Vietnam by train: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City

Crossing Vietnam from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh in the Reunification Train
Monday, June 12, 2017 to Friday, June 30, 2017

Introduction: embarking on a unique train ride

Vietnam always felt like an exotic destination to me. Now, that I’m already in South East Asia since over a month, it is not so special anymore. But still, crossing this an Asian country by train sounds like something special. After the Vietnam War (or locally referred as the American War) the country celebrated its reunification by building a long train line. Since that time, the country is prospering and growing at a fast pace. Like Indonesia, I booked a small group tour with Intrepid Travel, leading me from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. The ride includes three overnight train rides and some of the countries major highlights. I was very excited to do this.

Ha Long Bay: a ship race through green mounds

We started our journey with a short trip to the Ha Long Bay. This is a picturesque landscape in the South China Sea, where nearly 1,000 limestone mounds majestically rage out of the water. Besides a unique natural spectacle, the tourism industry added its own contribution. Hundreds of small to medium tour ships are having a head to head race between those hills. Only because of the vast size of the bay, the ships are not touching each other. Wherever you stand, you always see about a dozen other ships on the horizon. This surge in tourism, as well as the UNESCO acceptance, led to a very restrictive protection. Despite its vastness, there are only a few places allowed for swimming. On my two days in the bay, I was only allowed to swim at the artificial beach of the Titop Island.

Hue: Imperial City, Royal Tombs and a Water Park

The next day, we embark on our first overnight train to the South. Early in the morning, we arrive in Hue, the Imperial City, in the middle of the country. Sleeping in the train was more comfortable than expected. If only the air conditioning was not freezing our cabin down. The contrast could not have been more brutal; in Hue, the sun burned our skin. First, we explored the Imperial City by foot; this royal place was inspired by the Chinese Forbidden City in Beijing. Then, we took a taxi outside the city to visit one of the royal tombs. This was all interesting but not very impressive. My personal highlight started on the way back. I asked the taxi driver to drop me half way at an abandoned water park. While my group moved on, I explored the area on my own. The small park was opened only for a few years and now completely ruined. The scenery was pretty eerie and reminded me of Chernobyl. In the park, I met two awesome Hungarian guys, who took me back to the city on their moped.

Hoi An and Da Nang: from the old to the new city

A small bus brought us from Hue to Hoi An. This allowed us to enjoy the most scenic road along the Vietnamese coastline and over a historic important hill station. On the southern side of this hill lie the two cities Da Nang and Hoi An. Da Nang was built by the French colonialists in the 17th century and became an important port. Hoi An is much older and famous for its historic old town centre; today a UNESCO protected open air museum and big tourist attraction. Walking through those old buildings is awe-striking, while the thousands of mindless tourists are ruining its charm. At this point, I had to break away from my group. I rented a moped and drove off. Since I never drove a moped before, I first had to get used to the machine and also the local traffic. To my surprise, it only took me half an hour to manage the situation. After that, the freedom of two wheels was amazing.

Nha Trang: having a mud bath, the Russian way

After a second night on the train, we arrived in Nha Trang. This was probably the most surprising place in Vietnam. Here, all street shops have Cyrillic signs and most people can great you in Russian! Vietnam has historically good relations with Russia, yet in no other city is this more strikingly visible than here. Nha Trang is dominated by a long sandy beach and several spa resorts that are famous for their mud baths. It took me a while to get warm with Nha Trang! While my group took a taxi, I rented a moped to drive to the mud bath. First, I got lost in the narrow, windy streets. Then I had to pay extra for a single entrance to the mud bath and was separated from my group. My luck turned in the afternoon when I left the main tourist area and visited the locals beach. There, I was invited by a local group sitting in the grass to karaoke, beer and fresh spring rolls. None of which I could refuse those friendly Vietnamese. At night, I went dancing with my group in the Rabbit Hole, a stylish Russian underground disco. Vietnam is full of surprises.

Saigon: locals still refuse to call it Ho Chi Minh City

Our last overnight train ride brought us to the southern capital. Renamed in 1976 to Ho Chi Minh, the legendary city is still widely called Saigon. After staying a few days in Hanoi and Saigon, it is hard to tell the difference between those two cities. Saigon is probably a bit more modern and clean. There is less street food and more modern buildings and businesses. Both cities have their own charm but are both not really inviting. My personal getaway, I found in the morning at the local parks and later on in a sky bar. The first was full of elderly people exercising and playing games, while the latter offered speedy WIFI and cool drinks at horrendous prices. No Vietnam trip would be complete without a visit to the nearby Cu Chi tunnels. One of the major remains of the cruel and probably unnecessary war between the Western and Eastern world.

Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh: next time I take a motorcycle!

Crossing Vietnam from North to South on the reunification train was a unique experience. Travelling with another small group and a tour guide was interesting but not as great. I have not learned as much about the country and did not have as many local experiences as I have wished for. I had to break away from the group and create my own adventure on several occasions. After getting familiar with the Asian motorcycles, I would prefer this way of travel. Even though it is less comfortable and more strenuous, it is more authentic and adventurous.

I still want to thank all the great people I have met on this tour and shared one or the other adventure.

My waypoints on this journey

Ha Long Bay - exploring a unique landscape of limestone pillars in the South China Sea
exploring a unique landscape of limestone pillars in the South China Sea
Me Cung Cave - exploring the small cave on the small island within the Ha Long Bay
exploring the small cave on the small island within the Ha Long Bay
Titov Island -
climbing up the limestone to gain an amazing view over the Ha Long Bay
Reunification Express - spending 3 nights on the North-South Railway from Hanoi to Saigon
spending 3 nights on the North-South Railway from Hanoi to Saigon
Hong Ngoc -
having a quick stop to buy souvenirs on our way to the Ha Long Bay
Ho Thuy Tien - exploring the abandoned and haunted waterpark in Vietnam near Hue
exploring the abandoned and haunted waterpark in Vietnam near Hue
Hue Imperial City - protected by a thick wall and moat lies the Purple Forbidden City
protected by a thick wall and moat lies the Purple Forbidden City
Hue - arriving in Vietnam's old capital, pretty much in the middle of the country
arriving in Vietnam's old capital, pretty much in the middle of the country
Khai Dinh - visiting the mausoleum of the 12th emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty
visiting the mausoleum of the 12th emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty
Hai Van Pass - crossing the mountain range with natural beauty and historical importance
crossing the mountain range with natural beauty and historical importance
Hoi An by night - following the masses and gazing at colourfully illuminated lanterns
following the masses and gazing at colourfully illuminated lanterns
Hoi An old Town - stumbling through the historic alleys of an ancient South East Asian port
stumbling through the historic alleys of an ancient South East Asian port
Lang Co Resort - a surprising paradise with pool and beach along the national road 1
a surprising paradise with pool and beach along the national road 1
K20 Tunnel - escaping from the living room of a local house into freedom
escaping from the living room of a local house into freedom
Lady Buddha - climbing up to Vietnam's largest buddha statue near Da Nang
climbing up to Vietnam's largest buddha statue near Da Nang
Marble Mountains - climbing one of the 5 limestone hills in between Hoi An and Da Nang
climbing one of the 5 limestone hills in between Hoi An and Da Nang
29/3 Park Da Nang - perfect retreat from the bustling city to relax on a picnic or thai chi
perfect retreat from the bustling city to relax on a picnic or thai chi
Da Nang - cruising on a moped through the streets of a modern port city
cruising on a moped through the streets of a modern port city
My Son -
religious and political center of the Champa Kingdom in 4th - 13th century
i Resort Mud Bath - having a relaxing and healthy bath in hot mud outside of Nha Trang
having a relaxing and healthy bath in hot mud outside of Nha Trang
Nha Trang - the Vietnamese happy hour beach city packed with Russian tourists
the Vietnamese happy hour beach city packed with Russian tourists
Po Nagar -
ancient temple from the 8th century related to the Khmer Empire
The Rabbit Hole - following Alice into the underground Wonderland of Nha Trang
following Alice into the underground Wonderland of Nha Trang
Long Son -
important Buddhist temple and statue on a hill in Nha Trang
Nha Trang Cathedral - taking off my shoes in order to enter the Christ the King Cathedral
taking off my shoes in order to enter the Christ the King Cathedral
Saigon by night - dancing with locals and then walking across the illuminated city
dancing with locals and then walking across the illuminated city
23/9 Park Saigon - enjoy the first sunbeams early in the morning with tai chi or badminton
enjoy the first sunbeams early in the morning with tai chi or badminton
Cu Chi Tunnels - crawling deep underneath the surface where Vietnamese hid from bombs
crawling deep underneath the surface where Vietnamese hid from bombs
Ho Chi Minh City - reaching Vietnam's largest city by overnight train from Nha Trang
reaching Vietnam's largest city by overnight train from Nha Trang