“Let’s take the Reunification Express from Saigon to Hanoi!”
“How far is that?”
(Long pause. Google maps search.)
It sounded like a crazy idea at first. The Reunification Express. An old train, slowly making its way through mountains and rice paddies and along amazing cliffs, revealing hidden beaches. Romantic maybe, but crazy. Even more so when we saw pictures of the third class trains (they really are just wooden benches). But as we planned our three month trip through South East Asia, it soon became clear that the Reunification Express, the long Vietnam train line from Saigon to Hanoi (officially the North-South Railway), would form a big part of the Vietnam leg of our trip, and we would plan our weeks in Vietnam based on train travel.
We researched the route, the different Vietnam trains and the stops along the route. We knew we wouldn’t want to rush this, three to four weeks for the trip sounded like the perfect time, and a train sounded like the perfect way to travel. We’d be traveling on buses in Cambodia the weeks before, and a change sounded like a good idea, especially considering the comments we’d heard from other travelers about Vietnamese bus drivers.
We planned our route ahead of time: Saigon – Binh Thuan (for Mui Ne) – Nha Trang – Da Nang (with a detour to Hoi An by bus) – Hué – Hanoi. We picked out hotels and guest houses on the way and booked them ahead. This is something that most long term travelers don’t do, but if I go on a 2-3 month trip, I prefer to book ahead. Always with free cancellation in case my plans change, but booking ahead means I can enjoy my trip and don’t need to spend my travel time on research.
Going to Saigon? Check out my Saigon food guide for inspiration and street food ideas!
Vietnam Train Tickets: Getting tickets for the Reunification Express
As for Vietnam train tickets, we considered booking those ahead as well, but decided to go to the train station directly as we had a few days in Saigon and pick up our tickets there. Firstly, because we were slightly confused about the options for Mui Ne, and secondly, because we wanted to make absolutely sure we had genuine tickets. If you want to book ahead, check out the Seat61 website which has plenty of information on the journey in general and on booking tickets.
There’s no train station in Mui Ne, so your options, if you want to do this journey, are the trains to Phan Thiết or Binh Thuan. It’s easier to get to Mui Ne from Phan Thiết, the caveat is that the train to Phan Thiết leaves Saigon at 6.50 in the morning. I hate getting up early, so we opted for the 12.20 train to Binh Thuan and arranged a pick up service with our hotel in Mui Ne as there are no buses from Binh Thuan to Mui Ne to my knowledge.
The train station in Saigon, slightly hidden in a random street. Walk through the parking lot and into the building, you’ll find the trains behind it.
The ticket counter inside the train station: We found various ticket counters, but the one that was happy to sell us a ticket to Binh Thuan was the one in the middle of the station on the ground level, you’ll see this right as you enter the station. They also spoke a bit of English here, which was not the case at all train stations. My recommendation: Write your route, date, time, number of tickets etc. on a piece of paper or on a note on your phone. I always came prepared with a note and they seemed to appreciate it. We always ended up with the correct tickets!
One of the trains leaving Saigon station
Need a Vietnam visa? Check out my 2016 guide to getting a Vietnam visa!
The different classes on the Reunification Express trains
When the Vietnamese say “Hard Seat”, they mean hard! The cheapest tickets for these trains are literally just seats on wooden benches. Curiously, the locals chose to either travel on Hard Seats with fans – no aircon – or go for full comfort. The middle way of hard seat with air con was very unpopular, the carriage was completely empty.
…And this is what we ended up traveling in, the “Soft Seat Air Con” class, according to our ticket. While the train was clearly past its prime, these were actually pretty comfortable and roomy, not a bad way to travel at all. One downside of these though: the windows don’t open, and they probably get cleaned quite infrequently, so if you’re hoping to do some travel photography on the way, this may not be your top choice. Those windows are the reason there are no scenery pictures in this post!
Looking for Vietnam travel inspiration? Check out these 5 Things to do in Vietnam for Adventurous Travelers.
If your ticket looks like this, you should get to your destination without problems! If you want a souvenir, take a picture of your ticket before getting off the train, as you’ll have to hand it over when you leave the train station.
Made it! Binh Thuan Train Station.
Our beautiful destination: Sunset over Mui Ne harbor.
So this was leg 1 of our big tour – more to come. Have you traveled on the Reunification Express? What did you think?
More on Vietnam
I loved Vietnam! Check out the Vietnam archives for my favorite experiences there, including the best street food to have in Saigon or Mui Ne’s amazing soups.