First things first. There is no Reunification Express. At least not officially. It is called the North–South Railway. Covering 1,726 kms, it is the main railway line that connects the political capital of Hanoi with the commercial capital of Saigon.
A bit of history first
Construction of the line linking these two cities began during the French rule in 1899. It took nearly 40 years for its completion, finally connecting the cities in 1936.
However, the line was continuously sabotaged and bombarded during the Vietnamese fight with the French, and later during the Vietnam War. It wasn’t after the war finally ended, in 1975, that they put in all their might to restore the line. The government immediately went about with its reconstruction, repairing 1,334 bridges, 27 tunnels and 158 stations along its route. The line was finally inaugurated on the 31st of December 1976. In continuing with the spirit of a recently unified country, they called it the Reunification Express.
Today, there is no single train that is called the Reunification Express. It is used for any of the trains on the North-South Railway and is operated by Vietnam Railways.
On its approximately 30 odd hour journey, the train goes through the spine of Vietnam, running through countless rice paddies, fishing villages, dense jungles, the coastline and even crowded neighbourhoods. It’s a fantastic opportunity to get up-close with the people, over beer and coffee, catch glimpses of the incredibly beautiful countryside, and delve a bit deeper into its history. It’s a journey that you must experience at least once in your life. In this day and age of super-convenient, superfast and super cheap airfares, how many train journeys can you think of that bring alive the joy of ‘slow’ travel.
Know before you go
And so, it came to be, that 11 years after I hopped onto the Reunification Express from Hue to Saigon for the first time, I did the exact same route on a recent visit, at the beginning of 2019. It was my chance to relive a journey I had enjoyed immensely all those years ago. I also wanted to see how things had changed over the years, and whether it still meant something special to me.
There are four ‘SE’ trains that leave both the cities every day. Two in the morning and two in the evening. If you know which one you wish to travel on, then that is good. They take anywhere between 22 and 25 hours, depending on which of them you opt for. I was hell-bent on making sure it was the SE3 at 8:37am from Hue There is a reason I wanted this train which I shall get to in a while.
Getting back, my friend and I made our way to Hanoi station about a week before our intended departure from Hue to Saigon. Communication with the staff at the ticket counter was a bit of an issue. However, with a bit of help from Google translate and a young student, we managed just fine. Except for one small minor detail – they put her second name as Egypt. Don’t ask why. Maybe the lady at the counter got a bit overwhelmed with the number of visas on her passport or didn’t know how to ask. Not that it was an issue at any point of time on our journey. In fact, they never even checked our tickets.
If you choose to buy your ticket at the railway station, remember to carry your passport along. They require it when making your reservations.
Hue railway station
How times change. Hue railway station was considered a ‘rectangular horror’ around the time it was built. Today, it is supposedly one of the most beautiful stations in Vietnam, with its heavy French influenced architecture.
During the Vietnam War, it was used as a sniper’s nest by the Viet Congs. Thankfully, the only nests you many now find belong to the the birds who may have made parts of the station their home.
Getting to the railway station is straightforward. It’s located on Bui Thi Xuan Street, and is close to most of the city’s hotels and attractions. Frankly, if we were carrying backpacks, we would have opted to walk to the station, like I had done years ago. Instead, we opted for a metered taxi which we hailed on the main road outside our hotel. It’s a short ride of about 5 minutes.
The station is quite small and easy to navigate. Upon entering the building, you will immediately see two waiting rooms. The rooms are filled with passengers – Vietnamese and tourists alike. Some on a short hop to Danang and stations along the way. Others, like us, all the way to Saigon. The platform door, in the second waiting room, remains closed and only opens about 15 minutes before the train arrives. There are a couple of small shops where you can stock up on water and snacks for your journey. There is a small restaurant just outside the second waiting room. It’s a nice spot to collect your thoughts and sip a hot cup of coffee.
Once the platform door does eventually open, the excitement is palpable. Or was it just me? Looking up and down the platform, I realise it is full of more shops, selling everything, from souvenirs, snacks and water, to beer. Sure, stocking up on beers made sense now.
It’s not long after, when a voice over a loudspeaker booms announcing the arrival of the train.
Surprisingly, our train was punctual, right down the minute. I thought that was impressive. Making our way to our cabins was a breeze, as everything is marked out clearly. The only issue you will need to watch out for is to make sure you are standing in front of where your car is supposed to halt. Otherwise, expect a short, but hurried walk.
The SE trains are quite comfortable. Depending on your budget, you can opt for any of the four options including hard sleeper (six beds in two tiers), soft sleeper (four beds), hard seat and soft seat cabins. Each of the sleeper cabins have clean sheets and beddings, which are changed before a passenger occupies them. The cabins themselves are air-conditioned. The soft sleeper also come with plastic flowers to add an artistic touch. Oh yes, there is no wi-fi onboard. Make sure you have either a book and magazines or some games to keep you entertained.
There is an attendant in each of the car. It’s their responsibility to ensure that sheets and beddings are changed each time a new passenger is expected in the cabin. They are also the ones who are responsible in keeping the bathroom relatively clean.
There is a reason I chose this train.
The stretch between Hue and Danang rewards you with some of the most spectacular and dramatic views of Vietnam’s countryside. The Hai Van Pass, as it is called, has lush green mountain on one side and rugged coasts on the other. Add in lots of rural villages for good measure. It is, perhaps, the highlight of the journey.
You will know this segment of your journey is coming to end an end as Danang’s skyline slowly start to emerge along the white coastline.
While it will be difficult for you to figure out the seating arrangement of each car, make sure you find yourself a perfect vantage point on the left-hand side. The views, especially of the coast, are some of the stunning.
Once you are done with this leg of the journey, there is not much to see or do. Besides, with the sun setting in the horizon, it makes sense to keep yourself entertained as best as you can. Saigon is still many hours away.
Information you can use
Reading through some of the travel blogs by other travellers who have done the same journey, most prefer booking their tickets through a few ticketing websites that are quite known among the travel bloggers, or even through the hotel where they are staying. Nothing wrong with that.
Instead, and depending on how much time you have at any of the cities in Vietnam, why not book it yourself, directly at the railway station. For starters, compare the railways’ own cost of approximately VND 1,092,000 (when I was travelling) with the costs that you get online or through any of the tour companies. If they match it, then perfect. Anything above that and I recommend that you get yourself a bit of exercise and head to the nearest railway station in the city you are in. You can always use that money you saved later during your travel.
Do note that prices will vary depending on when you travel, how soon before your journey you purchase your ticket and which seat you opt for. Normally, the lower berth seats are a bit more as in effect, it also means that you have a window seat.