I developed an interest in train travel rather late, and one of the journeys that I'd been fascinated with soon after was the 'Reunification Express' that links Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. This approximately 1,100-mile journey used to be fairly slow and challenging, but credit to Vietnam Railways, can now be enjoyed in a more convenient and comfortable manner.
We had obtained our first-class berth tickets via a recommended local agent so that our tickets were waiting for us at our hotel. My dad and I started our journey in Hanoi, leaving at 10.00 pm on train SE3, in order to arrive in Ho Chi Minh City several days later following a break in the journey at Hue. The train, painted a distinctive red and blue, isn't a luxury train but one with several classes and is intended primarily to serve the local population. Our first-class sleepers came in a cabin of four berths, with bedsheet, pillow, sleeping bag-like blanket and several bottles of drinking water provided. It's generally very clean, with sinks at one end of each carriage and toilet facilities at the other. Train staff some along every couple of hours of so with a food cart with breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper, or snacks/fruits, depending on the time of the day. Meals were simple and generally rice-based with a few dishes and a clear soup, served in trays or in styrofoam boxes. Many travellers also had portable kettles, cup noodles, and a range of snacks and drinks. It's a shared environment, so a little give and take is needed, especially when sharing the cabin with strangers who may have odd sleeping habits or get on or off at quiet stations in the middle of the night. Sometimes, it's possible to have simple conversations with fellow passengers but more often, it's a fantastic opportunity to people watch.
Looking out of the window, the scenery changes from urban city life to suburban dwellings to country villages and farms, a good cross spectrum of the entire country. It's not spectacular by any means as most of the journey is travelled close to sea level, but there are certain stretches that are a little more exciting, Of particular note is the stretch just after leaving Hue where the train climbs into the hills while hugging the coast line - the views are probably the most memorable. Punctuality-wise, the train seemed to fall a little behind schedule for every mile it was further away from Hanoi, but it made up a lot of time to arrive in Ho Chi Minh City no more than half an hour late. Overall, it's a very eye-opening introduction to the country but done at a fairly sedate pace that allows plenty of time for absorption, reflection and relaxation.
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