Number 1. I am a fan of the musical Miss Saigon.
Number 2. Pho
Number 3. I want to see Ha Long Bay…with condescending thoughts like El Nido/Coron is better.
Number 4. Travelling to Vietnam is cheaper than going to Thailand or Cambodia-Laos.
Number 5. War Remnants Museum in Saigon
Those were the only reasons I chose Vietnam over Phuket and Cambodia for my second solo travel this year. As I started my research about Vietnam and what activities to engage in while there, I noticed several Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet contributors write about train travel in Vietnam. Curiosity took over.
I first heard about Vietnam’s train line from a friend who used to work in Northern Vietnam. He often complained about how bad his experiences were riding the train from Hanoi to the mountains up north. So when I was exploring my options on how to get to the capital from HCMC, I thought, Hey, how about punishing myself with an overnight train ride?
But it is not an overnight train ride. It will take, at the least, 30 grueling, ass-numbing hours to travel straight from Saigon to Hanoi by train. And the fare is actually even more expensive than Jetstar’s 2-hr flight between the two cities. I stuck with my decision to take the train to Hanoi nonetheless.
Vietnam’s railway system is also known as North-South Railway, the trains traveling that route Reunification Express. Built by the French colonizers in 1936, it is a 1,796-kilometer steel artery that runs north-south or the length of Vietnam. The railroad as were many infrastructures in the country was left in ruins after the Vietnam War. In 1976 the Vietnamese government reconstructed the railway and resumed the trains’ north-south trips symbolizing the unity of Communist and anti-Communist Vietnam hence the name Reunification Express.
Really, the name made me do it. There was so much drama and history to it that it felt like I was letting an incredible experience slip if I didn’t take the train to Hanoi.
I pictured myself sitting in a cramped train car dozing off every once in a while, hungry, sweaty, cranky and cannot wait to get off the wretched train. My experience with a 400-plus-kilometer 14-hour bus ride from Manila to Tuguegarao, Cagayan was painstaking, what then could a 34-hour trip be? Close to two thousand kilometers in a brutally slow train. I cannot even begin thinking how bad my stiff neck would be or if I can still walk when I get to Hanoi.
But, since Vietnam has a booming tourism industry, travelling by train is not as miserable as I imagined it to be. At least that’s what travelers who took the Reunification say. There are air-conditioned sleeper trains! In fact, I can choose from a hard berth or a hard berth. The line boasts soft bunk beds but I doubt if we have the same definition of soft. Anyway, the whole cabin can be booked by one passenger for security and/or privacy issues. But I won’t, even if I have a bit of security issue. Aside from paying for four passengers at about PhP 4,500 each, it would be more fun if I share it with other passengers. It’s going to be like a moving dorm! Only I hope I don’t get to share it with psychos or couples who would suck each other’s faces when they’re bored. Or stinky passengers.
On a second thought, I might get a little stinky myself since the train restrooms do not have showers. I read a review of the Reunification that describes the train restroom as “western, clean and supplied with toilet paper.” It also says it has a wash area with 3 wash basins. I think I can live with that even without a shower. And so the need to bring a maxi dress and/or skirt has emerged. With a restroom setup like that, changing underwear would be way easier if I wore a skirt.
Food is not readily available. There are refreshment trolleys and complimentary breakfast available onboard but for someone who has to eat every 2-3 hours a trip with such food services is agonizing. This is why I am considering chopping the trip in two or three parts so I can stop over cities in between Saigon and Hanoi. Like terminals here in the Philippines, train stations such as those in Da Nang and Hue have cafeterias travelers can enjoy pho for lunch or dinner before proceeding to the next leg of the trip. What’s keeping me from dividing the train ride, though, is the hassle of getting on and off trains with my luggage full of North Face goodies from Saigon.
I have to keep my expectations low and be ready for the worst possible condition onboard. The rusty, aging train will be my home for a day and two nights and once I board there will be no stepping off at any station to take a cab to Hanoi if things get too tough. Taking the bus is an option but surely that would be even more uncomfortable than the sleeper train.
I am a virgin to train travel. And what better way to break-in than taking an old-school train cross-country, mingling with other passengers and sharing their journey. After all, such experiences set travelers apart from tourists.