Navigation Menu

  Authored by Natasha Amar

As many a traveler will tell you, taking an overnight train in Asia is quite an adventure, one that I have always found to be enjoyable and something to look forward to.

Overnight trains are my favorite means of covering long distances because they’re usually friendlier to my budget and more comfortable than taking long road trips being cramped in a small car or bus.

The other advantage is that you get to stretch your legs out and get a good night’s sleep in exchange for just a little bit more than you would pay for a hostel or budget hotel.

Overnight train

Traveling by overnight train. Photo CC by Kirk Siang

That said, it helps if you’re open to surprises and don’t easily get irritated by minor unexpected events. It’s all a part of the ‘travel in Asia’ experience and best taken with a pinch of salt.

Earlier this year, while travelling in Vietnam, I took an overnight AC soft sleeper train from the capital Hanoi to Lao Cai to get to the mountain town of Sapa.

If you’re planning to take an overnight train in Vietnam or are simply curious about long distance train travel in Asia, you’ll find this list of ‘things to know before you go’ useful.

Book in Advance

It’s advisable to book your train tickets in advance via a travel agent especially if you’re planning to travel during peak tourist times or public holidays or have fixed travel dates. This can easily be done by emailing well known operators and paying online through secure systems.

Typically, you receive a voucher by email which needs to be exchanged for an actual ticket at the operator’s counter at the train station before you board the train.

Luggage Size

Once you’re in the country, you’ll notice that the locals in general have a small frame. Vietnamese sizes in local stores are much smaller than standard sizes. Their trains are small too.


Trains are smaller in Vietnam. Photo CC by Khánh Hmoong

What I mean is that the corridors inside the train are quite narrow and you’re likely to get stuck if you’ve strapped on a backpack that is too large or broad or if it’s stuffed with a lot of pretty things that you could not help buying from the local markets (like mine was).

Whether it’s a backpack or suitcase you carry, ensure that it’s not too large and can easily be stored along with the bags of fellow passengers under the lower berth of the cabin.

Lower or Upper Berth?

The peculiar thing about the overnight train that I took in Vietnam was that unlike what I’d seen in the AC Soft Sleeper trains in Thailand, there wasn’t really a ladder to get up to the Upper Berth.

Instead, there was a tiny peg between the upper and lower berths to place one foot, and a stainless steel frame on the edge of the Upper berth that you could hold onto for support and use to hoist yourself up. Not a good idea if you’re a little heavy or suffer from knee or leg injuries of any kind.

Upper Berth

Upper Berth – not so great if you’re a little heavy or suffer from a knee injury.

On my way back from Lao Cai to Hanoi, due to the carelessness of my travel agent, I was allotted an Upper Berth that I had to take in spite of an injured knee. It was an unpleasant experience every time I had to step down or get up again.

The elderly lady on the opposite Upper Berth also expressed her discomfort with this which makes me believe that the Lower Berths are far more comfortable for the elderly.


Based on my experience travelling by the Sapaly Express AC Soft Sleeper, I think it’s a great way to cover long distances in the country while getting a good night’s sleep.

The mattress, though thin is very comfortable. The bedding is clean and every berth comes with its own reading light and electrical charging point.


Overnight train in comfort. Photo CC by Kyle Taylor

The toilets are clean but remember to carry your own toilet paper.


During both my journeys from Hanoi and returning from Lao Cai, I arrived one and a half to two hours later than the mentioned time of arrival, which makes me believe that this is a frequent occurrence. Don’t expect to arrive at the time mentioned in your travel agent’s email, arrival times of trains in many Asian countries are almost always delayed.

If you plan onward travel, like I did to Halong Bay on the same morning that I arrived in Hanoi from Lao Cai, be sure to allow enough time for delays.

Meals Onboard

Food and beverages can be bought on board – instant noodles seem like the most popular meal onboard.

Instant noodles

Instant noodles are a popular food choice. Photo CC by Daniel Go

Though it’s definitely a better idea to bring your own food to snack on for long journeys.

Beware of Scams

When you arrive at the train station, look around carefully to find the counter of the travel company whose name is mentioned on your voucher so that you can exchange it for an actual ticket. Do not hand over your voucher to a random stranger who offers to help you or someone who is not from the company.

There have been cases of touts offering to help tourists who naively hand over the voucher to the tout, only to have money extorted from them in return for the voucher.

Ensure that you have the contact number of the travel agent who booked your ticket so that you can get in touch in case you don’t find their counter at the station.

Enjoy the Journey!

Finally, remember to enjoy the journey! Depending on how long it is and which route you take, the ride will take you through traditional villages, farms or mountain scenery.

Beautiful scenery along the way – rice paddies in Vietnam. Photo CC Global Water Forum

The country offers some fantastic views to wake up to which easily make up for the minor delays.

Natasha Amar is a travel blogger based in Dubai and likes to experience the world in cultures, cuisines & hiking trails. She writes about people, places & things that amaze, shock & inspire her on her travels.

You can connect with her on InstagramTwitterFacebook and Google+


  1. In some ways this sounds similar to Thai trains, but I was really curious to hear the differences. I’d actually love to eat ramen noodles on my train ride! Question – are there different classes and if so, which did you ride? Thanks!
    Emiko recently posted…The Colors of MoroccoMy Profile

    • Hi Emiko,
      I traveled by the AC Soft Sleeper class which was great. From what I heard, this is the most comfortable option vs.the others.
      Natasha Amar recently posted…The Co-Passenger Of Your NightmaresMy Profile

    • On the Lao Cai (Sa Pa) trains there is also a variety of nicely decored provate 2berth cabins. Don’t expect that much scenery though, the train leaves at night. The train also has a bar on it.

  2. Such an interesting article! I lived in Ras Al Khaimah for nine years and used Dubai as my launching off point during that time period! Thanks for sharing!I hope to make it to Vietnam one day soon.
    Amy B recently posted…The Non-traditional Book SigningMy Profile

    • Thanks Amy – so glad you enjoyed the post! I hope you manage to make it to Vietnam soon!

    • Thanks Amy! I like that about Dubai too, it’s well connected to the rest of the world and this lets me travel as often as I like without having to worry too much about the cost of airfare 🙂
      Natasha Amar recently posted…The Co-Passenger Of Your NightmaresMy Profile

  3. Great tips, Natasha. A train ride in Vietnam sounds similar to one in China and Thailand. I always prefer to take the train rather than busses. It’s simply more enjoyable, and I’ve learned that paying a few more dollars on a deluxe ticket can make a huge difference in comfort!
    Miriam of Adventurous Miriam recently posted…A backpacker comes to posh SeminyakMy Profile

    • We havent really traveled through much of Asia yet, so havent really taken the train – though sounds like the experience is a must! I think we would definitely be paying the few extra dollars for comfort though 😀

      Thanks Miriam! So glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

    • From my limited experience riding trains in China, the biggest difference from this list is punctuality. Every train I’ve ridden in China has left on time, or even a minute or two early. It actually makes it kind of stressful when you arrive at a huge train station where nothing is written in English and you know the train is leaving in 20 minutes. But trains are still my favorite way to travel.
      Dan Perry recently posted…Blood Moon Train to BeijingMy Profile

    • Thanks Miriam! I agree the trains in Asia are way more comfortable than the buses and I always get a good night’s sleep on the overnight ones. So, it makes complete sense to pay extra for the AC/Deluxe class 🙂
      Natasha Amar recently posted…The Co-Passenger Of Your NightmaresMy Profile

  4. Excellent info Natasha. Oh how I want to be on that train again. Travelled north from HCMC to Hanoi, but split the journey in Danang (for Hoi An). Lower berths on both legs – so didn’t have to negotiate the wee metal “step” 😉

    Although upstairs neighbour nearly stepped on my head a few times (but whisky had been taken – makes the journey so much more relaxing/sociable I find).

    • Lol so it sounds like regardless of the berth you get both could potentially prove dangerous…depending on how much whisky the neighbour on the upper berth has had when they attempt to climb into bed :D!

      Thanks for sharing your experience Iain! Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

    • Thanks Iain! I wouldn’t blame your upstairs neighbour! I had to be extremely careful when getting up to the upper berth. Glad you enjoyed your ride and didn’t get stepped on 😉
      Natasha Amar recently posted…The Co-Passenger Of Your NightmaresMy Profile

  5. Earlier this year I took the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai! I actually really enjoyed it despite all the inconveniences (like needing toilet paper, the discomfort, etc). But like you say it was an awesome alternative to a long bus ride. The views along the way were stunning also, I can only imagine how amazing they are in Vietnam also 😉
    Alli recently posted…14 Top Photogenic Moments of 2014My Profile

    • We’ve gotten into a habit of now taking toilet paper with us wherever we go, regardless of country lol! I’ve never been on an overnight sleeper train myself, but I can imagine that it would definitely be a better alternative to a long bus ride…had enough of those to last me a life time!

      So glad to hear everyone has been having great experiences with train travel. Thanks for sharing Alli!

    • Thanks Alli! I’ve also taken the Bangkok-Chiang Mai Overnight train and found it just as comfortable as this one. From what I’ve heard from other travelers in Asia, the overnight trains are way more comfortable than the buses. I’ve seen enough pictures of cramped up buses to never want to be on one overnight.
      Natasha Amar recently posted…The Co-Passenger Of Your NightmaresMy Profile

  6. I took few overnight trains in China but I can confirm that all the tips are very true! I just love train travels (probably because I work for the railway too ;)) and everywhere I try to take a train, even if sometimes it can be a challenge (like in Asia :))
    kami recently posted…alternative LjubljanaMy Profile

    • Glad to know these tips are equally as applicable across the wider region of Asia 🙂 Very cool that you worked for the railway – what a cool job to have!

  7. A really nice portrayal of overnight travel in Vietnam. Although aren’t you sitting in a trainhotel in Spain in the photo by Kyle Taylor? ;0)

    • Probably! That photo was me pulling one from the Creative Commons library to add more photographs to the article – I thought it worked well with Natasha’s whole “reading light” bit of text 😀 Will have to do my homework better next time around!!

    • Definitely look to travel via train – I’m hearing nothing but amazing things from everyone who has done so 🙂 Happy travels!

    • I highly recommend it Tam! Even if it’s a few dollars extra, I say pick trains over buses for overnight journeys for the added comfort.
      Natasha Amar recently posted…The Co-Passenger Of Your NightmaresMy Profile

  8. Great tips on taking an overnight train in Vietnam! Although we are not heading to Asia, we will be embarking on a train journey in Europe in the next few weeks though it is only for about 8 days as we head through Switzerland, Italy and Austria. Really looking forward to that and I am sure we can use some of these tips in Europe also.
    Chris Boothman recently posted…Luxury Seafood Cuisine at Cobalt RestaurantMy Profile

    • Definitely – the great thing about Natasha’s tips are they’re fairly universal when it comes to train travel. Europe has a fantastic rail system, so you should be very comfortable – Swiss trains were some of the best I’ve ever been on!

      happy travels!

  9. And the real question everyone wants to know – what’s the toilet situation? I know its the first thing Spanky will always ask me when booking travel and I better have a good answer…
    Lots of good info though!
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • Apparently the toilet situation is pretty good – I’ve heard they’re surprisingly clean and well kept!

    • Hi Frank,
      The toilet situation is pretty decent actually but I’d advise you to carry your own toilet paper, soap and sanitizer. The deluxe or AC sleepers have clean Western style toilets so it isn’t a problem.
      Natasha Amar recently posted…The Co-Passenger Of Your NightmaresMy Profile

  10. Great post! I’ll be traveling over the Easter holidays with my boyfriend. Do you have a travel agent you recommend for booking the train tickets ahead of time?
    Pristine recently posted…Chicken and Chorizo JambalayaMy Profile

    • Hi Pristine,

      I booked my tickets through Sapa O’Chau, a trekking and tours company in Sapa because I travelled to Sapa primarily to volunteer with them at their community school.
      There are many travel agents in Hanoi who can do this for you easily, it’s best to ask your hostel/hotel for recommendations. Sometimes they will even do it for you at no extra cost 🙂
      Natasha Amar recently posted…Travel Photo Series: January 11, 2015My Profile

  11. That looks so relaxing! I’m headed to Vietnam in a couple of months and plan on taking a couple of trains. Thanks for the low down!

    • Happy travels! Let us know how your trip goes 🙂

  12. Great tips! The trains don’t look half bad, and I’d much rather move from place to place while sleeping or blogging. I’m all for multitasking! And that’s crazy that you have to bring your own TP! The more you know!
    Adventuring The Great Wide Somewhere recently posted…Parc NiglolandMy Profile

    • Glad you enjoyed the post! Lol I’m all for multi tasking too – though it’s definitely nice once in a while to be forced to log off 😀

      And we now travel with our own TP anywhere we go out of habit – been caught on that one a few too many times!!!

  13. Your article is really interesting to me.
    My husband and I are planning a train trip from Hanoi to Da Nang in the next few days.
    We do not have much time for our trip so I just ordered the tickets online through the website
    Do you know any good beach hotel in Hoi An?

  14. Aloha, We have been riding trains in Spain and France and love it especially for the scenery. Looking to do Viet Nam next April/May, traveling during the day from Hanoi to Saigon with stops, 2-day each, in Hue and Nahtrang. Any thoughts would be appreciated, Mahalo

  15. Sorry, forgot to mark the “follow-up comments by email” Aloha

  16. Hi we have just come off the over night train from Hue to Hanoi it was a 13 and 15hour trip. Our room didn’t look anything like the ones you had in the photos and the toilet were dirty with no toilet paper.
    Food we were offered boiled eggs and hot cobs of corn and chips and drinks that we paid for. Then they came back later and we had chicken and rice and a weird soup. The nnouncments were only in Vietnamese so was hard to understand what they were saying. All in all it wasn’t a bad trip

    • Hi Fay, thanks for sharing your experiences with us – glad to hear that overall it wasn’t a bad trip. That many hours on one form of transport can always be a trying experience!

      Sorry to hear the toilet was dirty 🙁 Maybe Natasha here either got super lucky with her trips or you guys weren’t so lucky toilets wise. But carrying toilet paper with you everywhere is something I even do in places like the US now – doesn’t matter where you go, it’s always the worst to get stuck without it, especially when the toilets aren’t that clean.

      Hope you’re enjoying your time in Vietnam 🙂 Travel safe!

    • Fay, by chance do you know the number of the train you took? I’m looking to book that same trip. Thanks!

    • Hi Fay: We are doing the train from Hanoi to Hue in Oct/2016. My question is, is there a max size/weight for luggage on the train? I am worried that my suitcase won’t fit under the seat. Thanks!

    • Hi Pat,

      From my experience on the train to Sapa, there isn’t a max size or weight mentioned on the ticket but you’d be okay with a medium sized suitcase or even a large backpack (mine was 85l). The train corridors are quite narrow, so you need to have something that isn’t too broad so you can carry it through.


  17. I will be travelling the night train to Sapa soon as a solo female traveler. Can you only book in a 4 berth? No single berth rooms? Just wondering how safe it is….

    Any train companies you recommend?

    • Hi Melanie,

      There are 4 berth cabins and VIP 2-berth ones. I traveled solo and felt completely safe in a 4-berth. These trains are full of both tourists and locals including families, so there is nothing to worry about safety wise.

    • Oh and my experience with the Sapaly Express was great, I can highly recommend it.

  18. Hello Natasha!

    Thank you for your tips, I find them very useful.

    We are visiting Vietnam in September and I’ve just started to plan the journey. Could you name the travel agency where you’ve bought the ticket?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Agata,
      I was volunteering in Sapa with an organization called Sapa O Chau- they also have a tour company and they booked the tickets for me 🙂 hope this helps.

    • Just returned from Vietnam where we rode the train from Hanoi to Hue, then a few days later on to Nha Trang. No tourists and just a couple of back-packers, otherwise all locals. Aloha

  19. Used to travel accross south east asian railroad. Always enjoy this special mix of color, smell and supended time. Enjoy it befor change as they plan massiv investment on railroad infrastructure for the decade.

    • So glad to hear you have wonderful memories of train travel in this region too Ely 🙂 Yes, absolutely agree on visiting and experiencing Vietnam now before too much authenticity is lost to modern advancements.
      Meg Jerrard recently posted…5 Reasons You Should Visit SicilyMy Profile

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge