One night over some tasty pad thai in a sleepy little Thailand border town, we found ourselves seeking the advice of some fellow long-term travelers. We travel where opportunity takes us (hence the name) and had decided to fill a two-week gap in our September 2015 schedule with a trip to Vietnam. Rather than choose a single location, a friend recommended we take the train from Hanoi down to Ho Chi Minh City, spending time in various cities along the way as we slowly made our way down the North-South Reunification Line.
We immediately fell in love with the idea. Some months prior, one of our first world-traveling experiences was a high0-speed train in France. And it was so much better than flying! With visions of cozy, comfy trains speeding down the stunning coastline of Vietnam, we booked our passage.
On our first leg, we’d overnight from Hanoi to Hue, with a couple days in each city to explore both the new and the historical capital of Vietnam. After that, we’d take the day-train from Hue to Da Nang and spend a couple nights in this developing metropolitan area. Another overnight would takes us to the beach resort of Nha Trang for one night, then another overnight would bring us to Ho Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon. After three days exploring HCM, we’d do a single shot, 33-hour trek straight through from Ho Chi Minh City back to Hanoi.
Because speeding trains and pedestrians, cars, livestock and just about anything outside a trains is a terrible combination, high-speed rail lines in Europe are often well sequestered away from the general population. Not so in Vietnam. Here the trains and tracks go right through everyday life, including retails shops, homes, and even markets. No walls, chain link fences, or even signs to say “beware of trains”. Yes, major roads have barricades, lights and clanging bells as to limit automobile collisions. But the tracks themselves are treated just like any other street — albeit one you just can’t drive on. Sure, you can walk alongside it. Even set up a few tables for your restaurant. Maybe wash the dog. Think “sidewalk” more than “train track”. Everyone pays the train due respect when it goes by, but after (and before) that, it’s life as usual.
Outside of the cities, the train passed through rural Vietnam: rice paddies, fields, rivers and the occasional farmhouse. Nationalism is alive and well in Vietnam, so more often than not those rural farmhouses were adorned with a waving Vietnamese flag. These are a patriotic people who are proud of their country’s hard-fought history. That history, by the way, is more than 40 years old. And because you’re going to ask: yes, we felt perfectly safe every stop of the way. The Resistance War (you may know it by another name) was decades ago, and no one seemed to harbor any ill will to us two Americans wandering around their country. In fact, they welcomed us with open arms and often asked us to help them practice their English!
During our trip we had a chance to experience both types of passenger cars on the Vietnam railroad: sleepers and seats. The names describe exactly what you get. We made the short trek from from Hue to Da Nang during the day, so we opted for the soft-seat car. Comfy, bus-style seats with plenty of room to stretch out gave Sheila enough time to get some photo editing done. She takes a few hundred photos every day (no, not kidding) so she took advantage of the onboard power outlet and edited like mad.
Most of our legs were overnight, leaving very late in the evening from one city and arriving in our destination city the next morning. These legs were not unlike a red-eye flight, only we had room to actually stretch out and sleep. The beds aren’t going to win any awards for comfort, but they are soft enough and the linens are changed fresh for each new passenger. It’s more than a little noisy as the train clickity-clacks down the track, as the cars aren’t well insulated against sound. But the air conditioning worked, and the swaying of the car eventually lulled me to a better sleep than I’ve ever had on a flight. (Pro tip: Get a lower bunk. Your luggage goes right underneath and you get full use of the little table!)
Using the train to take a slow, leisurely trip through Vietnam was absolutely the right decision for us. We absolutely loved it and we found it much more convenient and accessible than air travel. Plus, you can arrive at the station with literally minutes to spare. Try that at an airport and you’ve missed a fight. Our only misstep was the final leg: the incredibly long 33-hour long trek from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.
Although a high-speed, luxurious train in Europe has little in common with the slow, creaky, and quasi-insulated train cars we rode through Vietnam, doing so offered us stunning vistas we simply could not have enjoyed from 30,000 feet. Vietnam is a beautiful country that begs to be explored on the rails.
Evo’s note: This article was originally published by one of our partners in December of 2015. But the company has since sold and take down all the great content we (and others) produced for them. No matter… I have a copy!
Originally published at www.theopportunistictravelers.com.