Day 29-30: Vietnam Railways from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City Part 1

Frequent trains run along the North-South railway line between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Sometimes incorrectly known as the Reunification Express by foreigners, no one will understand this when booking your tickets, and none of the five daily trains, nor any Vietnamese trains at all, bear such a name, or even any name at all.

I booked my ticket online around 2 months before my journey at Baolau, as the official Vietnam Railways website does not accept foreign credit cards for booking. Baolau has a similar booking system as the official website, including giving you the option to select your seat or berth. You can also book your tickets through 12Go Asia, but you will not be able to select your exact seat or berth.

If you haven’t got your ticket online, you can book it in person from the ticket offices at any station. In Hanoi Railway Station, there is an English-speaking staff in the tourist counter. Don’t worry, it’s not a scam or a misunderstanding when they ask you to go inside the counter itself to book your ticket, as the computer is positioned differently there and there is only one staff to man the tourism office and ticket sales in English.

If you have booked your ticket online through the official Vietnam Railways website, Baolau or 12Go Asia, you can collect your hardcopy ticket from these self-service machines if you would like a souvenir. Vietnam Railways accept the original ticket emailed to you in .pdf format flashed on your phone or tablet, or printed out from home.

The boarding area is in front of the main entrance.

Look out for your train information over here. My train is the SE3, departing from Track 1.

I got this overview shot of the tracks of Hanoi Railway Station because I messed up when checking the board, and went to Track 7 for the SP3 instead. Luckily, there were attendants to check tickets in front of every coach’s door before boarding, similar to China, so I was sent back to SE3 at Track 1 by the SP3 attendant. It could potentially be a disastrous mistake for me, ending up running up north to Lao Cai, if no one found out before the train departed.

Back at Track 1 where my correct SE3 is stabled.

The overview of the Soft Sleeper compartment.

My lower berth.

The lower berth comes with a 2-pin power socket.

The upper berth. I did not spot a power socket around the upper berth.

I had originally wanted to try out the Hard Sleeper which was similar to the Soft Sleeper with 6 berths per compartment instead, but since it was a long journey, and the difference was minimal, I opted to go for the best class there was.

I shared the compartment on the first night with a local Vietnamese on the opposing bottom bunk, who spoke to me in almost-perfect English and he mentioned that he worked in Singapore before. He was on his way to Vinh city, a journey of just 319 kilometers and 5 hours. He said that the Soft Seats and Hard Sleepers were sold out and no way was he going to ride in Hard Seat. Late bookers, beware.

Above me were two Westerners, whom I shall not name their nationality, complaining about the train ride 5 minutes before departure. They were complaining to each other that they should have flown, since the price difference was not much to Da Nang (I doubt so), but yet they want to experience the railway. I didn’t join the conversation. Anyway, they probably thought that I was Vietnamese and didn’t understand them, till the Vinh guy and I conversed in English.

My advice to you readers is, if you know you can’t do it, don’t ride the train for long distances as your first experience. Why experience a journey you know you can’t handle just because others say it’s worth it. You won’t sacrifice eating your favourite food in the world even if everyone else dislikes it right?

Waking up the next morning travelling through paddy fields.

I walked to the restaurant car since the trolley service had probably ended already. I heard the restaurant car staff’s voices fade away as I slowly got up to brush my teeth.

Some phở bò (pronounced as fur bur, please) or beef noodle soup for breakfast.

I wanted the fried beef noodles but the lady said it was not available.

The interior of the restaurant car. Notice that the kitchen takes up the whole width of the coach – there is no walkthrough in the restaurant car, and hence is located at the end of the train.

Here are some photos of how the other classes on board the SE3 look like:

The cheapest option, Hard Seat, is air-conditioned on this train. It was crowded with live entertainment through someone else’s radio. The passengers could potentially not bother about the assigned seating, but I’m not sure.

Now I understand why Vinh guy doesn’t want to ride in here last night.

Soft Seat reclines quite a bit, comfortable if you’re sleeping but possibly annoying in the day when you wish to sit up should the person in front of you wants his seat down.

I have seen the Hard Sleeper coaches, both refurbished and otherwise, and it looks exactly like the Soft Sleeper, except that there are six berths and the mattress thickness was slightly thinner, similar to KTM’s ADNS mattresses.

Stopping at a local station. I like the idea of completely tiling up the station, including the track area, creating more platform space for everyone and making crossing the lines safer with the huge presence of both train and station staff and easier for passengers with luggage.

More fields.

Lots of beautiful rivers.

Rounding a bend while lunch trolley service is in progress.

I did not know this at first, since the compartment menu does not state the menu items, but when I saw how the locals ordered after I got my food, they ordered it in mixed vegetables rice-style.

And because I didn’t know, but the other passengers did, they had a nice plate of dishes but I had just a basic chicken and vegetable meal, and a cup of soup. The lady only asked me “Chicken okay?”.

Stopping at a rural station on a nice S-bend, probably just for operational or safety reasons, before we enter the scenic line before Da Nang.

The line north of Da Nang offers one of the world’s best views as seen from on board a train, undisputed by all travelers who have done this journey before.

A mix of forests and beaches in a bay, with the city skyline at the far end.

Lots of tight curves are negotiated along this line. The trains runs slower, but it allows for great photos to be taken out of the window. I didn’t manage to get the window open though, the photos would have been nicer if I could.

And believe it or not, my two Western neighbours were in the compartment the whole time, one reading and one sleeping. Seriously, just fly next time.

Absolutely stunning views of Lăng Cô from the train. My camera does not do any justice to the view.

Finally able to see the front of my train.

The bay of Vinh Nam Chon.

Crossing the Cu De River on a low bridge.

The train makes a stop at Da Nang, where many passengers get off and new ones get on for the onward journey to Ho Chi Minh City.

Da Nang is a station on a terminal line, similar to Butterworth in Malaysia. There is a wye junction before the terminal. The locomotive runs around and re-attaches to the now-front end of the train, and the train changes direction from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City.

More fields.

There is also a dinner trolley service, with dishes that look better than lunch, but I ate the instant noodles and snacks that I bought in Hanoi, since I wanted to lighten my bag. Hot and room temperature drinking water is available in all coaches.

Sunset on board the SE3.

Another rural station at evening time.

IMPORTANT: The information listed in this post is current. However, the information in the next post is outdated. I will still blog about the outdated experience as it was an actual part of my journey.

My journey took place at the time when services to Ho Chi Minh City were distrupted due to a barge hitting the Ghenh Bridge in Bien Hoa, causing part of it to collapse, and I was required to transfer to a transshipment bus and train to reach Ho Chi Minh City. Services between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and all services operating to and from Ho Chi Minh City, are now operating normally.

Read Part 2 of the journey (outdated) here.


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