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Train

Operated by national carrier, Vietnam Railways (www.vr.com.vn), the Vietnamese railway system is an ageing but pretty dependable service, and offers a relaxing way to get around the nation. Travelling in an air-conditoned sleeping berth sure beats a hairy overnight bus journey along Hwy 1. And, of course, there’s some spectacular scenery to lap up, too.

Classes

Trains classified as SE are the smartest and fastest, while those referred to as TN are slower and older.

There are four main ticket classes: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. These are also split into air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned options. Presently, air-con is only available on the faster express trains. Some SE trains now have wi-fi (though connection speeds, like Vietnamese trains, are not the quickest). Hard-seat class is usually packed and expect plenty of cigarette smoke.

Private Carriages

Comfortable, even luxurious, private carriages tagged onto the back of trains offer a classy way of travelling between Lao Cai and Hanoi: those offered by Orient Express Trains (www.orientexpresstrainsapa.com) and Victoria Hotels are renowned and very pricey, but there are many other options including Livitrans (www.livitrans.com).

Livitrans, Violette (http://en.violetexpresstrain.com) and other companies offer luxury carriages between Hanoi and Hue (US$75 to US$85) and Danang (US$85 to US$95), as do several other companies.

Sleepers

A hard sleeper has three tiers of beds (six beds per compartment), with the upper berth cheapest and the lower berth most expensive. Soft sleeper has two tiers (four beds per compartment) and all bunks are priced the same. Fastidious travellers will probably want to bring a sleeping sheet, sleeping bag and/or pillow case with them, although linen is provided.

Costs

Ticket prices vary depending on the train; the fastest trains are more expensive.

Children under two are free; those between two and nine years of age pay 50% of the adult fare. There are no discounts on the Hanoi–Lao Cai route.

Freight

Bicycles and motorbikes must travel in freight carriages, which will cost around 380,000d for a typical overnight trip.

Reservations

You can can buy tickets in advance from the Vietnam Railways bookings site (http://dsvn.vn); however, at the time of writing only Vietnamese credit cards were accepted. You can also book online using the travel agency Bao Lau (www.baolau.vn), which has an efficient website, details seat and sleeper-berth availability, and accepts international cards. E-tickets are emailed to you; there's a 40,000d commission per ticket.

You can reserve seats/berths on long trips 60 to 90 days in advance (less on shorter trips). Most of the time you can book train tickets a day or two ahead without a problem, except during peak holiday times. For sleeping berths book a week or more before the date of departure.

Schedules, fares, information and advance bookings are available on Bao Lau's website. Vietnam Impressive (www.vietnamimpressive.com) is another dependable online agent; it charges US$2 per ticket.

Many travel agencies, hotels and cafes will also buy you train tickets for a small commission.

Routes

Aside from the main HCMC–Hanoi run, three rail-spur lines link Hanoi with the other parts of northern Vietnam: one runs east to the port city of Haiphong; a second heads northeast to Lang Son and continues across the border to Nanning, China; a third runs northwest to Lao Cai (for trains on to Kunming, China).

'Fast' trains between Hanoi and HCMC take between 32 and 35 hours.

Safety

Petty crime is rare on Vietnamese trains. Thieves occasionally try to grab stuff as trains pull out of stations. Always keep your bag nearby and lock or tie it to something, especially at night.

Schedules

Several Reunification Express trains depart from Hanoi and HCMC every day. Train schedules change frequently, so check departure times on the Vietnam Railways website (www.vr.com.vn), Bao Lau's website (www.baolau.vn) or www.seat61.com, the international train website.

A bare-bones train schedule operates during the Tet festival, when most trains are suspended for nine days, beginning four days before Tet and continuing for four days afterwards.

Feature: Reunification Express

Construction of the 1726km-long Hanoi–Saigon railway, the Transindochinois, began in 1899 and was completed in 1936. In the late 1930s, the trip from Hanoi to Saigon took 40 hours and 20 minutes at an average speed of 43km/h.

During WWII the Japanese made extensive use of the rail system, resulting in Viet Minh sabotage on the ground and US bombing from the air. After WWII, efforts were made to repair the Transindochinois, major parts of which were either damaged or had become overgrown.

During the Franco–Viet Minh War (1946–54), the Viet Minh again engaged in sabotage against the rail system. At night the Viet Minh made off with rails to create a 300km network of tracks (between Ninh Hoa and Danang) in an area wholly under their control – the French quickly responded with their own sabotage.

In the late 1950s the South, with US funding, reconstructed the track between Saigon and Hue, a distance of 1041km. But between 1961 and 1964 alone, 795 Viet Cong (VC) attacks were launched on the rail system, forcing the abandonment of large sections of track (including the Dalat spur).

By 1960, North Vietnam had repaired 1000km of track, mostly between Hanoi and China. During the US air war against the North, the northern rail network was repeatedly bombed. Even now, clusters of bomb craters can be seen around virtually every rail bridge and train station in the north.

Following reunification in 1975, the government immediately set about re-establishing the Hanoi–Ho Chi Minh City rail link as a symbol of Vietnamese unity. By the time the Reunification Express trains were inaugurated on 31 December 1976, 1334 bridges, 27 tunnels, 158 stations and 1370 shunts (switches) had been repaired.

Today the Reunification Express chugs along only slightly faster than the trains did in the 1930s, at an average of around 55km/h. Chronic under-investment means that it's still mainly a single-track line.

Plans for a massive overhaul of the rail system to create a high-speed network have been shelved, but a gradual upgrade of the network is ongoing and it's hoped that this will raise maximum speeds.