The first railway line in Vietnam was a metre gauge steam tramway opened in 1881 between Saigon (present day Ho Chi Minh City) and Cholon, a distance of about 6km. This line later became part of the Saigon tramways network; it was electrified in 1927, and closed in 1954 withthe rest of the network.
A separate metre gauge railway opened in 1885 from Saigon to Mytho, about 70km, taking a separate route between Saigon and Cholon. The lightly built line was never hugely successful and for the most part closed in 1958, although the first 8km from Saigon to Phu Lam remained in use for freight services until the late 1960s or early 1970s.
The first lines that formed part of the present day national metre gauge system were constructed from the late 1890s onwards. Early lines formed networks around Saigon and around Ha Noi in the north of the country (including international links between Ha Noi and China), but the important main line linking the two was not completed until the 1930s.
At Dong Dang, the metre gauge line from Ha Noi met the standard gauge network of China, necessitating transhipment for through traffic. Following World War II, during the period when North and South Vietnam were partitioned from each other, the line between Dong Dang and Ha Noi (together with some other lines in the area) were converted to dual gauge, so enabling through services.
The metre gauge line from Ha Noi to Lao Cai continued into China as far as Kunming, thus allowing through traffic from the start. However, the line on the Chinese side of the border was closed in 2000 for safety reasons. It was reconstructed and reopened as a standard gauge line in 2014, but without any provision for cross-border interchange. In 2019, a preliminary planning study was completed for a new 392km standard gauge line from the port of Hai Phong via Ha Noi to the Chinese border at Lao Cai, connecting with the Chinese railway and essentially replacing the existing metre gauge line.
There are currently no other international links, but feasibility studies are being undertaken for rail connections to Cambodia and Laos.
In 2019, a plan for a new high speed railway from Ha Noi to Ho Chi Minh City, previously rejected by government, was resubmitted for approval. The 1570km standard gauge line would use Japanese shinkansen technology. If accepted, construction could start as early as 2020, but completion would likely be phased over several decades.