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Trains, love them or hate them, they are still very much a part of our modern society.
The daily commute on the work doesn’t exactly inspire romanticism or a burning desire to go traveling either.
It’s usually more of a ‘get me the hell off this thing as fast as possible’ scenario. I know because I traveled by train to work and back for the better part of five and a half years.
Here in Vietnam though, we rediscovered the fun of journeying by train. This adventure took only 2.5 hours and it’s called the Reunification Express. Here’s why we loved every moment of it.
It’s a beautiful sounding name isn’t it? And rightfully so but, here’s the thing, it’s not the name of a train, but rather the line itself.
The Reunification Express line spans approximately 1,726 kilometers. It links the capital, Hanoi in the north to bustling Ho Chi Minh City in the south.
Her trains faithfully creek, groan and rattle their way up and down this beautiful country every day, wooing her passengers with spectacular views along the way.
Views of verdant rice paddies, lush jungles and sublime coastal scenes. Not to mention the hair-raising acts of squeezing through tiny towns with practiced precision.
Main stops include Hue (the last imperial capital of Vietnam), Da Nang (tech and beach haven), Nha Trang (Cancun of Vietnam) and Mui Ne (desert meets beach). A stop for every adventure!
We spent three months living in Da Nang and enjoyed a spectacular few days in Hue. We highly recommend these destinations.
Jean Marie de Lanessan commissioned the line as part of his vision for the future of Vietnam.
He wanted to create a train line from Hanoi to Sai Gon, calling it the ‘backbone of Indochina’. A trunk line from which other routes would spread. Construction started in 1899 and finished in 1938.
But it wasn’t all roses and sunshine. Sabotage, bombings and destruction inflicted some nasty scars over the years. Scars that were inflicted from World War II through to the end of the Vietnam war, leaving the line in ruins.
All was not lost though. At the end of 1975, Hanoi made efforts towards making the line operational again. At the end of 1976 she was back in business. Reunifying north with south and thereafter known as the Reunification Express.
Sadly, today she displays the signs of poor infrastructure, planning and maintenance. For such an integral part of the country’s transport infrastructure it’s surprising.
Yet through it all, she still performs her duties to the best of her abilities.
What makes the Reunification Express so special?
Simple. It runs along some of the most amazing scenes you will find in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. Not to mention, she’s on the list of top ten train rides in the world, and for good reason.
We took the opportunity to ride Reunification Express line between the coastal city of Da Nang and the last imperial capital, Hue.
If you’ve never seen images of the Reunification Express, then picture lush, dense jungle covered peaks on one side with a vibrant blue ocean on the other, sprinkled with colorful rural villages in between.
It’s a feast on the eyes and you get to experience the best parts of Vietnam’s 3,260-kilometer coast line. Yup, it is an epic coastline and we can’t wait to experience more of it!
The Reunification Express schedule is on the Vietnam Railways website. It doesn’t just cover north to south and visa versa either.
The overall rail system can get you to most places in Vietnam and you’ll find al the schedules on that website.
Travel Tip!: The Vietnam Railway website DOES NOT accept payment from international credit cards (only Vietnamese issued credit cards). If you want to book with an international card, head on over to Baolau . And another head’s up, they do charge extra for the convenience so check your transactions before you hit OK.
Alternatively, you can buy your tickets directly from the train station (or hit up the link below for more options). We purchased our first round the night before and it pays to take you passport with you as they will ask for it. If you chose to buy your ticket on the day, get to the station well before you want to depart. The ques are long and the crowds vast.
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There are four trains running between north and south daily, two in morning and two in the evening. Each full trip can take anywhere from 30 – 35 hours plus. And plan on delays. We’ve done the Reunification Express twice now on two different trips and got delayed twice by an hour plus. Nothing out of the norm for here though.
Our advice is to check for your preferred arrival time rather than departure time (if that’s an option). No point getting to your destination at 04:45 and you can’t check in until 14:00.
No choice in departure time?
There are storage lockers available at a cost in Hanoi. Head through the main doors and towards the waiting rooms. Walk all the way until the last room, the lockers are in there. We haven’t used this service personally. Last account we could find of costs were VND 50,000 (~USD 2.00 / ~AUD 3.00) for 5 hours or VND 100,000 (~USD 4.00 / ~AUD 6.00) for 8 hours.
Ho Chi Minh City offers lockers too, but we are unable to confirm the costs or location at this time sorry.
If you have some updated info on the locker situation, feel free to hit us up in the comments with the new info. Thanks, we appreciate it!
There were no storage facilities we could see in Da Nang either but most hotels in Vietnam will store your back until it’s time to check in or you’re ready to leave.
Now that you know what it is, where it goes and how to book it, you probably want to know how much a ticket on the Reunification Express costs. Costs and seats go hand in hand.
TAKE YOUR SEAT PLEASE
On the two trains departing in the morning you have the choice between two options of seats and two options of berths and sleepers.
The prices listed below are for adults as at July 2018. Children under 2 are free and if they are between 2 and 5 years (and shorter than 1.3 m) they are 75% of the adult fare. They have this strange measuring system for kids here too, we’re not sure what that’s about.
Well, let’s get to it then.
The cheapest option is the hard seats at USD 53.00 (~VND 1,222,000 / ~AUD 78.00) and they are as their name suggests, a hard wood bench seat.
The more comfortable soft seat varies between USD 67.00 and USD 68.00 (~VND 1,545,000 / ~AUD 99.00 and ~ VND 1,568,000 / ~AUD 100.00), they are nice leatherette seat that recline and come with a bit of personal space. The latter is gold when travelling in Vietnam, take it from us lol.
When we booked our last trip, the only seats left were forward facing seats, where you share a table with the seats directly opposite you. What we didn’t expect was ‘ol mate in the seat opposite us using the table it as his personal footrest. Bare feet and all lol! We were trying so hard not to laugh and wake him up.
He turned out to be a sweet old man, accompanying a younger family member all the way from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi. It was fun talking to them.
Also, there are NO HARD SEAT options available on the evening trains. Only soft seats and the two sleeper options.
Speaking of which.
PREFER TO CATCH UP ON SOME ZZZ’s INSTEAD?
All four trains offer a choice of four (soft sleepers only) or six (hard sleepers only) berths.
The hard-sleeper will set you back between USD 89.00 and USD 91.00 (~VND 2,052,000 / ~AUD 131.00 and ~VND 2,098,000 / ~AUD134.00) and we wouldn’t recommend this one for the whole 35-hour journey, but it’s your call.
The soft-sleeper comes with better linen and much softer padding and costs around USD 93.00 to USD 95.00 (~VND 2,145,000 / ~AUD 137.00 to ~VND 2,191,000 / ~AUD 140.00), depending on what time you depart.
Believe it or not, there is a luggage allowance on the train. Although, we never saw anybody try and enforce it lol.
You’re allowed one cabin bag and one piece of luggage up to 20KG. If your sitting in a seat, be it hard or soft, you will need to fight for overhead compartment space. Most backpacks will fit up there or you can squeeze them in under your seat.
The hard seats are first choice for local travelers and you will have to fight for a bit of space to store your bags, but it’s all part of the adventure, ‘wink’.
Hard luggage, especially big suitcases are a bit of a pain in this situation. We had to jam one of ours in under out feet and then watch the other passengers commandeer it as a footrest lol.
The other one was sitting the half in the walk way. This meant we had to hold onto it for the whole trip and move it out of people’s way. Not ideal.
Other things luggage related
Oh, and you don’t board from a tradition platform in Da Nang. You have to climb up into the train then heft your bags up from the ground too. If you’re short like Tash lol, you’ll need help getting up there.
We have since moved to backpacks due to a change in plans. We’re hoping this will work in our favor as we are considering the sleeper option later in our travels.
Talking to others who have done the overnight trip, they say it’s best to try and grab the bottom bunks. That way you can put your bags under them.
If you’re on the top, your luggage goes up there with you so, something to think about. Anything of high value should stay as close as possible to you.
(If you’re considering this option and wondering how to secure your valuables, then head on over to this post. There we tell you how we keep our valuables secure. It’s well worth the read.)
TRAVEL SUPPLIES TO PACK
The first thing we always say is to take is water. We make sure to fill up out trusty 1L water bottles for short trips and take extra on longer trips. You can also buy water and other beverages on board.
Not one for Vietnamese cuisine or dubious about where your meal comes from? Then you’re safer option would be to pack your own snacks for the journey. Not saying the food is dodgy, just that the selections cater more towards local travelers and there is minimal English available on board. For our first journey two years ago, we departed at 02:30 and we had some collapsible food containers with snacks in them. This time round it was a much shorter journey so we didn’t bother to pack snacks.
If you have had the pleasure of dining on the Reunification Express, please share your experience in the comments. We’re super curious to find out if it’s worth it or not. And we will update this post once we have experienced the things we missed out on.
Riding along the Reunification Express reminds you of why it used to be so much fun riding the train. Sure, it’s not the cheapest option but there are three very good reasons to consider this train line.
One, flights are cheaper but domestic flights are prone to constant delays, cancellations and disruptions. If you’re short on time then flying is your go-to but you miss out on so much scenery by just flying over it.
Two, buses and sleeper buses are a popular option too. But if you’ve been in Vietnam for an extended period of time, or like us, travel on the roads yourself you would know why this is a terrifying prospect. If you want examples, head on over to our travel updates page.
Apart from safety there are many scams and perils to consider when travelling by bus. Do your homework is all we’re saying.
Three, if you have time up your sleeve for slow travel, try at least one part of it, if not all. The sights will not disappoint and you’ll end up wanting to do either more or all of it next time. Not to mention, slow travel is sooo much more relaxing and enjoyable.
If this is your first visit to our site, then welcome! Head on over to our Things to do in Vietnam Page where we tell you about more things you should add to your Vietnam itinerary.
Thanks for reading guys and we’ll see you in the next post…