14.0583° N, 108.2772° E
Possibly one of the prettiest and most adventurous countries in the world, Vietnam is a true gem in the crown of Southeast Asia. With striking limestone karsts in the north, beautiful ancient cities in the center and wetlands and alluvial fans in the south, this country has a lot to offer. And by far one of the best ways to see all of that is from the window of a train.
While there are numerous trains that run throughout the country, one of the neatest and most exciting (and stunning) adventures is on the amazing Reunification Express, a train with a long history. If you are curious about exploring Vietnam, and want a beautiful sampling of what it has to offer (hint, a lot) then we highly recommend booking a ticket on this train. Not only is it scenic, but also comfortable (and relatively efficient). Read on for five things to consider when planning an adventure on the Reunification Express.
| What is it? And why is it called the Reunification Express?
The Reunification Express is a train line that connects the capital, Hanoi, to Ho Chi Minh City, the large metropolis in the south. The train runs north to south (or south to north depending on where you start) for a total length of 1,726 kilometers or 1,072 miles. Trains following this route are referred to as the “Reunification Express” because it symbolizes the reunification of the country of Vietnam after the war. Though interestingly, no train itself is actually identified or titled the Reunification Express (you won't see the name on any of the train cars).
The train was actually completed during the time the French controlled the county. In the end, it took forty years to finish the route (it was finally completed in 1936). But, because of the trains importance for moving goods and people, during the time between World War II and the Vietnam War, the entire railway sustained major damage from bombings and sabotage. Today, due to lack of funds, the rail line still has areas that need to be repaired and/or updated.
But it is important to consider how amazing it is that the train is still running on the line today in the first place. Within two years after the end of the Vietnam War, 1,334 bridges, 27 tunnels, 158 stations and 1,370 switches were repaired(!). The line was officially reopened for travel at the end of 1976.
| How long does it take, and what does it cost?
The train takes about 30 hours to get from either Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh or from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, though everyone knows that most (all) trains are usually not on time. When we rode the train, we ended up getting to Hanoi (our endpoint) about 30 minutes late - which is practically on time in our books.
One interesting thing to note, is that even though outside of Vietnam we know the city as Ho Chi Minh, in the county, and on many documents, including your ticket (and the train station itself) it will still say Saigon. Keep this in mind when booking a ticket to or from the city.
Four trains leave each day: two in the morning and two at night. We went from the south (Ho Chi Minh) to the north and decided to take a night train. While we obviously don’t know how the morning train is, we greatly enjoyed taking the night train because it allowed us to see a good portion of the middle of the country during the day (including the beautiful coastline around the city of Danang).
The cost of a train ticket entirely depends on how comfortable you want to be at night. The most expensive type of room is a soft sleeper with air-con on the upper berth, which will cost around 1335000 dong. Now before you freak out at the high price, it is important to remember that $1 USD = 21,500 Dong (1 Euro = 27,000 Dong). For the comfiest sleeping situation for the whole train ride it will cost about $58 USD or about 50 Euros.
For a full price list, check this out.
| Should you ride the whole train in one go?
We did decide to do the whole train ride in one go. And while we loved it, we both agree that if we had had more time to explore (we were on a tight schedule due to school) we definitely would not have done the whole train trip at once, but instead would have split it up into a couple of different sections.
Why? Because, like so many amazing train rides, there are a lot of things to see along the way. Some of the neatest (and can’t-miss) stops are:
| Van Long Nature Reserve
This nature reserve is one of the last strongholds of the highly endangered Delacour’s langur (population roughly 120). It is also a birdwatching paradise thanks to its reedy wetlands and high limestone karsts. One of the best ways to explore the reserve is by boat. We suggest renting a small, two-person rowboat for 90 minutes and heading out on the water to take in the scenery at a leisurely pace.
To reach the reserve, get off at the Ninh Binh Station and grab either a bus or taxi (the reserve is about 19 kilometers away). The Ninh Binh Station is the first stop after Hanoi (or the last stop before Hanoi if going south to north).
If you want to explore Vietnam’s rich history, then a stop in Huế is a must (or if you even aren’t into history we still highly suggest spending some time in this beautiful city). Once home to the Nguyen Dynasty, this old imperial city was actually the capital of Vietnam until 1945. The Imperial City itself is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the prettiest places in the entire country. This is a great spot to learn about Vietnam’s history and get in touch with its imperial past.
Huế is a major stop on the route so it is easy to get on and off at the station. It is the fifth stop after Hanoi and the eighth stop after Ho Chi Minh.
| Hội An
Formerly known as Fai-Fo or Faifoo, this central coast city is a wonderful place to experience the various cultures that once called (and still do call) Vietnam home. The old city - historic district - has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. Hoi An is a great example of a historic trading post - hence all the different architectural styles and culture. The coastal trading center was a hub of activity between the 15th and 19th centuries, and today (luckily) you can still get a feel for what it was like back in the day.
The city is easily accessible from the Danang train station, which is about halfway through the ride. Danang itself is a cool city to explore - though it feels very different to Hoi An, and other cities nearby (think a modern metropolis).
If you have the time to explore the various cities and areas that the train goes through we highly recommend it. While we loved doing the whole 30-hour ride in one go, if we had the chance to ride it again we would definitely break it up into various sections and try to explore more spots along the route.
View the entire train timetable here.
| What do you need to bring on the train?
We are not always the most organized and well-planned travelers. There has been more than one occasion where we forgot something or did not do enough research ahead of time. But, luckily, even though we were kind of winging this train trip, because of its popularity and accessibility you don’t actually have to bring that much stuff along with you.
Before we got to Ho Chi Minh Station (Ga Sai Gon) we stopped in at a small market and made sure to grab a couple of snacks, as well as some banh mi sandwiches for dinner. While we brought some of our own snacks, in actuality, there are plenty of opportunities to grab food along the way. At most stations you will see someone selling chips, crackers, water bottles and even bananas. There is also (often) the opportunity to actually step off the train and run into one of the small shops that are located in the train stations.
The train also has a full dining car that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. While it is a bit pricier than what you can get off the train, it isn’t insanely expensive. One interesting experience we did have in the dining car was when we tried to play cards at one of the tables. While it was just a friendly game of go fish, the dining attendants thought we were gambling (a big no-no in Vietnam) and promptly kicked us out. Besides that, we had no bad experiences eating on the train, and in truth, the food was pretty decent.
Other things to consider bringing are a couple of books (it is a 30-hour train ride after all), a camera (the scenery is beautiful), some warmer clothes (it can get cold at night) and maybe a couple of games to wile away the time (just make sure not to play in the dining car).
| Is it worth it?
If you haven’t guessed by now, YES! The Reunification Express is a great way to see the whole spine of Vietnam. From the humid wetlands in the south to the misty green karst-strewn landscape in the north, this train route gives you a great view of all the beauty that Vietnam has to offer.
Now, would we suggest only riding the train to get an idea of what Vietnam is like? No. It is only a great overview of the country. If you want to really get an idea of all the wonders that this Southeast Asian country has to offer you need to step off the train and get a little lost in either its bustling cities (Hanoi is one of our favorite cities), its vibrant green rice paddies or along its many waterways.
Vietnam is by far one of our favorite countries. Its strong mix of culture, natural beauty and the feeling that it hasn’t been entirely overrun by tourists will always make it a place we want to head back to and explore and adventure in over and over again.
The country is teeming with off-the-beaten-path adventures. From trekking in the northern karst mountains, to taking a boat around Halong Bay, to exploring the largest cave in the world: Hang Son Doong. And no list of Vietnam adventures is complete without adding riding the Reunification Express train. So if you want a grand adventure, we cannot recommend the train - and Vietnam - enough.
Read more about the Reunification Express here.