Though most new arrivals in the city arrive by air, another option is the Saigon rail service. Vietnam Railways operates over 2,500kms of routes, stretching from the Chinese border in the north (at both Lao Cai and Lang Son) to Hanoi, and the main route from Hanoi terminating at the train station in Ho Chi Minh City of Ga Saigon (1 Ð Nguyen Thong, District 3, tel: +84 8 3823 0105).
There is also a branch line running from Hanoi to Haiphong in the north. The train station is just three kilometres north of Hanoi city centre and it’s easy enough to get a cyclo or taxi to run you into town, otherwise many hotels and guesthouses will have pick-up or drop-off services.
If you plan to leave Saigon by train, it’s more convenient to book your tickets at Saigon Railways Tourist Services (275C Pham Ngu Lao, tel: +84 8 3836 7640) than going to the station, though most hotels and guest houses will also help arrange bookings for a small fee.
For information about timetables and fares, visit the Vietnam Railways website, which has lots of regularly updated information about options for travelling by train, as well as videos taken from the train window.
Travelling by train in Saigon really beats the bus hands down.
Seat classes for Saigon trains
The so-called Reunification Express, which runs between Hanoi and Saigon, takes around 30-42 hours to cover the journey, so it’s worth paying for a comfortable seat or sleeper. There are four classes of seat – hard or soft seat and hard or soft sleeper, plus the option of air-conditioning on some trains.
Some meals are included in the price of the ticket, and there are plenty of food vendors who hop and off the train along the route, so there’s no need to stock up before leaving unless you have some particular dietary requirements. It is usually necessary to book a few days in advance to make sure you get the type of seat you want.
Sightseeing by train in Saigon
The downside of travelling by train is that is slower than travelling by plane or bus, but many visitors enjoy chugging along at a sedate pace enjoying the changing scenery. One of the most spectacular sections is between Da Nang and Hue, where the train climbs up to the Hai Van Pass and opens up great views along the coast.
Another popular route is from Hanoi to Lao Cai, where the train heads along the Red River Valley into the mountains. From Lao Cai it is just a short ride up to Sa Pa, the most popular destination in the northern hills. It is also possible to take along a bicycle or motorbike in the goods car for further exploration at your destination.
Saigon rail travel precautions
While travelling by train from Saigon through Vietnam, watch out for bag snatchers and pickpockets, especially if the train is crowded. If you are travelling alone, it will help to lock your bag and secure it to something overnight.
A peculiar hazard in Vietnam is that along some sections of the route, kids throw stones at the train for sport. The conductors know these sections and often insist on passengers closing the metal window shades to avoid injury.