Backpacking Vietnam by train is one of the best adventures to be found in Southeast Asia. The route on this page follows the Re-Unification express, an unofficial term used to describe the line which runs between the country’s two biggest cities (Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh City).
TIME NEEDED – 3 WEEKS
Could be done in 2 weeks but might feel a little rushed. You might need slightly more than 3 weeks if you do the suggested ‘extensions’ too.
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £385 €440 $500
(roughly 11.6 million Vietnamese Dong as of January 2019. US Dollars are accepted in many places)
This does not include the cost of flights to/from Vietnam or any visa/vaccination/travel insurance expenses, which in total could dwarf this figure if you’re travelling from far away. You’ll get more value for money in terms of your pre-trip expenses if you combine this with visits to some of the other countries in the region. Read more on the cost of travel in Vietnam for a lowdown on sample prices and typical backpacking budgets.
Visitors from other ASEAN countries and many European countries including the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Russia and Italy can now visit Vietnam visa-free for a limited amount of time (normally 15 days). However most international visitors still require a visa to enter the country.
Highly advisable in Vietnam and all Southeast Asian Countries. Read who we think offers the best travel insurance for backpackers.
Backpacking Vietnam – A 3 Week Itinerary
Our Vietnam backpacking route basically follows the rail-line but some of the best destinations are in nearby towns or areas that don’t have a train station so we’ve added suggestions for connections. The trip from Hanoi in North Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City in the South is 1725 km long, taking roughly 30-35 hours passing some breathtaking scenery along the way.
Of course few people do the trip in one journey as there is so much to see in between the two terminals. Conveniently this train-line runs close to or through all the major stops on the Vietnam backpacker trail. The journey is pretty comfortable with air-con and sleeper compartments available on night trains.
The country’s capital city, home to the Vietnamese government and resting place of the great leader, Ho Chi Minh himself. This colonial city is home to many lakes and a beautiful old quarter where most backpackers tend to congregate. Although it is smaller than Saigon in the South, many travellers find Hanoi more interesting and more welcoming.
Extension – Don’t miss Ha Long Bay!
Hanoi is also the closest point on the route to the amazing Ha Long Bay, Vietnam’s biggest natural wonder with its beautiful emerald waters and literally thousands of limestone islets. Take a 2-3 hour bus or train to Haiphong and get a boat to the bay from there. You can either backtrack to Hanoi after that and start out on the re-unification express or take a bus to Ninh Binh from Haiphong taking roughly 3 hours.
journey from Hanoi to Ninh Binh: 2 hours 20 mins
2. Ninh Binh
Unremarkable but ridiculously friendly town. Get ready for locals, especially children coming to say hello to you in the street. It is a short moto or cycle to the caves at Tam Coc, which are the main reason travellers come to Ninh Binh. By night there’s not much to do except head to a bar and drink a few beers with the locals.
journey from Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi: 7 hours 40 mins, passing through Thanh Hoa and Vinh which have little going on really but may be a nice stop if you fancy seeing a completely tourist-free town.
3. Dong Hoi
Many travellers choose to skip Dong Hoi also and do the night train from Ninh Binh to Hue but if you do stop here, you can visit the quite stunning 55km long Phong Nha Cave.
journey from Dong Hoi to Hue: 3 hours 15 mins
The city is popular with anyone backpacking Vietnam and travellers tend to gather in a small section of town near the wide and curiously coloured Perfume River. The old citadel isn’t particularly amazing but is the main site in this city which seems to get the worst of Vietnam’s wet season. It regularly rains here for days on end but there are some excellent traditional Vietnamese restaurants and lively Western bars to stay dry in.
Central Vietnam is also where a lot of the most fierce fighting took place. There are plenty of sites relating to the Vietnam War nearby which you may find fascinating or otherwise, depending on your interest levels in the conflict, known as the American War in these parts.
journey from Hue to Da Nang: 2 hours 30 mins and the most spectacular part of the entire line.
5. Da Nang (for Hoi An)
Da Nang is a big city but has few sights. For most travellers it simply serves as a gateway to nearby Hoi An, around a 20 minute taxi or moto ride from Da Nang Station (shouldn’t cost more than $5). Hoi An is famous for its tailor-made clothes and boasts a beautiful riverside setting. Its ancient centre has gained UNESCO world heritage status and you really do feel like you’re stepping back in time there. The town is also a culinary hot-spot with plenty of excellent cheap eats in Hoi An. As an added bonus, it’s also only a few miles away from a great beach so there really is a little something for all tastes here and it’s certainly one of Vietnam’s backpacking highlights.
journey from Da Nang to Dieu Tri: 6 hours passing through Quang Ngai, a non-touristy town where very little English is spoken
6. Dieu Tri (for Qui Nhon)
Qui Nhon is more popular with local tourists than backpackers but it has a few beautiful deserted beaches just out of town which are nice if you have time to take this route a bit slower than the suggested 3 weeks. You can also visit the Cham Temples in the areas surrounding this lively port town.
journey from Dieu Tri to Nha Trang: 3 hours 30 mins
7. Nha Trang
Vietnam’s biggest seaside destination. The beach here is actually quite dirty but it is long and has plenty of water sport options including kite-surfing. The nightlife is livelier here than any of the previous stops on this route with a couple of bars such as Bar Why Not? and an excellent one on the beach open until 3 a.m.. Some travellers find it a little bit seedy but there’s a beautiful temple near the train station if you want a slightly more cultural experience.
Extension – Da Lat
You can also do the trip to the mountain town of Da Lat from Nha Trang although it is quite a long journey (3-4 hours) on winding roads. The fresh mountain air is a pleasant contrast to the heat and humidity of the coast and there’s some wonderful countryside to explore. If you do come, there are affordable tourist buses that will take you direct to Mui Ne beach.
journey from Nha Trang to Binh Thuan: 4 hours
8. Binh Thuan (for Mui Ne)
Mui Ne isn’t really a town, more like a long coastal road about 20km or so long with many hostels and restaurants dotted around it. The beach is quiet and very relaxing, while the hot sand dunes are perhaps what the area is most famous for and great for exploring although avoid the middle of the afternoon when your feet will burn!
Coming from the North, the re-unification express stops at Binh Thuan but there is a closer train station at Phan Thiet with loads of bus and taxi links to Mui Ne (about 30 minutes). Heading on south, it’s probably best to head to Phan Thiet from where you can take a direct train to Saigon. At the time of writing, there is a 13:15 departure each day.
journey from Phan Thiet to HCMC: 4 hours
9. Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon)
When backpacking through Vietnam, most travellers head here either first or last. It is the biggest and by a distance, most westernised city in the country but it is a bit manic with crowded roads full of motorbikes. Saigon has a large backpacker scene and many things to do, much of which relate to the Vietnam War and the USA’s involvement. The city is also the base for seeing the far south of the country which enjoys a hot climate and is a bit more chilled out than much of this fabulously crazy country.
Obviously you could also do the journey the opposite way around and journey times and prices are almost exactly the same if you start in HCMC and head North to Hanoi.
Check out all our Asia backpacking routes!
Backpacking Vietnam Tips
How much does it cost to travel Vietnam by Train?
The trainline is not only a great way to see the country but it is also brilliant value. If you were to book a ticket all the way from Saigon to Hanoi (or vice-versa) it would cost just 907,000 Dong (roughly $40) for a seat while the most luxurious of the sleeper options is still only 1,423,000 Dong (roughly $60). Given the whole journey is around 30-35 hours, that’s exceptionally good value. These prices are as of January 2019. Go to Seat61 for the latest prices and more great info on trains in Vietnam.
Budget Accommodation in Vietnam
Hostelling hasn’t really taken off as rapidly in Vietnam as it has in its neighbours but that is changing fast with the number of backpackers visiting the country ever increasing. Hostels can now be found pretty easily in most spots on this route but the cost of budget hotels is so low, there’s often no real need to be sweating it out in crowded dorms.
You can sometimes get a private room in a decent hotel often with a swimming pool and good facilities for as little as $10 and in the big cities you can find dirt cheap budget rooms for half that (many aren’t advertised online but can be found in the sidestreets of the ‘backpacker district’). Obviously solo travellers may still prefer hostels from a social perspective but it is worth comparing hotel prices and keeping an eye out for any great deals.
Extending your Trip – Backpacking Cambodia, Thailand & Laos
In truth very few backpackers head all the way to Southeast Asia and then only visit Vietnam, even though it is arguably the most interesting country to visit. Options for extending your trip are plentiful.
Parts of this route feature in our mainland Southeast Asia Route, which also takes in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos and Singapore. You can easily squeeze this full Vietnam route in, with taking a flight from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi perhaps the best option and then just following the route from Ho Chi Minh City into Cambodia.
If you’re looking for something a bit different to the well-trodden backpacker trail in SE Asia, take a look at our Myanmar route or our Indonesia Route. If you need help linking them into one trip please use the comments section below and let us know any questions you may have.
Of course in Vietnam, there are cool places that are not on or near the trainline, you may also wish to visit. Highlights include the mountain towns of Dalat (extension suggested above) and Sapa, which you can reach by a different train from Hanoi that heads towards China.
There is also a night train from Hanoi to Nanning in China, taking 12 hours. It also carries on all the way to Beijing (an extra 24 hours)!
This page was last updated in January 2019.
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