How 3 train rides for 32 hours along 1,700 kilometers of Vietnamese railway feel like for this family of 5
Saigon to Hanoi by Rail
Like a nocturnal beast prepping itself for the long night ahead, the locomotive crawled on the Đường Sắt Bắc–Nam — Vietnam’s North–South Railway — in the suburbs of Saigon, its dozen or so carriages groaning at the joints.
Train SE4 slowly gathered speed for the overnight trip to Da Nang, our first time to sleep on a train. I booked online tickets for this sleeper train weeks in advance, as well as for another overnight trip. The family will take three train rides in all from Saigon to Hanoi along the Đường Sắt Bắc–Nam, which foreigners simply called Duong Sat and translated, whether by mistake or on purpose, to “Road of Steel.” We will have two long stops: Da Nang and Ninh Binh.
For the first leg, I got the five of us an airconditioned soft-berth cabin for four and a bed in another compartment. The new cabins on Coach 9 look neat and tidy. The four “floating” bunk beds have soft-enough mattresses with fresh beddings, each with a reading lamp and USB outlets to charge phones. The cabin has a modish keg-shaped woven lamp and flower vase on the table by the window, which is adorned with Christmas reindeer and sleigh stickers. In the vestibules on both ends of the carriage are clean wash rooms and toilets.
Before retreating to our beds, the family gathered at the hallway just outside our cabin to watch through the glass window the city of Ho Chi Minh pass us by. Half of Saigon was just coming to life, while the other half is getting ready for the next day. Many of those living along the railroad track left the windows of their homes wide open, unmindful of peering eyes from passing trains. One homemaker clears the table, while the neighbor next door sits slouched in front of the TV (asleep?). A tiny silhouette runs past one of the window frames. At a crossing, dozens of motorcycles with headlights ablaze gather in front of metal road blocks that will be removed by hand as soon as the road is clear of this passing train. Every kilometer or so of the rail corridor, a Vietnamese guard keeps watch for both train and the outside world. (“The train windows stay closed because some children throw stones at trains,” the Vietnam Railways website explained.)
Train SE4 left the Saigon Railway Station on the dot at 7:45 and is expected to arrive in Da Nang shortly past lunch, with a number of quick stops in between. The kids are thrilled to ride the sleeper train, and Bretha is happiest the kids are thrilled.
With all this anticipation, Cyan, our nine year old, says it’s pretty cool sleeping in a train. Arwen, our teenage resident artist, is also enamored with the idea, loving the ever changing views outside her window. Amber, our young adult, agrees. “And it’s even nicer waking up to a beautiful scenery.” Being the eldest, Amber offered to stay in the separate cabin, which she shared with a good-natured elderly Vietnamese woman. Perhaps it’s a rehearsal of sorts for the possibility that she’d be living elsewhere when she goes to college a few months from now.
With this series of travels by rail, I feel that the kids, too, now share my fascination with trains, because, among other reasons, they can take a journey not just to places on the map but in the mind as well.
And yet this fascination carries with it a tinge of longing that goes all the way back home. For how could one not yearn knowing that trains used to run up and down the length of the island of Cebu, our hometown, intersecting with the quotidian lives of the Cebuanos of old?
Where the trains back then always on time? That didn’t matter, as long as they arrived, not just with people and goods like abaca, sugarcane, and cacao, but with news and even newer ideas as well.
I once had a discussion with a friend, the poet Adonis, about Cebu’s long-forgotten trains that ran along close to a hundred kilometers of railway stretching from the towns of Danao to Argao. “Can you imagine how it must have felt for the townsfolk every time they would hear a train arriving from the distance?” Adonis said. Consider that these were quieter times when everything was remote and often shrouded in mystery.
I tried to imagine children running first to the station at the sound of a faint whistle, if not wait on the side of the track, then seeing a tiny puff of steam from a dot where the two lengths of rails vanished in the distance, they scream with excitement. “Naabot na ang train!” Adonis’s voice mimicking that of an excited child shrills in my head. The train has arrived, even if it hasn’t really.
Slowly the same dot dilates like a pupil in the whiteness of steam that’s billowing more proudly, until this beast with an iron snout comes barreling down inches past their noses, and they give chase, begging playfully for a free ride, hands flailing as if to grab one of the bars. But the train is too fast even if it is slowing down.
I imagine cheers and applause and excitement drowning the protracted squeaking and creaking of metal against metal. And then the locomotive and everything behind it grinds to a halt. Perhaps in an hour or so, the engineer will sound the bell to announce yet another departure.
Did the trains of Cebu arrive every day, every week, at every station? And left just as often? Whatever the frequency, time in this part of the world would be measured with arrivals and departures, such that the people’s meaningful existence relied on these intervals. Nothing could be more reassuring to the locals than the certainty of the leavings and goings from the train stations of Argao, Carcar, Sibonga, Cebu City, and Danao.
Then one day, the trains stopped coming. They said it was the war, some blaming the guerillas for the sabotage of the tracks. But why the railway was never restored remains a mystery. Perhaps the bus moguls and auto traders know.
Over time, the tracks disappeared, rail by rail, bolt by tiny bolt, and all that is left are faint traces of dust-layered trackbed over which the tracks had been fastened.
Where trains used to pass and rattled its environs, cars and buses now jostle for the same space and its expansions. The train bells and air whistles, too, had to give way to electric horns coming from all directions.
The story of Cebu’s trains reminds me of Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer,” an end-of-days film set inside a perpetually moving train where the last of humanity’s survivors are confined. “We take the engine and we control the world,” says the protagonist who longs for change. In Cebu, the survivors of World War II managed to take the engine and the entire train along with it, but they also took everything apart, so now there’s no more train to control. In its place is a transport system that puts most dystopian plots to shame.
In Vietnam, it appears the right people still control the engine.
I retreat to the cabin and climb up the top bunk and plop on the covered mattress. I find Arwen in the bunk across studying her drawings of Saigon’s colonial buildings and Vietnamese folk in traditional clothes. She keeps the sketch book moments later and pulls the covers. Cyan is curled beside his mommy.
In the other cabin, Amber is probably striking a conversation with her elderly roommate. Many Vietnamese, especially the younger ones, in the bigger cities like Saigon and Hanoi speak English, but those in the interior areas don’t. So far, though, communicating with the locals, especially the train staff, has not been a problem as simple “sign language” a la charades seemed to suffice.
I think about telling the kids of Cebu’s once-upon-a-time trains. Maybe tomorrow. Moments later, I hear someone jump into the empty bed and a tiny voice asks me to turn off the lights. I oblige. One gets used to the noise from the running train. It now follows a cadence, a certain beat that puts one at ease. In my head, in the darkness, Death Cab for Cutie’s train song plays alongside this beat:
The coast disappeared when the sea drowned the sun
I knew no words to share it with anyone
The boundaries of language I quietly cursed
And all the different names for the same thing
I wake up early the following morning. It must be 5 a.m. My children are still asleep, and so is Bretha. The electric signboard at one end of the train corridor says we are now nearing the railway station in Hảo Sơn Village. Outside where everything is a blue blur, the sun has yet to rise over fishing grounds, rice paddies, concrete houses with brick roofs, and cemeteries.
We are halfway through the day’s destination of Da Nang. The signboard says the train is cruising at 70 kilometers per hour. I look outside the window — to the train’s right — and a cargo truck cruising on the highway is left behind. Like projector slides, the scenery shifts from coast to lake sides to rows of pine trees to foggy hills to farmland and farmers’ dwellings with their bales of hay shaped like huts that tower over farm houses.
I lose my thoughts in the drone of steel wheels grinding at speed on railtracks with its measured peals and clangs. It’s not the most sophisticated, most advanced train, yet I have peace of mind in its comforts. And along with the entire Vietnamese fleet of trains, SE4 seems to serve a higher purpose.
All at once, I am envious of Vietnam and its people because it has a railway network of 2,600 kilometers, at the end of which, or at every station, someone, a waiting child perhaps, would exclaim, “Tàu đã đến!” The train has arrived!
Truth is, I envy any place with a functioning railway system, like Indonesia, where our family took a seamless five-hour train ride from Surabaya to Yogyakarta in Java. Indonesia’s railway system spans more than 5,000 kilometers and continues to expand along with the country’s ambitions.
I envy Malaysia, too, where we hopped on a train for a two-hour ride from the quiet coffee town of Kluang to Johor Bahru, a route which is just a fraction of the country’s close to 2,000 kilometers of track.
And I envy Myanmar even more even just for its 46-kilometer Yangon Circular Railway because it offers its citizens cheap mass transport around the capital’s immediate peripheries, never mind that the trains move at a snail’s pace, as what my wife and I discovered when we hopped on one of the carriages five years ago. But don’t be fooled: Myanmar’s railway network boasts of more than 11,000 kilometers in total, never mind if there a few bone-rattling segments as the late great Anthony Bourdain once attested to on a slow “kidney-softening travel by rail” to Bagan. But let those numbers sink in like railway sleepers pressed relentlessly into the track ballast.
In contrast, the Philippines only has 212 kilometers of railway, mostly in the island of Luzon. And yet, even that I envy as a Cebuano, as I dream that one day all five of us in the family would be taking a train from Manila aboard the Bicol Express once revived, or maybe the line to nearby Bulacan when it is finished, perhaps to whichever among the ongoing and planned line expansions in the country’s biggest island materializes first, or to any of the Philippine National Railway’s existing lines that are slowly getting much needed improvement after decades of neglect. But we will hop on that train when that time comes and admire Luzon from the train’s corridors.
May I point out, though, that train rides have two corridors: the one inside the carriages along the compartments, and the other, that strip of land where the rail tracks are laid, where pedestrians often traipse and hang out, and from time to time where saboteurs and pilferers pull off their plans.
I step out the cabin and see a vast cemetery come into view. Several upright grave stones are marked with sauwastikas, ancient symbols of divinity and spirituality. I am reminded how fleeting life is. The train moves on at its own pace.
There is no room for the restless on trains. In a way, I pity the contemporary traveler who can think only of getting off at the next stop at the quickest possible time while his mind chronically seeks to connect with the superhighways of cyberspace. On trains like the SE4, one learns to let go of urgencies.
Hunger, this most urgent of longings, is an exception. And I am grateful the railway management included free meals — breakfast and lunch — in our train tickets. But breakfast is still two hours away and I’m starting to get famished. To our luck, the train stops at Ga Hảo Sơn .
The kids are still asleep but Bretha is up. A vendor appears outside the door near the rear gangway and sells us food. I buy two meat-filled rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. The rice cakes have a name: Banh U. I know only two words of Vietnamese and she doesn’t speak our language. As though I had a glass in hand, I gesture whether they sold drinks.
“Coco.” she says.
“Yes, coco!” I nod, extending two fingers. Bretha and I could really use some hot Vietnamese chocolate right now, perfect for this beautiful airconditioned morning in the middle of a rural commune.
The vendor hands me two plastic bottles through the door.
“Ah, Coco. Coke. Coca Cola.” All the different names for the same thing, and why not? Bretha is speechless.
The vendor nods and grins as I hand her 50,000 dong. I reach out for my change. If there’s a language we all understand, it’s that of money.
“Cảm ơn!” I say, thanking her.
“Cảm ơn!” she says and looks for other customers.
But the rice cakes are really good, and I wish I bought more. Breakfast finally came and the staff with a trolley of food gives us our packed meals with sealed cups of water. Everyone is now awake, and gorge on the dry noodles topped with beef strips. Cyan, chopsticks in one hand, gives the dish a thumbs up with the other.
Amber came by to say hi. “Sleeping in a train is fun!” she exclaims, although she admitted that dozing off was hard at first because of the noise the train makes. But eventually the same monotonous rhythm of the rolling train would lull her to sleep.
“Grandma is really nice,” Amber says, referring to her Vietnamese roommate. “She offered me food and kept me company. We even ate together last night. She also taught me how stuff on the train works, like the toilet.”
“The toilet is scary,” Cyan butts in. It’s true. The water inside the bowl continuously swishes and swirls because of the train’s forward movement.
“Grandma asked me where we were heading. To Da Nang, then Hanoi, I said. She said she was going home to her family in Hanoi.”
Now one might think that railways are the Vietnamese’s transport of choice for passengers and cargo. The opposite is true. Although the figures are increasing, few goods are transferred by rail and only one out of 20 Vietnamese uses the trains, the likes of grandma included.
Vietnam is a motorcycle country after all, and with more people able to buy cars and in the advent of budget air fares, railway use is facing stiff competition.
And yet the Vietnamese government is pursuing serious rehabilitation of its underutilized railways, as well as expansion into the borders of Laos and Cambodia. That’s because the vital role that railways play especially in a more interconnected future cannot be ignored.
While waiting for lunch, we pass the time playing Uno. In between one of the games, I tell the kids that the cabin reminded me of the ones I slept in on passenger ships from Cebu to and from Manila during school break.
There was a rebirth of the shipping industry then, and a couple of the main players were trying to outdo each other to lure passengers with low fare, refurbished ships, clean accommodations, and “stuff to do” like karaoke during the 24-hour voyage.
Also at that time, budget airlines did not exist, so one must either be wealthy or desperate to pay for airfare that’s 10 times the cost of a boat ticket. Choosing which boat to take often boiled down to who offered the better food, which meant the SuperFerry ships, hands down. (Fun fact: while officially called the Reunification Express, the SE on Vietnam’s trains supposedly stand for Super Express. SuperFerry. Super Express. What super similarities.)
Anyway, lunch time came rather quick, and the food server brought our free meals, this time, on a tray: pork barbecue, vegetable salad, soup, rice, and water. Trust the Vietnamese to make train food delicious.
A few rice paddies and another cemetery later, we arrive at Da Nang Railway Station. We took a Grab seven-seater for a 30-minute ride to Hoi An where we would stay near unspoilt An Bang Beach with its four-kilometer stretch of uninterrupted sand for four days and three nights, then spend another three days and two nights — including Christmas Eve — just outside Unesco Heritage Site Hoi An Ancient Town.
There are plenty of things that struck me about Hoi An, but I’ll leave you with two: first, the cuisine is divine, the best we’ve tasted in Vietnam, and second, they play Jose Mari Chan Christmas songs here. But let’s leave that for another story.
On Christmas Day, it was time to board another sleeper train in Da Nang, this time for Ninh Binh. The second leg of the family’s 16-day trip in Vietnam was a choice between the ancient city of Hue, the cave systems of Phong Nha Ke Bang, and the karst mountains and rivers of Ninh Binh.
We settled on Ninh Binh after a fellow Filipino traveler, who was also referred by my friend Ley who worked for a couple of years near Hanoi, suggested the place.
“Ninh Binh was the former capital of Vietnam,” Janice said. “It has scenic rivers there like in Tam Coc as well as a location site for Kong: Skull Island in Trang An.” She got me at Skull Island, because kids. Janice then referred me to her Vietnamese guide whom she said was really helpful. The guide’s name? Cinnamon Que.
I looked Cinnamon Que up on the messaging app Zalo — her Facebook and Instagram handles vary (different names, same person) — and asked her if she’s in Ninh Binh. “I am living in Hanoi, but my hometown is Ninh Binh and my parents are living there.” That’s great, I said, and told her I wanted to see Tam Coc and Trang An. Cinnamon said I should just pick one. “You shouldn’t choose both because they are similar.” Makes perfect sense. I asked her if she’d like to be our guide in Hanoi. She agreed, adding she couldn’t wait to meet the family, especially the kids. “I hope you have a meaningful time in Vietnam,” she said. I thank her for all the help. The meeting didn’t push through, though, as she had to return to Ninh Binh for the New Year.
The family could have flown from Da Nang to Hanoi, the capital, and from there just take a van to Ninh Binh. But that would mean we’d miss out on a ride through Hai Van Pass, a popular side trip for Da Nang visitors. And right now, at 3:30 in the afternoon, we’re on board Train SE2 (Super Express 2!).
The train started moving and, as the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima would write, “shook with a deep sound like that of heavy chains gnashing against each other.” In less than an hour, it would make its way through the 21-kilometer stretch of the Hai Van Pass mountains.
From the window at the hallway of Coach 12, the coastline facing the East Vietnam Sea begins to reveal itself as the train makes its way to Hai Van Pass. The Annamese Mountains or Dãy Trường Sơn takes shape up ahead: a mountain range that extends into the borders of Laos and even Cambodia.
Super Express 2 groans as it begins its slow climb through the mountains, snaking carefully along cliff sides, part of which drop straight into the sea. Several grunts, squeaks and clangs later, the electronic signboard reads: Hai Van Pass. The scenery outside is lovely. A soft mist has covered the slopes in the horizon.
And then the train groans again, now with more clanking like the clatter of pots and pans, as it begins its traverse on a metal bridge along the cliffs some 500 meters above the sea. “Awesome,” Cyan says with bated breath. Hai Van Pass stretches on end. A stream emerges. Far down below, the waves crash against the shore. The sight disappears as the train enters a tunnel.
I can now imagine why two ancient kingdoms — the Dai Viet from the north and Champa from the south — chose Hai Van Pass as their boundary. I can also imagine why a number of older trains fell off this route. Of, course I didn’t tell the wife and children that, although now I understand why the Vietnamese named this new line of trains the Super Express.
But travel through the erstwhile perilous Hai Van Pass has gotten safer through the years, and that makes riding a determined train through the Vietnamese mountains an even more compelling trip (not to mention all that railway metal soundtrack to heighten one’s journey). After another good meal, we all slept soundly that night.
Thirteen hours later, at 4:15 a.m., we say goodbye to Super Express 2 at the Ninh Binh Station. Except for one attendant at the door, we were the only souls at this spacious modern structure built just three years ago. There was no need to hail a cab as our hotel was at the block across the station. We stepped out of the station into the cold. We are in the north of Vietnam after all. In contrast, the tropical south was warm, and I am reminded that the Hai Van Pass, among its many roles, does serve as the boundary of Vietnam’s two climates.
We put on our jackets and walked for roughly five minutes. Since our check in time was still at 12 noon, the plan was to just leave our stuff at the counter, then proceed with a morning tour. When we reached our hotel it was closed. I look at Bretha. She looks at me. Confusion is written on her face, near panic on mine.
I remember her talking on the phone yesterday, asking whether they accepted credit cards for payment (my online booking through Agoda said I would pay at the hotel upon check-in). The man on the other line, presumably the hotel owner, said yes. Bretha confirmed our booking, so I’m pretty sure they knew we were arriving. So why the hell was the hotel closed? I look around. Not a soul stirred on the wide tree-lined sidewalks, the mist hanging in the cold air.
I tell Bretha and the kids, who were now sitting on the concrete steps at the entrance, that I’ll look for another hotel just in case. I go down the block, then turn right along the Sông Vân River. I saw one outdoor sign glowing in the distance and walk towards it. A funeral parlor, no way. I go faster and follow a neon hotel sign down a narrow road. The counter was pitch dark. Tough luck. Everyone here was still asleep. I return as the bearer of bad news.
When I get back, the metal shutters were pulled open. Bretha had texted the owner while I was away, and he and his wife had just woken up. While pulling out chairs and tables, the couple, still in their pajamas, explained they didn’t expect us this early. My bad. I completely forgot to tell them the expected time of the train’s arrival. “Coffee?” the wife asks. “Three coffees and two milk teas, please.”
Having Vietnamese drip coffee on the empty sidewalks of laid back Ninh Binh at 5:30 in the morning was surreal in a quaint way. “What coffee do you use?” I ask the wife. “Trung Nguyen, Number 9,” she says. “It’s the best.” I take a sip and a mental note.
So Bretha, to make sure, asks the husband again about paying by credit card.
“Oh, you go at 7 a.m. first to Mua Cave, then Trang An, then Hua Lu, then Bai Dinh Pagoda,” he says, while making a sketch on paper.
“How about credit card, do you accept credit card?”
“Car will be here 6:30 a.m. You leave 7 a.m.”
“Oh, the car.” Not card, but car. Different names, same thing. Different things, same names. I give up.
“You want breakfast?”
So much for the credit card then. And that means it’s time for some serious (re)calculation.
Anyway, I’m glad we took the couple’s advice to book an SUV through them, leave early, and visit the sights they suggested. It saved us money. Ninh Binh is breathtaking and we wanted to stay longer (we had great bread-and-breakfast hosts).
We checked out at noon the next day. For the overnight stay at the hotel, whole-day car rental, and lunch and dinner with all that habit-forming strawberry milk tea and excellent drip coffee, we only paid 2.145 million dong. Cash.
The five of us walked back to Ninh Binh Station, our hearts and stomachs full, and bought tickets for the train to Hanoi. Our Vietnam journey by rail was about to end. The train left shortly before 2 p.m. and we’re in Hanoi exactly two hours later. “Tàu đã đến!” The train has arrived!
In all, we spent roughly 32 hours for three days and two nights on three separate trains along 1,714 kilometers of railroad to visit three major cities, see their numerous natural and man-made heritage sites, and experience a unique but vibrant culture. And although we had shared experiences, the kids, with their gaps in age, saw the train rides through different lenses.
Arwen sums it up with one image that struck her the most: the sea of motorists and their motorcyles waiting at the crossing. “We normally see the world from outside, but when viewed from another perspective like inside the train, it is so different,” she muses. “When I saw, even for a fleeting moment, all those people at the crossing and the light shone on each one of them all the way to the farthest end of the road, I thought the sight was amazing.”
And if you come to think of it, these motorists are interconnected with everyone else in a vast network of roads, waterways and tracks that are ultimately linked to the emerging country’s underutilized spine. And yet the significance of the railway that connects Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi goes beyond the economic.
I am yet again reminded of another movie with the train as a storytelling device. Though a zombie apocalypse movie, “Train to Busan” isn’t just a one-track, one-dimensional flick. Like “Snowpiercer,” Yeon Sang-ho’s “Train to Busan” utilizes the train as a metaphor for social class divisions. But Busan has a more poignant layer it touched on: the division between North and South Korea that still cuts deep to this day.
In the film, a zombie outbreak further “divides” South Korea into north (an infected Seoul) and south (a secured Busan). In one telling scene, elderly family members are forcibly separated into different carriages, a subtle reference to the division of Korea after World War II. To this day, the reunification of North and South offer both dream and nightmare scenarios, a divisive theme that “Train to Busan” carried deftly to a broader audience.
Vietnam could easily have gone down Korea’s way. It actually did for 11 years from 1954 to 1965 when the country was divided into two, with the boundary on the 17th parallel just above the Hai Van Pass. But history favored a unified Vietnam that is now opening itself up to the world. And there we went, family of five, on these (Super) Reunification Express trains along the Đường Sắt Bắc–Nam that connects all of Vietnam, catching glimpses of an undivided, iron-willed country that’s moving with purpose on the right track.