The landscape, tranquil, brought tears to my eyes, and I was on a culinary delight sampling almost everything the hawkers aboard the train offered, including the raw meat sausage called nem nuong, without even asking what it was. I wish I could say I roughed it up and did it the way locals did, in the open air carriage with the fresh hot air blowing through my sticky face, but I was in the airconditioned cabins, sitting like the tourist that I was, no sweat in sight, and actually already writing a draft of this post.
Our journey from the North to the South aboard Vietnam’s Reunification Express began in Hanoi, which is the hub of the the train system, connecting Saigon in the south and Lao Cai in the north. On the night of the first leg of our journey, it was raining and because we wanted to do what the locals do, we arrived at the Ga Ha Noi via the local bus. We waited for about an hour for a bus at an almost deserted highway where a group of Vietnamese men were drinking while waiting for passengers to board their motorcycle taxis (aka habal-habal). There was no need for us to rush though. We already bought our train tickets the week before. All we needed to do that night is go to the train station, wait for our boarding time, and board the train. Like most tourists, I needed to make sure we were not scammed and we have legitimate tickets, so I approached the ticketing lady to make sure we get our proper accommodation. Most of the text in our tickets were in Vietnamese and most of the ticketing ladies did not speak any English. There was no way I could make a mistake as to which train to board. There was only one train scheduled to leave on that particular day at that particular time. Finally, 20 minutes before depature time, we were allowed to board the train. As I was preparing to sleep though, I got interrupted by the Vietnamese purser, making an X sign in front of his face and pointing at me. Then as suddenly as he was making me nervous, he looked at his sheets of paper and gave me the thumbs-up sign. Oh, the Vietnamese. One minute they give you a heart attack, next minute they are giving you a massage.
The railway is a remnant of the French occupation of Vietnam. At the time Vietnam was part of the so-called Indo-China, the railway was more extensive. After the war, many of the old lines are no longer being used, but the North-South line, affectionately called the Reunification Express, was rapidly redeveloped during the Doi Moi in the late 1980s. The Vietnamese railway stops in SaiGon but it used to have lines connecting to minor cities in the Mekong. In the north, the Vietnamese train stops at Lao Cai but the railway extends up to Beijing.
The first leg of our Vietnam train travel was mostly uneventful — but proved to be easy and relaxing — because we slept in almost all of the 12 hours we were on board. We woke up when the sun was already up and saw rivers and hills planted with gum trees, and the occasional rice paddies while eating our meager breakfast of baguette and instant Vietnamese coffee. The lady from our next-door cabin hurriedly woke her companions. “Quick, quick, it’s so beautiful.” We are traveling past a river nestled between mountains and there were thatched roofs beneath us, smoke slowly rising, probably preparing coffee. They were 50-ish women, American, and enjoying their trip. After breakfast, we could not help but continue to close our eyes. We woke up when the landscape already changed to sandy soil and semi-industrial landscape. We were nearing Hue, one of Asia’s culture city, and formerly the bastion of Vietnam’s last dynasties.
Misty Mountains, Sandy Shores
The second leg of our Vietnam train travel was the most scenic. We left Hue at 9:45 in the morning on a Friday and arrived in the city of Da Nang before 1PM. Our train was late but we managed to arrive in Da Nang right on time. The less than four-hour train ride was the cheapest at just 70,000 dong per person, but it was a ride that could have been arranged by the most expensive tour company, a ride that could rival any cable car. For the first two hours, the scenery was almost the same. Joel and I were in deep thoughts, I almost sleeping. The three British tourists (a couple and an elderly male wearing boots) were drinking beer and discussing where they have been and their prejudices. They were also smoking weed before we boarded the train. The Spanish couple in front of us were taking twofies. The train started to really slow down, slower than slow and I noticed there were no more structures to our right and there was a wall of a shrubby mountain to our left.
Then came the view, and no one was making a sound. The locals, who probably traveled in this train for the hundredth time, did not stir in their sleeps. The tourists, us, we went from slumber to shock, with our mouths openly hanging, slowly forming the words “W.O.W.” This was the Hai Van Pass. Aside from the pass being an infrastructure aid to Vietnam’s road to modernization, the pass also has a significant history. Hai Van, which means “Sea Clouds” because one a good day the blue of the East Vietnam Sea meets the clouds, has been used as a gateway since the 1300s. In fact, the remnants of a gate still remains.
At Hai Van, the contrast between the green mountains and the blue ocean, and the whites of the ocean quietly crashing into the black soft stones is postcard perfect. It was a different Vietnam I saw. It was beautiful. I have a fear of heights. It was thrilling. I even traded the window seat with my husband because I don’t want the train ride to take my breath away in fear. But breath taking it was, in beauty.
No Land Wasted
The last leg of our Vietnam train travel was the longest at 17 hours. It was from Da Nang to Sai Gon. The landscape has changed significantly from the North. The north was misty, the south sunny. From Da Nang to Sai Gon, it was land planted with rice and cassava, then it was land with nothing at all except lush creeping vines, and finally, it was land with coconuts. Our train rolled out of Da Nang at 1 in the afternoon. There were a few tourists but most passengers were locals, mostly traveling with families. Because it was still the afternoon, the train afforded us a view of Vietnam other forms of transportation won’t be able to. Because the rail tracks are built far from the highways, we saw farms, farmers bending on their farms late unto the sunset, young and old slowly cycling their way on green dirt paths, college students and young professionals whirring away in motorcycles. The houses have changed in style. Gone are the tall three-storey buildings in the north. Now we saw short one-storey houses, with big doors and probably with the house filled with both people and harvest. We saw industries, but no longer the smokestack industries of the road going to Ha Long in the north. And we saw more and more family tombs in the midst of rice paddies. There was no Vietnamese idle, there was no land wasted.
Somewhere near midnight, we shared our cabin to a younger couple. They took the upper bunks. On our way from Hanoi to Hue, we shared the cabin to an older couple, we took the upper bunks. I was anxious because I fear we would miss our stop so I kept opening the door and peering at the clock. All I see is the train man, also looking at the time. We cannot miss our stop. The train stops in Ga Sai Gon. Quarter to six, and the day breaks fast. One blink it was still dark with very scanty lights from the few house the train passed by. Next blink and I was facing rows upon rows of houses with tall buildings already looming nearby. As the train rolls into Ga Saigon, I breathed one last deep sigh. Our journey has come to an end. And we are now planning for the next train ride.
The Low Down
Cost — We paid a total of 2,563.000VND (P5,965.00) for three train rides. The sleeper train (10:20 P.M. to 10:45 A.M.) from Ha Noi to Hue costs 1,475.000VND (P3,418.00) per person for a four-bunk airconditioned cabin. The four-hour ride from Hue to Da Nang costs 70.000VND (P162.00) per person in an airconditioned seating carriage. The 17-hour train from Da Nang to Sai Gon (1:45 PM to 6:45 A.M.) costs 1,010.000VND (P2,359.00) per person for a four-bunk airconditioned cabin.
How to Book Tickets — You can book tickets in advance of your travel date. In fact, I suggest you book your tickets well in advance of your travel dates because the train will be packed, especially during holidays when Vietnamese families would be traveling. I used the website http://dsvn.vn/ to check on availability and price of train tickets. I noticed that there are differences in the published price of train tickets from the first time I checked the website (about January this year) to the day I bought the tickets. When buying tickets, make sure you specify the accommodation you want (seating, four-bunk, sleeping, economy, etc.).
Where to Book Tickets — I have seen hotels, guesthouses and travel agencies advertise that they can book train tickets for you. But we did it the old fashioned way — by going to the train station and arranging it ourselves. You can buy all your tickets ahead in any station (e.g. you can buy your Da Nang to SaiGon tickets at the Hanoi station). Buying tickets at the Hanoi station took some time because there was no English-speaking staff. But have a little patience and just clearly indicate what you want and they will give it to you. The Hue station was easier because they have an English-speaking officer whose sole job is to help tourists. Don’t let the looks fool you (he was a short, bearded guy, with unkempt hair, was wearing a uniform but slippers), he was very competent, giving me all the options I have for the Hue-Danang and Danang-Saigon trips. You need to have a passport to book.
Food — We brought snacks and water with us. In our sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue, there was a bottle of water and a piece of chocolate wafer waiting for each of us at our cabin. At the Danang to Saigon train, there was free dinner but this was not indicated in the ticket so we actually bought a lot of food with us just in case. All the trains we rode had dining carts. They served coffee but the price, of course, is higher compared to the streets.
Comfort — We found the four-bunk cabin very comfortable. You have your own pillow and a blanket, a reading light and a socket for charging. We were lucky to have shared the cabin with respectful people (meaning they did not make any unnecessary noise) that we were able to get a really good night sleep in both sleeper trains. We think the layout of the sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in Thailand was better for privacy.
Cleanliness — The four-bunk cabin carriage was reasonably clean. Each carriage has its own comfort room and a separate sink and mirror. Later into the trip, as expected, the comfort room would smell and get dirtier. I suggest you bring your own toilet paper.
Photos by Joel Lopez.