Dec 21 2008
What a fantastic train ride this is if you make a break or two and see the scenery over the Hai Van Pass. Of course I was pushing it again, no break but the full 3 days (33 hours) yet I would do it again with a stop and with one or two bottles wines, only.
While I was a tour guide in Hungary a German bloke mentioned this railway which kind of reunites South Vietnam with the North. It sounded interesting and somehow I decided if I go to Vietnam I shall use this to Hanoi. Previously I was checking some web sites the Official Vietnamese Railway (VR) website www.vr.com.vn and probably one of the best train travel related site Seat61. Making up my mind what dates would fit the most. I really wanted to see the part between Da Nang and Hue in day light as this is one of the most interesting sceneries what this journey offers. I picked the 18.00 service (time table has changed since that a bit) it does arrive in the early morning hours on the third day so you better make sure somebody is waiting at the railway station unless you know Hanoi very well.
The Duna Hotel in Saigon organized for me the train ticket. You could book it from abroad but if you´re flexible you can get it on the spot too. The women at the travel agencies desk says its easier to go by airplane it´s quicker takes 2 hours only and its 100 USD and the train ride would be 60 USD hence not much of a difference. I said probably yes, but it´s the fun factor! So she organized the tickets for a small commission which was correct as I didn’t had to go to the train station and try to speak Vietnamese which I ultimately can not do, anyway. It used to be that foreigner had to pay more for the service but I reckon the Vietnamese government recognized this would be against the “communist philosophy”. The 1726 km in one go seemed not very difficult but it does take roughly 33 hours take away or give some hours more, usually more, but that’s normal. And anyway if you decide to use the train you can not be under time pressure. There are several classes on the trains from soft and hard sleeper to soft and hard seater. I tried the seaters but believe me despite the fact that you can push it back it´s no good if you riding for a long time on the train. I gave myself a treat: air con with a cabin of 4 soft sleepers and the bottom bed was mine. As the Vietnamese do not like to climb lower berth tend to be more expansive. Neither do, I don’t like to climb as I´m afraid of falling down while I´m sleeping and that can hurt.
The track runs after leaving Saigon and reaching Nha Trang along the coast up to the north along Danang (connection to Hoi An by bus) Hue, Dong Hoi, Vinh and Hanoi. Before arrival you can hear over the speaker the main attractions of the given town/city in combination with a brief history. Very good idea, it could be a little louder, however.
The city map of Saigon said there is a straight road up from district 5 to the railway. I thought no need for bus or other vehicle so off I went and I was wrong it was quite a distance and a very boring railway station. Technically you´re not even suppose to walk to the platforms before the gates are open and conductors checking your tickets, but I didn’t noticed that so I started to check the trains and buy some water and biscuits. Should have bought some wine actually the Vietnamese do some decent wine, try to buy recent (never older then 3-4 years I would suggest) vintages with at least 12% abv. I was just finishing my bottle of water and the woman at the kiosk asks for the bottle back. Great, she will put tap water in, reseal and sell it again. Not much action going on Ho Chi Minh City´s (HCMC) railway station. Finally departure gates open so I have to go back again to let my tickets checked and come out again to the platforms. It´s getting busy and dark, I better take my place too.
My company for the 3 day journey a Vietnamese family the father worked for the railway, the mother and a baby girl. The two other blokes would get off sooner, they seem to be some merchants at least they had so much stuff with them one could think that they try to sell their whole household. No body speaks English, French and I don’t speak Vietnamese neither of us will have unfortunately great information exchange via communication. Observing by paying attention is my motto in my cabin. Not many tourists choose the train on this day as I walk through the carriages. Soon after leaving I get my dinner. That’s great HACCP sticker on the outside but the lid opens far too easily it has been put back, they just used a box, put the food inside and the top says HACCP, that’s an awesome control. And the Hungarians make such a fuss about checking everything from the beginning to the end in the food process, how convenient is this in Vietnam. Just put it back. It was actually nice, but I drunk a bit of my schnapps to make sure the at least my HACCP would work.
Next day Sunday, I had a good sleep, no disturbing noise just the weather got worse since we left Saigon. No need for air conditioning but if you pay for it you get it. Some rice fields in the landscape and tomb stones looking like occasionally cemeteries were build around the rice fields. According to unwritten rules you should not stick your chopsticks into a rice bowl or into the rice during eating. Does this have to do something with this, that tomb stones are so close to rice fields?
Now the scenery got interesting as we reached the Hai Van Pass (means Sea Clouds as its often covered in clouds) between Danang and Hue. The Pass works as a kind of weather dividing line between the north and the south. The weather really changed Saigon sunny and warm and here rainy and chilly. Nice point for panorama views (specially if the weather is good) you could see the South Chinese Sea, beaches and fishing villages and a fantastic view how the train runs and makes it curves.
I highly recommend to do this part of your journey in daylight regardless how bad the weather can turn. It was worth the effort.
Hue and Danang (including Hoi An) I also recommend for visit despite the fact that I had to skip them, but I was later told by others so, I have to do it next time. As Vietnam has little amazing architecture if you compare it to neighbouring Cambodia for instance yet Hue as former capital of Vietnam does offer some interesting buildings. There is a lot of history to be found beside the great constructions. And Danang been a bigger town, in the middle of Vietnam provides a convenient opportunity to Hoi An.
Day two full on the train without the recommended stops (see above) in the afternoon was rather boring. Some of the windows on the carriages fitted with a cages. The LP says it prevents stones threw into the windows. But could it be that the VR tries to protect the nature from the people? As most of the Vietnamese are rather not concerned whether waste goes into a bin provided or simply out of the window.
I was walking to the lets call it bath room as boiled water was available too in slippers and the mother let the boy peeing beside the toilet. Great, back to my hiking boots quickly. The time went slowly and without company -I got a Michael Moore book purchased from one of the walking libraries in Saigon- and wine, minutes seems to be hours, one more night and I should be in Hanoi, didn’t know what to expect.
Finally after 33 hours and 40 minutes (40 min delay only) I arrived in Hanoi, 5 o’clock in the morning pitch black dark and yet a very busy railway station. Surprise, surprise somebody is holding my name on a table. A Moto driver got sent out from the Hotel, I stayed in the Hoa Linh Hotel (http://www.hotels-in-vietnam.com/hotels/hanoi/hoalinh-hotel.html) which I can recommend. I certainly would have to wait until daylight breaks in to find my way out or a cab or something. So this very early arrival, pickup and drive on the back of the moto was quite relaxing after 3 days of train ride. So far my longest train journey in one go, so far. Looking forward to do it again with wine and stop(s).