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Asia travel

Vietnam’s Reunification Express celebrates a double anniversary, and keeps getting better with age

The Trans-Indochinois debuted in French colonial Asia 80 years ago and 40 years later it became the Reunification Express. Today it connects Hanoi with Ho Chi Minh City via 34 hours of tooth-rattling track. Why do so many people opt for the train when flights are cheaper and faster?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2016, 10:16am

It’s dark when we board the SE8. Conductors stand along the train, helping sleepy passengers find the right carriage. I’m unreasonably excited for someone who’s been up since 3am. We’re about to ride Vietnam’s Reunification line, covering the 1,726 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi in one rolling swoop. With luck, it will only take 34 hours. I can’t wait.

This year is a double anniversary for Vietnam’s cross-country railroad. It debuted 80 years ago as the Trans-Indochinois in French colonial Asia. 40 years later it became the Reunification Express, the premier line of the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

In between, the railroad lay in pieces. It was fractured by mines during the second world war and the First Indochina war, officially severed across the 17th parallel in 1954, bombed again in Vietnam’s American war. The tracks were stitched back together in 1976, symbolising the country’s reunification after more than a century of imperialism and conflict.

We’re in a first class carriage, called a ‘soft sleeper’. SE trains are reputedly the best on the line, and our compartment mixes luxury with pragmatism. The four metal cots are made up with white sheets and gold blankets. The walls are faux wood panelling, and air conditioning pumps in from the ceiling. Our cabin mates are already asleep in the upper bunks.

At exactly 6am the train lurches into motion. My husband burrows under his blankets, but I stay up, watching dawn break through Ho Chi Minh City’s canopy of tangled wires.

By midmorning, we appear to have reached the American Southwest—all dust, brown grass, and prickly fields of dragon fruit.

We walk the carriages, swaying against the drunken dance of the train. Second-class, or ‘hard sleeper,’ has six bunks to a compartment. ‘Soft seat’ looks like the coach cabin of a 747 – cushioned chairs facing TVs. ‘Hard seat,’ is an obstacle course of legs. The wooden benches are draped with drowsing travellers.

By the time we reach the dining car, the view has become a postcard of green rice fields, pink lotus flowers, and white cranes. We drink coffee among conductors on lunch break.

The north-south railway connects people across Vietnam. But it’s also popular with tourists. Back in our cabin, we chat with our Australian bunkmates, Dee and Rada. I ask why they chose two days on a train over a two-hour flight. Their answer is simple—they want to see the country, not jump over it.

A few days later, Vietnam’s minister of transport would ask the same question at a national railway conference. Can trains compete with the cheap efficiency of air travel? Budget airfares from HCMC to Hanoi start at around HK$380, while soft sleeper tickets range from HK$450-HK$650, depending on the season. Yet the tourists we meet say the train is an integral part of their trip. They praise its comfort and flexibility. Most of all, they love the view.

Sally and Andrew in soft seat are exploring Vietnam piece by piece. Today they’re going from the resort city Nha Trang to quiet Quy Nhon. The Reunification Express is perfect for their style of stop-and-go travel.

The railroad serves other needs as well. I meet a Vietnamese family returning home from Da Nang. The father, Hoang, says their hometown doesn’t have an airport. And with Vietnam’s road system still developing (as of 2012, only 50 per cent of Vietnam’s roads were paved), the train is more reliable than a bus.

At night, the windows become mirrors. We pass blindly through historic Da Nang, and are asleep before the ancient city of Hue. I wake to the improbable sound of a rooster crowing. The hallway outside seems devoid of chickens, but a stack of cardboard boxes guards the approach to the toilet. As I draw near, the boxes rustle and shake, scary in the darkened train. I retreat to bed.

Once the sun is firmly up, our conductor takes orders for coffee. A porridge and noodle cart rattles down the narrow corridor. Outside, Vietnam is a beautiful, messy collision of tradition and modernity. Famers in tracksuits comb their rice fields with wooden ploughs. Women in conical hats rev past on motorbikes. Every view is draped in power lines.

As we push north, the landscape slowly becomes industrial: long metal warehouses, smokestacks, and factories. Occasional karsts look like giant standing stones. They’re a prelude to the rocky outcroppings at Ha Long Bay, one of northern Vietnam’s scenic attractions.

Then, abruptly, we’re in Hanoi. The train runs so close to the open-fronted stores we could shop from our windows. Over the loudspeaker, a woman’s voice sings us into Hanoi Station. It’s 3:30pm, exactly on schedule.

As the train empties, I see a cardboard box carefully handed down to a man on the platform.

“Chicken?” I ask, pointing to his luggage.

He nods. The box gives a last, indignant crow, and they disappear into the crowd.

Plan your trip:

Vietnam Railway’s website can’t process foreign credit cards. It’s cheapest to buy tickets in advance at the train station. E-tickets are available through booking agents such as Baolau, which charges a service fee.