Even since watching Michael Palin Full Circle, the one thing above all that I wanted to do in Vietnam was travel by train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. In fact despite the city name change, the trains still arrive into Saigon Railway Station, the largest station in the country.
A little bit of history
The over 1000 mile long line was completed by the French in 1936. However, during the war the line was obviously unused and it wasn’t until 1976 after the north had won the south back and the Americans had left that the line was reopened, uniting the two cities and the country again. Hence being known as the Reunification Express. Vietnam Rail run the line today with 5 trains leaving daily doing the full length of the journey.
What the Vietnamese train system is most famous for today in Hanoi is the train streets, where every 3-4 hours or so trains going to and from Ho Chi Minh weave themselves through tiny working streets. On our walk to see these streets we slightly miss timed and caught the SE9 just coming out of one of the backstreets and heading south down Le Duan street. In hindsight I’m very glad I wasn’t stuck in a street with a train in the end.
Again, we took advice from the man in seat 61 and purchased our train tickets through the website baolau.com. It had a service fee of 40,000đ per ticket (~£1.30) and a processing fee depending on the overall price. I would have preferred to pay for the tickets at the stations, as we had done so easily in China, but the stations weren’t so walkable from our hostels and we had limited time in the cities which we did not want to waste. We did however go to Hanoi Railway Station to buy our train into China which was straight forward to do after asking the right person.
Train SE5: Hanoi to Saigon (bus from Tuy Hoa to Nha Ga Van)
Cost: upper bed 1,093,000đ (~£35) and lower bed 1,187,000đ (~£38) plus processing fee of 71,000đ (~£2.30)
Time: 33h 47m
We chose the more expensive 4-berth carriage as this was a long journey. We left Hanoi early at 9am and arrived into Saigon the next day at about 9pm after a two hour delay. Hurricane Damrey, the largest storm in a generation had wreaked havoc on the country a couple of days before. We jumped onto the train fully expecting not to make it all the way down and assuming we’d get to explore an unexpected part of the country. The train ran through waterlogged scenery, trees were down and crops were drowned. However, the majority of the line was intact bar a short section about two thirds of the way down. We slept well and then a little before Tuy Hoa at nearly lunch time, our cabin mates started to pack up. Then a guard knocked and showed us the translated word “bus” on his phone, time for everyone to get off. It was a smooth process. We followed everyone off the train, through the station and outside where coaches were waiting. We piled on and the drive took about an hour. At Nha Ga Van the next train was already waiting for us, we were only 2 hours late into Saigon in the end.
Train SE2: Saigon to Hue (bus from Nha Ga Van to Tuy Hoa)
Cost: mid bed 798,000đ (~£25) and lower bed 855,000đ (~£27) plus processing fee of 54,000đ (~£1.70)
Time: 19h 53m
This journey back north as far as Hue was also overnight and as we travelled just a couple of days after the journey south, the line was still damaged. This time, the bus journey was not so smooth. We were turfed off at 5am and had to wait nearly half an hour before the buses turned up. On Arrival to Tuy Hoa, the station wasn’t open and a whole train load of annoyed people had to wait for nearly an hour before jumping on the next train. We ended up making friends with the several other western couples doing the same journey.
After finally getting back on board we shared our 6-berth carriage with a couple and their young boy. He immediately took a liking to Mischa, to his dismay. He was super playful, super loud and his parents just laughed and filmed him on their phone when he climbed all over Mischa. They eventually took him to an empty carriage to nap when he had tired himself out. He woke up in time to see the most beautiful part of the reunification line. The stretch from Danang to Hue weaves through the trees high up along the coast. Look up and the jungly hills continue steeply upwards and look down to glimpse streams flowing under the tracks to the beaches below. Despite the weather, leftover rain from the storms, it was still beautiful. We’d slept through it on the previous train and this time I was worried it would be nightfall again due to the delays but we enjoyed it in all its glory.
Train SE20: Hue to Hanoi
Cost: mid bed 500,000đ (~£16) and lower bed 535,000đ (~£17) plus processing fee of 37,000đ (~£1.20)
Time: 14h 25m
The final leg, completing the South-North journey was overnight again and we had the compartment to ourselves. It was fun to arrive through the train streets and we hit the sprawling city nearly an hour before we arrived into Hanoi Station. Here’s a couple of videos showing you the busy streets and how close the train is to some buildings.