Mark Smith, The Daily Telegraph, March 2, 2012
It is one minute to 7pm at the main railway station in central Hanoi. The relaxed bustle of boarding is complete, and a palpable air of expectation hangs over platform 1. An electric bell rings, the locomotive hoots impatiently. Outside each carriage door, a uniformed attendant looks nervously up and down the train, holding a lantern aloft and waiting for the off.
From the station loudspeakers, a last urgent call in staccato Vietnamese fills the warm night air. As the second hand sweeps towards the 12, the attendants step smartly up into the train, removing the numbers hung outside their carriage doors. One long blast and one short toot on the horn, a muted hiss from the brakes, and train SE1 glides gently off into the night on its 33-hour, 1,070-mile journey to Vietnam's second city, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
This is the celebrated "Reunification Railway", a steel artery running the length of Vietnam. It was completed in 1936 in what was then French Indo-China, and its trains ran for 18 short years before the French pulled out and the country split into North and South. Not until 1976 did the north-south trains resume, and four or five air-conditioned trains now link Hanoi, Vinh, Hué, Da Nang, Nha Trang and Saigon every day, providing affordable and relatively comfortable transport for locals and visitors alike. Hanoi station is still visibly a French colonial building, despite its stark concrete central section, an ugly reminder of a direct hit by American bomb in December 1972.
I had last visited Vietnam more than a decade before, and as the SE1 raced the frenetic road traffic through the Hanoi suburbs, it seemed that every cyclist then now owned a motorbike, and every motorcyclist a car. Tourism has also boomed, and I was travelling in one of two privately run Livitrans sleeping-cars aimed at visitors, a cut above the SE1's regular "soft sleepers" but still only $59 (£38) for the 494 miles to Da Nang.
My shared compartment was comfortable but not luxurious, with two upper and two lower berths, clean bedding, a small table and a power socket for those vital gadgets we can't now travel without. I liberated a can of Bia Há Nôi from the passing refreshment trolley and chatted with my companions before turning in – it had been a long day and sleep came easily in my upper berth on the gently rocking train.
Next morning when I raised the blind, rural Vietnam was cantering past the window: rice paddies, water buffalo, villages and farms. A knock on the door, and our sleeper attendant brought in our Livitrans complimentary breakfast – a cup of tea and (to our wry amusement) a steaming hot, Western-style Pot Noodle.
Tea sipped, noodles slurped, and then a squeal from the brakes announced our arrival in Hué, on time at 8.02. Hué was the Vietnamese capital until 1945 and is now a highlight of most visitors' itineraries for the ancient city ruins and a boat trip on the scenic Perfume River or a tour of the old De-Militarised Zone (DMZ). Perhaps not surprisingly, the Livitrans sleeping-cars emptied here, their Western passengers dragging their roll-along suitcase down the platform as the SE1 set off again for all points south. The most spectacular part of the trip was about to begin.
An hour beyond Hué the train reached the coast, at first sprinting across a flat littoral with empty beaches and islands to seaward, an occasional house on stilts standing off shore in the blue-grey waters of the South China Sea. The brisk pace didn't last. A few miles farther south, a spur of the Annamese Mountains descends to the water's edge and forces the railway to climb and twist and turn.
Here, the SE1 slowed to an easy ramble and clambered into the hills, hugging the cliffs with the sea breaking on the rocks below. The wheels screeched in protest at each of the sharp curves as the train wound its way from cliff to jungle-covered cliff.
The railway ducked under the higher peaks in a series of tunnels, each with a uniformed watchman at the tunnel mouth, standing to attention and raising a yellow flag as the train clattered by. Approaching the Hai Van Pass (meaning "Ocean Cloud Pass" in deference to the area's drifting sea-mists – I can think of no more apt name), the train struck briefly inland, clinging to the mountainside, ascending a deep and thickly wooded valley to the summit of the line. On the far side of the pass we began our descent, the train rolling faster and more easily now, past yet more bays, boats and beaches on the final approach to Da Nang, arriving just after 10.30 in Vietnam's fifth-largest city, the stopping-off point for the historic Unesco World Heritage town of Hoi An.
I broke my journey at Da Nang, returning to the station for an afternoon train to Saigon. At half past one, the pale blue carriages of the SE3 arrived from Hanoi just a few minutes late, and I settled in to my air-conditioned soft sleeper. This was a regular Vietnamese Railways car, well used and a little tatty, but comfortable enough, with four berths in each compartment, a table and that all-important socket.
An afternoon on the train made a welcome break, a chance to rest my weary sightseeing feet, catch up on my reading and plan my stay in Saigon. Lunch was a bowl of dried noodles I'd acquired from a stall at Da Nang station, brewed up on the train with free boiling water from the dispenser at the end of the corridor. As night fell, the train hustled across the endless rice paddies, a plain of irregular waterlogged squares shadowed by the darkening outline of distant hills.
I bought a meal ticket for little more than £1 and half an hour later a polystyrene tray of chicken and sticky white rice arrived from the kitchen car, with chopsticks, a bottle of mineral water and a plastic cup of thick green tea that turned out to be soup. Filling enough, when washed down with a couple of the Saigon-brewed Triple 3s that had replaced the Bia Há Nôi on the refreshment trolley. After a stop at Nha Trang I fell asleep in my bunk, and at 5am next morning the SE3 pulled into Saigon.
Saigon appears on maps as Ho Chi Minh City, but the centre is still known by its traditional name, and it is "Sai Gon" not "HCMC" which is printed on your ticket and "Ga Sai Gon" which appears in large neon letters on the station. I found a taxi and headed for an old favourite, the classic Continental Hotel, an unassuming place from 1880 with high ceilings and marble floors, which features in Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American.
Saigon boasts a French colonial cathedral, post office, opera house and town hall, alongside the striking modernist architecture of the "Reunification Palace", preserved with much of its Seventies furniture intact, just as it was when the North Vietnamese tanks rolled up in 1975 at the conclusion of the "American War", as it's known in Vietnam.
Saigon makes an interesting contrast with its northern counterpart, but whether it's Hanoi or Saigon that delights you more, there's no better way between them than a ride on the Reunification Railway.
Mark Smith is "The Man in Seat 61" and the creator of the seat61.com, a website devoted to train travel worldwide.
Vietnam Airlines (020 8750 2708; vietnamair.com ) launched the first direct flights from the UK to Vietnam in December, flying from Gatwick to Hanoi on Tuesdays and Fridays and to Saigon on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from £618 return.
Vietnam Railways operates up to five daily trains linking Hanoi, Vinh, Hué, Da Nang, Nha Trang and Saigon. Hanoi to Saigon, with a bed in an air-conditioned four-berth soft sleeper, costs around £51; Hanoi to Hué, £24; and Hué to Saigon, £34. Trains also link Hanoi with Lao Cai, the railhead for the hill station at Sapa.
Livitrans ( livitrans.com ) operates tourist sleeping-cars between Hanoi, Hué and Da Nang, attached to one of the regular trains; the fare is £31.
For Vietnamese train times, fares and information, see seat61.com/vietnam.htm . Tickets can be bought at the station or pre-arranged at vietnamimpressive.com : the agency will deliver them to your hotel.
Great Rail Journeys (01904 521936; greatrail.com ) offers a 16-night group tour to Vietnam and Cambodia using the Reunification Railway, with departures in March, April and October, from £2,995 per person.
Railbookers (020 3327 0800; railbookers.com ) offers tailor-made trips to Vietnam with flights, hotels and train travel organised to your own specification.
The inside track
Vietnamese trains are safe and relatively comfortable, especially the “SE” numbered trains which use the more modern air-conditioned coaches. But don’t expect Swiss standards: these are regular trains intended as passenger transport rather than a deluxe tourist experience.
Soft sleepers come in shared four-berth compartments but sharing is all part of the experience. You can buy four tickets if you insist on sole occupancy. By day, you roll up the bedding and sit on the lower berths.
There are washrooms and Western-style lavatories at the end of the corridor, and on all of the trains I checked, soap and lavatory paper were provided. But never travel without spare paper and a small bottle of hand sanitiser.
Food and drink are readily available on board and usually brought to your compartment, but it’s a good idea to stock up on supplies from the various stalls at every station for a picnic on board.
There is free hot water in each car, which can be used to make noodles, tea, instant coffee or (if you bring some from home) a night-time cup of drinking chocolate.
The privately run Livitrans cars between Hanoi, Hué and Da Nang, and the similar sleepers between Hanoi and Lao Cai, are of a higher standard than the regular trains and are aimed at visitors, as long as you don’t expect showers or lounge cars with pianos.
Several windows open downwards on the corridor side of both the regular air-conditioned sleepers and the Livitrans cars for reflection-free photography, especially on the scenic section between Hué and Da Nang. Compartment-side windows don’t open, so if the coastal scenery is on the compartment side, walk to an adjacent car. But don’t lean out too far as there are tunnels and other obstructions.
The best hotels
Hanoi Art Hotel £
Ideal for travellers on a budget; clean modern double rooms with en-suite bathroom, and breakfast included (0084 439 233663; hanoiarthotel.com ; doubles from £24).
Hotel Sofitel Metropole £££
At the other extreme from the Hanoi Art Hotel, this is Hanoi’s most luxurious and historic hotel (438 266919; sofitel.com ; from £171).
La Residence Hotel & Spa ££
Located in the former French governor’s residence on the banks of the Perfume River (543 837475; la-residence-hue.com ; from $153/£96), but for budget-conscious, doubles at the equally central Than Thien Hotel start at just £12 (834666; thanthienhotel.com.vn ).
In Hoi An
The Life Heritage Resort Hoi An ££
Designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the town of Hoi An is 18 miles by taxi from Da Nang; this comfortable hotel is distinguished by its French colonial architecture (510 3914555; life-resorts.com ; from $149/£93). At the budget end, the Hai Au Hotel has doubles from £24 (no website, rooms bookable at booking.com ).
In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Continental Hotel ££
The quiet and unpretentious hotel dates from 1880 and enjoys a prime location next to the opera house (838 299201; continentalhotel.com.vn; from $108/£68). For those on a budget, the Luan Vu Hotel (377185; luanvuhotel.com ) gets great reviews and has doubles from £13.
Majestic Hotel £££
For more razzle-dazzle, try this relative newcomer, a refurbished Art Nouveau gem dating from 1925 (838 295517; majesticsaigon.com ; from £101).
The best restaurants
Pho Gia Tryuen, Hanoi £
This spot in the Old Quarter is the place to go for “pho”, traditional Vietnamese rice noodle soup (49 Bat Dan).
Ancient Hué, Hué ££
Try this pretty place for a delicious mixture of traditional Vietnamese and Mediterranean cuisine (4/4/8 Lane 35, Pham Thi Lien Street; ancienthue.com.vn ).
Temple Club, Saigon ££
In a city where you are spoilt for choice for excellent street food and cheap eating, the Temple Club is the place to go if you want to spend a little more to eat classier food in classier surroundings (29-31 Ton That Thiep; templeclub.com.vn ).