ALL ABOARD THE REUNIFICATION EXPRESS
Although you'll be hard-pushed to find a train with Reunification Express emblazoned on its flanks, this is the name that's commonly given to trains using the track that joins Vietnam's northern and southern powerhouses, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Started under the French in 1899, it took four decades to complete this 1,700km track, which runs via the central Vietnamese cities of Hue and Da Nang, as well as the beach resort of Nha Trang.
Although out of service during Vietnam's war years, a symbolic restoration project in the mid-1970s meant the country was reunited by rail once again. This was great news for Vietnamese wishing to work further afield or visit family members in different regions Ė as well as for travellers looking to explore along the coast.
The hop on/hop off nature of the Reunification Express gives travellers a chance to experience quintessential Southeast Asian scenes rolling past carriage windows as well as having the chance to stay overnight in historic Vietnamese cities and seaside towns. For lengthier sections, overnight sleeper compartments make light work of the journey and more time spent onboard invites opportunities to meet local people, learn a bit of the language and snap an album full of photographs en route.
Below is a guide to what you can expect, with the chance to join a small group certainly adding to the spirit of camaraderie on what could well be one train trip that youíll never want to forget.
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Easily negotiable on foot (although take care when crossing scooter packed roads), Hanoi is Vietnam's capital and deserves at least a couple of days to make the most of myriad monuments, including Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum and the city's old town district, also known as the 36 Streets. From French colonial architecture, such as the Grand Opera House and the Presidential Palace, to some of Vietnam's most peaceful urban settings, including Hoan Kiem and Bay Mau lakes, Hanoi is a grand introduction prior to boarding the train.
A 12-hour, overnight train journey from Hanoi allows passengers to disembark in Hue just after the sun comes up with early morning coffee the best way to soak up the second city on a classic Reunification Express itinerary. The former imperial capital is definitely worth seeing from the back of a motorbike or by cyclo (three-wheeled rickshaw) with the vast Imperial Citadel, featuring the Forbidden Purple City and the Ancestral Altars, certain to conjure up images of the past as well as an appetite for royal rice cakes at Dong Ba Market.
An equally enduring alternative to sightseeing on land is to take a dragon boat cruise on the Perfume River where imperial tombs are revealed and life floats by from an altogether unique perspective.
A four-hour bus ride from Hue takes you to Hoi An via the mountains of Bach Ma National Park and the palm-fringed blue waters lapping against Lang Co Beach. As one of Southeast Asia's most important ancient maritime trading centres the UNESCO Wold Heritage Site of Hoi An stands as testament to restoration projects with much of the canal-infused Old Town, including the Japanese covered bridge, looking exactly the same as centuries past. From Chinese pagodas and store houses to French colonial architecture and vintage Vietnamese buildings, Hoi An has become a big draw for cultural travellers and is worth a couple of nights off the rails.
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From Hoi An, pick up the Reunification Express again in Danang and head onwards to the beaches of Nha Trang. Although the journey is ten hours, the accompanying countryside ensures time flies by with the reward of relaxation at the beach or exploring the temples of Po Nagar or Long Song, definitely worth enjoying at your leisure. Nha Trang has garnered a reputation for fine seafood and equally exquisite snorkelling and dive sites. Boat rides to nearby islands or afternoons spent pampering at the local spa or wallowing in natural mud baths all add to the laid back charm of Vietnam's premier seaside town.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City
The final stop on Vietnam's Reunification Express is the irrepressible Ho Chi Minh City, reached by a nine-hour sleeper train ride from Nha Trang. Dust off the sand and get out and explore because HCMC, formerly Saigon, is all about the contrasts between ancient and modern. French colonial influence is to be found in abundance alongside markets, such as Ben Thanh, and insight into the past including the War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace and Saigon's Central Post Office.
With villages along the Mekong Delta just a three-hour private bus ride away, Ho Chi Minh City offers ample excuses to experience the essence of Vietnam as well as providing a world of souvenirs and guided sightseeing at the end of a two-week trip on the Reunification Express.
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