If you'd rather not take airplanes, buses, and ferries to get around Southeast Asia, you may love the alternative in Vietnam: old-school trains which span the length of the country, traveling from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south to the border with China in the north. Those taking the 420-mile (676-kilometer) trip from the capital Hanoi to the city of Hue in central Vietnam may enjoy the adventure by train.
Tourist destinations like Sa Pa in the northwest and Ha Long Bay in the northeast are accessible by rail, as are the cities of Hoi An and Da Nang in central Vietnam. Many of Vietnam’s beaches can also be reached by train travel. So if you're tired of using efficient but cramped budget airlines, complete a part of your Vietnam itinerary by train.
The Livitrans Experience
While the Livitrans deluxe train service in Vietnam certainly isn’t the cheapest, fastest, or most luxurious, it is hard to beat as a unique travel experience. Mixing the throwback (wood-paneled sleeper cabins) with the contemporary (power outlets and air-conditioning), you can imagine traveling in the manner of early-20th-century explorers without missing any creature comforts.
Livitrans is actually a special car attached to one end of the regular Hanoi-Hue train. Several cabins run the length of the car. The company offers three classes; a VIP class, a tourist class, and an economy class.
A tourist class berth gets you an air-conditioned cabin with four bunks, paneled with faux wood walls. It's cozy in most senses of the word—dimly-lit, with reading lights at the head of each berth. The narrow bed has clean sheets and a pillow, and a center table is topped with complimentary water and snacks. Under the table, two electric outlets can be used to power electronics. Bags can be fitted in the storage space under the bottom bunks.
Outside the Livitrans Cabins
While the cabin feels cushy, the rest of the Livitrans experience feels less so, from the cramped toilets to the typically long walk to get to a meal. Visitors may dislike that the dining car can be crowded with smokers. Some tourists like to bring their own food and sip on some Southeast Asian beer with dinner. In the morning, you may find someone knocking on your cabin selling somewhat overpriced coffee and buns.
Even if it's not a luxury journey, the swaying of the car may make sleep especially restful. You can greet the morning while speeding across the Vietnamese countryside. The view from the cabin windows is rather nondescript if you’ve seen rice fields and Asian countryside before. However, the seeming abundance of graveyards you'll pass by is a reminder of the Vietnam War, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the 60s and 70s.
Important Travel Information
Travelers can contact Livtrans regarding purchasing tickets in advance or buy them at the Hanoi Train Station, asking for English-speaking staff if necessary. Keep in mind that one booth, in particular, sells tickets for Livitrans; it's a private company that operates a separate car attached to certain train lines.
Confirm schedules and prices with Livtrans before reserving your ticket. The trip takes about 14 hours to complete. Typically the train leaves Hanoi Central Train Station at about 7:30 p.m. and arrives in Hue the next day at 8:30 a.m. Once on the journey, make sure to listen for the announcement that you are approaching Hue so that you exit at the correct place.
Livitrans passengers disembark with their baggage right onto the tracks, usually exiting to a mob of taxi drivers begging for your business. Pre-arranging train station pickup with your hotel in Hue saves you the aggravation of dealing with these taxi touts.