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Who built Vietnam’s railways, and where are they now?

| Words by Rachel McCombie |

Vietnam’s railway network is a testament to what was achieved during French colonial rule. Find out more about railways in Vietnam with our brief history.

Even in this age of air travel, there’s still something rather wonderful about travelling by train. It’s ideal for travellers who enjoy taking life at a slower pace, and offers the chance to unwind and enjoy a constantly-changing view of parts of the country you probably wouldn’t otherwise see. If you travel by rail in Vietnam, you do so with a sense of history: you’re retracing routes established as far back as the 1880s. Let’s look a little closer at how Vietnam’s railways got to where they are today.

Who built Vietnam’s railways, and why?

Vietnam’s railways were built by the French, and the extensive network ran all the way into the hills of Da Lat. At around the same time, the British were building railways in Burma. Work on Vietnam’s rail network began in 1881 with a 71km stretch that connected My Tho with Saigon, while another early railway was a tram running between Saigon and the port of Cholon. 1936 saw the completion of the Trans-Viet railway, which completed the network, making it 2,600km in total.

You’ll probably notice some mentions of the ‘Reunification Express’ in reference to trains connecting Saigon and Hanoi. This name no longer refers to a specific train, but it is a reference to the railway’s past. Completed by the French, the Saigon-Hanoi line operated from 1936 until it was cut off in 1954, when Vietnam was split into north and south. On the last day of 1976 the train service recommenced, once again connecting north and south - hence the name ‘Reunification Express’.

Where are Vietnam’s railways now?

The modern railway network in Vietnam has numerous lines, and many of the country’s most popular tourist spots are accessible by train. Many of the old colonial stations remain in use to this day, including Hanoi and Saigon. The historic 1,726km North-South railway still runs from Hanoi right down to Saigon, a route that it’s hoped may end up being converted to high-speed capability, bringing the journey time between the two cities from thirty hours to just six. Note that some journeys may need to be completed by bus or taxi; to get to Sapa, for instance, you would need to undertake the final 36km of your journey by bus or taxi from Lao Cai (see Michael Elliman and Quantum of Solace, comments section).

Vietnam’s railways are a good way of getting around for those wishing to explore the country at a more relaxed pace, and they’re a better way to see the real Vietnam than catching an internal flight. It’s worth bearing in mind that the quality of the rail travel experience can vary considerably depending on which carriages you use; though the trains are state-owned, individual carriages can be run by different operators (see Quantum of Solace in the comments section below). Air-conditioned sleeper trains are available on the Hanoi-Lao Cai line (see James Underwood, comments section). The so-called Reunification Express, mentioned above, remains an excellent route for enjoying views of the Vietnamese countryside.

Not all are stations and lines are still in use, however; many fell into disuse after heavy bombing during the war, and materials from abandoned branch lines were used to repair sections of the main lines. For example, all that’s left of Da Lat after the Vietnam War is the station and around 3km of track, which can nevertheless be explored as a tourist trip (see Travelbag, comments section).

There are currently no railway lines connecting Vietnam with Cambodia or Laos (and have never been - thanks to James Underwood, comments section); there had been a plan to extend Vietnam’s rail network into Cambodia, but it was abandoned in 1945. However, there have been discussions in recent years about establishing rail links between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and between Tan Ap in Vietnam and Thakhek in Laos (the latter could go as far as Vientiane), so watch this space.

Find more information and Vietnam train timetables at Seat61.