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Reunification Express – Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

By on September 11, 2015 in Vietnam

This I was really looking forward to… I love travelling by train, and this was going to be a stunning trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on the Reunification Express.

Booking my ticket for the Reunification Express was a breeze thanks to the great advice from The man in seat 61, and the easy to use baolau.vn website (see my earlier post on Ga Hà Nội (Hanoi Station)). To collect my ticket I just showed up at the train station and showed the order details on my phone.

For the journey, I was travelling ‘soft sleeper’, which is a shared 4 berth (bedroom). There were also a number other types of cabin available on the train, but to me the ‘soft sleeper’, whilst one of the more expensive tickets, seemed to be the best option to meet my needs.

The waiting room at Ga Hà Nội (Hanoi Station) station had a small snack stand and toilets. Oddly there was no train departure board – all the bit worrying.

The Reunification Express offers a number of services, and below is my timetable.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train timetable

I had read that ‘scammers’ were operating at the station. Their ‘trick’ is to ask to see your ticket and then help you to the train for which they would then demand a large tip. I saw no sign of such scammers operating.

It might be a good idea to read up on the history of Vietnam before boarding the train because I got asked a lot of questions by one passenger, via another passenger interpreting, about what I knew about Vietnam and what I thought of General Vo Nguyen Giap who died in 2013 at the age of 102. (I later discovered this obituary for the general on The Guardian website.)

I boarded the Reunification Express at 8:15 am and my ticket had all the information. Coach 9, berth 10.  Perfect.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train ticket

Below is a photograph of the ‘soft sleeper’ travel compartment for four. There were 4 bed, each with a pillow, and duvet. A small table, bin, and storage space. No seats. You had to sit on the bed when not sleeping.  There are two power outlets, but I couldn’t get the one near my bunk to work (I think it was a problem with my adaptor) as one of the other passengers got the power socket to work near their bunk. Getting in and out of the top bunk was quite tricky and required the use of a small flick down step by the side of the door.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train carriage

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train carriage walk

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train washroom

The toilets on the Reunification Express were not the nicest I’ve ever seen. (Why are train toilets always so bad? They are often quite shocking in the UK.) And it was decidedly difficult to use them when the train was at speed due to the roughness of the ride. The toilets ran out of paper very early into the trip, so bring your own!

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train western toilet

Getting ready to leave Hanoi station.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train station

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train hot water

The hot water station (above) was used by a lot of people on the train to heat up dried noodle dishes (Pot Noodles) they had brought onboard.

I was able to stow my main bag under the bed, however, I thought the room was going to be very cramped with 4 people. The distance between the upper and lower bunks was such that if I was taller I wouldn’t be able to sit up (people taller than 6ft be warned – I can’t actually sit up straight). The air con was powerful, almost too cold. When the third person joined our 4 berth compartment (top bunk) he managed to close down a number of air con vents.

The train was due to leave at 9 am and left at bang on 9 am.

Day 1 on the Reunification Express:

As the train headed south out of Hanoi we passed through a number of areas where shops and houses fronted on to the single track train line. The awnings of the shops missed the train by inches. There were no bridges across the roads in the suburbs, it was all level crossings.  It was great fun getting a brief glimpse of the crowds on the road waiting for the train to pass.

Within 25 minutes of leaving the main station, we were in the suburbs and countryside.

There is a pretty good trolley service on the train, and it made its first visit shortly after we left the station. The trolley did not seem to offer a lot and appeared to be limited to crisps, popcorn and a range of drinks.  I hoped that they would be offering a lot more food than was evident because I had foolishly not brought many snacks with me. This meant it could have been a long and hungry 35 hours.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train food trolley

Shortly after the visit of the first trolley a member of the trained staff appeared at the doorway and took a lunch order. This happened around 9:45 am, and, as usual,  I had no idea what I had ordered, when it would arrive, or even if I had to go and pick it up somewhere. The cost was 35000 Vietnamese dong (£1.25 GBP; $1.80 USD).

Later another trolley came by selling eggs, sweet corn and what looked like satay, and maybe some rice.

Mid-morning a Train Guard walked by and squirted perfume into the room. Why?

Around mid-morning, I was joined by another passenger. The man now sharing the compartment with me insisted on showing me a photo of himself in military uniform.  By the looks of the uniform, he must have been someone significant in the army. Why had he showed me this photograph?  Was it some new form of communication I was unaware of? Maybe photos is the way to go?

Lunch was served around noon from a trolley that came down the carriage and you picked what you wanted. I ended up with:

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train dinner

So, I am now even more confused by lunch. Was this what I ordered earlier?

After the meal, we stacked the trays by the door for collection.

This process was repeated for the evening meal.

The ride on the train was very bouncy, and I could make up my mind if was due to poor tracks, or poor suspension in the carriage. At times the bouncing was so bad that it was difficult to walk around the train or to type. I doubt the tracks will be improved, or renewed, in the near future as Vietnam is currently building a high-speed rail link between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) based on Japanese engineering. I’ve got to come back and ride on that train.

I was under impression that there was a buffet car on the train, however, if there was I couldn’t find it. This was initially worrying as I needed a supply of coffee.

Finally, Around mid-afternoon, a cart came by and I was able to buy a hot sweet coffee from 15,000 Vietnamese dong (£0.50 GBP; $0.75 USD). All I can say about the coffee was that it was hot and very very sweet.

As we head south the countryside changed and hills started to appear.

Vietnam from the train was beautiful. Very green with lots of trees and ponds. Lots of rice fields and the number of people out working the fields was remarkable. The green of the fields was very bright, particularly in the rice fields, and this gave the countryside a real fresh feel. The thing that surprised me was the number of ponds. There were ponds everywhere.

I was also surprised by the number of church spires I kept seeing.

After about 6 hours the train started climbing up through forests and woodland. The route had some fantastic views.  Unfortunately, it was very difficult to photograph the views as I couldn’t find an open window, and the window on my cabin needed a serious clean.

As the journey progressed it occurred to me that it may be worth taking a train at a different time as we started to get in to some really interesting scenery about 9 hours into the journey, just as it was getting dark.

All throughout the journey the people in my carriage kept changing. At about 10 hours into my trip, I was joined by Lee who was a 24-year-old law lecturer travelling down south to give some lectures. Lee was kind enough to tell me a lot about Vietnam, to share her sugar cane snack (handy hint: spit out the material once you have chewed it, don’t attempt to swallow it), and she also acted as translate with the other guy who was sharing the compartment.  It turned out that the photograph on the phone was his favourite Vietnamese army general – General Vo Nguyen Giap who died in 2013. I also discovered that the reason he struggled to get into the top bunk was because he’d been shot through the knee during his service in the army. With the help of Lee, I offered to swap bunks with him so that he could take the lower berth. This instantly made us friends and he insisted on buying me some beers. I had no real idea what we were talking about, but we seem to laugh a lot.

Day 2 on the Reunification Express:

Not the best, but not the worst, nights sleep I’ve had. The train was not really designed for anyone over 6 foot as there are a number of things on which you can bang your head (as I discovered during the night). The beds were long enough, but could have been a bit wider.

I finally got up around 5:30 am just as it was getting light. I spent the night in the top bunk (even though I had the bottom bunk booked) as the guy that had been put in the top bunk couldn’t get up there very easily due to bad knees.

At some time in the night the train reversed direction. I have no idea, or recollection, of when this happened as the train made a number of stops during the night.

Overnight the countryside had changed again. We have left behind the mountains and the rice fields and now seemed to be in an area of scattered houses and coconut palms.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train river

By day two I still hadn’t got the hang of the coffee on the train. There was a drinks trolley that came round and you can ask for hot coffee. The coffee was made by adding some powder to hot water (no idea what the powder was), and then adding a shot of a dark liquid from a coke bottle (I assumed that is the coffee).

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train trolley snack

What resulted was something that was the colour of strong coffee, that was very sweet and tasted a bit like coffee.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train tea

Breakfast consisted of a small pot of rice and some processed meat for 20,000 Vietnamese dong (£0.70 GBP; $1.00 USD).

As you pulled into each station on the trip we got a brief history and some information about the town, in Vietnamese and English. This was often accompanied with a song about the town or the region.

At most stations, there were people selling stuff on the platform. You could either buy from corridor window (one of those annoyingly small windows that opens just enough to exchange money to buy a small bag of goods, but not enough to allow you to take a photograph) of the carriage, or get off the train at stations to make a purchase if there was a significant stop.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train station 2

We did get some unexpected extended stops on the train. These were usually to wait for a train coming down the line as in a number of places it was single track.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train view

During daylight there were no lights on in the train, so when we went in to a tunnel it got very dark.

After 25.5 hours into the trip we finally got to see the sea.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train view 2

The coastline looked stunning from the train with some great looking sandy beaches. Along the section by the sea the track went through a series of short tunnels so the carriage was regularly plunged into darkness.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train view 3

The lunch cart came through the carriage at 10:50 am, which I felt was far too early for lunch. I assumed that was a mid-morning snack, and that the trolley would be back later. I was wrong. The trolley didn’t return and so I didn’t get any lunch.

People were constantly getting on and off the train into the sleeping compartments. I went to bed sharing a four berth compartment with three people. I woke in the middle of the night to find we were now a group of 4, and yet in the morning we were back to 3 – but not the 3 I had started the night with. Between all this coming and going bedsheets, blankets and pillows were not changed. By 11:50 am on the second day I had the compartment to myself.

As we got closer to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) the countryside seemed to get drier and less green. The soil seemed parched and I saw a number of dried out streams and rivers.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train view 4

And then within a few miles we were back into a landscape of water and rice fields.

The closer we got to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) the more frequent and longer our pull-over stops seemed to get to let  trains pass in the other direction.

The countryside kept changing. I have seen views on this trip that have reminded me of many different parts of the world. The view below made me think of one of the long train rides I took across Australia.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train view 5

Dinner was interesting. The cost was 25000 Vietnamese dong (£0.90 GBP; $1.40 USD) and was basically an instant noodle dish to which was added extra chicken and some vegetables (spring onions). It was actually surprisingly tasty.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train food 2

As we rattled on down the track I watched amazed as a big storm started to appear on the horizon.

Reunification Express - hanoi siagon train view night

The storm soon caught up with us and treated us to an amazing lightning display from the train window.

Finally, after 35 hours we arrived at Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) railway station.

Summary

Overall, it was a truly stunning train ride on the Reunification Express and an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was a great way to see Vietnam and I met some really interesting people. Did I sleep well? Yes, as well as can be expected on a train. Was the food exceptional? Well, no, we were on a train!

I know train travel like this is not for everyone, but if you have the time, and don’t mind a few ‘rough edges’ it is a great way to see the country. Would I travel Vietnam Railways again? In a word – YES!

On the 1726 km trip, the train had a maximum speed of around 70 km per hour. The average speed over the distance was around 50 km per hour (we did stop a lot in stations, and in sidings to let other trains pass). And the total journey from Hanoi to  Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) should have taken 35 hours and 3 minutes (2,103 minutes) and we did it in 2,103 minutes. Bang on time. Remarkable.

If you are thinking of taking the Reunification Express, then I would say go for it. You won’t be disappointed as it is a great way to experience Vietnam.

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Nick's continued wanderings can be followed on Twitter: @nickswanderings.
 

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