Vietnam is blessed with a rail system that spans the length of the country, traveling from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south to the border with China in the north. The network is charmingly called “the Reunification Express”; the tourist destinations of Sapa in the northwest and Ha Long Bay in the northeast are accessible by rail, as are the cities of Hue, Hoi An, and Da Nang in central Vietnam.
Having tried the efficient (but cramped) Jetstar budget airline to travel from Saigon to Hanoi, I decided to attack the central leg of my Vietnam trip, the 420-mile Hanoi-Hue route, by rail. (Read our suggested eight-day itinerary of Vietnam.)
Buying my Vietnam Train Ticket at the Hanoi Station
Unlike with Jetstar and Vietnam Airlines, rail tickets are hard to procure when outside Vietnam, unless you can get one through a travel agent on the inside (I didn't know any, and I felt the going rate was just too expensive).
I decided to avoid the middleman and purchase my ticket in Hanoi.
As you enter the Hanoi central train station on 120 Le Duan Street, look for the ticketing offices to the extreme left. The booths sell tickets for all train classes, but one booth in particular sells tickets for Livitrans, a private company that operates a separate car attached to certain train lines. Livitrans tickets are 50% more expensive than comparable first-class berths on the regular line, but offer more comfort.
The one-way Tourist-class ticket from Hanoi to Hue costs $85 (compared to about $55 for the regular soft-sleeper.) The trip would take fourteen hours to complete, leaving the Hanoi train station at 7pm and arriving at Hue by 9am.
Departing Hanoi Train Station
Getting into the train was more of a challenge.
The ticket instructed me to wait at Mango Hotel on 118 Le Duan, which was a darkened storefront by the time I arrived at the appointed time of six o'clock (an hour and twenty minutes before the train was scheduled to depart). The only illuminated room in the place was the greasy spoon at the back, where the staff could speak little English, and had the frustrating local habit of simply nodding assent to every question.
The one upside to the place: it had a door leading straight to the train platform. I wandered through, showing my ticket to several uniformed rail officers, who passed my ticket along to (presumably) more senior officers until it reached a stern-looking martinet who dragged me back to the restaurant, argued with some train staff upstairs, then led me to another Livitrans office on the other side of Le Duan Street, argued some more with the staff, then left me with some abashed Livitrans employees who stapled a stub to my ticket and told me in halting English to enter the train station and board the Livitrans car on platform 3.
To get to platform 3, I had to cross a couple of tracks; I asked a couple of German backpackers, who pointed me to the right carriage. I boarded and found my berth without further incident.
The Livitrans Train Interior
The Livitrans car is actually a special car attached to one end of the regular Hanoi-Hue, Vietnam train. (Don’t believe the bullet train visual placed prominently on Livitrans’ website’s front page!) There are about 20 cabins down the length of the car, with a toilet on either end.
Livitrans has three classes; a VIP class, a tourist class, and an economy class. I got a tourist class berth, which got me the following:
Cabin: An air-conditioned cabin with four bunks, airconditioned, paneled with faux wood walls. The tourist class cabin is cozy in most senses of the word – dimly-lit, with reading lights at the head of each berth.
The cabin is bisected by a center table, topped with complimentary water, toothbrush, napkin, and mint. Under the table, two 220v electric outlets can be used to power passengers’ electronics.
Bed: A soft mattress, clean sheets, and firm but soft pillow. The sheets are freshly-laundered, and the pillows are far from flat – they feel quite full to the point of being overstuffed. The mattress is somewhat firm, with only a little give, but soft enough that you won’t wake up in the morning with a stiff back. Bags can be fitted in the storage space under the bottom bunks.
The story continues - with the arrival of the Livitrans train in Hue, Vietnam - on the next page.
Traveling on the Livitrans train? Take it from me, as I learned this from painful experience - bring your own food. Don’t think you can easily buy food at the train’s dining car, it’s not easy!
The "dining" car is at the very first car (a long walk down the length of the train, where you dodge kibitzing passengers blocking the hallway and the extended legs of passengers in the third-class seats).
When I got there, I imagined I'd be able to sit at a table and eat a hot meal.
I was mistaken - it was crowded with smoking travelers and the food (looked like hunks of tofu in some clear broth; didn't see anything else) seemed unappetizing.
Cursing myself for forgetting to buy food before boarding the train, I settled for prawn crackers and a can of warm beer for dinner. Then sleep.
Morning on a Livitrans Train
I got up at one in the morning to use the toilet, located at the end of the car. Although it's cramped (think of an airplane toilet, but with running water instead of those vacuum pumps), it seemed clean and well-stocked with toilet paper. The sloshing water had me worried for a while, though.
As dawn crept in, I took stock of the Livitrans tourist class sleeping experience. Cool airconditioner, soft and clean-smelling bedding, and the swaying of the car made my sleep especially restful; here I was greeting the morning while speeding across the Vietnamese countryside, and it felt to me like all was at peace in the world.
The view from the cabin windows is rather nondescript, if you’ve seen rice fields and Asian countryside before. I noted, however, the seeming abundance of graveyards as we passed by – a reminder of the Vietnam War, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the 60s and 70s.
An unpleasant knocking interrupted my admiration of the view – it was an attendant, hawking hot coffee at VND 20,000 a cup.
Rather expensive, but as I had had nothing but beer and chips the night before, mediocre hot coffee was better than nothing.
Arriving at Hue – Well Rested
Hue is not the terminus of the Reunification Express’ southbound train – the line we rode terminated at Da Nang, but passengers getting off at Hue had to keep their ears peeled for the announcement that the train had arrived at our destination.
At nine in the morning, Hue seemed rather overcast, but thankfully dry. Passengers disembarked with their baggage right onto the tracks, exiting to a mob of taxi drivers begging for your business. I waited awhile for my hotel taxi – pre-arranged rides save you the aggravation of dealing with taxi touts.
Overall, the Livitrans Vietnam train ride from Hanoi to Hue was a pleasant experience, marred only by the lack of chow on the train. Bring your own dinner, be pleasant to your bunkmates, and enjoy the view.
Livitrans at a Glance
- Fare: about $75 for a one-way trip from Hanoi to Hue; best to book your ticket at window 12A in the Hanoi Central Train Station, 120 Le Duan Road, Hanoi
- Departure and Arrival Times: the train leaves Hanoi Central Train Station at about 7:20pm, and arrives in Hue the next day at 9am.
- Distance: about 427 miles
- Accommodations: each tourist class cabin has four berths, each rather comfortably appointed. Sheets are clean, pillows firm but voluminous, and center table offers guests a free bottle of water, free mints, and napkins. 220v electrical outlet below table allows guests to power their appliances.
- Tips: Arrange pickup from the Hue train station with your hotel; this saves you the aggravation of dealing with taxi touts who will swarm over you when you arrive at Hue.
- Contact Details: Visit Livitrans' website at livitrans.com, or call them at the following phone numbers: +84 4 39429919 or +84 4 39421199