This is a train journey that time forgot. The term ‘express’ is used loosely, as in averaging around 50 kph (30 mph) as opposed to the 15 kph (10 mph) achieved by local trains on the single track connecting Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to Hanoi in the north. This amazing 1,725-km (1,100-mi) railroad was built by the French along Vietnam’s coastal spine a century ago and passes through wonderful countryside, though in truth the real reason for riding the Unification Express is to experience a railway journey like no other. There are four trains a day in each direction, ranging from the slow to the very slow. For all that, the service is reliable and does get there eventually.
Rolling stock is old-fashioned (with crude toilets amongst other drawbacks) and the train will be hot and crowded. There is a choice of seat (hard or not-very-soft) and sleeper (yes, hard or not-very-soft). Possessions left unwatched for a second will vanish like smoke in the wind. There will be frequent stops on sidings to allow trains to pass in the opposite direction and hordes of hustlers selling everything from food and drink to fake designer goods will appear at every stop. But this is a fascinating and worthwhile journey that will not only convey you through beautiful scenery, but also provide the opportunity to meet the people and experience the reality of Vietnamese life.
For those who don’t want to experience the rough-and-tumble of an end-to-end journey on the Unification Express, there are organized guided tours that make use of the train with plenty of stop-offs and side trips to see selected sights along the way. In any event it is possible to break the journey without penalty for a little self-chosen exploration.
WHEN TO GO:
Any time of year.
TIME IT TAKES:
Between 30 hours and 41 hours depending on the choice of train.
A side trip to Cu Chi, the impressive underground tunnel network used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
Taking a welcome break at Nha Trang to enjoy the fabulous white- sand beach before resuming the journey.
The scenic section through the mountains alongside the Hai Van Pass and along the coast to Hue.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Carry your papers at all times in Vietnam – especially when trying to buy a train ticket, which will cost foreigners double the local price