“You’ll have to take a motorbike,” shouts the receptionist, Ha, from the hotel entrance as I maniacally gesticulate at the succession of taxis, all taken, crawling through the melee of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.  

Only half an hour ago we had been golden. What’s more, we’d thought we’d had plenty of time to cover the short distance from our lodgings at the venerable Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi to the station to catch the train to Ho Chi Minh City 1700 kilometers to the south. Easy.

But like many tourists, we had failed to account for the unpredictability of Hanoi’s teeming streets. After thirty minutes of fruitless gesturing, we take Ha’s advice and hop on the back of two obliging Hondas for an al fresco race against time.

vietnam train travel

At the station, a worried-looking woman in uniform spots us. “Di di mau” (move quickly), she says, pointing to a train wheezing into action on a nearby platform. We clamber up the steps and into our cabin in a flurry of sweat and expletives.  

Adventures come thick and fast in Vietnam, but few are more epic or evocative than the train journey between the country’s two main cities.

Paraded as a sign of French colonial munificence upon its inauguration in 1936, fragmented then blown to smithereens during partition and the American War, and then resurrected after reunification, the railway is inexorably linked to the country’s tumultuous 20th century.

Despite its storied history, it’s not a ride visitors tend to take. The railway is somewhat on the slow side — train speeds hover around 40 km per hour — and domestic flights are cheap in Vietnam.

For rail romantics, however, the opportunity to mingle with locals and casually observe the scenic splendor of one of the world’s most ravishing countries is an experience not to be missed.

A soft-sleeper ticket gets you a bunk in a four-berth cabin, sheets, a miniature pillow, a reading light, and a radio, which is best turned off unless you are partial to the synthesized sounds of mainstream Southeast Asian pop.

vietnam train travel

It’s hard, though, to beat the feeling of kicking back or venturing forth whenever the whim takes you. On our first night onboard, we swap traveling tales with the Finnish couple we are sharing our cabin with and drink chilled cans of 333 beer with the conductors in the dining car.

The first (and only) stop on our journey is the city of Hue, around 700 kilometers and 12 hours south of Hanoi. The UNESCO-listed former imperial seat of the Nguyen Dynasty, which ruled Vietnam from the 17th to the 20th century, is a beguiling blend of Francophone grace and Indochinese exotica.

We experience the French element first. A two-minute walk from the train station takes us to the sparkling La Residence Hotel, the former residence of the French governor. The boutique hotel is an Art Deco wonder on the banks of the Song Huong (Perfume River) and is a suitably opulent place to break up the long journey. After tearing ourselves from the hotel’s giant salt-water swimming pool, we cross the river to explore the historic citadel, an Oriental wonderland of temples, lakes and ruined palaces that is a testament to the self-indulgent largesse of Vietnam’s former rulers.

The next morning we begin the long schlep from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City. Many travelers prefer to break up the 20-hour journey in the historic town of Hoi An or the seaside resort of Nha Trang, but our flight schedule makes this impossible. A spotless, empty cabin and some of the best scenery Vietnam has to offer are compensation enough for us.

As the train crosses the Truong Son Mountains between Hue and Danang, cascading streams pour down jungle-covered hills out of one window while deserted white-sand beaches whiz past the other. Further down the coast the scenery isn’t as lush, but the emerald-green rice paddies, the mist-shrouded peaks and the cavalcade of Vietnamese going about their daily business mean that distractions are never lacking.

vietnam train travel

A loud blast of screechy pop from the radio wakes us as we pull into Saigon in the witching hour of the morning. It seems as though half the city has risen especially to meet us. Fighting through the hordes, we make our way to a café for replenishing glasses of the strong local brew, hoping it will fortify us for the long day of discovery ahead. As we drain our cups, two grinning guys pull up on their Hondas. “Motorbike you?” they ask, pointing to us and then at our luggage. We hop on, of course.

For more about getting around Vietnam, visit our Essential Information section.

by Duncan Forgan

As a result of frigid winters in his native Scotland, Bangkok-based writer Duncan Forgan has endeavored to edge as close to the equator as possible. Duncan’s work has been published in TIME, Esquire, Penthouse, Travel and Leisure and elsewhere. Visit duncanforgan.net for his full portfolio.