Sunday, April 12, 2015

Train Rides 2014 - Saigon to Hanoi in a Reunification Express, SE4

Date: 30th December 2015

We have made prior research about booking a train ticket from Saigon to Hanoi and fully guided by  our train sifu, for details of Vietnamese train times, fares and information. Tickets can be purchased at the station or pre-arranged by getting a local train agency to do so. As advised, we used Vietnam Impressive Ltd services to buy a soft sleeper ticket on our behalf via email communication with The agency, Vietnam Impressive has delivered our train ticket to Cherry hotel following series of conversation and after a credit card payment was completed. Our 1 way ticket was charged at USD239/2 pax, i.e. purchased on 20th November 2014 (see ticket in below photo). For information, Vietnam Railways operates up to five daily trains linking Hanoi, Vinh, Hue, 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 Hue, £24; and Hue to Saigon, £34. 

It was 30 minute to 10.00pm, when the gate to the platform was open. 5 minutes before departure time (leaving sharp at scheduled time), handled by a fully trained assistance, the relaxed bustle of boarding was completed. An electric bell rings, the locomotive hoots impatiently and outside of each carriage door, a uniformed attendant looks holding a lantern aloft and waiting for the off. From the station loudspeakers, a last urgent call 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 our train SE4 glides gently off into the night on its 31 hours and 30 minutes traveling for about 1,726 km @ 1,070 miles of journey to our next destination, Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam.

The "Reunification Railway" 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 with 4 or 5 air-conditioned trains linking Hanoi, Vinh, Hue, Da Nang, Nha Trang and Saigon every day, providing affordable and relatively comfortable transport for the locals as well as other adventurous tourist. Tourism has boomed in Vietnam, and for long journey, it is advisable to travel in Livitrans sleeping-cars aimed of SE1 (Hanoi to Saigon) and SE4 (Saigon to Hanoi) "soft sleepers".

Our shared 2nd class compartment of 4 person was comfortable and quite luxurious to our taste, with 2 upper and 2 lower berths, clean bedding, a small table and a power socket for those vital gadgets that we can't now travel without. We occupied both lower berth and a local lady soon joined our compartment right before leaving on the upper berth. A local guy later stepped in from one of the stop but I was already asleep at that moment.

Hot water container is available at each car

Historically, the North–South Railway line was established during French colonial rule, and was completed over a period of nearly 40 years, from 1899 to 1936. As of 2005, there were 278 stations on the Vietnamese railway network, of which 191 were located along the North–South line. From World War II through to the Vietnam War, the entire North–South Railway sustained major damage from bombings and sabotage. Owing to this damage, and to a subsequent lack of capital investment and maintenance, much of the infrastructure along the North–South Railway remains outdated or in poor condition; in turn, lack of infrastructure development has been found to be a root cause for railway accidents along the line, including collisions at level crossings and derailments. Recent rehabilitation projects, supported by official development assistance, have improved the safety and efficiency of the line. As of 2007, 85% of the network's passenger volume and 60% of its cargo volume was transported along the line. The national railway company Vietnam Railways owns and operates the line.

There are many reasons why trains are the best way to get around Vietnam, being the main choice of transportation for the locals. Vietnam's air-conditioned trains are safe, comfortable & inexpensive, the ideal way for independent travellers to get around and see Vietnam at ground level like the 2 of us trying to see the world on earthbound.  Another important reason to justify our aggressiveness is, the train journeys are a genuine Vietnamese experience in themselves, an integral part of your visit to Vietnam.  We even met so many, mostly all Vietnamese passengers/people in the train. 

Inexperienced travellers sometimes think they'll save time by using internal flights (take note that we are indeed an experienced travellers after completing 3rd legs of the earthbound trip). In fact, for those who wishes to travel to beautiful Hue or Danamg, may take an overnight train ride from Hanoi which rides actually saves time compared to flying, because the train leaves Hanoi city centre in the evening and arrives in Hue city centre next morning, but it's more than this, the train journey is a genuine Vietnamese experience, flying is a wasted opportunity. You can turn the compartment as your comfortable as you can like we did in below photos. 

Flying takes 4 or 5 hours out of your sightseeing day in getting to a remote airport, checking in, taking the flight itself, collecting your bags and getting back into the city centre.  And the sleeper train saves a hotel bill, too, we slept 2 nights thus saves 2 nights of hotel accommodation. Air-conditioned trains with sleepers and on-board catering link Hanoi, Hue, Danang, Nha Trang, and Saigon. For those who wishes to go to Hoi An, kindly take note that it has no station, but you may reach the place by bus or taxi from Danang as it’s just 30km away.  There are also trains from Hanoi to Haiphong (for Halong Bay route up till Kunming city in China) and Hanoi to Lao Cai (for Sapa).

We arrived at early morning hours in Hanoi station which 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. We passed through an elevated passage way down to the main station heading out to the main road. Before I bid my farewell to the station, I smiled a little thinking that I will be back some day to continue to route from here in this Hanoi Station to reach Beijing in China to complete our journey.

All other trains use the main Hanoi train station, situated in Ga Hang Co, 120 Le Duan,Hanoi, for daily services from cities in the south as well as to the train services to the north-west (including Lao Cai, from which you reach Sapa. We were told that to board trains bound for these destinations, you have to enter the railway station compound through the "backdoor" at Tran Quy Cap station. Tickets for all destinations are sold in the main station, though there are two counter halls, north and south, serving the respective destinations.

It was a good feeling arriving safely in Hanoi city at early hours. I hope many of you who has read my journey may by now agree that train travels are indeed a better way to connect with the locals and a foreign country falls within your destination. You can be at your most comfort levels, as if you are at home. That's what you should do while travelling in train, be comfortable, be yourself. It allows you to have your own privacy, being alone by doing nothing or taking sometime to do self reflections etc etc. Trust me, give it a try, you will not be disappointed taking time at it's slowest moment.

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