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.
In 2017, the governments of Laos and Vietnam signed a letter of intent to build an new standard gauge railway between Vientiane and Vũng Áng port, Vietnam, via the Mụ Giạ Pass. The line would be 555km in length, of which 103km would be in Vietnam.
An inter-governmental agreement exists for a rail connection with Cambodia, but has not progressed to the planning stage.
In 2021, government approval was given for the planning of 9 new railway lines totalling 2362km. The longest of these is the 1545km proposed standard gauge high speed line from Ha Noi to Ho Chi Minh City. The first sections of this line, from Ha Noi to Vinh and from Na Trang to Ho Chi Minh City, a planned for opening by 2030. The remaining section of this line, along with the other lines in the plan, will be completed in stages with a projected completion date for the whole system around 2050.