I arrived at the Mango Hotel, next door to the main railway station in Hanoi.
The rail company Lamans has a support/booking desk at reception. I was early so had dinner with Mike, who had been on the same cruise as me but arrived by a different bus from Ha Long Bay after me. He was off to Sapa.
Once it was time to board the train, a representative from Lamans led a small group of us out of the back door of the hotel and straight on to a platform.
While there was a train waiting there, it was not the train we were looking for.
I didn’t get much of a look at the station, as we walked down this platform, crossed the tracks and boarded another train.
Apologies, train spotters, if I had realised this would happen I would have taken an earlier wander around the station.
I was taking a train along the Reunification Line which is the main line which stretches around 1,000 miles from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.
The line was originally finished in 1936 under French colonial rule and severed in 1954 when the country was divided into North and South.
Furing the onslaught of war, the line was damaged thousands of times. Then, after Saigon was captured (or liberated, dependent on tour viewpoint) in 1975, the Hanoi government unleashed a massive engineering effort which made the line operational by the end of 1976.
In less than two years, the Vietnamese had repaired 1334 bridges, 27 tunnels, and 158 stations. Because of that impressive feat, this connection between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City became a symbol of a reunified Vietnam.
But what was the sleeping cabin like?
I’d been perfectly happy with the Trans Siberian Express trains. I was very impressed by the Chinese trains. Being used to enduring railway services around Greater Manchester, the Vietnamese train rather blew my mind.
That was a rather snazzy sleeping bag on my bunk and the stash of goodies looked pretty impressive too.
Was I perhaps in first class? Was I in the wrong bunk?
Before I made myself too comfortable, I checked the scroll on the bed.
I was definitely in the right place – it was a letter for me. How’s THAT for checking your ticket against the seat you’ve made yourself comfortable in?
It was dark when the train pulled out of the station and I got a different view of Train Street to the one I had earlier in the week.
We rattled by, so close to the cafes and people’s homes, I could see straight into their rooms as they watched television and prepared dinner.
Once through the street, the view from the window remained just as ‘up close and personal’.
The rails were less than ten feet from the roads and on the same level. That was a very different experience to travelling by train in the UK where the rail is, usually, elevated and a much greater distance from the roads.
As the train chugged slowly through Hanoi, it was going at a similar speed to the road traffic – the majority of which, as usual, comprised motorbikes and mopeds. Several riders waved to me as the train passed.
I’m always delighted when people wave.
I’ve been to gigs in Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl and half of the fun of the night is the crowd waving to the passengers on passing trains. Who cares if the band are playing your favourite song?
There’s a TRAIN!!! Everybody wave!
To be fair, Elbow and Kylie seemed to enjoy this as much as the audiences this Summer, (July, 2019).
Back in Hanoi, those who waved seemed just as pleased when I returned the gesture with passengers tapping the rider’s shoulder or helmet and gesturing that I’d waved back.
Waving at people on or from trains is clearly international.
Once we cleared the outskirts of Hanoi, the next two hours’ journey passed through countryside and towns and villages. In each settlement, the train was carried just as close to the main streets as in the capital.
I settled down to a fairly disturbed night’s sleep – the noise seemed so much louder than on Chinese trains and the carriage shuddered far more violently, especially when the train made abrupt stops.
When the sun rose, the train was passing through a mixture of forest, rivers and farmland. There were banana trees in parts but it was mostly rice fields, with buffalo standing up to their ankles in water.
It was so green.
Travelling through the centre of towns, next to the main streets and close by some beautiful houses with wide terraces and balconies.
I could also see some Buddhist temples though as my journey took me further South, I was also expecting to see Hindu temples as China’s historic influence in Northern Vietnam wanes to the Indian influence in the South.
Breakfast was served.
The route took us through the centre of Hue crossing the Perfume River before continuing through rural scenery.
Two of the other people in the cabin were disembarking here and after they had gone, the carriage staff quickly appeared to remove the bed linen that they had used. None was replaced so I anticipated that no-one else would be joining us before the train reached Da Nang.
South of Hue, the landscape became more mountainous along the coast. The train was following the highway along the cliff tops with forested hillsides, in parts, practically sweeping the railway into the sea.
About twenty miles North of Da Nang, the train skirted the Hai Van Pass or Sea Clouds Pass which is hugely popular with motorcyclists.
The views were incredible even though the sea mist and rain weren’t allowing the views of the clear blue skies often written about. The clue is rather in the name.
The pass, and this part of the rail route which actually hugs the cliff edge below the road, overlooks Da Nang City, Tien Sa Port, Son Tra Peninsula, and the South China Sea.
Crossing over the Truong Son mountain range between Thua Thien-Hue Province and Da Nang City, it stands at 500m above sea level, making it the highest pass in Vietnam.
During the Vietnamese (American) War, the Hai Van Pass was referred to as the ‘Street Without Joy’ because it linked the two war-ravaged cities of Hue and Da Nang along Highway 1.
Before we reached the pass, the train skirted a wide bay and I could see stilt houses sitting high above the low tide.
Once onto the pass, the train passes through tunnels and emerged to the most stunning views of the sea crashing onto the rocks before it began to climb back through forest.
We skirted the mountain peninsula for about 30 minutes crawling along the track at 15mph as the line snaked through tunnels and the edge of the cliffs.
We stopped several times because of blockages on the line and at regular intervals there were uniformed men standing along the track with coloured flags to indicate whether the way ahead was clear.
I think this may be my favourite rail journey of this trip so far.
I couldn’t get any decent pictures through the windows of the train but I did notice the carriage was lined with propaganda (and tourism adverts) posters from the last sixty years.
I’ve even seen these designs on chocolate bars.
The train pulled into Da Nang. There are the same Railway Streets as in Hanoi and the train chugged slowly into the station.
The route to the hostel via public bus looked like it could take a few hours. However, Katie from Argentina was heading my way so we shared a taxi out to Hoi An.
Hold on to your hats, Manchester.
To travel 25km for about 40 minutes cost us each £5. A bus would have cost us each £1 plus 30p for luggage after we had caught a taxi to the bus station.
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