Led by Tim Doling, author of the book The Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam (White Lotus Press, 2012) and Mountains and Ethnic Minorities: North West Việt Nam (Thế Giới Publishers, 2010), this tour is designed for people who enjoy train travel, however it is not designed exclusively for rail enthusiasts and doesn’t include visits to engine sheds! Instead, the focus is on using the train as much as possible to discover Việt Nam, its history and culture.

A noteworthy feature of this tour is that it explores VNR’s entire northern network, travelling along railway lines not normally used by foreign tourists to visit the remote northeast border area around Lạng Sơn, the World Heritage Site of Hạ Long Bay and the industrial city of Thái Nguyên, the only place now left in Việt Nam with operational steam locomotives. We hire our own private restaurant/bar railway carriages with dedicated English-speaking staff, and whilst some of the rolling stock we travel in has seen better days (unfortunately modern air-conditioned carriages are not yet cleared for use on all lines!), you can be sure that your journey will be an enjoyable one. The trip concludes with an overnight sleeper train trip to Sapa and a visit to a remote ethnic minority market town in the northern mountains close to the Chinese border.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Travel with leading authority Tim Doling as your tour host and obtain fascinating insight into the history and development of the Việt Nam railway network and the ethnic diversity of the northern mountainous region.
  • Explore all of VNR’s northern rail network travelling in private railway carriages
  • Take a city tour of Hà Nội.
  • Explore the remote northeast border region around Lạng Sơn.
  • Cruise the awe-inspiring UNESCO World Natural Heritage site of Hạ Long Bay.
  • Ride behind a steam locomotive at the Thái Nguyên Steel Company HQ.
  • Make an exclusive visit to the Vietnam Railways Exhibition room.
  • Take the Fansipan Express sleeper train up to Sapa and encounter colourful ethnic minority groups in the remote northern mountains close to the Chinese border.

ITINERARY

Day 1: Arrive Hà Nội (Thursday) (D)

Arriving in the northern capital, you’ll be met by your tour host and tour guide and transferred to your railway-themed hotel right opposite Hà Nội Railway Station for check-in and a briefing on what to expect during your trip. In the evening we will get together for a welcome dinner.

Overnight in Hà Nội

Day 2: Hà Nội (Friday) (B, L)

We start the day with visits to the Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum, the Presidential Palace Vestiges Area, the One-Pillar Pagoda and the Temple of Literature, then it’s back to Ngọc Sơn Temple on Hoàn Kiếm Lake to learn about the legend of the ‘Restored Sword’. In the afternoon we’ll enjoy an exclusive visit the Vietnam Railways Exhibition Room (not open to the general public) for an introduction to the history and development of the Vietnamese rail network. In the evening we’ll attend a performance by the famous Hà Nội Water Puppet Theatre.

Overnight in Hà Nội

Day 3: Hà Nội - Lạng Sơn (Saturday) (B, L)

It’s an early start today as we commence our train journey by heading northeastwards on the Hà Nội-Đồng Đăng line, originally constructed by the French Army in 1890-1894 as a 0.6m Decauville line but subsequently rebuilt in 1899-1902 to 1m gauge in order to connect the capital with the Chinese frontier. Our private carriage will be coupled to Train ĐĐ3, departing from Gia Lâm at 0602. We’ll take breakfast boxes with us on the train and our carriage on this non-tourist route will be old but comfortable and air-conditioned. During the trip you’ll learn about the history of the line. We’ll arrive in Lạng Sơn at 1135 and after checking into our hotel we’ll have lunch in a local restaurant. In the afternoon we’ll visit some of the highlights of the scenic north-east border area, including the spectacular Nhị Thanh and Tam Thanh grottoes and the 16th-century ruins of a Mạc dynasty citadel. In the evening we can sample some of the local cuisine at the busy Kỳ Lừa Night Market.

Overnight in Lạng Sơn

Day 4: Lạng Sơn - Hà Nội (Sunday) (B, L, D)

We’re up early again this morning to visit Gieng Vuong market, the biggest wholesale market which open everyday. Then we’re back to Lạng Sơn for a leisurely morning tour, taking in the ancient Tả Phủ Temple, the Lạng Sơn Provincial Museum and surviving sections of another old citadel, this one built by Lord Trịnh Doanh in 1750 and reconstructed in the 1830s by Nguyễn king Minh Mạng, who is also credited for establishing Lạng Sơn as the provincial capital. After an early lunch we’ll return to Lạng Sơn Railway Station, where our private carriage will be coupled to Train ĐĐ4, departing at 1330 and arriving back in Gia Lâm at 19.02. Dinner will be served on the train. A bus will convey us back to our hotel in the capital.

Overnight in Hà Nội

Day 5: Hà Nội - Hải Phòng - Hạ Long Bay (Monday) (B, L, D)

This morning we’ll head east along the Gia Lâm-Hải Phòng line, completed in 1902 as the southernmost section of the French Indochina and Yunnan Railway (CIY). Our private carriage will be coupled to Train LP3, departing from Gia Lâm at 0938 and arriving at Hải Phòng at 1210. Again, our carriage on this non-tourist route will be basic but comfortable and air-conditioned. An early lunch will be served on the train before arrival in Hải Phòng. After a quick tour of the city’s beautiful French colonial architecture, we’ll continue by road to the World Heritage Site of Hạ Long Bay, where we’ll begin a spectacular cruise of the bay on board our luxurious ship, built as a traditional wooden junk with modern contemporary Vietnamese design and featuring spacious cabins and suites with their own bathrooms, a large sun deck, an elegant dining room and a lounge bar. 

The afternoon cruise to the less visited section of the bay, Bai Tu Long will start with a visit to Cap La where you can kayak around the fishing village to have a closer look at daily life of local fishermen. You also can choose to swim or relax on the sundeck before dinner on board.

Overnight on junk

Day 6: Hạ Long Bay (Tuesday) (B, L, D)

Located in the Gulf of Tonkin, Hạ Long Bay (Hạ Long means “Bay of the Descending Dragon” in Vietnamese) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an area of great natural beauty, with over 3,000 limestone islands rising dramatically out of the water. The islands assume intriguing formations and local legends and stories abound, inspired by their shapes which have been likened to chickens, dragons, sails or human heads.

Your day start at 8:30am after breakfast. The junk cruises further to southeast direction to Cong Dam so that you can kayak through the hidden lagoons while exploring the geological park. Swimming in the crystal water is also available. After lunch, we continue to cruise to Hon Co island admire the picturesque beauty of the bay as well as more kayaking. The visit to Thien Canh Son cave and a sumptuous dinner right there will surely of the the trip’s many highlights.

Overnight on junk

Day 7: Hạ Long – Kép - Hà Nội (Wednesday) (B, L, D)

After breakfast, your morning tour begins with a visit to Vung Vieng fishing village by rustic row-boats, paddled by the villagers. This area is well chosen by local residents as it is surrounded in all directions by mountains. The boat tour will pass by house-boats, a cultured pearl farm and a floating elementary school. After this, the junk will start to go back to the harbour while lunch is served. Leave the boat at noon time.

Then we offer something a bit different as we travel back to the capital along the Hạ Long line, part-built to 1m-gauge in 1973 and completed as a standard gauge line in 1983. Currently used only by ancient coal and market trains, this line will be replaced over the next few years with a fast “short cut” line from Lim, which is still under construction. After lunch we’ll board our standard-gauge carriage which will be coupled onto train R158, departing Hạ Long at 1320. Dinner will be served on the train. Unfortunately since no standard-gauge generator cars or air-conditioned rolling stock is cleared for use on this line, our carriage will be old, basic and not air-conditioned. This train is also very slow, so to ensure that we don’t get back to the capital too late, when the train reaches Kép junction at 1735 we will get off and transfer to a coach for the last part of the journey back to Hà Nội.

Overnight in Hà Nội

Day 8: Hà Nội - Thái Nguyên (Thursday) (B, L)

Today we head north to the industrial city of Thái Nguyên to visit the Thái Nguyên Steel Company (TISCO), the only place now left in Việt Nam with operational steam locomotives. As there are no morning train services on the standard-gauge Thái Nguyên branch, our outward journey will be by bus. On arrival at the works we’ll enjoy a tour, followed by a short steam-hauled train trip hauled by a Chinese Gongjian-class 0-6-0T steam locomotive. After lunch we’ll visit the excellent Thái Nguyên Museum of the Cultures of Việt Nam’s Ethnic Groups to prepare for our weekend trip to Sa Pa by learning about the colourful cultures of Việt Nam’s 54 different ethnicities. 

Overnight in Thái Nguyên

Day 9: Thái Nguyên - Lưu Xá - Hà Nội - Lào Cai (Friday) (B, D)

Early bird breakfast at the hotel and check out.

Having been dispatched to Quán Triều (Thái Nguyên) to meet us, our private carriage will be coupled onto Train QT92, departing Quán Triều at 0710 and arriving in Long Biên at 0955. Our carriage on this non-tourist route will be basic but comfortable and air-conditioned. Back in Hà Nội the rest of the day will be spent at leisure. A few day use hotel rooms will be available for luggage storage and freshening up. In the evening after dinner we will board our Fansipan Express accommodation on sleeper train SP1, which will take us north along the central section of the former French Indochina and Yunnan Railway (CIY), leaving Hà Nội at 2110 and arriving in Lào Cai at 0525 next morning.

Overnight on train

Day 10: Lào Cai - Sapa (Saturday) (B, L)

Arriving early at Lào Cai Railway Station, we’ll be conveyed by bus up the mountain to Sapa, a picturesque former French hill station situated 36 kilometres from Lào Cai. After transferring our luggage to the hotel and enjoying a leisurely breakfast, we’ll trek to the Black Hmông villages of Sín Chải and Ô Quy Hồ, walking through a tranquil landscape of sculpted rice terraces at an easy and leisurely pace to suit everybody. After lunch in an ethnic village, we’ll return to Sapa to explore the town (warning – Sapa tends to be full of tourists on Saturdays!). After dinner in the evening you can enjoy the weekly market, a kaleidoscope of ethnic colour.

Overnight in Sapa

Day 11: Sapa - Mường Khương - Lào Cai (Sunday) (B, L)

This morning we’ll get well away from the tourist trail by making a very early morning start (5am) for the remote town of Mường Khương near the Chinese border, where the lively weekly ethnic minority market (frequented by White Hmông, Flower Hmông, Red Dao, Dao Tuyển, Bố Y, Thù Lao, La Chí, Pa Dí and Nùng ethnic minority people) will be in full swing by the time we arrive. After enjoying the market we’ll hike through lush and verdant hills to visit Phù Lá and Nùng villages in Lùng Khấu Nhin, where we’ll eat a late lunch before returning to Lào Cai Railway Station. 

Our Fansipan Express accommodation on sleeper train SP2 back to the capital departs Lào Cai at 2005 and arrives back in Hà Nội at the unearthly hour of 0435!

Overnight on train

Day 12: Hà Nội (Monday) (B, D)

Arriving back in Hà Nội, we’ll transfer our luggage to the hotel and have a leisurely breakfast. Your last full day in Việt Nam is officially free for shopping and relaxing, but for those who still want to see more, two further optional tours will offered - a guided walking tour of Hà Nội’s Old Quarter in the morning and a visit to Hà Nội Citadel in the afternoon. In the evening we’ll enjoy a farewell dinner.

Overnight in Hà Nội

Day 16: Depart Hà Nội (Tuesday) (B)

This morning you can enjoy free time until your transfer to Nội Bài International Airport for your flight home.