Romance is a very subjective issue at times, particularly when it comes to trains. I have always loved traveling on the rails, perhaps ever since I was introduced to Tokyo’s bullet trains some years ago. Foreseeing this journey, we had booked our tickets for the Ha Noi/Saigon return by train with a couple of stops in between through VietnamStay.Com who had the wisdom to advise to fly north and train it south; they also disabused me of my folly that I’d be able to do Sapa and Da Lat in addition to planned stops in Hue and Nha Trang. It’s good to dream, isn’t it?
The rail system was built by the French and spans some 1100 miles north to south; parts of it were destroyed during the hostilities, and a week prior to our arrival, we had heard of a derailment. I don’t think dynamite could have stopped us. The station (Ga , borrowed from the French gare) in Hanoi is crowded since almost everyone heading south over some distance uses the train. You will want to take the Reunification Express "E", first class tickets, and try to book the lower berths, though they cost slightly more than the upper. Expect to pay five times more than the locals for the tickets you purchase. If you are doing Hanoi/Saigon all the way, it will take you about 40 hours. Do Not lose your ticket after you board: you will need it as they come around to collect them, and give you some plastic card which makes you legit until you get off, at which point, the ticket is returned to you. Since we had more luggage than a circus troupe, we had help from a number of people who wait just for these kinds of situations. Our cabin always seemed to be in the 10th car, and numbered 27 or 28. Have a look at the photo so you can assess the arrangement. If you like complete privacy, then purchase the upper berths as well as the lower, but we wanted to get "real", so our co-travelers included an American hippie mother and her son, a newly married couple from Australia, and two business men from Taiwan. The stories are unique and inimitable.
Depending upon the time of your departure, you will be allotted two bottles of water, lunch and/or dinner, clean bedding, including a sheet, pillow, and blanket (neatly folded on the berth). If you’re tired enough, as I was, you’ll sleep. If not, bring reading material, or a camera, and get busy. It’s not a smooth ride, but the glimpses caught from the wide window more than make up for any inconvenience. You will traverse immense fields of rice, and appreciate the enormous labor that goes into working the land for this crop. Corn will also pop up, as will farmers, oxen, chickens, hovels, colorful grave sites, and the ubiquitous conical hat. Early morning will greet you with piped in Vietnamese music, which really made me feel out worldly. A cart eventually comes around and serves coffee, corn nuts, chips; skip everything but the coffee and wait for the next cart which will have sweet bread with "built-in" jelly, pho, and cookies, which I found more suitable for the morning hour.
Now what about the rest of the train, the bathrooms, the "dining car", second-class and miscellaneous items such as bringing your own toilet paper? We had the luck of the Irish every time, since there was a Western toilet right next to our cabin; make sure you have toothbrush, toothpaste (there is ample soap, so pass on that), wet towelettes, and either toilet paper or tissues, because chances are, there will be none in the toilet. The washbasins are in a separate compartment, and actually, there are two sinks, side to side, to allow for more than one person to go through the ritual. Squat-style toilets are more prevalent in the train, and though we didn’t use them, we took pictures of them. If you are sensitive to odors, bring Lysol or some such thing. As these are air-conditioned cars, the train staff was not thrilled to see us opening the windows in the hallway; however, Mr. Photographer, Chuck, was shooting like mad at 40 miles per hour, and I must tell you, he caught some breathtaking countryside. As I cannot do it justice here, please go to link . Scroll down the page and hit the Vietnam word. Please also note that all the pictures are subject to copyright laws.
I found it relaxing to stick my head out the window and drink in the scenery; I was still at the stage where I was occasionally pinching myself.
First class is quite a distance from the dining car, and if you don’t mind walking through the corridors and the car connectors, opening and closing doors, and having the entire Vietnamese population staring at you, then do what we did. Go for a walk. Businessmen usually occupy the first-class car, or well-to-do families (such as the one we met in Hue, but that’s another journal). Second-class cars usually emit that unmistakable ngoc mam, which takes the credit for the marvelous taste it imparts to most dishes. However, when in concentrated form, a whiff of it might make you wish you could stop breathing. In second class, the berths are not as padded as the ones in first class, and open doors will let you glimpse entire families occupying a cabin, feasting on a meal, slumped on each other, trying to sleep, or reading. There were also three cars that had reclining armchair seats with ample legroom, for those who either must economize or are doing a shorter distance. Finally, the dining car, which is what I called the true "Orient Express". Despite posted signs requesting "no smoking", some folks just can’t seem to exist without a cigarette dangling from their lips. Here, people come for coffee (heavenly with condensed milk), pho, bun cha, and an assortment of pre-packaged snacks. This is also the area where they store your journey’s lunches and dinners. The seats are wooden, as are the tables; and for lack of space, we sat side-by-side sipping our coffees. Another word of advice: don’t attempt to walk back with your food or drinks; the movement of the train is such that you may arrive with nothing at the bottom of your cup.
We were getting off at Hue, and this is where one appreciate the advice of traveling lightly: they don’t give you a heck of a lot of time to get off! Forget anything you know about orderliness; there are travelers waiting to get on, and they will barrel right past you to get seated. I almost did not make it off the train, as I couldn’t get to the exit. Thankfully, one of the staff spotted me and dragged my luggage and me in the opposite direction.
Don’t expect trains to be on time. If they do announce a delay, such an announcement may not be repeated, even though there could have been a revision in the original time. If you don’t have the luxury of time, as in number of days, the train ride may not be for you. However, it afforded us an intimate look at the daily life of Vietnamese outside of the major cities, and after all, isn’t that what we all want to capture?