After experiencing the sights and sounds of Hanoi (and maybe Sapa and Halong Bay, too), many backpackers will want to travel south down the Vietnamese coastline to the holiday resort towns of Danang and Hue. Furthermore, you could eventually get to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), which is the busiest city in the whole country. The most convenient and economic way to see all of these parts of Vietnam is to use the extensive rail network. Unlike neighbouring countries Laos and Cambodia, neither of which have a true public rail network, Vietnam’s railways are used to promote the country and tourists are encouraged to use its trains – especially the Reunification Express, which begins in Hanoi and terminates in Saigon, stopping at – or near – all of the major cities aforementioned enroute. In fact, you can’t call yourself a real backpacker until you’ve experienced train travel in Vietnam!
I found that obtaining tickets for Vietnamese train travel was a relatively easy affair. The ONLY recommended way of purchasing tickets online is with Baolau.vn. This is a travel agency that specialises in transportation tickets within Vietnam, yet not just trains, but for taxis, ferries, and airplanes, too! Baolau is recommended by Lonely Planet, Seat61, Vietnam Airlines, and Wikitravel, among others. It even has real-time availability of seats on trains, so you can plan ahead of where you can sit if you book it! Baolau accepts most international credit cards/debit cards – unlike the official Vietnam Railways website (which is useless anyway unless you can read Vietnamese) – and upon payment they send you an E-TICKET which you need to print off or show on your phone/tablet when boarding the train. It really couldn’t be easier!
Yet you need to realise that there is no such thing as a “multiple stop” ticket when travelling by train in Vietnam. You can only purchase tickets from A to B, or A to D (without getting off at B or C), therefore you need to closely think about your itinerary before buying tickets. If you are starting in Hanoi, like I did, and you want to get to Saigon in the south, then think about how many of the intermediate stops you want to get off at, as this will determine how many tickets you need to purchase! There’s no need to book 3 separate tickets (Hanoi-Hue, Hue-Danang, Danang-Saigon) unless you are literally just stepping off the train for a day, having a little look in the area, and then catching the next train the following morning. It may not cost much extra, but it’s completely pointless – Hue itself needs at least 3 days to fully appreciate.
From Hanoi to Danang, I found that it cost $53 for a soft bed in a 4-berth cabin, and from Danang to Saigon it cost $63 for the same. That’s $116, but it’s still considerably cheaper than a nonstop domestic flight with Vietnam Airlines. Fares fluctuate slightly (seemingly by up to $10) depending on the season and on a sale-and-demand basis. If you’re travelling as a couple or in a group, then these 4-berth cabins will be brilliant for you and are unquestionably worth the outlay. As a solo traveller, you will be with a few complete strangers for the journey, but the Reunification Express is known as being a relatively safe train, although common sense is still required when you go to sleep. I found that in the sleeper cabins, it was mainly foreign tourists (plenty of Westerners and Chinese), whereas the local Vietnamese people – presumably with less cash to splash – dominate the “hard” cabins. These standard cabins (some do have soft seats) typically cost around $40 from Hanoi to Danang, and $45 from Danang to Saigon, which is cheaper than the sleeper cabins, but not really by enough to make me want to try it myself! But you will need to decide what scenario best suits your needs.
I wanted to see Hue and Danang, so effectively I had to book 2 separate tickets: Hanoi to Danang, and Danang to Saigon. Hoi An does not have a train station (get there from Danang), and Hue can also be visited from Danang, via the perennial backpacker-favourite Hai Van Pass on a moped (or taxi, if you’re not brave enough!). This means doubling back on yourself to Danang a couple of times, but the central part of Vietnam is so beautiful that you should try to stay there for a little while, rather than just passing through on the train. When you’re done in this region, head to Danang train station and continue south to Saigon – with another ticket, remember?!
Depending on what time your train pulls in to Saigon Station, you may want to head straight to your hotel or hostel. Saigon can be very busy and uncomfortable for a foreigner (even compared to Hanoi) and you need to keep your wits about you. Yet, when you’ve stretched your legs and recovered from the long train journey, you can rejoice in knowing that the Mekong Delta is nearby, which gives a great insight and cultural experience in how regular Vietnamese people live their lives. These kind of people probably won’t have ever been on such a long train ride like the one you have just completed, but they can show you how to row a boat! Full steam ahead!