Slow travel – from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by train

How to plan a train trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City

When I planned my recent trip to Vietnam, it was always with the intention of taking the train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. I am a self-confessed lover of train travel! To travel slowly is a gift. Travelling by train I see more of a country than I would from a plane and, as with this trip, I am also more likely to travel with local people.

To plan my trip, I had to answer a few questions about how this journey could happen.

Where to begin!

My go-to website for all things train related is The Man in Seat 61. Here I knew I could find the answer to my questions:

  • How long did the journey take from Hanoi to Saigon?
  • Could I book a ticket in advance from outside of Vietnam?
  • What sort of berths are available?
  • Was it safe to travel on my own?
  • How much did it cost?
  • Could I break up the journey and hop on and off on one ticket?

The answers in order are:

  • It takes just over 30 hours from Hanoi to Saigon
  • Yes, it is easy to book a ticket in advance from the UK, and I did it online before I left
  • All sorts of berths – hard or soft sleeper and 4 or 6 berth
  • Yes, it was fine to travel on my own
  • I paid just over £50.00
  • If you want to break up the journey and stop off, you need to buy separate tickets for each stage of the trip.

Departing Hanoi

On the day of travel, I arrive at Hanoi station about half an hour before the train is due to leave. I am leaving Hanoi at 1930 on Monday night and will arrive in Saigon station at 0439 on Wednesday morning. I board the train not knowing who my fellow travellers will be. I have booked 1 berth in a 4 berth compartment. Part of the enjoyment of travelling is to meet and share experiences with local people.

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Hanoi Station

As we pull out of Hanoi station the only other person in the compartment is a Vietnamese man who is travelling to Saigon loaded up with goods to sell. The train crawls slowly through the suburban landscape of Hanoi, and gradually the lights become more dispersed until we slip into semi-, then the total darkness of the countryside. The snack trolley comes through the carriage, and the man in my compartment buys me a can of soft drink. At the next couple of stops, a lady and her young daughter and two other women board the train and take the other 3 berths in the compartment. The Vietnamese man moves his goods and himself out into the corridor and takes up residence in a seat near the guard.

Compartments and travelling companions

I stand in the corridor and watch the dark scenery pass by until everyone in the carriage decides it is time for sleep. The compartments are of a good standard. Regarding the layout, there is a fixed table between the two lower berths. The beds, which are simple and comfortable, do not convert to seats during the day. Each berth has a plug socket so you can recharge electrical equipment. There is storage space under the bed.

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4 berth compartment

At the end of the carriage are two wash basins that are always clean and always stocked with soap. I spend a lot of the time standing just outside the compartment in the corridor watching the changing landscapes.

Food

At some of the station stops, there is the opportunity to jump out and buy refreshments from the stallholders on the station platforms. Two of the women I am sharing the compartment with jump out to get photos of themselves at these stops, sometimes cutting it fine to reboard the train! All smiles and laughter they request that I take pictures of them sitting back in the carriage enjoying the food they have purchased. I happily oblige.

It is also possible to buy meals on the train. You purchase a pre-paid ticket that you then swap later in the day when the lunch trolley comes past. The main meal is the same at lunchtime and at dinner. It consists of a green tray that is filled with a selection of soup, vegetables,, meat and rice portions. In between the main meal service, a snack trolley comes through selling fresh fruit, crisps and boiled eggs. Tea, coffee and soft drinks are also available.

Once I have eaten my meal I stepped out of the compartment so that the lady travelling on the berth above mine can come down and eat her meal at the table.

 

At breakfast time I share my fruit with the woman travelling with her child and she, in turn, shares, with me, her potatoes and boiled eggs. She motions to me to peel the skin from the potato and to dip it, along with eggs into the salt and pepper mix she has with her.  It is a delicious exchange punctuated with many smiles. Her child is quite shy. However, it becomes apparent that the lady wants to take a picture of her daughter with me. I notice when I am standing in the corridor looking out of the window at the view that she is positioning her child in front of me while she takes a photo. As soon as I twig what they want to do, more smiles are exchanged, and I happily pose for the picture.

Scenery

One of the enjoyments of train travel is just whiling away hours gazing out of the window at the changing scenery.  There is something about the gentle speed of a train that relaxes me. The clunking noises, squeak of metal and the soft jolts all bring me a sense of joy.

The scenery on this trip changes throughout the day. From suburban Hanoi, we travel overnight, and I am awake well before we arrive at Hue. Hue is one of the main stops en route, and many people disembark here to go and spend time in the town. The scenery between Hue and Da Nang is spectacular as the train climbs up the coastal hillsides with the sea appearing at intervals along the way. As we climb up the hill, at regular intervals a guard emerges from a hut, to wave us through.

 

By the afternoon we have reached the flat plains, and verdant agriculture now dominates the landscape. Here are the paddy fields and the farmers in conical hats that are often shown in tourist brochures. The evening slips into a beautiful sunset. And a couple of hours later we all settle to sleep knowing that we will all be awake again early tomorrow for the arrival at Saigon station.

 

As the end of the thirty-hour journey approaches, the guard pops his head into our compartment to ensure I know we will arrive imminently at our final destination. I say goodbye to my travelling companions, and we all smile and wave as we set off toward our respective final destinations. I wonder what my companions are going to be doing in Saigon.

Sleepy passengers pour off the train and onto the platform and then sweep across a set of railroad tracks to the main station building. Despite the early hour, the front of the station is abuzz with motorcycle and vehicle taxis waiting to whisk people toward their final destination. I am assigned a cab and make my way to my hotel with a full day of sightseeing in Saigon ahead of me. I am hit by the heat and humidity. After the relative cool of Hanoi and 30 hours spent on an air-conditioned train, I am not ready for this wall of sticky heat!

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Saigon Railway Station

Reflections

This is an enriching train trip, and I highly recommend it. If you want to have the opportunity to meet and travel with local people, then book independently and be willing to share a compartment. So often when we travel, we look for authentic experiences where we are sharing ‘space’ with local people. It is something that you cannot recreate as part of a tour.

I already knew that the language of smiles and food will take you a long way when you travel. And I loved the fact that in our compartment we were all happy for each other to be part of the trip together. I was happy taking photographs of them, for them and in turn posing for some too! My fellow travellers ensured that I got my meal from the food trolley, and we all took care to keep the compartment clean and tidy throughout the trip. When people wanted to sleep this was respected, and the noise was kept to a minimum. And my abiding memory was of considerate, smiling and generous travelling companions.

I enjoyed the changing nature of the landscape as we journeyed south along The Reunification Line. Although I had been told to hope for a sunny day for the section between Hue and Da Nang, I was accepting that the weather would be whatever it was. The day was cloudy and the low clouds draped over the tops of the hills brought a dramatic moodiness to the passing landscape. It was perfect just as it was.

As we passed the trains heading from Saigon to Hanoi, I wondered whether the journey the other way would feel different…. maybe next time I visit Vietnam, I will start in the south of the country and then head north to find out.

3 thoughts on “Slow travel – from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by train

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