are mainly used for heavy commodity transfers, such as ore, oil, petroleum, etc, from big cities to main seaports or border gates.

The distance between Hanoi and Sapa (Lao Cai) station is 296 km in approximately 8 – 9 hours, and from Hanoi to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) is about 30 hours for up to 1730 km. The departure for tourists are often operated at night time such as Hanoi to Sapa from 8.30pm to 9.50pm, and Hanoi to Saigon from 7pm to 11pm. The timetable is relatively similar to the reversed schedule. Each train often consists of 11 – 15 carriages, 1 - 2 dining carriages and 1 commodity carriage (for big, heavy luggage or even motorbikes). Since 2014, VR has applied a new electronic ticketing system that allows you to book tickets and pay online. A booking code will be sent to your email or phone numbers (Vietnamese phone numbers).

Vietnam Railways' official website for online train ticket booking - dsvn.vn

Look into details of Hanoi – Sapa and Hanoi – Saigon trains

Hanoi to Sapa train departs from Gate B of Hanoi Railway stations (at Tran Quy Cap street), traverses through night, and arrive in Lao Cai station early morning of the next day; from here you need 01 more hour car transfer to Sapa town. Then it is often called Hanoi – Sapa train. The train to Sapa is coded as SP plus odd number for Hanoi to Sapa and even number for Sapa to Hanoi, e.g. SP1, SP2, SP3, etc.

VR allows private sectors to invest into some carriages of each SP train with their own standards, e.g. mattress, wooden floor and walls, pillow, blanket, folded or unfolded beds, flower and snack set up that makes of different firms of Sapa trains: Sapaly, King express, Fansipan express, Livitrans, etc. The most expensive and luxurious carriages belong to Victoria group that only serves in-house passengers of Victoria Sapa resort at the price up to 80 US$/ticket/way. For ActiveTravel ASIA’s customers, we mostly use deluxe and comfortable cabins of Fansipan Express and Sapaly thanks to their good rates and very nice, comfortable carriages (from 30 to 40 US$/ticket/way). No matter how luxurious the carriage is, the size of each cabin leading to the sizes of beds, and the slight shaking of the last carriages from the locomotive are unchangeable.

Hanoi to Sai gon train, the longest train track of Vietnam and a part of Asian international railways departs from Gate A of Hanoi railway station. This train completely belongs to VR with limited investment from private sectors (we have just seen the part from Nha Trang to Sai gon only). Stopovers en route include but not limited to Hanoi, Ninh Binh, Quang Binh (Phong Nha), Hue, Danang, Dieu Tri (Hoi An), Phu Yen, Khanh Hoa (Nha Trang), Binh Thuan (Mui Ne) and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city). The carriages are clean and have non wooden coverage. The ticket price is various depending on distances between stations. The most picked routes are Hanoi Danang with around 50US$/ticket/one-way, Danang – Nha Trang with around 35$/ticket/one-way, Nha Trang – Saigon with around 30$/ticket/one-way and Hanoi – Saigon with around 75$/ticket/one-way.

All our passengers will be allocated for 4 soft berth sharing cabins. The cabin charter booking is available that results in buying all 4 tickets. The cabin has air-conditioning, comfortable, clean blankets and pillows, and is lockable from the inside. There are two 2-spin sockets at the lower bunks and reading lights at the front of each bunk. The toilet is installed at the front of each carriage with water flushing style. Hot tea, coffee, bottled water and snacks are available to buy from small strollers by VR staff. The prices are often higher than usual.

Inside a soft berth cabin of King Express (Hanoi - Sapa train)


Inside a seat cabin of North-South train (Hanoi - Saigon)

Train travel vs other modes of transportation

Vietnam railways is the sole organization controlling the train operation and services in Vietnam. Even though they have applied many efforts to improve the service quality recently, VR has been facing with the very tough competition from airlines and Highway Express systems. The rapid increase in market share of cheap airlines, e.g. Vietjet Air and big discount campaigns by Vietnam Airlines makes a big portion of passengers picking the air transfer instead, that is much faster but now as cheap as train travel. That situation has been typically seen on the routes: Hanoi – Danang, Danang – Saigon, Hanoi – Saigon and vice versa, where the price of train tickets are unremarkably cheaper than air tickets.

In the north where Hanoi – Lao Cai train is the most popular and Lao Cai does not have a civil airport, train travel is now facing with a very forceful competition from the newest Highway Express that shortens the duration down to 5.5 hours vs 8 – 9 hours by train. The road condition is good with clean stops for resting and toilet.

That is the technical and marketing keynotes. A traveler’s view, especially adventurous ones’, is somehow different. Traveling is to experience something exotic. ActiveTravel ASIA believes train travel in Vietnam still undoubtedly give experiences that you cannot find in your home any longer, especially in US and EU countries. Let’s imagine you were on Hanoi - Danang train, you were passing by the most stunning pass of Vietnam – Hai Van. The feelings of the mountain under the wheels, the sea overwhelming your eyes, the flowers colorfully covering the whole mountain slope would be absolutely awesome. The sound from a diesel locomotive and the slight shake in rhythm of carriages are definitely fun and enjoyable for those finding some throwback memories. We know none of other transport either air or road can offer those moments.

The train track on Hai Van pass

At ActiveTravel ASIA, particularly adventures in Vietnam, we decide to still keep train travel in our tours, e.g. tours to Sapa. The customized request is always available to change into road or air transfer or even combine them together. Please freely share with us your own experience of train travel in Vietnam or contact us for more information to decide the best kind of transportation that suits you.

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