Traveling by rail in Vietnam is not luxurious, but fairly uncomplicated. So uncomplicated actually, that you do not even need a ticket. All you need is a little knowledge of the holes in the fence, and a little nerve!
After spending some time in Hanoi we decided to do the «Reunification Express» south to Saigon, today Ho Chi Minh City. The time is, give or take, 35 hours. We took it in two legs, stopping in Danang about half way down.
Getting a ticket is easy, your hotel will do it for you. We were surprised to see that the ticket actually said «Saigon», Ho Chi Minh might be a holy man out here, but people do not necessarily take the name of his city too seriously.
You need to plan your stops however, you cannot hop on and off at random. But no panic, there are quite a few trains to chose from and you will get there if you buy a couple of days in advance. If you want (as most westerners will) the most comfortable beds in a compartment for four, the timetable gives you 4 options per day in each direction.
Prices were not scary, 97 USD for the whole stretch and roughly 50 for each of the two stretches we chose. What caused us some worry though, was the official website being very clear on 20 kilos per person as the max carry-on-luggage quota. We had more than 30 each last time we checked.
We took SE3 from Hanoi on a Saturday night, and after a brief stopover the SE5 from Danang very early the following Tuesday morning.
Our beds were reasonable clean, even though we discovered that the covers were not even changed at the journeys end. We slept in full clothing, using the covers when the AC became too aggressive (unlike on the US Amtrack, the most primitive trains we have taken in our lives, the AC in Vietnam can actually be turned down.)
What we discovered pretty soon was that nobody cared about baggage weight. Jolly good. Actually, nobody cared about us at all once we were inside the car. We got suspicious when the last free bed in our compartment (we were traveling with The Daughter from Hanoi, that made three of us) was taken by a guy with no luggage some 20 minutes after leaving the station. And we got it confirmed at the start of our second leg when our two beds (The Daughter had in the meantime left us two farts alone) were both taken when we entered. We got hold of train personnel who chased the sleepy intruders off, but we got the picture. There are no ticket controls inside the train, nobody checks the compartments. People buy cheep seats, then they move along to the more expensive wagons hunting for free upgrades.
The trains were worn, but not dirty. The toilets looked like they were built 30 years ago, but they were cleaned en route. Probably hosed down, the floors flooded, but still cleaned. As seasoned Trans-Siberian-travelers we have seen (and smelled) much worse. We were pretty much ok with this.
If you are not a five-star-addict, the trains of Vietnam are an inexpensive and useful way to travel. You will hardly be alone, however, we had two adults and two small kids keeping us company on our second leg (they did have tickets) but everybody was polite and nobody screamed and we all made the best out of a crammed common living space.
We did not see too much of Vietnam from the train, though. We did see miles and miles of rice fields and some beautiful coastal cliffs north of Danang, but with the schedule we had made for ourselves half of our 35 hours were spent sleeping. And the small space meant a lot of the remaining half was also spent in bed, where the view out the window is a bit restricted.
Still, we recommend the Reunification Express. If a straight 35 hours is too much for you, there are several stops to chose from. You can stop in the old Imperial city of Hue (which we did not), you can stop in Danang and take the short bus ride to the delightful coastal town of Hoi An (which we did) or you can stop in Quang Ngai and visit My Lai (which we did not either). My Lai, as those of you over 60 might remember, was the place where American troops massacred 500 unarmed civilians in March 1968. One lieutenant was convicted for 22 cases of murder, but William Calley was joyfully pardoned by Richard Nixon five minutes into a life jail sentence. So much for respect for life!
But that was all a digression. The bottom line is, this train is worth taking if you need it. Just bring a book and some baguettes for breakfast and lunch. There were some ladies there with little carts selling very Vietnamese-looking fish, noodle soup and chicken stew – but we chickened out!