There’s no one train in Vietnam called the reunification train, the term refers to the north-south track itself. The express train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City is not a tourist attraction. Expect to feel the life of Vietnam if you spend time aboard.
This rail line was built by the French and completed in 1936, but it was all but completely destroyed by the ensuing 40 years of war. When the war ended in 1975, a massive effort was made to repair the track. The bombs had destroyed over 1000 bridges, dozens of tunnels and many of the stations. The work was completed in just over a year.
We boarded the train in Ninh Bin, and traveled 14 hours south to de Nang on the overnight express.
Riding the Rails
If countries can be defined by their trains, Vietnam’s definition would be functional. Everything you need, nothing more. We booked a soft berth, the highest class available. It’s a room with 4 beds, 2 up and 2 down. When we boarded in Ninh Bin there was already a family of 4 sharing the two lower bunks. We thought they must have been hoping we wouldn’t show, but the train is full to capacity so that isn’t likely. Ray and I have the top bunks.
We boarded late, 10:30 PM so there was nothing to do but settle into bed. The bunks are hard but large, and they gave us a big comfy comforter and pillow. I thought I slept badly, but the night went fast and I woke refreshed. All night long the train sped (at 60 kph) south, clanking and swaying and sometimes screeching its brakes. The passengers slept on, I never heard a peep from our cabin mates. At 6 AM one of the kids phones rang, waking up the entire car. The parents weren’t happy but good morning everyone.
My first trip to the bathroom was a nightmare. I only found the squat toilet. The train sways wildly and breaks suddenly and I am balancing on my haunches over the open trough. Please, please, please may I not need a poop in the next 14 hours. When I walked out, a local fellow was laughing at me. He pointed the way to the western toilet. Even here the toilet is so full of water that it splashes up onto the toilet seat, but toilet paper is provided as well as a great wash up station outside the door, with soap and a hot air hand dryer.
On a hunt for coffee I discovered the “dining car”. I got some pretty funny looks when I plunked myself down and ordered a cup. This dining car isn’t meant for tourists. It’s a place for the staff to put together the huge bags and buckets of food they will slog back and forth through the train all day, and for men to come and do some serious drinking and smoking on this non smoking train. I need my coffee.
The food is basic, and designed for a Vietnamese gut. As adventurous an eater as I am, I didn’t partake. It’s served without fanfare, from leaking plastic bags and big red pails. Most locals brought noodle packages with them and used the hot water machines in the hallways to cook.
They never do make up seats on the sleeper cars. Almost everyone is in a sleeper of some kind, only one car was seats. You could either stay in bed all day, or stand in the hallway barely wide enough for one person to walk through. By mid morning everyone was in the hallway. They gave out little plastic chairs for some people to sit on. A woman and her baby snagged a reclining lawn chair from somewhere and set it up beside the hand washing station. You had to squeeze around her to use it. The express train started stopping every few minutes to let people on and off. The caterers pushed trolleys full of food back and forth through the mayhem. It was lively, loud and uncomfortable. Outside the window, Vietnam flew by; rice fields and jungle and towns and cities. Scooters lined up at every road crossing.
When we debarked in de Nang we still needed to get to Hoi An 30 minutes away. Through the throng of taxi’s competing for our fare, I asked “who will take us for 200?” Only one fellow was willing and that was on the back of his motorcycle. Why not?