It's dark outside, the Vietnamese city of Nha Trang is quiet for a Sunday, but the train station is a picture of chaos. Plastic tartan bags, cheap suitcases and boxes reinforced with masking tape have been dumped unceremoniously on the platform. Waiting room television screens rival each other for volume. Makeshift stalls selling travel essentials –Coke, beer, bananas and over-packaged biscuits and noodles – do a peak-time trade.
The train is late and instead of pulling in on platform one it has headed to platform four. From what I can make out, we have to cross three rubbish-laden tracks in the dark to reach the train, then climb on board and find our cabin before it takes off again. My husband, Pip, and I, all wide-eyed from strong, condensed milk-loaded coffee, have three bags, a pram and two somewhat bewildered kids to contend with. But there's no time to dwell on it; up the track a blinding light is cutting through the darkness and a big old retro engine from a long-ago era is grinding down the tracks. Within minutes we're joining the throng in a mad scramble to board.
The Reunification Express has been cutting a path along the East Coast of Vietnam since 1936. The 1726-kilometre, 33-ish hour journey from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh in the south averages 50km/h, only marginally quicker than it was in the 1930s. It might be ageing, but it's still a reliable mode of transport for travelling between some of Vietnam's most popular tourist destinations. An overnight leg is also something of an adventure. The pace, excitement, local insight and occasional chaos are all part of the experience.
Our train ride begins in Hanoi and ends two weeks later in Ho Chi Minh. In between we'll have a few nights each in the ancient cities of Hue and Hoi An, and a beachside stint in Nha Trang. It will mean three overnight train legs and one shorter trip between Hue and Hanoi.
The 'SE' express trains are more comfortable for tourists, with hard sleeper (six beds in two tiers), soft sleeper (four beds), hard seat and soft seat cabins. Both sleeper cabin options are comfortable with air-conditioning, and clean cotton sheets and bedding. The soft sleeper is the natural choice for our party of four, but it's not a disaster when, on one leg, we find ourselves in a six-sleeper. We wake to see two smiling 20-somethings looking down on us from the cheaper top-tier beds. They speak a little English and tell us they're students returning home. They're as friendly as family, sharing coconut juice and dried biscuits with the kids in return for photos, no doubt captioned: 'CUUUUUUUTE'.
Meanwhile, Pip and I get a chance to look out the window. We did this train trip together 10 years ago, pre-marriage. It's harder work this time, with an 18-month-old and four-year-old, but we're chuffed anyway. Outside, green rice paddies and banana palms rush past. There are farmers in conical hats, kids freewheeling in backyards and yoked water buffalo, yawning knee-deep in mud. When the train slows through hamlets clustered along the railway line, we see dozens of locals on overloaded motorbikes waiting for the boom gate to open. In other parts, hazy blue mountains separate the track from the sea before it reappears again with glimpses of beach, blue water, fish farms, nets and boats. It's like a tourism advertisement for rural Vietnam and nothing seems to have changed in the decade since we last saw it.
What has changed is the hotel scene. Vietnam is now flush with luxury hotels, both lovely old heritage places and flash new resorts. We spent our first night in Hanoi at the decadent French colonial Metropole, where we were greeted with a "bonjour" and ushered into a room with high ceilings, teak furniture and French doors. On departing, such is its clientele, the concierge declared us the first guests to ever need a transfer to the train station rather than the airport.
Thirteen hours down the track, La Residence, in the serene town of Hue, is similarly historic. It was built in the 1930s as the French governor's residence and the art deco era is reflected in the building's porthole windows and nautical lines. Our room overlooks the Perfume River. On the opposite bank, we can see the entry to the UNESCO-listed former Imperial Citadel. It's the perfect cultural immersion for kids with no queues and cycle rickshaws to get around on.
The train connection between Hue and our next stop Danang, near Hoi An, is late at night so we decide on a daytime car transfer. It's a good comparative exercise. At just under three hours, the train is quicker, but more pertinently, Vietnam's roads, especially Highway 1, the main north-south artery, are notoriously accident-prone. We drive past an accident, the motorbike driver being attended to on the side of the road. It's a sobering vision and we're glad the rest of the trip will be on rails.
Hoi An is a French colonial town known for its enchanting lantern-lit streets and cheap tailor-made clothes. We stay in a family suite overlooking another river, the Thu Bon, at Anantara Hotel. With ornate balustrades and colonnaded balconies, it is in keeping with the architecture in the UNESCO-listed old town, an easy stroll away. Happily, Anantara is family-friendly with a shallow pool and sweet treats delivered at bedtime. The hotel bikes are equipped with kid's seats, so when we're not eating street food in the old town we're riding through the little villages.
Kudos goes to Vietnam for being able to offer cultural experiences as well as perfect beach holidays. Ten hours by train from Danang, Nha Trang is a coastal resort city with great scuba diving and a party vibe. We head out of town to Six Senses Ninh Van Bay resort, courtesy of a flash speedboat. It's a castaway island paradise. Our wooden beachfront villa has a thatched roof and there are no cars – once again we're getting around on bikes with the kids on the back. Children under-five sleep and eat for free here, and there's a kids club, giving Pip and I the chance for a cooking class.
After four sun-soaked days, our four-year-old is back talking trains. We are transferred to Nha Trang train station for our final leg, the one that starts with that night-time sprint across the tracks. Soon after, we'll be lulled to sleep by the soft rhythmic side-to-side motion of the train on our way to Ho Chi Minh.
See Vietnamese Railways' own website (vr.com.vn) but seat61.com/Vietnam.htm is more helpful. It's best to book train tickets in advance through hotels on the ground in Vietnam or a travel agency before you leave.
Numerous options, including Metropole, Hanoi, from $282 a night (sofitel-legend.com); La Residence, Hue, from $196 a night (la-residence-hue.com); Anantara Hoi An, from $190 a night; Six Senses Ninh Van Bay Resort from $648 a night (sixsenses.com).
Penny Watson stayed as a guest of Metropole, La Residence, Anantara and Six Senses.