I've recently returned from my third trip to Vietnam (I must be a gluton for punishment!). During my most recent trip I made two journeys on the DSVN, both on SE8, the first from Thap Cham to Hue and the second from Hue to Hanoi.
I have to be honest and say that these were not the greatest train trips I have ever made, in fact after these two, I'm not sure I want to travel by train in Vietnam again!
There was an article in the English language 'Vietnam News' which was about how tourists were deserting Vietnam railways in droves, because of the poor service and poor quality carriages. Apparently less than 7% of tourists travel by train. I'm not surprised. I have to say I was reading the article on a very pleasant air trip by Vietnam Airlines from Hanoi to Saigon so the comparison was even more apparent..
Anyway on with my experiences. The train from Thap Cham to Hue was about half an hour late, which I suppose isn't too bad considering it had spent the previous 6 hours travelling from Saigon. We were booked on SE8 'Cold, soft seats' said the poster on the wall. I presume they meant airconditioned and soft seats. I had specifically booked 'A' but not sleeping as we would arrive at Hue at about 2.00 am and expected to sleep in our hotel.
I must say staff of VNR must have never heard of Customer Service. (I work for the rail system here in Sydney, Australia, so know something about Customer Service). Passengers had to struggle from the low level platform onto the train with their luggage and absolutely no help from the staff who just stood and watched. On board the train again no help was provided to find your seat, which were helpfully numbered on the back of the seat in front. Total chaos. (Every time we stopped at a station we went through the same madness, with people struggling with luggage and trying to find their seats, with of course no help from the coach staff) Once we had found our seats, the foot room for big westerners like myself was very small and very uncomfortable. Aparently seats on VNR trains can be folded to an almost horizontal position, either that or the seat back was broken, which meant that the woman sitting in the seat in front of my travelling companion almost had her head in my companion's lap! It took several hours to convince her to put her seat up. During the trip the unsmiling VNR staff seemed to be totally uninterested and were only seen when they were trying to sell us something, usually food. The food on the train was very poor, my travelling companion, a Vietnamese national, wouldn't touch it with a forty foot pole. There was no attempt to provide alternatives for non-Vietnamese passengers either. I wouldn't have a problem with that if the Vietnamese food provided was of a reasonable standard. The trip was very uncomfortable, and the 14 hours seemed to go very slowly. The toilet was dirty as well. The carriage windows were covered in a film of dust, which made photography very difficult.
We finally arrived in Hanoi feeling tired and less than pleased with the trip.
There was some evidence that things might change in the future, with a number of bridge replacement projects noted on the way. But as long as the main line is single track and the safeworking/signalling systems are so old, the trains will always be slow. For a railfan such as myself it was very frustrating not to be able to go onto the platforms until just before the train arrived. I've never seen that before. At Hue I asked if I could go onto the platform to take photographs and was told to come back when the next train arrived (about 2 hours away).
The coaches on the highways are faster, more comfortable, cheaper and stop at very reasonable comfort stops. As we waited at Hue at 2.00 am I heard one tourist state that this was her last trip by train. It would be road coach from now on.
Oh, and I wish they'd do something about the brakes!