If you’re traveling in Vietnam, there’s a good chance that at some point in your journey you’ll ride the Reunification Express. A route that links Saigon to Hanoi, skirting the coastline (in some places much closer than others), the train is a fairly easy and comfortable way to see the country and, in many cases, meet some interesting folks.
Riding the train non-stop from Saigon to Hanoi will take about 30-40 hours, which is brutal no matter what kind of car you’re riding in. Plus, there is so much of the coast that we wanted to see the we decided to make our first leg to Da Nang. Da Nang, an acknowledged beach resort town in its own right, is also the access point for Hoi An, our destination.
We’d booked three berths in an air/con soft sleeper car; leaving at 7pm, we’d get into Da Nang at approximately noon. With some snacks (among which a jar of peanut butter, which proved invaluable) and plans for a few hands of cards, we boarded the train when the doors were unlocked, about half an hour before departure.
Our berth was easy to find and we quickly scooted in, stowing our bags under the lower bunks and examining our surroundings. We thought, for a moment, that we might have the cabin to ourselves, but we were soon joined by four men and a little girl. My first thought was, “oh no–we’ve been sold double booked tickets, we’re going to be kicked off the train, we’re going to have to wait another night…” Then, as the men deposited boxes and suitcases, it became clear that they were just dropping the man and his daughter off; we’d only have two, not five, roommates for the night.
The man and his daughter were on their way to Hue, about three hours north of our destination. He’d ride up with her, drop her off with her grandparents for a visit, and then fly home again. His daughter, who informed us that she was five years old, was shy at first but soon became our entertainment for the evening.
In between posing for pictures and then hijacking my camera to check the results, capturing my hand in the mesh shelf and squealing with laughter when I pretended that I couldn’t get it out, and teaching me words of Vietnamese and rewarding me with candy when I got it right, Ta Hien charmed us the entire evening. Her dad had the unenviable task of trying to get her to go to sleep; it took several tries for the excitement to wear off and for her to finally shut her eyes.
She was back in fine form the next morning, liberally dousing us with her perfume and taking more pictures. Da Nang came quickly, and we had to hug our new friend and say goodbye.
We rode the train several more times during our stay in Vietnam: a very scenic ride to Hue, another night train to Hanoi, and the day train to and from Lao Cai to get to Sa Pa, but none of our fellow passengers were as memorable as Ta Hien.
A couple of notes: the soft-sleeper cabins are quite comfortable, making a night train a must-try in Vietnam. We didn’t try the hard-sleepers as they have six beds in each berth; I walked through one and it’s quite a tight squeeze. The air/con soft seats are nice for the day train: the backs recline for napping and the leg room isn’t bad. The air/con hard seats were all that were available for our trip from Lao Cai to Hanoi. It’s nice to sit facing your friends, but your derrière is definitely not as comfortable after the 10 hour ride.
Be prepared for drink/snack carts to circulate, as well as folks selling fruit, meals and other food along the way. The coffee’s not bad, and some of the boxed meals looked pretty good, though I didn’t try one.
The most shocking thing, to me, was the disposal of trash. Basically, it’s okay to throw your trash on the floor because someone will come through at intervals and sweep it all up. And then sweep it out through the open door of the train as it cruises through the countryside. It’s also accepted to throw trash out the window. Plastic bottles are collected for reuse, but everything else is simply swept off.
Tickets are available at the train stations, or most hotels or guest houses will purchase tickets for you. A great reference and source for information about riding trains in just about any country is The Man in Seat 61. While some of the pricing is a little out of date, the timetables, photos, videos and step by step details for train travel is extremely helpful.
One particular accomplishment that I’m quite proud of: I successfully used a squat toilet on a moving train without embarrassing myself or causing an international incident. Yes, I’m quite proud. It might even go on my resume.
Want to see another perspective? Check out the Travelmeisters blog post.