Hanoi to Saigon - All Aboard the Reunification Express
The Reunification Express doesn't actually exist. You'll often hear the name used to describe the trains running from Hanoi to Saigon and vice-versa, but officially these trains are identified only by their numbers.
The line on which they run, however, is undoubtedly a symbol of reunification, as it re-opened shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, in December 1976, reconnecting cities which had first been joined by the French as long ago as 1936. While it's possible to fly between Vietnam's two main population centres in just a couple of hours, a journey by rail offers a much richer experience as you see Vietnam from ground level.
The journey is a long one -- 1726 kilometres from start to finish. There are four daily trains, two which start out in the evening and two which leave in the early morning, and the journey takes at least 33 hours. Fortunately, you don't have to do it all in one go; in fact, it makes far more sense to stop along the way. There are suitable stops in beautiful Nha Trang, for the beach, vibrant Danang, for the Centara Sandy Beach Resort and the wonderful UNESCO World Heritage site of Hội An, or Huế to visit the former Vietnamese capital.
Before thinking about what there is to see along the way, however, let's look at the trains themselves, and how to arrange tickets. While there are some shorter sectors -- Huế to Danang, for example, or perhaps Saigon to Nha Trang -- chances are you will be travelling overnight in sleeper accommodation. Just like China, Vietnamese railways offer two sleeper classes: hard and soft. That's not to say that hard sleeper actually involves a hard bed. It doesn't. These are just the names for first and second class. Soft sleepers provide a compartment with four berths, while a hard sleeper has six berths. Both classes have air-conditioning, but soft sleeper is a little more spacious with two fewer passengers in the compartment.
You need a ticket for the specific train and compartment that you intend to take. If you miss the train, your ticket won't be valid on another one. If you're going from Hanoi to Saigon but want to stop along the way, you need separate tickets for each sector you take. Reservations open 60 days in advance, and if you want to book online, www.seat61.com has detailed advice on exactly how to do that. Alternatively, you can buy tickets a couple of days beforehand at the station, but they might be sold out.
Starting in the north is the capital, Hanoi. This is definitely an old, traditional city, with a cooler climate, narrow streets, and an air of reserved orderliness that dissipates as you head south. Highlights include the Hoàn Kiếm Lake, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and simply walking around the Old Quarter enjoying the coffee shops and snacks on offer.
Huế served as the capital of Vietnam from 1802 until 1945 and was the seat of the Nguyen dynasty. The huge Đại Nội Citadel shouldn't be missed, along with the Thien Mu Pagoda overlooking the Perfume river. Huế saw some of the fiercest fighting in the Vietnam War, and some of the bunkers from that period are still visible.
Hội An might be the most magical of all Vietnamese towns. It is not large, indeed it has the feel of an ancient village, but it warrants a couple of nights at least, if only to soak up the atmosphere. Don't miss a short bicycle ride to the beaches nearby. If you prefer to stay in Danang and take a day trip to Hội An, make sure you hang around after sunset; the evening hours are when the town comes to life along the waterfront.
Nha Trang has six kilometres of white sandy beach, and is a great place for a short break by the sea. With restaurants and nightlife to keep you busy in the evening, and offshore islands and coral reefs providing the attractions by day, this resort town is one of Vietnam's fastest-growing destinations.
At the end of the line is Vietnam's financial hub and largest city, Saigon -- or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now officially known. Saigon is a fast-paced and busy city where there's always something happening. Highlights for the visitor include the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace, while for a great view of the city, try the observation floor of the Bitexco Tower. If time permits, one great day trip is to take a speedboat tour up the river to see the Cu Chi Tunnels and learn how the Vietnam War was fought on the ground.
And when you've finished your journey, if you liked the train there's more! Why not try the sleeper from Hanoi to Sapa in the northern mountains next time, or maybe head to Halong Bay? There's always more to see in Vietnam.