It’s possible to travel from HCMC to Hanoi by rail. One has to be a train devotee, however, since it takes from between 30 and 40 hours to cover the thousand mile route!
The one-metre gauge, single-line, north-south reunification railway was started in 1899 when Vietnam was a French colony and completed in 1936. Despite considerable damage in WW2 and the “American War”, and past lack of investment, the line is fully operational and carries a considerable amount of passengers and goods traffic. It is also a great way to see the country and certainly a lot safer to travel on than many buses.
This century there have been plans put forwards to construct a high-speed link with Japanese help which would reduce journey time between Hanoi and HCMC from forty to six hours. Unfortunately, these plans have come to nothing – a pity as they would clearly have boosted Vietnam’s economy by improving her internal transport.
There are, however, on-going projects to link HCMC with Bangkok through the restoration of Cambodia’s railways, at a standstill since 2009 because of safety concerns. It would also be possible to travel to China and link up with its high-speed system. Imagine a day when one could get a cheap return to Saigon from King’s Cross using the trans-Siberian railway, and the Urumchi link through China into Vietnam. It would be truly fantastic!
Yesterday morning we arrived at Ga Saigon (Ga clearly derives from the French word “Gar”) to catch the 6.50 am train to Mui Ne. The city’s station is modern and airy and every effort is made to make passengers feel comfortable with helpful staff who are smartly dressed.
In front of the station is a preserved steam locomotive of the type used before the present diesel engines were installed.
We had reclining seats in our carriage (classes of seats can be hard or soft) and found some nice pastries waiting for us on our table. Train attendants also gave us refresher towels and water, and also sold snacks and coffee during our four-hour journey to Mui Ne.
The windows were somewhat opaque, however, and I couldn’t see very clearly through them. Because of the air-conditioning they couldn’t be opened. However, the carriage next door was a non-air-conditioned refreshment car with openable windows and here not only could we get Tiger beer and even Pho but also several people were smoking there. The carriages were also being regularly cleaned during our trip.
The train first went through the considerable urban area of HCMC (around ten million people live here) and then gathered speed to around 45 mph as it entered rural Vietnam (where seventy per cent of the population live).
I found the countryside rather beautiful with its alternation of jungle and regimented rubber trees, dragon fruit or longan plantations, (the longan – Vietnamese for Dragon eye – has a juicy and sweet white pulp and tastes a bit like lychees of which it is a relative), little farmhouses with large clothes laid out in front with drying peppers, several large river crossings and a varied mountain background.
Eventually we reached Phan Tiet which is at the end of a branch line running from the main north-south trunk route. Here we boarded a bus which took us to Mui Ne and our beach hotel, swimming and relaxation…