After an incredible 10 days in North Vietnam, it was time to start my long journey down the country to Hue. The three options include flying from Hanoi, or taking a sleeper bus or train from Ninh Binh. After much debate, I decided on the sleeper train. As I was in Tam Coc, this seemed to be the easiest and cheapest way to travel down to Central Vietnam.
Although the average flight time between Hanoi and Hue is 1hr 15 min, it sounded like a logistical nightmare coming from Tam Coc. It would involve a shuttle back to Hanoi, transport to Hanoi’s airport and then a flight. Aside from the financial cost of this, there was the added cost of wasting half a day travelling. This option didn’t appeal to me.
Vietnam Sleeper Trains
The sleeper train starts in Hanoi and goes straight to Hue, via Ninh Binh. As soon as I discovered this, it was a no brainer. It covers the 575km journey in 11.5 hours and cost me $25USD. I bought a soft sleeper 4-berth ticket, that would allow me to sleep through most of the trip.
The train was fairly empty, so I could choose whether I wanted a lower or upper berth ticket. As I was planning my trip as I went along, I felt fortunate to be able to buy my ticket the day of my travel. However, if you’re going in peak season, consider buying your ticket a few days in advance at least.
I organised the whole journey through a hostel in Tam Coc, near my homestay. They were unbelievably helpful in explaining the different options available. Additionally, they gave me my ticket (saving time at the station) and organised a taxi to collect me from my homestay. You must reserve a ticket in advance. Booking opens 60 days before departure, sometimes even 90 days before.
Notes: Children aged 0-4 travel for free. Children between 5-9 travel at 25% off. Children 10+ are full fare.
Check out this site for a full timetable of trains from Ninh Binh to Hue and any other train route in Vietnam.
The different trains in Vietnam
There are typically 5 different seat options you have on a Vietnam Train. For long, overnight journeys like Ninh Binh/Tam Coc to Hue, opt for a sleeper:
- Soft sleepers with AC: Soft sleepers usually have 4 beds (berths), two on either side, with a table included. Expect air-con, power sockets, a water dispenser in the carriage, toilets, luggage space and meals (extra cost). I went with option, which you can see in the picture above. The quality of these beds/cabin will largely depend on how modern the train is. I luckily got a new train, so the beds were quite comfortable and everything felt very clean. Modern trains also have a VIP option with just two beds.
- Hard sleepers with AC: Hard sleepers have 6 berths; lower, middle and top on each side of the cabin. The facilities are actually the same as the soft sleeper in terms of air-con, power sockets, toilets, luggage, food etc. The only difference is the two extra beds.
- Soft seats with AC: Similar to what you would find on an airplane, these are cushioned seats that can recline a bit. They’re usually located in modern carriages, with air-con and power sockets. These are fine for day trips, but for the small difference in price, you’re better off upgrading to one of the sleeper options for overnight or long journeys.
- Hard seats with AC: As the name suggests, these are hard, wooden, upright seats in modern carriages with air-con. For a journey as long as Ninh Binh to Hue, these would be less than ideal.
- Ordinary hard seats: These consist of wooden, upright seats in old carriages without air-con. Aside from being super cheap, the advantage of this carriage is the windows open. Making them perfect for photography. Although, this wouldn’t be a recommended option for an overnight or long journey.
For sleeper trains, you would typically choose between air-conditioned soft and hard sleepers. This will be dependant on your budget and how many people are in your group.
Day of Travel & Ninh Binh Station
On the evening of the journey, I had dinner in a local restaurant in Tam Coc. After another incredible pork pho (and free happy hour beer) I went back to my homestay to wait for my 9pm taxi. My train wasn’t until 10:12pm, so I had to wait around my homestay for a while. Soon enough, a taxi arrived with a few people from the hostel I had booked at. They had kindly gone out their way to collect me!
I was surprised it could drive down the tiny, narrow paths around Tam Coc lake to where my homestay was located, but very relieved it did.
With only 5km between Tam Coc and Ninh Binh, we arrived promptly at Ninh Binh Railway Station.
The station was bustling with a mix of locals and travellers. This was a relief as I was concerned about waiting alone at night or getting on the right train. Expect very basic facilities in terms of toilets and the one small shop selling water.
Ninh Binh to Hue Sleeper Train
As the time approached for the train’s arrival, everyone was ushered towards the platform. Once it had arrived, everyone piled on. It did wait for about 10 minutes to give everyone a chance to find their correct carriage.
I was pleasantly surprised with my cabin. It was clean, spacious and I had it to myself!!! I did spend the night wondering if anyone would be joining me throughout the long journey. But it remained empty the entire way, which was a huge bonus.
I slept for the majority of the 11.5 hours, occasionally waking briefly when the train stopped. Although it was comfortable, it was FREEZING! Bring many layers. The train arrived in Hue at 9:35am. I was staying on the other side of the city, so took a $2USD scooter taxi to my hotel. All in all it was an incredible painless journey. It was logistically very easy, cheaper than flying and it allowed me to have an entire day of sight-seeing ahead.
Bus from Tam Coc to Hue
The other option is to take a sleeper bus. Surprisingly, the bus is a similar journey time. However, the sleeper train sounded more comfortable and wasn’t much more expensive than the bus. Once in Hue, I met people who found the sleeper bus was uncomfortable and scary at points. I didn’t want to arrive in Hue exhausted, after a terrible night’s sleep, and potentially ruin a day of exploring. I was very happy with my choice of sleeper train.
Tips for taking a Vietnam sleeper train
- Buy tickets in advance: booking open 60 days (sometimes 90 days) before departure. All trains require a reservation, as they’ll print your train number, carriage number and seat/berth on the ticket. This is especially important during peak seasons, such as Tet: Vietnamese New Year (end of Jan/Feb).
- Bring layers! The sleeper trains are really cold! I left Tam Coc in shorts and t-shirt, given the heat and humidity. Luckily I had my cabin to myself for the entire journey and had my backpacks with me. So I was easily able to get changed and put on lots of layers but if you’re sharing with strangers this might be harder. I
- Buy Water and Snacks ahead of time. There is a small shop at the station but I would strongly advise you to eat a proper meal ahead of time and to bring your own snacks and water. There is a kitchen on board that serves meals for $2. However, this depends on which seat-type you choose and is hard to have on overnight journeys.
- Use blankets/towels over the sheets. My bed hadn’t been slept in but I had heard horror stories about sheets being dirty. Even worse…I met people who took a Vietnam sleeper train half way through its journey to discover their beds had been slept in just before they got on!!
- Use the toilet early in the journey – The toilets weren’t unbearable when I boarded at Ninh Binh. However, by the time we arrived in Hue, they were hideous! I suggest using them as early as possible. given the motion of the train, things spill out…
- Take in the views – you’ll board the sleeper train in the dark, however when the sun rises, you’ll be treated to some pretty spectacular views!
I hope this helps anyone looking to make the journey from Tam Coc or Ninh Binh to Hue via a Vietnam sleeper train. Despite all the horror stories I had heard and read, it was a great journey. Very efficient, logistically easy, cheaper than flying and it saved me a night of accommodation.
Related post: Vietnam Visa: How to Apply for a Vietnam Visa
Happy Travels xx