If you’re looking for the most memorable way to travel in Central Vietnam you couldn’t choose a more spectacular and local journey than the coast-clinging train route between Da Nang and Hue. Hugging the Hai Van Pass on one side and winding across the rugged cliffs overlooking the East Sea, this three-hour journey not only offers one of the quickest routes between the two cities, but gives you a chance to rub shoulders with the locals and sample some pretty good tucker along the way.
What Paul Theroux wrote of his journey along this route in his Great Railway Bazaar still stands:
” ‘No one knows it,’ said Cobra Two. No one in the States has the slightest idea how beautiful it is. Look at that — God, look at that!’
We were at the fringes of a bay that was green and sparkling in bright sunlight. Beyond the leaping jade plates of the sea was an overhang of cliffs and the sight of a valley so large it contained sun, smoke, rain and cloud — all at once — independent quantities of colour. I had been unprepared for this beauty; it surprised and humbled me in the same degree the emptiness had in India. Who has mentioned the simple fact that the heights of Vietnam are places of unimaginable grandeur? Though we can hardly blame a frightened draftee for not noticing this magnificence, we should have known all along that the French would not have colonized it, nor would the Americans have fought so long, if such ripeness did not invite the eye to take it.”
Four fast and direct trains run this single track route daily, the SE1 and SE3 travelling south and the SE2 and SE4 running north. With prices fluctuating wildly — depending on how many seats are available — it’s a good idea to try to book at least a couple of days in advance. If you prefer to take your time, you can alternatively catch a slow train, which can take anything up to four hours from door to door.
THERE ARE 3 WAYS TO BOOK A SEAT ON A TRAIN IN VIETNAM
- Book online on the Vietnamese railway website dsvn.vn. After you choose your seat, date and time, you will have to go yourself to the nearest train station with the e-mail confirmation in order to pay for your ticket in VND cash (unless you have a Vietnamese credit card to proceed with payment online, foreign cards are not accepted). You don’t need to go to the station you are leaving from to collect your tickets.
- Book online on baolau.vn or on 12go.asia, both very nice and clear websites which allow you to use all the main global credit cards. Prices are fair, same as on the Vietnamese one, you will only have to pay a processing fee (around US $1.5). You will receive your e-tickets straight to your e-mail, and you will have to show it when you board the train.
- Just head to the train station and buy the ticket that suits you. Most of the employees can speak a basic English which is enough to make the job.
WHAT SEAT/BED DO YOU NEED TO BUY
It depends on how long your journey is. The Da Nang to Hue train is a 3-hour ride, so a seat is the best option, just skip to the seat type info.
In case you will travel longer distances later in Vietnam, should choose bed options. Trains in Vietnam are very slow, which is good both to enjoy the landscapes by day, and to get some sleep at night. If it’s gonna be a 6-hour travel or more, you will have these choices
- 6-bed compartment with hard beds: they are really hard and thin mattresses. The compartment is quite narrow and crowded, good if you want to chat with other travelers and if you are on a budget (the price is even cheaper if you choose the upped bed), not that good if you are looking for some rest and/or privacy. Normally there’s a fan on the ceiling very close to the upper bed.
- 4-bed compartment with soft beds: comfortable enough to fulfill their name. Good space, decent mattress.
On every coach, there’s a toilet, a pair of sinks with mirrors, basic needs to prepare for the night.
If you have a shorter journey, you can try a very local experience like:
- hard seat: you will enter a bare coach with nothing but wooden benches on the long sides. Not really comfortable as a sofa, but for a few hours that will do. Very nice experience to see how local people travel everyday. No numbered seats, so get on early to secure a decent spot. Ridiculously cheap, you should be served a snack with a bottle of water complementary.
- soft seat: a “normal” train seat it, less crowded coach with numbered seats.
Basically every Vietnamese train runs from Hanoi all the way to Ho Chi Minh City, or the other way. For this reason, timetables are variable, you need to book some days before to find a soft bed which normally are the first to sell out.
Classic seats are bookable at the station only on the same day of travel, so just show up at the station as early as you can. Book online in advance to be sure you will have your numbered seat.
Train travelling in Vietnam is a rewarding experience that you must try. Plane tickets don’t cost much more than a night ride on a tain, but on the latter you’ll be able to relax, sleep, meet new people, and enjoy the views.