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36 hours on Vietnam's Reunification Express
After two days holed up in a rusty carriage, is there anything to be said for traveling the old-fashioned way?
"Why don’t you fly?" asks a friend when I tell her I’m heading to Saigon. “The train's so slow.”
She’s right. Vietnamese trains are slow. Very. Slow. But like many things in Vietnam, this train’s not about the getting there, but the journey. All 36 hours of it.
The route, from Hanoi to Saigon, is commonly referred to as the Reunification Express. This year marks 75 years of service, and although no longer a single train, the name has stuck.
Train travel used to be the most popular way for tourists to get around the country, but with the rise in domestic budget airlines, fewer ride the rails these days.
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The line was originally built by French colonists in 1936 and covers 1,726 kilometers of track. Repeatedly bombed during the war with the United States, the service didn't start running properly again until 1976 when the Geneva Accords were signed, and divisions between North and South were resolved.
Leaving the city
We pull out of Hanoi on a rainy afternoon and start the journey south.
The first part of the journey heads past the suburbs of the capital, and runs so closely to the highway that it seems the motorbikes and cars are literally at the window.
Rail crossings every 10 minutes start to dwindle as the train reaches Ninh Binh, the first major stop on the line, and the capital of Vietnam during the 10th century.
The landscape is surreal. Huge rocks climb out of rice fields as farmers work knee-deep in the paddies and the train slowly rolls by, cutting a line through the greenery.
We continue south through the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone, the official line of separation until reunification, crossing the Ben Hai River, entering what was once the south of Vietnam.
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The sun sets and I head to my sleeper compartment for the night. I’m traveling "hard sleeper" class, a compartment with six beds, and sharing with a young couple and some elderly women.
After a little conversation amongst themselves, they offer me some of their noodles.
I decline, proudly pulling a sandwich out of my bag. The old ladies turn up their noses. “No good,” says the grandson. “No muscles eating only bread.”
Hard day's night
The hard sleeper class does at least allow for some rest, despite the snores of my fellow passengers.
Others are not so privileged. A couple of students heading south to start their university year are traveling from Thanh Hoa to Saigon, around 1,550 kilometers, all the way in "hard seat" class.
“The service is OK” says Bui, 26, who’s training to be a priest. “It’s normal for me to travel like this. The scenery is beautiful but the food on the train is a bit expensive and this morning I have a backache.”
Looking at the wooden slatted bench he spent the night on, I can see why.
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His companion, Quy, 18, is a lot more enthusiastic. This is the furthest she’s ever traveled by train and is enjoying the ride. “I’ve never traveled more than an hour by train,” she says.
Her only complaint is the lack of tourists in her carriage. “Foreigners prefer the plane because it’s much quicker, and cleaner, but it’s a shame they don’t use the train more. I’d love to meet them and chat with them on the journey.”
Window on beauty
The route between Hue and Danang, known as the Hai Van, or Ocean Cloud Pass, is famed for its beauty.
Passing through tunnels carved in the mountainside hugging the coastline, every passenger is stuck to the windows enjoying the view.
At Danang the platform is crammed with hawkers, food stalls and touts from tour companies looking to get visitors to their hotels in nearby Hoi An, one of Vietnam’s most popular backpacker hangouts.
The World Heritage-listed town, only a short bus ride from the station, is packed with visitors year round. The station has a few tourists waiting for trains; today most are running a few hours late.
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Erin, 26, from California, is on a two-week holiday with a couple of friends, and they’re trying to see as much of the country as possible.
"It’s so expensive to travel by train in the States so we don’t get the chance to do it very often,” she says.
After a second night in the carriage, we wake up around 100 kilometers from Saigon. The rice fields continue outside the window but as we get closer to the city the outskirts come into view, and entering Bien Hoa the signs of city life become more evident.
Shops and repair shacks line the highway; you can see people eating breakfast and hanging out their washing. Some even take the chance to wave, probably something of a morning ritual to accompany their coffee.
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Finally we step out into the sunshine on the platform in Saigon. Compared to the slow train, its old carriages and mucky toilets, the city feels fresh and spacious.
But those are just the details. Traveling by train in Vietnam forces you to mix with the people, share their journey, eat their food and hold their children, experiences fewer tourists have in this age of high speed air travel.
Six trains run daily in either direction, with journey times varying between 30 and 39 hours depending on the service. Tickets cost around US$70 for the entire journey in hard sleeper class, with prices rising for soft sleeper air conditioned cabins.
Main stops along the route include Ninh Binh, Vinh, Danang, Qung Nai, Nha Trang and Bien Hoa.