Editor’s note: Four foreigners who have traveled by train in Vietnam give their opinions while responding to a request by Tuoi Tre News.
While contributing ideas on making train travel more attractive to tourists, they answered questions on whether meals should be included in ticket fares.
'The landscape just stunned me'
My family and I made a trip to Vietnam in July this year. We started in Ho Chi Minh City because we lived there for some years. After one week we took the plane to Da Nang and stayed in Hoi An for some days. Then we decided to take the train from Da Nang to Hue, because we heard about spectacular ocean views. While on board, I went to the vestibule and looked out the window, and the landscape just stunned me. After visiting Hue we took the train to Dong Hoi.
Our last train journey was from Dong Hoi to Ninh Binh. We took the sleeping train which was comfortable and safe. When we woke up we saw our first glimpse of the limestone karst landscape of northern Vietnam.
|The Hai Van Pass between Da Nang and Hue. Photo: Joep Janssen|
A new experience to me while travelling by train in Vietnam was on-board catering. We didn't know about the on-board catering, so we brought our own food.
In Holland you'll not find trolleys on board, just staff with mobile beverage and snack dispensing backpacks on intercity trains. The reason is that we have a dense and frequent train network, plus short distances, which makes it inefficient to have on-board catering with trolleys, menus and so on. Therefore, in Holland, meals are not included in ticket fares. It's very common to buy meals at train stations.
So the Vietnamese train system is hardly comparable with the Dutch situation but it is more or less comparable to our international long distance high speed train service, for example from Amsterdam to Paris which takes 3.5 hours. They offer different tickets with different levels of services – from standard (excluding food) to premium (including catering and food). There is a trolley and a cafe on board where passengers can buy drinks and snacks.
|Joep Janssen in a photo he provided Tuoi Tre News|
One more thing that train travelling is involved in is tourism. The north-south railway offers an interesting section of Vietnam in terms of landscapes, cultures and even climates which present the hidden beauty of Vietnam – unseen by tourists that fly from one attraction to another.
There is a famous travel quote that can be read as the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. So if we consider travelling by train like reading a book, it’s not only about just going from A to B, it’s a beautiful way to "read" the landscape, the people and the culture.
I think it would be great if the railway company can offer passengers information like why they should go by train, or why they should get off the train in Dong Hoi or Ninh Binh, for example. Like reading a book, you need to read every page and chapter to understand the whole picture (of Vietnam) and travelers are the main characters in that book.
Joep Janssen from Holland
'Make booking easier!'
Living in Vietnam for more than 6 years, I have used the trains here a number of times. Most recently was a Nha Trang - Saigon sleeper in September last year. All aspects of the journey were fine - comfortable cabins, good staff, train ran on time, good price, etc.
In the last couple of years the on-board service levels have improved noticeably. The 'greeters' when boarding in Saigon are a nice touch, and the cabins have been upgraded to an acceptable international standard. In my view, there isn't too much to complain about other than perhaps that the food offering in the dining car could be improved.
|Philip Genochio. Photo: Dong Nguyen/Tuoi Tre News|
I’ve heard of the plan to add meals to the train ticket fare. In the UK, meals are not included in ticket prices. One reason is that tickets are already expensive - and another is that trains for longer journeys usually have a good dining car with decent selections at reasonable prices.
I do not think we should have a fixed "itinerary" of eating for train passengers. If you want to include food in the ticket, I think it should be optional, not obligatory. This will help people to save and manage their money.
One more thing I think the train sector should improve is the booking process. Please make it easier! Booking a ticket at Saigon station is not easy - chaotic queuing, poor signage and information. Once I went to the booking office near Ben Thanh Market, and was told that I couldn’t book more than two months in advance. Perhaps this has changed now but if not, what madness.
Meanwhile, a lot of visitors - both independent travelers and groups - use the train for part or all of the north - south journey. It's a great way to travel - comfortable (mostly), great views and a chance to meet people. If I was Vietnam Railways, I'd be looking at ways to make more of this journey. For example, offer tickets that include stopovers at key points on the route. As the journeys are long, with little to do aboard the train, how about using the time to give lectures, talks etc on Vietnamese history, geography, culture, etc?
Philip Genochio from England
'Spruce up the train stations'
My first train ride was from Hanoi to Sa Pa and my second trip was from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City.
In my opinion, the level of service was poor. The train stations were crowded and not comfortable. The cabin was quite dirty; food droppings were everywhere, the bed, pillows and blankets were dirty too. The toilets were terrible. It was quite noisy too as children played along the narrow corridor banging the walls and doors.
I think meals should not be included in ticket fares. Some people don't need food for short journeys while some prefer to bring their own due to financial, health or hygiene reasons.
|John Lim in a photo he provided Tuoi Tre News|
I think to attract passengers, we need to spruce up the train stations, make it clean and comfortable for passengers and have announcements in English. Besides, please clean up the train's interior and paint the exterior as well as provide express train services so that we don't have to waste time stopping at all the stations.
Specifically for tourists, I think there should be a service whereby the train can stop longer at some designated stations and tourist can alight to have a look around and buy some local products. Besides this, decorate the interior nicely with user-friendly facilities like restaurants, toilets, play areas for children, as well as install some drinks and snack vending machines, and have cabins for couples or families who want privacy and don’t want to share their cabin with others.
John Lim from Singapore
Meal should be an option
|Darius Avemaria at Saigon Railway Station. Photo: Dong Nguyen/Tuoi Tre News|
I took a night train from Saigon to Nha Trang because I think it’s more comfortable than the bus, and it can help to save money on accommodation.
It was the first time I’ve been to a train station in Vietnam and it was not very hard for me to buy a ticket. The service is good, the staff didn’t speak English but they had a monitor for tickets so I had no trouble.
I think they should include meals in ticket fares as an option, but not an enforcement on people. In Germany, a ticket is just for travelling, and we have a restaurant in long-journey trains for people who want to eat there.
Darius Avemaria from Germany