More train! Saigon to Hanoi this time! The Reunification Express received its name to remember the end of the Vietnam war. Welcome on the sleeper train Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi.
Most of you know that I love good train travel when the opportunity presents itself. In 2016 I was lucky enough to travel between London and Beijing on the Trans Siberian and Trans-Mongolian rails. At the beginning of this year, I went by train from Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. So when the opportunity came to travel from Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon to Hanoi, Vietnam, I didn’t think long.
The station in Ho Chi Minh City has a counter in the center where staff sells tickets. There’s not much English or French spoken. A map, a calendar, and some notepaper helped to get the message across of what I wanted, and less than a half-hour after I arrived at the station, I was in possession of a train ticket for the Reunification Express the next evening.
All aboard for Saigon to Hanoi!
I arrived way too early at the station. Luckily, so was the train. By 6:30 pm, I could get access to the train.
Soft sleeper instead of hard sleeper
I arrived in my cabin, pleasantly surprised to only see four berths. When I researched the code on my ticket earlier that day, it was defined as “hard sleeper”, and those come in 6 per cabin. It turned out to be a “soft sleeper”.
I’ve included the ticket categories for the Reunification Express below.
I pushed my backpack under one of the berths and found that I’d be sleeping in one of the upper beds for the next 36+ hours.
Four beds doesn’t mean four people
Having only four beds, however, didn’t mean that there would not be 6 people in the cabin, this IS Asia after all. A Vietnamese family with mom, dad, a son of 5 and a daughter of 2. They occupied the bottom bunks. With a software engineer from Montenegro, our cabin was complete. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”@boardingtoday” suffix=”#travel”]The amount of people that fits in a train in Vietnam depends on creativity, not on tickets[/inlinetweet]…
The family came well prepared: rice and chicken. And while I gently declined the offer to join them for dinner, we started a conversation. A bit of English by the mom, and some words I had picked up before. And, a lot of pointing and showing.
Happy New Year
Life on a train loses much of its excitement after dark. So by 9 pm, everybody found their sleeping place, and we shut off the lights. The monotone cadence of the train riding over the Vietnamese countryside helps me to sleep fast.
Close to midnight, a Vietnamese voice came over the speakers. As this is the first day of Tet, the Vietnamese new year, the conductor was so kind to wish all of us on the train a happy new year. (at least, that’s what I assume he said…) Doing that over the PA system of the train was a questionable choice. And doing it at midnight, finishing the long public address with Abba’s “Happy New year” went a bit overboard.
But after having listened to the last note of the long-play version of the song, our train went quiet again.
The next thing I know, someone is grabbing my foot and twisting my toe. I need some time to wake up, and this was a bit too brisk for me. It turned out to be a lady from the town where the train stopped. while she was shaking my foot, she called “coffee?”. I needed some time to realize the situation.
Having gained conscience, coffee sounded like a nice plan. So pretty soon she was back with a cup of sweet coffee. Either I have much overpaid that coffee, or she has messed up changing my money. Anyway, I had my coffee.
One of the stops of the train is in Qui Hon. At a certain moment there, I noticed there that the train crew was still hanging out on the platform. I went out to stretch my legs. On the opposite platform, a train in the other direction had stopped. All of a sudden I spotted a woman crawling out from under that train. She was bringing baguettes and coffee.
Time is money
Yes, time is money, even in Thailand: These vendors go back and forth under the trains to get more supplies in their shops.
How can I resist trying a breakfast hat that was hauled under a train and delivered. 7 am, after all, is a good time to have breakfast. Vietnamese sandwiches, freshly baked, with Holland cheese.
On the platform, garbage bags are in front of every door, and most people take advantage of disposing of their waste. What a difference with Russian or even Thai train, where these facilities are inside the train, and where the staff takes care of getting the waste out. But not less efficient.
Unfortunately, the route from Saigon to Hanoi is littered over almost the complete stretch. Vietnamese people (and the many tourists on this journey) don’t seem to grasp the issue with throwing stuff out of the window of the train. Vietnam deserves better…
Life on board
In the early morning, the train staff is selling tickets for food. Using sign language, pointing and the five words English and Vietnamese we knew from each other, I decided to order me one. I pay 35,000 VND (Not even US$2), and I’ll see what’s up for lunch later.
Having a train filled with kids, and many travelers looking for things to kill time ends in peek-a-boo, hide-and-seek, and all kinds of variations in our wagon. One thing is for sure, by the time we’ll travel through the second night, these kids (and many adults) will have a good night’s sleep, no matter what.
Around noon, lunch is served. Turns out I ordered rice, chicken, some kind of very tasty spring rolls, and Chinese cabbage. I should stop doubting ever to get into the local street food (or train food in this case) and just go for it.
Views from the train Saigon-Hanoi
Once the train has passed Da Nang, the landscape changes and the train track meanders alongside the sea. Get the camera out for some spectacular views from the Reunification Express when you are on this stretch:
In Hue, many of our new Vietnamese friends left us. My cabin-mate from Montenegro and I went on to the restaurant wagon to see what that was all about. After crossing 12 wagons, we found a small compartment filled with smoke where the menu consisted of beer and instant noodles.
We went back to our place. Arrived at the next stop, we bought a freshly cooked meal on the platform. After dinner and a cold local beer, it was time for bed.
Around 5 am, I felt the train had stopped, watched out of the window, and indeed: Ga Ha Noi (Hanoi Train Station) it said on the sign. This time no announcement over the PA. I Grabbed my belongings, walked out of the station, and was ready to meet Vietnam’s capital: Hanoi!
The adventure on the sleeper train, Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, was over. A little time after I left the station, I found an excellent soup as breakfast from one of the street vendors and was ready to explore again.
Ready to travel the Reunification Express that connects Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh?
Here are your options, from cheap to relatively expensive, so you know your options when you buy tickets:
- First, you can choose the absolute budget option, a Hard Seat. My back isn’t ready for this experience, but yours may be. The cabins are filled with rows of wooden benches. Calling this a hard seat is the best description you can ask for.
- For a little more, Vietnam Railways provides you with a soft seat that has some kind of cushioning built-in. If you thin a seat is better than a bed, this is your most comfortable option. (But comfortable is relative, taking into account the length of the trajectory.
- Your next option is the Hard Berth. Six beds in one compartment, and as you read above that means more people could end up here. But it’s some kind of sleeper
- The Soft Berth (soft sleeper) is only a few dollars more expensive. And all of a sudden you only have four berths in one compartment, and a little fewer people in the wagon. It was my choice.
- And last but not least, there’s a VIP option. Only two beds are installed in a compartment. If you think about traveling between north and south Vietnam in a luxury fashion, this is your option!
The Route of the Reunification Express:
Koen Blanquart is a strategy consultant, journalist, and author.
Wanderlust is one of his driving factors, and he shares his travels here on Boarding Today. Koen is also the skipper of SV Bagabonda, a sailing vessel making a slow circumvention of the globe..
Koen recently published a book on how to manage a remote team: The Suitcase Office.