The railway system in Vietnam is operated by the state-owned Vietnam Railways Corporation (Đường sắt Việt Nam). The principal route is the thousand-mile single-track line, running north-south between Hanoi and Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City. This was built at the meter gauge in the 1880s during the French colonial rule. There are also standard gauge lines running from Hanoi to the People’s Republic of China, eventually leading to Beijing, and some mixed gauge in and around Hanoi.
Notwithstanding the poor state of the country’s road network, the railway system does not make a great contribution to the national transport infrastructure, carrying only about 7% of all freight. The 35- or 40-hour passenger trip between Hanoi and Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City is undertaken by few, although visitor resorts such as Hue, Hoi An, and Da Nang lie along the route and generate some tourist traffic. Following the Sino-Vietnam war of 1978 some travel restraints are still in place in the border region and the usage of the lines north and east of Hanoi is curtailed as a result. The trans-Vietnam line is poorly maintained and the engineering infrastructure, much damaged by war, has even now received only temporary repair in many places. In addition, the center of the country is subject to violent annual flooding and bridges are often swept away, causing lengthy closures.
A parliamentary resolution of 2005 proposed that foreign lenders be invited to invest in Vietnam Railways. Although on the face of things the possibility of a good return might appear small, there are precedents: The lines into China have benefited from Chinese investment and, more recently, Japanese investment was spent on the Hai Van tunnel project, a new road tunnel alongside the north-south rail line near Da Nang.
There is a long-term plan to build a completely new standard-gauge line to serve the two cities. New international routes to Phnom Penh and thus via Bangkok to Singapore are also under consideration. At a more local level, the picturesque hill town and resort of Da Lat was once connected by a scenic little railway to the main north-south line at Phan Rang. Although there is now little visible trace of the track bed in the green and fertile landscape, local businesses are seeking its reinstatement to develop their tourist trade. However, the projects most likely to receive foreign money are proposed light-rail systems within Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
The official Vietnam Railways website lists 27 steam locomotives in use between Hanoi and Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City, but only diesel engines are in evidence along the route.