In places like Japan and Western Europe, trains can be the most efficient way to travel. There are no airport arrivals hours before departure, fewer tedious security procedures and minimized chances of cancellations. That's not the case in Southeast Asia, where cheap, quick flights reign supreme. You can go from Bangkok to Laos in 70 minutes for $50 or to Bali in about four hours for $100. And when you've traveled from the United States with limited vacation days, those little flights enable you to see more in less time.
But I wasn't going for efficient on my first trip back to Asia since the pandemic and first to Vietnam since 2016. I wanted to see the country in a different way, so I decided to skip the short flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and take two overnight trains over three days instead.
The train had the romantic allure of slow travel, which encourages swapping jam-packed itineraries for connecting with new places in a more meaningful way. Going by trail promised views of Vietnam's lush countryside, the chance to explore one of its "second cities" and take a greener transportation, if only for a portion of my carbon-intensive trip from the East Coast. Best yet, it was an opportunity to try some train food (a favorite pastime).
The result was just as I hoped.
I booked my trip a few weeks in advance through the Vietnam Railways System website after doing some research on train travel blogs, such as Seat 61. I decided to change my itinerary a few days before my departure, and the Vietnam Railways staff accommodated the request by email and refunded me within hours. On my travel day, I presented my ticket on my phone before boarding and didn't need to print it out or check in at the train station.
First was my 22-hour and 44-minute overnight trip on the Reunification Express, whose name refers to the reunification of North and South Vietnam. It runs on the North-South Railway Line from Ho Chi Minh City to the country's northern border with China, with many stops along the way. As its website says, "it's not the Orient Express" – or Vietnam's luxurious new 12-seat Vietage train – but rather the everyman's sleeper train used mainly by locals, though you'll also find some foreign travelers.
There are four fare types: hard seats (the cheapest and least comfortable), soft seats (think Amtrak seats), hard berth (a bunk bed in a shared cabin) and soft berth (a more comfortable bunk bed in a shared cabin).
For $64, about as much as flying, I had a soft berth from Ho Chi Minh City to Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam and a current culinary hot spot, about halfway to Hanoi.
Throughout the journey, staff regularly come around selling coffee, snacks and meals, like rice with drumsticks and soup and breakfast porridge with pork. The train also occasionally stopped long enough to hop off and buy snacks from station vendors, both packaged goods and hot food. When the trains stopped for about 10 minutes in Danang, I jumped off and got a delicious taro ice cream bar.
After a night in a hotel and a day in Hue, I left for Hanoi on the Lotus Express Train, a nicer tourist sleeper train with just soft berth tickets (four beds to a room) and "VIP berths" (two beds to a room). My soft berth for the 15-hour journey was $72. The carriage seemed largely the same as the Reunification Express, but had Wi-Fi, a much thicker mattress, more decorations, a glass of complimentary wine, a bag of snacks and exponentially more tourists.
Neither train was wheelchair-friendly; boarding required using a step and to get through a narrow door.
What to pack for the journey
You'll want to pack a train outfit that's comfortable yet appropriate for strangers. Even if you have a cabin to yourself, staff may open your door to ask if you want snacks or warn you about your stop. I went with black, sort of stretchy linen pants and a linen button-down shirt for one part of the journey, and the same pants with a white T-shirt for the second, which showed more dirt and spills than I want to admit I accumulated.
I was happy to have packed a scarf to use as a light blanket and an eye mask to block light from the hallway, my neighbor's cellphone and the cabin window. Since there are no showers on these trains, baby wipes were a great stand-in for sponge baths whenever I felt grimy, and dry shampoo transformed me from a greasy hitchhiker look to normal me each morning. It was helpful to pack those essentials in an easy-to-reach place – in my case, a fanny pack – so I didn't have to rifle through my bigger bags and could keep those stored out of the way under my bunk.
What I didn't end up needing was the emergency banh mi, crackers and package of cookies I packed. You'll never go hungry on the Reunification Express, as the food and drink carts come by often. On the Lotus Express, they gave us a snack bag with some bread, yogurt, a banana and juice.
What to expect in your bunk
When I boarded the Reunification Express, there was just one other traveler in the cabin I was assigned: an older Vietnamese man named Dac. He spoke a sliver of English, and I speak zero Vietnamese, but I learned he was from Ho Chi Minh City and heading straight to Hanoi to see family. We were together alone for hours, both assigned to bottom bunks, until a backpacking German couple got on in the evening and then disembarked before morning. Two Vietnamese kids joined us a few hours before we rolled into Hue.
Our bunks had a pillow, mattress pad with a sheet covering it and top sheet (which I found out at the end of the trip were not changed between guests, just refolded), and access to an electric outlet and reading light. It was a spartan operation - western and squat toilets at the ends of carriages, hot water dispensers and small plastic chairs you could set up in hallways.
It took awhile to warm up to the intimate arrangement in the berth; Dac and I were sitting a couple feet apart with nowhere else to go but the bathroom or to walk the cars. There was no dining car or seating areas on the train, just the cabins of bunks or of assigned seats.
Similar to a hostel dorm, there were challenges of sharing close quarters, particularly when it was time to sleep. My roommate listened to videos on his phone at full volume into the night. There were travelers coming and going, the trains themselves rumbled loud and jerkily and the shock of turning over in the middle of the night to see a near-stranger's sleeping face in the shadows.
But I had a genuinely good time with Dac as my bunkmate. By the end of the trip, we'd built a camaraderie. We spent the journey showing each other photos of our families and buying each other snacks and drinks whenever the train staff rolled through with their carts. That included strong, sweet coffees and steamed pork buns for breakfast.
On the shorter Lotus Express ride, I had much less bonding with my roommates, despite having the same cabin configuration. I spent most of the ride with just one foreigner who never spoke enough to catch what nationality; just a grunt when I mentioned it was time to get off the train.
If you don't want to take a risk on potential bunk mates, you could reserve all of the beds in the room, which would multiply the cost.
Is it worth it?
I got up at dawn both mornings and walked the train hallways after fitful nights of sleep. These were my favorite moments of the journey. We passed through thick jungle foliage, lumber yards, goose farms, rice paddies, water buffalo resting in rivers, fishing boats and blinding bright blue ocean. It was the exact scenery I had hoped for when I envisioned the trip. I would have never seen these details on flights. I stayed glued to the window for hours, napped, worked on my laptop but would get too distracted by life on the train, like the kids who danced in front of my doorway and the parents who looked after them.
If I could do it again, I wouldn't have followed the same timeline. I would have broken up the slow journey into more days and spent more time in Hue between trains and skipped the Lotus Express for the more basic experience.
I'd recommend the trains to anyone up for adventure and time in their schedule. The journey was just the right amount of roughing it, peak Type II fun. I met other foreigners who felt the same way, including a family of four from Hungary with kids ages 9 and 12 and a couple from Germany in their 30s. Despite feeling ragged from the poor sleep, I felt deeply grateful for the experience. After dozens of hours on these trains, I felt bonded with the other travelers and the staff, and more familiar with the landscape of Vietnam beyond its most popular destinations.