Mark Smith travels the length of Vietnam on the Reunification Railway, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
It's 6.59pm at Hanoi Railway Station, the bustle of boarding on Platform 1 is complete and there is an air of expectation among passengers. An electric bell rings, the locomotive hoots and a uniformed attendant looks along the length of the train, holding a lantern aloft in the warm night.
From the station loudspeakers comes a last urgent call in staccato Vietnamese as attendants step smartly into the train, removing the numbers hung outside the carriage doors. One long blast and one short toot on the horn, a muted hiss from the brakes and SE1 glides gently into the night on its 33-hour, 1726-kilometre journey to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon.
This celebrated "Reunification Railway" is a steel artery running the length of Vietnam. It was completed in 1936 in what was then French Indo-China, and its trains ran for 18 short years before the French pulled out and the country split into north and south. Not until 1976 did the north-south trains resume. Several airconditioned services now link Hanoi, Vinh, Hue, Da Nang, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City daily, providing affordable and relatively comfortable transport for locals and visitors. Hanoi station is still visibly a French colonial building, despite its stark concrete central section, a reminder of a direct hit by an American bomb in December, 1972.
I last visited Vietnam more than a decade ago. As the SE1 races the frenetic road traffic through Hanoi's suburbs, it seems that every cyclist then owns a motorbike now, and every motorcyclist a car. Tourism is also booming - I travel in one of two privately-run Livitrans sleeping-cars, a cut above the SE1's regular "soft sleepers" but still just £38 ($61) for the 795 kilometres to Da Nang. My shared compartment is comfortable but not luxurious, with two upper and two lower berths, clean bedding, a small table and a power socket for gadgets. I liberate a can of Bia Ha Noi from the passing refreshment trolley and chat with my companions before turning in - it has been a long day and sleep comes easily in my upper berth on the gently rocking train.
Next morning when I raise the blind, rural Vietnam is cantering past the window: rice paddies, water buffalo, villages and farms. There's a knock on the door and our sleeper attendant brings breakfast: a cup of tea and (to our wry amusement) a steaming hot, Western-style pot noodle. Tea sipped, noodles slurped, and then a squeal from the brakes announces our arrival in Hue, on time at 8.02am. Hue was the Vietnamese capital until 1945 and is a highlight of most visitors' itineraries for its ancient city ruins, Perfume River boat trips and tours of the former Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Perhaps not surprisingly, the sleeping-cars empty here, their Western passengers dragging their roll-along suitcases down the platform as the SE1 sets off again for all points south. The most spectacular part of the trip is about to begin.
An hour beyond Hue the train reaches the coast, at first sprinting across a flat littoral with empty beaches and islands to seaward, an occasional house on stilts standing offshore in the blue-grey waters of the South China Sea. A few kilometres further south, however, a spur of the Annamese Mountains descends to the water's edge, the rail line climbs, twists and turns, and SE1 slows to an easy ramble.
The line ducks under the higher peaks using a series of tunnels, each with a uniformed watchman at the tunnel mouth standing to attention and raising a yellow flag. Approaching the Hai Van Pass (meaning "Ocean Cloud Pass" in deference to the area's drifting sea mists), the train strikes briefly inland, clinging to the mountainside, ascending a deep, wooded valley to the summit of the line. On the far side of the pass we begin our descent, the train rolling faster and more easily now, past yet more bays, boats and beaches on the final approach to Da Nang, Vietnam's fifth-largest city and an access point to the World Heritage-listed town of Hoi An.
I break my journey at Da Nang, then return to the station for an afternoon train to Ho Chi Minh City. The pale blue carriages of the new train, the SE3, arrive from Hanoi a few minutes late, and I settle into my airconditioned soft sleeper. This is a regular Vietnamese Railways car, a little tatty, but comfortable enough, with four berths in each compartment, a table and that all-important socket.
Lunch is a bowl of dried noodles I'd acquired from a stall at Da Nang station, brewed on the train with free boiling water from the dispenser at the end of the corridor. For dinner I buy a meal ticket for little more than $1.50 and 30 minutes later a polystyrene tray of chicken and sticky white rice arrives from the kitchen car, with chopsticks, a bottle of mineral water and a plastic cup of thick green tea that turns out to be soup. Filling enough, when washed down with the Saigon-brewed Triple 3s that have replaced the Bia Ha Noi on the refreshment trolley.
After a stop at Nha Trang I fall asleep in my bunk, and at 5am, the SE3 pulls into Saigon. It appears on maps as Ho Chi Minh City, but the centre is still known by its traditional name, and it is "Sai Gon" not "HCMC" that is printed on your ticket and "Ga Sai Gon" that appears in large neon letters on the station. I find a taxi and head for an old favourite, the classic Continental Hotel, an unassuming place from 1880 with high ceilings and marble floors, which features in Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American.
Ho Chi Minh City has a French colonial cathedral, post office, opera house and town hall, alongside the striking modernist architecture of the "Reunification Palace", preserved with much of its '70s furniture intact, just as it was when the North Vietnamese tanks rolled up in 1975 at the conclusion of the "American War", as it's known in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City makes an interesting contrast with its northern counterpart, and there's no better way to travel between them than a ride on the Reunification Railway.
Mark Smith is "The Man in Seat 61", seat61.com.
Malaysia Airlines has a fare to Hanoi from Sydney and Melbourne for about $985 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Kuala Lumpur (about 8hr), then to Hanoi (3hr 25min); see malaysiaairlines.com. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
Vietnam Railways operates up to five daily trains linking Hanoi, Vinh, Hue, Da Nang, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, with a bed in an airconditioned four-berth soft sleeper, costs about $81; Hanoi to Hue, $38; Hue to Saigon, $54. See vietnamrailways.com. Livitrans operates tourist sleeping-cars between Hanoi, Hue and Da Nang, attached to one of the regular trains; the fare is ($49). See livitrans.com. Tickets can be bought at the station or booked online.
Vietnamese trains are safe and relatively comfortable, especially the "SE" numbered trains which use modern airconditioned coaches. But don't expect Swiss standards.
Soft sleepers come in shared four-berth compartments and sharing is all part of the experience. You can buy four tickets if you insist on sole occupancy. By day, you roll up the bedding and sit on the lower berths.
There are washrooms and Western-style toilets at the end of the corridor, and on all of the trains I checked, soap and lavatory paper were provided. But never travel without spare paper and hand sanitiser.
Food and drink are readily available on board and usually brought to your compartment, but it's a good idea to stock up on supplies from station stalls. There is free hot water in each car.
Several windows open downwards on the corridor side of both regular airconditioned sleepers and the Livitrans cars for reflection-free photography, especially on the scenic section between Hue and Da Nang. Compartment-side windows don't open, so if the coastal scenery is on the compartment side of the carriage, walk to an adjacent car.
- The Telegraph, London