Discover Northern Viet Nam by Rail (13 days)

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A Đồng Đăng-Gia Lâm train emerges from a tunnel near Lạng Sơn

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A map of the northern Vietnam Railways network based on the original CADer map at www.daumaytoaxe

Led by Tim Doling, author of the books The Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam (White Lotus Press, 2012), Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Thế Giới Publishers, 2014) and Mountains and Ethnic Minorities: North West Việt Nam (Thế Giới Publishers, 2010), this group tour will be of interest to those who enjoy train travel, however it is not designed exclusively for rail enthusiasts and will only include visits to engine sheds by special request! Instead, the focus is on using the train as much as possible to discover Việt Nam, its history and its culture.

A noteworthy feature of this tour is that it explores VNR’s entire public network in the north, 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, home to a large steel works with a huge network of railway lines.

For larger group tours, 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.

For smaller groups, we use scheduled train services throughout the tours.

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.

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Red Dao ethnic minority women pictured near Sapa

HIGHLIGHTS

● Travel with Việt Nam and railway historian 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.

● 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.

● Explore the network of rail lines inside the Thái Nguyên Steel Works.

● 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.

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This classic propaganda hoarding in Quảng Ngãi reads: “Boost industrialisation and modernisation!”

ITINERARY Day 1: Arrive Hà Nội (Thursday) (D)

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The High Court building in Hà Nội

Arriving in the northern capital, you’ll be met by Tim Doling and your local 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)

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Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám in Hà Nội

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)

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The 16th-century ruins of a Mạc dynasty citadel in the hills above Lạng Sơn

It’s an early start today as we commence our train journey by heading northeast along 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 train will be 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)

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Tả Phủ Temple in Lạng Sơn

We’re up early again this morning to visit a local market. Then it’s 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 head for Đồng Đăng Railway Station, where our private carriage will be coupled to Train ĐĐ4, departing at 1305 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)

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The historic Hải Phòng railway station

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). Train LP3 will depart from Gia Lâm at 0938 and will arrive in 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. Dinner on board. Overnight on junk

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

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Hạ Long Bay is an area of great natural beauty and a UNESCO World Heritage Site

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. All-day Hạ Long Bay boat trip. Overnight on junk

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

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Motorcyclists await the passing of D4H-863 hauling a local train through Gia Lâm in March 2011

After a leisurely morning cruise through more beautiful Hạ Long Bay vistas, 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 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 minibus for the last part of the journey back to Hà Nội. Overnight in Hà Nội

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

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Touring the steel works in a diesel shunter

Today we head north to the industrial city of Thái Nguyên to visit the Thái Nguyên Steel Company (TISCO) for a train tour of the works along its huge network of railway lines. Sadly, steam locomotives are no longer used inside the complex, although several will be seen in storage. 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)

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The overnight train to Lào Cai

This morning we will take 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. 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)

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Xá Phó ethnic minority women in Sapa

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)

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Flower Hmông ethnic minority women at Cán Cấu Market

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)

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The entrance to the Hậu Lâu (Princess’s Palace), one of the numerous surviving vestiges of the ancient Thăng Long Citadel in Hà Nội

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)

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An old shophouse in Mã Mây street, Hà Nội

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

DETAILS

Our services include:
● Services of Tim Doling as Escort and Tour Host, assisted throughout by local English-speaking guides.
● Rail tickets Hà Nội-Đồng Đăng-Hà Nội, Hà Nội-Hải Phòng, Hạ Long-Kép, Quán Triều-Hà Nội.
● Shared sleeper railway carriage on Hà Nội-Lào Cai return trip.
● Tours and transfers by private air conditioned road vehicle as indicated in itinerary
● Hotel accommodation on a twin share basis with daily breakfast OR Hotel accommodation in superior to deluxe hotels, except in Sapa where it is three star
● All breakfasts and other meals on trains (B = Breakfast, L = Lunch, D = Dinner)
● Entrance fees for attractions indicated in itinerary

Our services do not include:
● Meals and drinks other than those indicated in itinerary
● Tips and personal expenses
● Travel insurance
● Any services other than those indicated in itinerary

Train times and other schedules are correct at the time of going to press but may change from time to time according to adjustments in the VNR timetable.

Please contact AsiaPlus Tours for prices and booking details.

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