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Travelling Vietnam overland on trains and buses: Saigon to Hanoi

Written by Joshua Fuglsang on .

Vietnamese train attendant watching the passengers getting organised

Introduction

I had a dream sometime ago to travel around the world overland. I would travel only by Train, Boat, Bus, Car, Bike, or by foot. Unfortunately due to weather it was unrealistic to travel from Australia to Singapore by yacht at the time I was starting to travel. Luckily I am still able to travel through Asia to Europe by land transport and that is what I aim to do over the next six months, which you can read more about here.

To get started I came to Vietnam, to travel the length of the country before jumping over to China. This article briefly describes some of the things I experienced travelling Vietnam by train and bus.

Organising Tickets

The train station at Nha Trang

The train station at Nha Trang

To catch any train in the world, you need to buy your tickets. In Vietnam you typically pre-book before you go to the train station. I think most often people book through travel agents on the street, however it is easier to book online directly, this way you can choose your seats and theres no chance that you'll be scammed. By booking online you can be guaranteed to get the seat that you want, where often travel agents on the street will charge you for a higher class ticket and book a lower class ticket, while pocketing the difference, and still charge commission. It is one of the common scams in Vietnam. So if you wish to book in person, make sure to check the details thoroughly. You should also check the booking site before visiting the agent as well, to make sure that they aren't charging too much commission. If you do book online I recommend that you print out your ticket, though I have seen locals showing a ticket on their phones to the station attendants, but I believe that it is better to print it out as a precaution. As a final option, you may book and pay for your ticket at the station directly. This is a good option as you will be charged the proper price, and they will print out a ticket for you. With all of these options I suggest that you book a couple of days in advance or more if there is a public holiday going on, such as Tet. For Tet, I booked my tickets two weeks in advance, and many trains were already completely filled, I actually had to book one day earlier than what I wanted to.

Leg 1: Day Train from Saigon to Nha Trang

Dragon fruit orchards

Dragon fruit orchards

The first leg of my journey was a day train from Saigon to Nha Trang and would take 7.5 hours, leaving at 9am. The journey was terrific, it started off by rattling through the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh city, where you could peer in to the local neighbourhoods and the living suburbs of the sprawling city to get a small taste of what it is like to live as a Saigonese. On railway crossings you would see hundreds of scooters queueing at the railway boom gate, impatiently waiting to continue their day. Often the train would get a standing ovation by a group of boys and girls, greeting the train with a dance of jumps, arm-waving, and inaudible laughter. Once out of the city the train crossed through vast stretches of farming land for what felt like hours. We went through kilometers of Dragon Fruit tree orchards, some ripe but mostly they were already picked. In time the dragon fruit trees were replaced with flat land rice paddies, being worked equally hard by both Vietnamese farmers wearing their traditional leaf hats and graceful long-necked and perfectly white herons. Before long the sun was falling and the rice paddies started to glow orange.

Sunset over rice paddies

Sunset over rice paddies

The first leg of the trip didn't reach the coast, so you can sit on either side of the train to get equally evocative pastural views. In fact possibly the western facing side would be better, as you get longer views of farmland. However, for future legs I will be booking on the righthand side of the cabin for those delicious ocean views.

Once the train arrived in the station a lady walked around announcing our stop in Vietnamese. I knew where were we were because I was checking my maps application. However, no one else moved on the train. None were bound for Nha Trang it seemed. So I quickly grabbed my bag and left. After I departed the train hung around for a little while before leaving again, at least 10 minutes I would say. However, don't bank on that happening for you as some stops were definitely a lot shorter. The station itself was quite close to the beach, so I walked down to esplanade to find some accommodation.

Leg 2: Night Train from Nha Trang to Hoi An

Goats running through crops

Goats running through crops

The second leg of my journey was a night train from Nha Trang to Hoi An. I wanted to try to travel by night at least once, and my accommodation was running out, so I decided to skip paying for another night of rent and to stay on a sleeper train instead. Saving some money on accommodation is one solid pro of travelling by night, but there are several cons which I will mention.

Sleeper cabin in the night train

Sleeper cabin in the night train

My train was due to depart at 11pm, and would arrive in Da Nang at 9am, making it a really nice time and duration for sleeping. I would arrive fairly late and already tired, so hopefully could fall to sleep quickly. Then the train would arrive at the reasonable hour of 9am, as opposed to other options which arrived at the ungodly hour of 4am. I wanted to avoid arriving early in the morning as it would mean that I would get less sleep due to getting on the train in the afternoon still wide awake, and then I would worry all night that I might sleep through my stop. Overall my sleep quality was pretty good. The train rocks around quite a bit, so I wasn't sure if I would get motion sickness or not. Luckily not, the movement of the train is quite repetitive and is in a slow rhythm, so it isn't unpleasant. It's not dissimilar to sleeping on the yacht, just a little bit less smooth. The gentle "dah-dum dah-dum dah-dum" of the train rolling of the tracks is quite meditative, and by focusing exclusively on the sound I could fall to sleep. Overall, sleeper trains are a lot more conducive to sleep than planes, but you get woken up several times in the night because of people getting up and arriving at a new station every two hours or so.

Top bunk in my cabin - sleeping with all my gear

Top bunk in my cabin - sleeping with all my gear

I booked the top berth in the cabin for a few reasons. Mainly because I didn't want people climbing over me all night to go to the bathroom, but also for the security of my possessions as I could sleep with my bags and not worry about hands reaching down from above. However the top bunk has less than half a meter of head room! Which obviously means you can't sit up, but also makes simple things such as scratching an itch on your ankle troublesome. The top bunk is also right next to the air conditioning vent, so it gets cold.

One problem which I didn't anticipate was cigarette smoke. No one in my room smoked, but a lot of people would smoke at the end of the carriage hall. So, since my cabin was closest to the end of the carriage the smoke would drift in to the room at night. And then since I was in the top bunk it would rise to the ceiling, right where I was sleeping. So, I would suggest booking a room closer to the center of the carriage.

I got out of bed at around 7am and stood in the carriage hall gazing out of the window. It was nice to watch the world wake up, to see the villagers start to toil in the fields, and to feel the cool morning air through the open carriage window.

Local bus to Hoi An

Local bus to Hoi An

The night before at the Nha Trang station I met a German girl from Munich who was also travelling to Hoi An. I met her again leaving the train and we went to find a bus together. I had read on a forum that there was a local bus nearby to the station which left every 20 minutes and cost between 20,000 dong and 40,000 dong. The priced varied because some bus operators would charge tourists double in what is commonly referred to by travellers as a "tourist tax". The post which I found was a bit old, with the last comment 4 years ago, so we weren't sure if it was still up to date, but wanted to give it a try. We walked to the location described in the forums, and were disappointed to find that the stop was indeed no longer in operation. However, at the moment that we arrived a local man came out of his shop and said that the stop has moved to street address 153 of the same same street. We were at street number 305, so we started walking and around 5 minutes later we were at the correct spot hailing a yellow bus. On the bus we paid 50,000 dong for the bus fare, which included a tourist tax of 30,000 dong as the locals were only paying 20,000 dong. You can argue for the proper fair if you wish, but it was a one hour bus trip, I was quite exhausted, and the difference in AUD was quite small, just $1.50 AUD, so I wasn't too fussed. Regardless, it was night and day difference to the 350,000 dong fair that the taxi's at the station were charging. Choose your battles, so to speak.

Fin & Future Legs

Vietnamese Railway Line

Vietnamese Railway Line

Thanks for reading! This is a living document and will be updated as I continue my overland journey. Subscribe to find out what happens next!

I will also have and article on the beautiful Hoi An soon as well.

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