For 4 weeks I went to South-East Asia. Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong. The 10 days I spend in Vietnam were my favourite. Way too short, but it was enough to have a little taste. Just enough to fall in love with this beautiful and magical country. We visited Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Halong Bay. We spend 2-3 days in each place and travelled most part by train.
One day I will travel from North to South on a moped. I bet it wouldn’t be so comfortable for a girl who can’t even sit on a bicycle for longer than 40 minutes, but after the experience I had during my train travel last February, I believe I would be better off with soar behind.
Don’t let me discourage you from taking the train at any time, I just felt a little bit trapped. I like to have choices and during this trip, I had to just sit and wait for what (mostly who) was next.
Trains between Hanoi and Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City are sometimes referred to as the “Reunification Express”. None of the trains carry that name or ever have, but it refers to it’s history. The line between Ho Chi Minh City in the South and Hanoi in the North was completed by the French in 1936. The line is a single-track metre gauge line and has a total length of 1,726 Km. In 1954 Vietnam was divided into North and South and the railway was cut. The trains resumed on 31 December 1976 and ran ever since, therefor: the Reunifications Express.
Booking a ticket (in Vietnamese)
Knowing this, and having a love for train travel we decided to take the train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. My travel companion was living with a Vietnamese family during her stay in Taiwan, and it was a big help booking the tickets. It was not so easy, and getting tickets on the spot isn’t doable (during the holiday season). There are travel agencies, which will do the booking for you, you pay a few dollars for their services, but it’s worth it. We saw a few Westerners try their hardest to get a spot, and if you don’t mind hanging around it the hallways, you might get lucky.
We booked two lower bunks in a cabin of 4. These are called the “soft sleepers”, it’s the equivalent to first class, but unfortunately we weren’t able to find a cabin of 2. Compared to the train I took from Budapest, Hungary to Bar in Montenegro, this train was luxurious! Very clean, cabins were spacious enough. No complaints there. Tickets aren’t cheaper than plane tickets so keep in mind that the view might not be worth this journey. You can also book a hard sleeper, it’s a lot cheaper but you are sleeping on a piece of wood in a cabin of at least 6 beds (this can add up to 12 people).
We had a reservation number and a Vietnamese letter. Not much to go on. And after bumping into a lot of trouble during our stay in Cambodia, we decided to leave early to the station. We pulled a number and waited nervously for an hour to get our tickets.
Baggage storage at the station
After receiving our tickets we had a few more hours to occupy, so we stored our bags. There is this little counter on the ground floor where you can ask to store your bag. I believe it was 10 dollars and off you went. Your bag is put into a corner with a few other bags. I suggest you take everything that is valuable with you.
We went for some Pho during the few extra hours we had. Vietnamese soup big enough for you to survive the first part of the train ride. I could live of eating Pho every day, all day. We found a little place where we sat down, enjoyed our soup and a few ours later we left Ho Chi Minh behind. It was good thinking to eat beforehand, and taking some chips and cookies for the rest of the 2 nights, 1 day journey. Getting food on the train wasn’t as obvious as I expected. We saw one man with a cart that was filled with warm food. We choose not to eat prepared food, as we didn’t feel completely acclimatized just yet. Toilets were available, western and the usual hole in the “ground”. Neither I have an issue with, but still, you don’t want to occupy the toilet for hours.
Beautiful Vietman outside, and inside
The best part of the trip is the scenery between Hué and Danang. The train cruises next to green waters and beaches that will impress you. You will pass jungle covered cliffs and islands. Plenty of rice fields along the way, with some buffalo’s here and there strolling around.
Vietnam is not only on the other side of the window; we had the privilege to share a cabin with a Vietnamese family of four. For the most part of our journey we found ourselves in the middle of a yelling competition between a little boy and girl, which was overpowered by the loud conversations from the mom and dad. Normal, it appears.
Half way through our trip the family got off the train and we considered ourselves lucky. The amount of earplugs I brought was not enough. We could finally stretch our legs, no little kids taking over the floor. It felt like paradise. I enjoyed reading-up on what to do in Hanoi and Halong Bay! And my friend took the time to study her Chinese.
At few hours later an older woman got on the train with two huge plastic bags. I do not know how old she was, but she could have been 90. She was presented with a chair. One of those little chairs that you can find at the kid section of Walmart, or some equivalent. Red and low to the ground. So there she was, on this little red chair. Her two bags in front of her. She was staring out of the window as if this was a weekly trip for her. Nothing new. She probably had seen it all before, and more.
Eventually we invited the woman to stay in our cabin as no one was using the upper bunks anyway. She offered us some food that she stored in her big plastic bags and gave us generous smiles whenever our eyes met. I was very intrigued by her. She was sitting on the lower bed eating her rice, with her legs crossed and a straight back. As the girl who can’t sit on a bicycle for more than 40 minutes, I was impressed!
When we stopped to pick up new train buddies, we found ourselves in the middle of a group of eight French middle-aged backpackers. They were trying to figure out who was sleeping where, and even considered sleeping in our beds; we were young enough to sleep on the top beds you see. When we said that we were more than happy to stay in our own beds, they started to wonder what this old little woman was doing on our bed. We told them, that she is with us, which was obviously a little white lie, but hey…! My friend shared the bed with her for the night. In a feet-to-face kind of position, you know, those we all remember from our childhood sleepovers. Thankfully they are both tiny creatures so they slept through the night sharing a blanket.
I wondered where she was going, whom she was meeting. In my imagination she went to visit her children and grandchildren for Chinese New Year. I could see her sitting on the pavement, burning paper money for her loved ones who passed away to the after-live. I imagined her burning paper money and other valuables to make sure that the people who left this life would live a rich and warm live in the here after.
Soon after our second night on the Reunification Express we arrived in Hanoi. It was dawn, and the streets where wet and empty. It was cold compared to Ho Chi Minh City and we decided to walk to our hotel. I couldn’t do anything but smile, and enjoy the piece and quiet. The deserted streets felt nice for once.