I have a couple of tips for anyone intent on travelling through Vietnam in its most sustainable and charismatic way; ie, by train.
The first is that the nation’s iconic Reunification Express is actually six different trains, mostly composed of sleeping cars, moving at regular intervals between Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south and Hanoi in the North. And the second is that the designated ‘hard sleeper’ is in fact just as, er, un-hard as the ‘soft sleeper’. Despite costing less.
I’d worked out the first fact from studying the Vietnam Railways timetable beforehand, but I didn’t realise that ‘hard’ was in fact just as soft as ‘soft’ until I turned up at Saigon station after dark on a monsoon-soaked evening.
On the map, Vietnam looks a bit like an upside-down lamb chop. It is a long, thin curve of a country with a bulge at the top to accommodate Hanoi, and with Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) lingering down at the bony bottom. The railway connects the two, running mainly along the coast, in a 1,072 mile journey that was originally created in colonial days when Vietnam was ruled by the French.
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More recently, the railway was one of the first pieces of infrastructure to be restored at the end of the savage Vietnam War, which pitted north Vietnam against the south (who were famously aided by the Americans). Accordingly, the trains that started to run on it were soon christened the Reunification Express.
Today, to do the whole journey would take 34 hours, but why on earth would you want to do that, when the route strings together key destinations such as Nha Trang, Hoi Ann, Danang and Hue? And the presence of several trainsets working the route means that you can choose to travel from point to point either by daylight, or after dark.
The Express that awaited me that night in rainy HCMC was trainset SE2. I’d made an online booking, so I had a voucher on my phone that let me through onto the platform. The locomotive may have had that granular sheen of painted-over rust, but onboard the carriages seemed clean, well organised and properly airconditioned.
My hard sleeper turned out be a berth in a six person cabin, with a thin mattress, a pillow,…
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