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Vietnam is a country that boasts a rare and magical beauty. Long and thin in shape, its diverse and magnificent landscapes, ranging from rice paddies to mountains, are a big part of its appeal but it is the culture, born from a tumultuous history and a compelling mix of influences, that make it such a delightful place to explore.
As you discover the country, you’ll uncover elements of indigenous, Chinese, Champa and Khmer, and French heritage in things like language, the amazing food and architecture. Add in age old traditional values and the more recent impact of the West, and you’ve got something that is unique, tangible, and utterly fascinating. Exotic, enchanting and compelling and so much more, Vietnam is a must for every bucketlist.The amount of rail travel you'll be enjoying varies from tour to tour. You may be exploring a country travelling predominantly by train or perhaps just getting a flavour of how the locals get about with one or two select journeys. We've also included those tours that include a journey on iconic scenic trains. Take a look at the tour inclusions to see how many rail journeys you'll be enjoying in each instance.
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In Vietnam, trains aren’t just a mode of transport, they are an experience in themselves. A place to sit and watch the beauty of your surroundings roll by and to get a glimpse of day-to-day life, to meet locals and to almost step back to the halcyon days of old.
You see, trains in Vietnam are the low-tech kind, ones that are slow and relaxed while still being comfortable and efficient. There is one main line, the Reunification line, that runs between Saigon and Hanoi, with a couple of trunk lines that run into the highlands to Sapa and to Haiphong, the gateway to Halong Bay.
Built in 1936 by the French, and known as the Reunification Express since 1976, when trains started running between the north and south again, this historic train line links Hanoi and Saigon via Hue, Danang (for Hoi An) and Nha Trang. There is no single train called the Reunification Express, and you can ride the whole line at once, hop-on and hop-off or just ride sections of it (like on our Vietnam by Rail tour). No matter which way you choose, you’ll be rumbling through glorious scenery – rice paddies, lush jungle, forested mountains, seascapes and even crowded neighbourhoods.
The trains that run the line pull some combination of the five classes of carriage – air-con soft sleeper, air-con hard sleeper, air-con soft seat, air-con hard seat and no air-con hard seat. On our Vietnam by Rail tour you will be in air-con soft seat carriages (there are no overnights on the train) which will give you a comfortable seat from which to enjoy the passing scenery. There are toilets on the train (which may be Western or squat) plus a drinks cart and a snack cart, and you may find that vendors hop on the train at various stations selling something fresh and hot. Bringing your own drinks and snacks is also a good option.
This 100 kilometre stretch of line, which takes three hours to traverse, is the most spectacular section of an already incredibly scenic railway journey. Snaking its way along the cliffs, the train hugs the coastline on one side, overlooking golden sand beaches and cerulean waters, while on the other, lush green jungle swathes lofty mountains.
The literal and figurative apex of the journey is crossing the Hai Van Pass (called ‘Ocean Cloud Pass’ in Vietnamese), where you’ll have sweeping views over the coast. There’s also a section of emerald rice paddies and wetlands, which give a glimpse of into a bucolic scene of rural life.
A former colonial mountain resort, Dalat is set up in the cool, picturesque highlands in southern Vietnam. Originally a trunk line of the main north to south railway, it fell into disrepair during the war and it was ultimately decided to not restore it.
However, a seven kilometre stretch between Dalat and Trai Mat was, as a restored heritage line. The 30-minute ride uses a diesel locomotive but heritage carriages which give a wonderful sense of nostalgia. As you chug out through the countryside, there is beautiful rural scenery to enjoy especially as the area is ideal for growing fruit and vegetables away from the tropical heat of the lowlands.
You embark at Dalat Station; French built with echoes of Art Deco, its architecture is lovely. While here, have a look at the old steam locomotive and the section of cog railway that helped the original train up steeper sections of the hills. At the other terminus, Trai Mat, you can glimpse small town life in Vietnam and visit a local temple.