If you want to take a leisurely tour of the coastline between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, the night train is the best way: you’ll travel as you sleep, leaving days free for exploring, and save money on hotel bills. Join Rough Guides writer Heidi Fuller-Love on her Vietnam railways adventure.
Known as the Reunification Express, Vietnam’s north-south line was built by the French when the region was part of French Indochina. Badly damaged by constant bomb attacks during the Vietnam War, it reopened in 1975 after the fall of Ho Chi Minh City, then known as Saigon – and now I'm using it to navigate Vietnam's coastal towns.
In Ho Chi Minh I head for the backpacker district, Pham Ngu Lao, and buy my ticket to Nha Trang from a travel agent, making sure they don’t charge me for a soft-sleeper and then book a hard one – a popular scam, apparently. In backstreets near Pham Ngu Lao I stock up on snacks for my trip: deep fried Nem Ran rolls stuffed with pork, yam and crab; Goi Cuon rice paper rolls bursting at the seams with shrimp, herbs and vermicelli, and a rice flour pancake Banh Xeo filled with pork, shrimps, and bean sprouts.
A few minutes before midnight I’m battling with other passengers to board the battered night train. Fellow travellers had advised me to book the bottom bunk of a soft sleeper and I’m glad that I have – not only because the soft sleeper has less bunks, which means more space, but because the it also has a mattress (albeit pancake-thin), whereas the hard sleeper berths are literally hard wooden planks.
As a solo female traveller, the prospect of a sleeping in a cramped four-bed cabin with total strangers is a little daunting, so it’s a relief when I find myself sharing with a friendly Vietnamese couple, the woman clad in the traditional ankle-length tunic and loose-fitting trousers known as ao dai. Rocked to sleep by the noisy click-clack of narrow gauge rails, I wake at 7am, just in time to stumble off the train at Nha Trang.
Vietnam’s most popular resort town ever since US soldiers came here to chill out during the war, Nha Trang is backed by mountains, borders a wide sandy bay and bursts to the brim with backpackers.
Along Tran Phu Street I discover the quirky little Yersin Museum filled with artefacts that once belonged to this Swiss-French doctor who discovered the plague bacillus here in 1894, and then toiling up 150 steps in tropical heat, I pay homage to the Long Son pagoda’s skyscraper-high white Buddha, built to commemorate monks who died demonstrating against the Diem government.
Two days and plenty of stray sand later I head for Nha Trang’s train station for the next leg of my trip: I’m heading to Hué.
Once again there’s a stampede when the train pulls in at ten minutes to midnight, but this time I’m positioned near the front of the queue and get on without too much pushing and shoving. The cabin is filthy: the floor strewn with the striped husks of sunflower seeds and the bed sheets grey and rumpled – I’m glad I brought my lightweight sleeping bag.
The train journey to Hué, 300kms north, takes 13 hours, so I have plenty of time to watch the scenery – rice fields, dense jungle and cemeteries dotted with US flags – flash by the following morning, before arriving at Hue’s imposing red brick Ga just after midday.
Backed by the Truoung Son mountains (also known as the Annamite range), Hué is renowned for its bad-tempered weather, especially in Spring. With thunder grumbling and lightning sparking in the sky above, I stroll around the sprawling complex of temples, moats shops and museums in Hué’s walled citadel, which was once home to the Nguyen dynasty.
The train dips inland after Hué so next morning I hop on a bus and take the spectacular three hour bus ride to the coastal Unesco world heritage site Hoi An. A major trading centre for spices until the 17th century, Hoi An’s pedestrian-only old town is magical and I spend a day browsing the clutter of Chinese temples, colonnaded colonial houses, fine jewellery stores and tailor shops. That evening I take a taxi to Danang for the last leg of my journey.
In Danang it’s so warm I’m wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt, but by the time I reach Hanoi on the train the next morning, I’m shivering from the cold. On Vietnam’s northern tip, Hanoi is clouded in fog, but by the time I’ve found a street stand and ordered crispy Bánh Cuốn rice rolls stuffed with minced pork, and a syrupy-sweet cafe sua (coffee), the sun has come out.
There is plenty to see and do in Hanoi and I have plenty of time as I intend to spend the next month here. So, for now my journey is over. While the 726kms train ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi has been time and economically efficient, I am really looking forward to sleeping in a proper bed.