They say the only way to experience Vietnam is to go slowly and feel it, not just see it. The Reunification Railway Network is at the top of the list if you want to experience and feel Vietnam in the same way local people have for decades. If you are traveling in Vietnam, make sure a train journey is part of your itinerary and you will experience something special.
Running from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, the Reunification Express, also the north-south railway, is a simple but effective network that transports locals and tourists in-between cities spanning most of the country.
|A train navigates the Hai Van Pass in Thua Thien-Hue Province, Vietnam in this undated photo. Photo: Gia Tien / Tuoi Tre|
The trains have a range of classes to support all people wanting to move around the country. Tickets can be purchased online at dsvn.vn, with prices varied based on the distance of travel, type of seat/bed and the time of the year you want to travel.
In peak holiday seasons, like Tet (Lunar New Year), the price rises because there are exceptional amounts of travelers wanting to get home for the holidays. Additional staff and services are applied to accommodate the mass migration at these times of the year.
There are four main levels of accommodation on each train, but some services do not carry all classes because of demand, especially on short intercity services like Ho Chi Minh City to Phan Thiet.
Hard seat - Named because of their basic design, hard seat tickets are very cheap and allow for the most budget conscious travelers. The wooden benches date back to the early days of this rail system and are still available on some services. The wonderful part of this class is that the children will run around and play in the car and it is full of character as you travel across the country. However, it can be a little uncomfortable if you are taking an overnight service between cities.
Soft seat – Commonly seen around the world, soft seats are basic and comfortable seats that are the perfect option for trips under eight hours or day services. They are comfortable and some seats may even have power sockets so you can keep your devices charged through the journey. For western travelers, this would be the best option to stay budget conscious.
Six-bed units - For longer journeys and overnight trips, the Reunification Express offers cars with six bunk sections. With three bunks on each side, the head room is limited. Sitting up in the bed is basically not possible and the top bunk can be a challenge to access if you are a bit older or larger than the average person. But, they are a great option if you are traveling with a group of friends and you are sure to meet new people on every journey when sharing a cabin with Vietnamese travelers. Each car comes with a toilet and hot water but the toilet may be Asian style in some cars.
Four-bed units - The highest priced tickets are the four-bed cars. Still reasonably priced, these cabins are the same size as the six bed units but only have four beds. They are rather comfortable because you can fit backpacks and regular sized suitcases under the beds. There is a small table near the window for the lower bunks. Most cabins have a range of power sockets for the travelers. The upper bunks are easier to access than the six-bed cabins and you are able to sit up in all bunks which makes it much more relaxing and comfortable on your adventure. Many of these cars also have western style toilets.
It is said by some that the trains in Vietnam are imperfectly perfect. This means that whilst they are not the super quality of a Japanese Bullet Train, they deliver a wonderful experience if you accept that it is a fun way to travel. The trains are a bit noisy and they bump and rock at times. Sometimes the cars are a little cold and sometimes a little warm, but they are always on time and they will always leave you with good memories.
|A train snakes through yellow bells bloomming along the track in Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Le Phan / Tuoi Tre|
On day services, and less on night services, staff will move around the cars with a trolley selling snacks and drinks. Hot water is available for noodles, which I love when the air-conditioning makes the room a bit cool, but always take some water with you in case they are not available.
There is something romantically soothing about taking an overnight journey on a train in Vietnam. You lay in your cabin and look out the window taking in the sights and sounds of the rocking train. You lay on the pillow with a small blanket over you and just take in the moment. Often my mind turns to the past as I imagine what it was like a generation or two ago as people forged their way to creating the Vietnam that we appreciate today.
The Reunification Express is my personal preference to travel between cities up to 400km. It does take a little longer but the experience is time well spent. You really immerse yourself into local culture and, depending on the time of the service, you get to see a sunrise or sunset across the magnificent countryside as you near your destination.
I have used the railway network from both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi and have traveled to places like Vinh, Thanh Hoa, Phan Thiet, Nha Trang and others. Every journey has been imperfect and I loved the feeling and experience. Some of my happiest moments have been on a train in Vietnam. No matter your situation, make sure you include a train journey as part of your experience when you are traveling through Vietnam. It is a memory that will stay with you forever.