On the outside chance you’re sick of riding airlines, buses and ferries to get around Southeast Asia... you’ll love the alternative available in Vietnam. Old-school trains.
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.
Many of Vietnam’s beaches, too, can be reached by train travel.
The Livitrans Experience
The Livitrans deluxe train service in Vietnam certainly isn’t the cheapest, or the fastest. But as unique Vietnam travel experiences go, it’s hard to beat. 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.
The Livitrans car is actually a special car attached to one end of the regular Hanoi-Hue train. 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.
A tourist class berth gets you 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.
Outside the Livitrans Cabins
While the cabin feels cushy, the rest of the Livitrans experience feels less so.
"Dining" car: is to get at a meal, you need to walk all the way to 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).
You might think you’ll sit at a table and eat a hot meal. In this writer’s experience, the dining car was crowded with smoking travelers and the food (looked like hunks of tofu in some clear broth; didn't see anything else) seemed unappetizing.
Better to buy your own food before boarding the train. As for this writer, I settled for prawn crackers and a can of warm beer for dinner.
A trolley lady knocks at the cabin at 7:30am to sell buns and (somewhat overpriced) coffee.
Toilet: The toilet is 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.
Those are minor blemishes as far as the Livitrans tourist class sleeping experience goes. Cool airconditioner, soft and clean-smelling bedding, and the swaying of the car will make sleep especially restful (at least it did for me); 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.
Hanoi and Hue Stations: Livitrans from End to End
Unlike airline access, Vietnam rail tickets can be confusing to procure when outside the country, unless you can get one through a travel agent on the inside. If you’re already in Vietnam, you can always avoid the middleman and purchase your 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 $69 (compared to about $54 for the regular soft-sleeper; read about money in Vietnam.) The trip takes fourteen hours to complete, leaving the Hanoi train station at 7pm and arriving at Hue by 9am.
The endpoint of our trip – the royal capital of Hue – is not the terminus of the southbound train. The line we rode terminated at Da Nang, so passengers getting off at Hue have to keep their ears peeled for the announcement that the train had arrived at our destination.
Livitrans passengers disembark with their baggage right onto the tracks, 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.
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 $69 for a one-way trip from Hanoi to Hue; best to book your ticket at the Hanoi Railway Station, 120 Le Duan Road, Hanoi (location on Google Maps)
Departure and Arrival Times: the train leaves Hanoi Central Train Station at about 7:20pm, and arrives in Hue the next day at 9am. (If riding till the end of the line at Danang, you’ll reach the final destination at 11:30am.)
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.