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. The network is charmingly called “the Reunification Express”; the tourist destinations of Sapa in the northwest and Ha Long Bay in the northeast are accessible by rail, as are the cities of Hue, Hoi An, and Da Nang in central Vietnam.
Having tried the efficient (but cramped) Jetstar budget airline to travel from Saigon to Hanoi, I decided to attack the central leg of my Vietnam trip, the 420-mile Hanoi-Hue route, by rail.
Buying my Vietnam Train Ticket at the Hanoi Station
Unlike with Jetstar and Vietnam Airlines, rail tickets are hard to procure when outside Vietnam, unless you can get one through a travel agent on the inside (I didn't know any, and I felt the going rate was just too expensive).
I decided to wait till I arrived in Hanoi before I booked the ticket, although VN Rail's computerized reservations system allows you to book a ticket to any domestic destination from any ticketing office in Vietnam.
When 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 $55 (compared to about $33 for the regular soft-sleeper.) The trip would take fourteen hours to complete, leaving the Hanoi train station at 7pm and arriving at Hue by 9am.
I didn't think twice; I queued up at Livitrans. For my first train trip, I wanted to travel in style.
Departing Hanoi Train Station
Getting into the train was more of a challenge. The ticket instructed me to wait at Mango Hotel on 118 Le Duan, which was a darkened storefront by the time I arrived at the appointed time of six o'clock (an hour and twenty minutes before the train was scheduled to depart). The only illuminated room in the place was the greasy spoon at the back, where the staff could speak little English, and had the infuriating local habit of simply nodding assent to every question.
The one upside to the place: it had a door leading straight to the train platform. I wandered through, showing my ticket to several uniformed rail officers, who passed my ticket along to (presumably) more senior officers until it reached a stern-looking martinet who dragged me back to the restaurant, argued with some train staff upstairs, then led me to another Livitrans office on the other side of Le Duan Street, argued some more with the staff, then left me with some abashed Livitrans employees who stapled a stub to my ticket and told me in halting English to enter the train station and board the Livitrans car on platform 3.
To get to platform 3, I had to cross a couple of tracks; I asked a couple of German backpackers, who pointed me to the right carriage. I boarded and found my berth without further incident.
The Livitrans Train Interior
The Livitrans car is actually a special car attached to one end of the regular Hanoi-Hue, Vietnam train. (Don’t believe the bullet train visual placed prominently on Livitrans’ website’s front page!) 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. I got a tourist class berth, which got me 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.
The story continues - with the arrival of the Livitrans train in Hue, Vietnam - on the next page.