The International Steam Pages

A Fistful of Dollars

Northern Vietnam in April - a steam odyssey year 2001 by Johs. Damsgaard Hansen.


Regular visitors to this web-site are already aware. Apart from the few mega bash dollar steam specials over the years Northern Vietnam is and has never been overrun by cricers. Photographs of ordinary steam are incredible rare. Just take a look in "Steam Beneath the Red Star" not to mention the difficulties finding pictures for the forthcoming "Tiger Steam" CD.

The clientele sets the standard. Hundred dollar notes seem to be the rule instead of the exception if you want access to "the holy steam land". Shed foremen, tons of railway police officers and similar folks do their best to supply the income when possible. Even Cuba is kid stuff compared to this destination. If I put my two cents: Visiting rail buffs have paid bribes worth more than a few collar tellies and Minsk motorbikes over the years in Northern Vietnam.

Being in mind all the hassle during my visit in 1995 I decided to set off for another trip. Prior to departure I heard it through the grape wine. Steam service was still at the same level as in winter 1998/1999. So it is and I like to add: At a few of the steamy places it is even possible to get around without a fistful of dollars.


Access to the loco shed just opposite the railway station is easy - if you are willing to pay. The going rate for individuals seem to be one hundred dollars these days, but I could have a special offer at only 50 USD according to some managers at the entrance. With no intention to support their business I was asked to leave which I gladly did. By the way - you need luck to find a locomotive in steam here if no specials are around as the report from the recent LCGB visit indicates.

Giap Bat - the huge freight yard in the southern suburbs - had 141 210 with repair date 06.03.2001 painted on the front box in steam. The small depot is found in the northern end of the yard and the shunting loco faces south. Duty was just about to start when I arrived at 7.30 AM but for sure I was spotted by some greedy railway police officers. Their house is just opposite to the depot. Even with the camera in my back I had the pleasure of being arrested at a public path after less than four hours in the country. Half an hour or so and then I was released and thrown out having refused to pay the expected fistful of dollars for a few shots. Good morning Vietnam!


141 167 with repair date 16.06.2000 was in use for shunting. Stay at the DSVN railway hotel just opposite the railway station. Its 145.000 Dong (1 USD = 14.500 Dong) for a double room - probably the best bet in town. I had difficulties to fall asleep at night due to steam shunting. However the harbour shunting seems to be at a rather low ebb for the time being. The following day it became 3 PM before 141 167 finally left for the harbour. At that time your reporter was temporary indisponible due to the famous bia hoi (Vietnamese draught - 1.500 Dong a glass) following six hours of hassle, and therefore missed the rather impressive street running.

The police at gate 3 (this is where the track leads to the harbour) sent me to gate 4 (the main gate) to get the permission. Officials from gate 4 sent me to the immigration office building downtown who issue the very official permits. Nowadays only if one has an invitation it is possible for a fistful of dollars to get the permission. However, the invitation could be organised through Vietnam Tourist according to the highest ranking police officer in charge. Another fistful of dollars was handled over at the Vietnam Tourist (an infamous state run travel agency well known for its overcharging), but after hours of waiting it was time for some sad news. Contrary to statements a few hours earlier by the immigration office permits were not issued any more …

Bim Son/Ninh Binh

Shunting loco at the cement factory to the east of Bim Son was 141 190 which only serves the tracks inside the factory (heavily fenced even with watchtowers) and the shunting yard just outside the gate to the factory. With the absence of railway police and a railway staff not used to bribes the shunting yard turned out to be a hassle free zone. Unfortunate all transfers to and from Bim Son station on this rather scenic branch are in the hands of diesels. Both water facilities and a small coaling point are located at the yard so the locomotive usually stay for a week before being exchanged with the other steam locomotive belonging to the depot of Ninh Binh. During my visit this was 141 164. According to my interpreter the loco in Ninh Binh is not used for other purposes. It was dead during my three days here. You need extremely luck and patience to see the exchange of the locomotives between Ninh Binh and Bim Son, but it happens. Do I have to add that some folks at the depot in Ninh Binh asked for money too.

Ninh Binh is the perfect base to explore both Bim Son and the famous gorge section between Dong Giao and Bim Son. Beside, there are lots of scenic spots in the area.. I stayed at the Queen hotel just next to the railway station. Nice rooms with hot shower and TV can be negotiated down to 70.000 Dong and even better: Queen offers a motorbike with driver (who also acts as a guide and excellent interpreter) for only 70.000 Dong a half day or the double for a full day. Just ask for Loung. He has learnt what its all about.

Yen Vien/DSVN dual gauge line to China

Seen from a passing train one outdoor parked GP 6 at the Yen Vien depot looked freshly painted and in good condition. However, with the SG operation fully dieselized I had no intention of another meeting with the loco foreman, an old "friend" from 1995. Known as "Mr. one dollar a photo" this gentleman deserves not to be forgotten.

In Lang Son the old station/freight yard has been lifted a few years ago. Really a miss, as it had to be one of the most picturesque stations in the country (see "Steam Beneath the Red Star" p. 200).

Contrary to earlier reported in CRJ the dual gauge exists all the way across the Friendship Pass to China and Pingxiang which station even boasts a separate MG platform together with more MG sidings around town. However all seem to have been out of use for some time. At least the border crossing freight traffic is on SG only. I guess its the same with the twice a week running express from Beijing where passengers then have to change to MG coaches in Dong Dang. Freight cars from CNR are seen all the way down to Yen Vien.

Thai Nguyen Steel Works

1034 on SG and 131 436 on MG seen in use here. Two tracks from Luu Xa station lead into the rather huge complex at a gate guarded by more friendly older women some two km to the north. I just walked in and nobody took any further notice. Unfortunate there was no steam action for the first three or four hours except of a steam crane on the SG used as a combined crane/shunter. At the SG depot I found 1037 and 1044 both dead but the MG depot was not located. 1034 arrived out of nowhere and later a friendly MG diesel staff offered a ride back to the gate. In the afternoon 131 436 appeared at Luu Xa station with a huge freight train including a passenger car. I guess from a trip to the quarries at Trai Cau. At least the MG cars seem to pass the weight bridge just opposite Luu Xa station before being transferred to the steel work. A manoeuvre which involves quite a lot of shunting. When suddenly 1034 arrived with a short freight train (even carrying several passengers more of them with bicycles) at the SG track just beside the weight where 131 436 was busy I became rather excited but also confused. Detailed reports from this area do not top the lists.

Except of the staff on 131 436 whose demand for money following a cap ride ended up with a bribe worth a week extra pay the absence of police around Luu Xa station makes life quite easy here. However one may need more days to explore the free line service. Accommodation is available in Thay Nguyen. On the other hand its less than 1 hour and a flat 20.000 Dong from Hanoi to Luu Xa which is the last town before Thay Nguyen. Minibuses depart just next to Long Bien station in Hanoi every 15 minutes.

Final thoughts

Keen on a visit after reading this? To be positive it has to be mentioned, that otherwise photo restrictions on the DSVN seem to be almost non existing. I had no problems at the border station in Dong Dang even with a Chinese DF 1 shunting prior to departure for Pingxiang. In the other railway border town (Lai Cai - this is on the Yunnan line) the bridge over the Red River to Hekou has turned into some kinda tourist spot! If you go here a Saturday or Monday morning two expresses are passing by within an hour.

Long gone are the days with the specification of entry/exit points written in your Vietnamese visa which back in time caused not only me but thousands of others who intended to travel overland lots of difficulties. For the diesel generation Vietnam has to become a railway paradise. Impressive lines, kindly people and dirt cheap too! Good accommodation can mostly be found for less than 100.000 Dong and a four meal dinner in a street restaurant set you back less than 30.000 Dong.

However, "spying on steam" may only appeal to the very few of us. Others have to say that the Vietnamese can keep their very last steam locomotives by themselves.

Rob Dickinson