Chris boarding the Da Nang to Hanoi train
Asia, Vietnam

Da Nang to Hanoi By Train • Railway Adventures in Vietnam

I’ve been on plenty of long distance trains before- the Coast Starlight in California, the Glacier Express in Switzerland, the Sunset Limited across the southern states of the USA, and a rather nightmarish ten hour journey from Zürich to Hamburg being just a few of them- with, to be honest, widely varying levels of enjoyment. But the 17 hour journey from Da Nang to Hanoi by train- and sleeper train, no less- was my first experience of train travel in south east Asia.

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The two cities of Da Nang and Hanoi are like chalk and cheese. Da Nang is an up-and-coming, rapidly developing seaside metropolis, scattered with futuristic buildings which light up at night in a neon kaleidoscope. And in the north, the landlocked capital city of Hanoi is a much more weathered mixture of ancient and modern, although its beating heart is the bustling Old Quarter.

Having spent some time exploring Da Nang and visiting the neighbouring ancient city of Hoi An (which is magical, I highly recommend it), it was time to head on out.

How to travel from Da Nang to Hoi An

Da Nang to Hanoi by train: how to buy train tickets

The best way to buy train tickets in Vietnam is to buy them online and then have the tickets saved onto your phone. You can then just show your e-ticket to a conductor once you’re on the train. It’s not necessary to have printed tickets, however if you feel safer with a physical piece of paper there are kiosks at the station where you can print e-tickets.

The best site for booking trains in Vietnam is undoubtedly 12Go.

Search for Da Nang to Hanoi by train and 12Go will show you every departure time and class of travel possible, and you can then purchase the ticket through the 12Go website or app. Bear in mind these tickets are not flexible- you have to board the exact train you’ve booked, and also sit in the exact seat or bed given to you at the time of booking.

It is possible to purchase train tickets directly from the train ticket office in Da Nang, however English isn’t widely spoken- you can avoid a lot of confusion and stress by going straight to 12Go instead! Train stations also tend not to accept cards, so if you buy your ticket in person you’ll need to make sure you have enough cash on you.

How long is the train from Da Nang to Hanoi?

The journey time from Da Nang to Hanoi by train differs slightly, depending on which train you take, and how many stops the service has. But generally it’ll last between 15 and 17 hours. Our journey on the sleeper train took around 17 hours.

Other options for travelling between Da Nang and Hanoi

The reason we chose to travel from Da Nang to Hanoi by train was actually mainly for the experience. Travelling by sleeper train in Vietnam was an experience we all wanted to have, but of course it’s also a very budget-friendly and eco-friendly way of travelling. Taking the sleeper train also saved us money for one night’s accommodation. Score!

However, of course the train isn’t the only way you can travel between these two cities.

If you’re short on time, there are plenty of airlines which fly direct from Da Nang to Hanoi, with a flight time of less than 90 minutes. Check flights on Skyscanner.

You could also travel by bus from Da Nang to Hanoi. The journey time is also around 17 hours, although it’s significantly cheaper than taking the train. My experience of travelling on long distance buses in Vietnam is fairly good- for a long journey like this you’ll likely be on a sleeper bus with fully reclining bunk bed style seats- but personally I preferred traveling by train so I could get up and walk around. You can also book bus journeys in Vietnam through 12Go.

The Reunification Line

Not only do I love train journeys in far-off countries, but I also really appreciate a magical-sounding name for a train or a railway line. And this line, which runs all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, is known as the Reunification Line.

It’s a pretty symbolic part of Vietnam’s history, and its story is completely intertwined with the colonialism and wars that this beautiful nation has suffered under. Work on the exceedingly long railway line was started in 1899 and finished in 1936, when Vietnam was under French colonial rule- and the trains still travel at a pretty similar speed to the speed of its 1930s counterparts, hence the seventeen hour travel time between Da Nang and Hanoi. During World War 2, Japan occupied Vietnam and made use of this marvellous railway- which meant that it also became a target for US and Allied forces.

In 1954 French colonial rule was finally over, and a bunch of people at a conference in Geneva declared that Vietnam would be split into two states, until a free election could be held to reunify the country. (I’m over-simplifying here, but you get my drift.) North Vietnam was communist, with strong links to the Soviet Union, and South Vietnam was capitalist, and strongly backed by the USA. The railway was also split into two, and during the American War (known as the Vietnam War to the USA) it again suffered heavy damage as it was hit both in the northern and the southern sections.

In 1976, the devastating war had finally ended, the Americans had left, and north and south was reunified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.Everything was definitely not hunkydory for the ordinary Vietnamese people- life under a communist dictatorship is, by all accounts, not easy- and there was a steady stream of refugees escaping from the south for years.

But- the railway line was stitched back together at each of its burst seams, and the Reunification Line became an important symbol of the country coming together again.

Our own experience of the sleeper train

Da Nang train station

Call me crazy- it’s ok, I understand- but I love the feeling of getting on a train and heading somewhere new. What’s about to happen!? Where are we gonna go!? Will there be coffee on board!? (Spoiler alert: we actually did not find coffee on board.)

We ordered a Grab car to Da Nang Station, pulling up in front of the old steam locomotive outside the building with more than an hour to spare before our train arrived, and heaped our bags together in a corner inside. We’d stocked up on snacks in a grocery store, but had been hoping to find somewhere in the station to grab some kind of a meal before we started our journey.

As it happened, Da Nang train station is much more similar to a generic US Amtrak station than a European one: in Europe, train stations can seem like small shopping malls with the amount of food outlets, gift shops and clothes stores you can find, but Da Nang’s large ticketing hall contained screens showing arrivals and departures, benches to sit on, ticket machines and ticket booths. It really was, just a ticketing hall.

No problemo.

Polis stayed with the bags, and Chris and I went off in search of sustenance. We found a little place halfway down the road and ordered two bowls of rice mixed with some kind of meat and some sorts of vegetables. They gave us each a bowl of broth to accompany our rice, which we wolfed down too, unsure if we were supposed to eat it at the same time or in a special order. Eating in Vietnam was an adventure in that we never quite understood what it was we were eating or how on earth was the right way to consume it. And there always seemed to be a plethora of small bowls to accompany main dishes, filled with all sorts of watery sauces and broths and herbs. I was a fan, if you can really call someone with no understanding of something, a fan.

We arrived back at the station a little later than planned, full of mysterious rice and mysterious broth, and tag teamed Polis so he could go and hunt for some vegetarian food. Before too long, he was back, and the train was pulling into the station. We crossed the open air tracks outside, underneath a sign in cursive letters which read ‘Have a good trip!’

How lovely, I thought. Don’t mind if we do.

The sleeper carriage

We made our way down the narrow corridor of our sleeper carriage, peering at each door until we located the compartment we’d booked. There are several ticketing choices available when travelling from Da Nang to Hanoi by train, and we had gone for a VIP sleeper with Vietnam Railways. (You can also book seats in seating-only carriages, and harder beds in 6-berth hard sleeper carriages.)

There was a set of bunk beds on each side of the compartment, and a small table jutting out from underneath the window. On each bed was a white sheet, a thin duvet cover, and a pillow, and there was a light and a plug socket at the head of each one too. Each mattress was covered with navy blue plasticky material similar to the material that bouncy castles are made out of; these mattresses were comfortable, but not bouncy, in case you’re wondering. There was enough space under the beds to fit our two big backpacks and one medium-sized suitcase. It was basic, but basic was pretty much all we needed.

The bathroom was at the end of the carriage; in the night you had to climb over a sleeping train steward to reach it, and although it was by no means a luxurious affair (the smell was questionable), it was usable. I’ve been in far worse bathrooms across the world, that’s all I’m saying. Outside that was a row of sinks in front of a large mirror, and the steward was of course occasionally present to witness you brushing your teeth or washing your hands.

We set ourselves up for the next 17 hours. Bags under the beds, snacks in accessible locations, books and earphones readily at hand. As the train bumped and heaved and wobbled away from Da Nang, the sun was already sinking below the horizon, but still I kept half an eye out of the window, trying to catch any glimpse of the rolling green hills and mountains as they tumbled past in the dusky twilight.

The reality of sleeping on a sleeper train

The fourth bed in our compartment was on-and-off occupied throughout the journey, first by a local man, who then got booted out by the conductor and replaced by a local woman instead. It’s funny when things happen around you in a language you don’t understand. If all that bed-shuffling had taken place on a train in England, the steward or our fellow passengers would probably have explained the situation, but instead we just hazarded guesses and resigned ourselves to never finding out.

A few hours into the journey, we turned off the main light and prepared for some shuteye.

And that is when all the door slamming began.

The rattling of the train was very easy to deal with; I suppose when you’re used to sleeping in a tin cabin in the bowels of a rolling ship like I am, sleeping in a moving space actually becomes quite normal. But the door slamming was off the scale of strangeness. Every now and then the conductor would walk up and down the corridor outside, noisily opening the compartment doors, peering in with a bright white torchlight, and then slamming the doors shut when he was satisfied with what he saw.

I’m not exactly sure what he was looking for, but the combination of outside light flooding in, coupled with the jarring slam of each door as it opened and closed- including, of course, our own door- was a lot. As crazy as it feels to be woken up almost instantly at the precise second you drift off to sleep, I’m luckily not the sort to get overly aggravated by something that’s so out of my control. I resigned myself to getting minimal sleep, still feeling grateful for the bed.

The final wake up call was around 5am, when the Vietnamese girl got out of bed to leave the train. I drifted in and out of painful, sore-eyed sleep for a few more hours, until the sun was up on a drizzly day outside.

10 Days in Vietnam: Our Itinerary

In-house entertainment

Is there in-house entertainment on trains in Vietnam? Not in the traditional sense of the word, no. But what there is, is people.

In the morning, we sat on our beds with the door to our compartment open, re-organising things inside our bags and talking about our plans for arriving into Hanoi. Mostly we needed coffee, in fact quite desperately we needed coffee. People were moving up and down the corridor outside, adults organising, and children making friends with neighbouring children. It was all quite a jovial atmosphere, and a jolly way to be waking up. Even when we’d actually barely slept.

A few adults led a gaggle of children to and from the bathroom, and on his third trip to and from, a boy who looked around eight or nine years old gave us a very sparkly side eye and flashed a quick wave our way with a blurted out, “Hello!”

“Hello!” we called back from where we were sitting.

Next came a single thumbs up, which appeared on an arm extended from behind the edge of the door. When we laughed and called out another “hello!” the thumb was exchanged for a double thumbs up, and then a talking hand, which had there been shadows at play might have looked like the silhouette of a swan or a dragon chatting away. I’m telling you now: I am all about this style of communication.

Polis extended his best shadow-hand-puppet-talking-animal-style gesture into the hallway, which I have to say was genuinely quite impressive.

Well that was it. The ice was broken. The friendship was solid. This little boy was now fully committed to his goal of making us laugh; he had a talent for comedy and was more than prepared to share it. (Also, truth be told he’d found the ideal audience in us. We were exactly his target market and he knew it.) Each time he walked past our door, he did so in a different character, occasionally using a bed sheet as a carefully-wrapped accessory. He took on the role of a shuffling old man with a round belly, a bride in a veil, and some kind of gremlin-type creature all in the space of about 30 seconds flat. I seriously was impressed, and also dying of laughter.

His brother and their new-found friends joined in from time to time, although they were mostly content to let him be the star of the show. Every now and then the youngest girl would peek just her eyes around the side of the door, then shuffle-run away in her pink crocs.

When the boy had exhausted his repertoire of characters, he stood in the doorway practicing his best, school-learnt English on us. I was impressed.

“How old are you? Where do you live?”

And a few times, “You have beautiful eyes!” Which, it quickly became clear, was one of the key phrases that these kids had learnt when studying English. It’s as good a phrase as any, I suppose. On Duolingo one of the first sentences you’re spoon-fed in German is “das ist brot.” Telling somebody that they have nice eyes will probably get you further in life than announcing “that is bread,” whenever you spot a loaf. The likelihood is that everybody already knows when bread is bread, but a compliment like “you have beautiful eyes” contains the element of surprise. Clever.

The boy got out his phone and asked if he could take a selfie with us (not before he’d shown us his TikTok account, obviously.) His brother and their friends joined him in the doorway, a gaggle of small pals posing for selfies on each and every phone in the vicinity- including our own, but don’t worry, the parents were very much in the know. The girl disappeared momentarily, then reappeared with lollies for each of us, and next thing you know, more sweets and tiny shiny rose apples were being thrust into our hands. It was really, really cute.

I’m not being funny, but you don’t get moments like these on an airplane.

Tips for travelling from Da Nang to Hanoi by train

  • Bring plenty of snacks and drinks. There is food and drink for sale on the train, but I hadn’t heard great things and was happy to settle with my snack selection.
  • Toilet paper is a rarity! Consider bringing your own; even just a couple of small packs of tissues will get you far, my friend.
  • Ditto for hand sanitiser. This is a Vietnamese sleeper train, not The Ritz.
  • There’s not often wifi available on board these trains! I used Airalo e-sims the whole time we were in south east Asia and they’re a really convenient way of remaining connected, with no need to track down physical sim cards.
  • The air conditioning worked a treat in our carriage, in fact I’d go so far as to say it worked a little too well. It’s a great idea to have at least a thin jumper or scarf with you.

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