Many people, both locals and tourists, choose trains over flying in Vietnam. The overnight train, in particular, is very popular for longer journeys. Here are some things you should know about taking the train.
If you aren't buying your ticket at the train station, you will have to use a 3rd party entity to purchase your ticket. I read a lot about this prior to booking. Some people have horror stories and some were smooth sailing. I took the recommendation of several other bloggers and used 12 Asia Go. As a 3rd party company, they send someone down to purchase your ticket within 24hrs, but you may not get the exact seats you selected. I had a very positive experience with this company, got the seats I selected, and used the digital ticket to board. First class is not luxurious, but it's the nicest option they have and well worth the cost if you are traveling overnight. The trains DO fill up. If you are counting on a specific day/time to travel, it's best to buy your ticket in advance.
There is very little space to store luggage. I had a large checked bag and it could barely fit under the bed in 4 berth first class. There was some room up high over the door for smaller, carry-on sized luggage. If you have luggage that you can't lift over your head, be sure to book a bottom bunk.
There is a car that serves food as well as an attendant who will come by in the evening and in the morning. The food looked a little sketchy, but I did get a coffee in the morning. I would recommend bringing your own food, but there will also be vendors outside of the train harassing you to buy something.
Our first class cabin had a fitted sheet, sheet and pillow on the bed. It looked clean, but I brought a clean scarf to put down on my pillow which gave me piece of mind. I was on the top bunk, so I put one piece of luggage up top with me. There was cock roach turds everywhere on the ledge. Thankfully, I didn't actually see a cock roach or any rodents. I did read a couple of horror stories from others that did see roaches and had unclean bed sheets. These trains are old and they sway back and forth...the entire time. If you get motion sickness, you may want to take Dramamine beforehand.
They started out looking clean. By the time we got off the train however, they were looking pretty bad. So go early!
You will make stops along the way. The announcements are only in Vietnamese, so it's helpful to know what time you should get off - not that we were running on schedule. The trains tend to run behind, so you may need to ask someone to translate for you. We had a nice Vietnamese family next to us and they were able to tell us where we were.
Overall, we were thankful we stayed in the first class cabin which was still very small with four beds and very basic accommodations. Since we spent much of our time sleeping, it wasn't the worst way to travel. It was a fun experience, but given the option to do another train later, we passed. If you are taking a shorter segment, you could probably be fine in a normal seat for a 1-4 hour ride. We decided to fly to our other stops or pay for a private vehicle, but the experience is one we won't soon forget!