Travelling Vietnam on a slow journey is the perfect way to take in the sights, smells and sounds of the S-shaped country with a 3,260-kilometer-long coastline, but only 50km across at its narrowest point. Stunning nature from the mountains of the north to the endless miles of golden beach in the center, to the flat lushness of the Mekong Delta in the south come into view from the train’s windows.
The railway network, built at the metre gauge in the 1880s during the French colonial era, runs between Hanoi, the capital in the north and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, the largest city in the south. During the Vietnam War lasting over 20 years, it became a symbol of a reunified Vietnam because of its important connection. The line was damaged thousands of times but stand still until 1975 after the fall of Saigon. Then, in the massive engineering effort to make the line operational, 1334 bridges, 27 tunnels, and 158 stations had been repaired in less than two years.
While “express” is something of a misnomer – a non-stop journey between the two cities takes 31 hours – the train journey is a great way to understand Vietnam’s ever changing landscape and cultural diversity. Thankfully, the whole trip can be split into shorter, more manageable and economical excursions because many of Vietnam’s top attractions are within easy reach of stations along the route. This it not only a more environmentally sustainable travel experience, but also a more interesting one. Of course in case you are not in a hurry!
Ho Chi Minh City might be the ideal place to start the journey. Its French-colonial architecture, museums about the conflicts of the last century, spacious parks contrast with the glass-and-steel skyscrapers and construction work that is rapidly reshaping its skyline.
Inside Saigon Railway Station, also the last point of the line, the waiting area is dwarfed by giant billboards for air conditioners amid the organized chaos of the waiting area – hundreds buying last-minute provisions, repacking voluminous luggage, and saying goodbye to loved ones.
Long-distance trains offer a variety of carriage options – from wooden seats to sleeping compartments with four or six beds for budget passengers, to a small number of two-bed VIP ones which provides a more intimate and interesting travel experiences for high-income ones. It is the noisier option, though, as the combination of carriages rattling on old rails, food sellers hawking their boiled corn, snacks and drinks, and children playing mean that headphones or ear plugs are worth bringing to help with sleep.
Once the train leaves behind the sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s rural countryside is soon visible from the windows on both sides of the train – conical straw hats bobbing on the heads of workers tending rice fields alongside water buffalo and ancestral family shrines.
The Po Klong Garai Cham Towers visible from the left-hand window announce the train’s arrival at Thap Cham station after almost seven hours. The station is only a short walk from the two 13th century Hindu temples perched on a low hill, remnants of the once powerful Champa empire that ruled much of the center of the country for more than 1,000 years.
Continuing towards the north, you can stop to enjoy the famous golden sandy beach of Nha Trang, dubbed as one of the best in Vietnam. Snorkeling and scuba diving amid the reefs in Nha Trang Bay is a great way to explore the life under the water. Temples and waterfalls are also accessible to explore.
North of Nha Trang, the railway line hugs the coast and the landscape becomes more varied. Jagged limestone karsts jut out from the fields, splinters of the mountainous ridge that delineates much of Vietnam’s western border with Cambodia and Laos, and the views of rice fields and villages continue to roll by.
Hue, almost in the center of the country, is definitely worth a stop. Once the capital of Vietnam, the city is famed for the architecture and royal legacy of the Nguyen Dynasty, the last Vietnamese dynasty from 1802 until 1945.
The Imperial Citadel once dominated Hue, but destructive fighting during the two wars against the French and the American, left it badly damaged, only a fraction of it remains today. However, it is still a sight to behold, as are the various royal tombs – in various states of dilapidation – that dot Hue’s fringes and the splendor of towering Thien Mu pagoda, often known as the unofficial symbol of the city.
Leaving Hue, train enters the demilitarized zone that divided the country during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s. Bomb craters are still visible near bridges and train stations. Get off at Dong Hoi station to visit Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, home to the world’s largest cave. The massive Phong Nha cave is one of the most accessible in the area, reached via a boat ride along the Son River.
Hanoi, the capital is the northern terminus of the Reunification Express. Its 1000-year-old culture and French architecture offer a contrast to frenetic and ever-changing Ho Chi Minh City, even though the traffic is quite the same.
It is home to some great museums and parks, among them Ho Chi Minh Museum, which sits amid sprawling parkland at the Ho Chi Minh Memorial complex. Stay a while to try the famous egg coffee or enjoy a walk around the Old Quarter for a slice of nostalgia.
The city is a great hub for further journey. While the famous Ha Long Bay is reachable by train, try instead taking the train line up to Lao Cai in north-west region, then a bus to Sapa, a frontier town at the China. Mount Fansipan, at 3,143 meters, making the roof of Indochina, towers over the town. Walking and hiking in the Muong Hoa Valley will offer great views of mountains, terraced rice fields, and an introduction to the lives of the diverse local ethnic groups.
The Reunification Express remains Southeast Asia’s most famous rail journey, and taking the train – whether for a few hours at a time or the full two-day travel – offers a unique views of Vietnam that flying never can. Your fellow passengers may be families travelling to visit relatives, vendors transporting boxes of products, boisterous young army conscripts on home leave, or travelers, like you, go to take in the experience, whoever, can add color to your photographs, diary entries and memories for your journey.
Insights: For more information about the trains travelling the Reunification Express route, contact us. You can book your onward train journey when you arrive at each station to allow you some flexibility. However, during the public holidays, train tickets can be sold out within one hour. Be prepared and get your tickets at least one week in advance to ensure availability.
On board, food sellers offer everything from fresh fruit to boiled eggs. The restaurant car also offers refreshment. Vegetarian options are limited, so plan ahead if you have specific dietary needs.