Travelling the entire length of Vietnam – over 1000 miles of it – by local train, with the entire family in tow, may sound a daunting prospect. But it needn’t be. In fact, it could well be one of the greatest and most rewarding travel experiences of your shared lives. Certainly for us – my family (including 7-year-old son), my brother’s family (including 6- and 5-year-old daughters) and our mother (in her late 70s) – it was, in every sense, an extended family adventure that will stay with us forever.

the i-escape blog / Great journeys: Vietnam by train / Vietnamese train

Water puppet shows in Hanoi, boat trips and imperial palaces at Hue, lantern-lit processions in Hoi An, making palm frond bracelets with local children at Tam Hai, wave dodging and sandcastling on Nha Trang beach: our memories are as varied as they are spectacular. And if you’re worried about the exotic food, relax: our kids took to spring rolls and pork pancakes, not to mention macaroons and mango sorbet, like proverbial ducks to hoisin sauce.

the i-escape blog / Great journeys: Vietnam by train / Palm frond bracelets

The so-called Reunification Express runs almost the entire length of Vietnam, linking the once divided country in both a symbolic and practical way. It took more than 40 years to build and, while it may now be out-sped by domestic flights and motorways, the train route peels back the country’s slow charm in a way no other transport can. Rattling between paddy fields and a rugged coastline, squeezing past village houses whose balconies practically brush your window, or chatting to Vietnamese families over noodles and meatballs in the dining car, the experience is as charming and timeless as they come.

the i-escape blog / Great journeys: Vietnam by train / photo by Benjamin Vander Steen

We started in Hanoi and, over the course of 3 weeks, worked our way south to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), making 5 stops along the way. You can shorten it – skip Saigon and fly out of Nha Trang, for example – or you could do it in the other direction. But don’t rush.

the i-escape blog / Great journeys: vietnam by train / Hanoi hatseller

Hanoi is a great starting point, because you can settle in for a few days and enjoy some excursions while you acclimatise: a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda by punt and then cable car, or an overnight cruise to the iconic seascapes of Halong Bay (best for older kids; we recommend Cruise Halong). Base yourselves at Hotel La Siesta or, as a treat, at the Metropole (which has a pool); both are well placed in the Old Quarter. Do watch out, though, for the swarms of motorbikes which pour down the city’s chaotic roads.

the i-escape blog / Great journeys: Vietnam by train / Boat trip to perfume pagoda

When you’re ready, take the overnight train (book in advance) to the imperial city of Hue. The 4-berth ‘soft sleepers’ may not be haute luxe – mattresses are somewhat firm and narrow – but it’s an enchanting way to set off into the unknown, and our children lapped it up (and slept like logs). Once in Hue, book yourselves into La Residence: you’ll be glad of the spoiling bedrooms, the huge pool and, above all, the outstanding cuisine. And book an experienced guide who understands children’s attention spans. Ours, arranged through EXO travel, put together a brilliant tour combining a boat trip to the Temple of Literature, a cycle rickshaw tour around the Imperial City, and a minibus to the Royal Tomb of Tu Duc.

the i-escape blog / Great journeys: vietnam by train / La Residence Hue hotel and spathe i-escape blog / Great journeys: vietnam by train / Rickshaw tour

Continuing south, a morning’s train journey along the forested coastline brings you to Danang, from where it’s a short drive to the picturesque, if slightly touristy, riverside town of Hoi An. Highlights for us included exploring its lively fish and food markets, buying (and designing our own) colourful shoes, and watching the streets come alive with lanterns at sunset. If you want to escape the crowds, then jump off the train at the tiny station of Tam Ky and head to the lovely, laidback island hideaway of Tam Hai. You may well be the only foreigners – possibly the only guests – but service and cuisine are still a delight, and it’s very affordable too.

From Hoi An to Nha Trang, you pass through the least developed stretch of Vietnamese coastline – which includes some of our favourite spots. A highlight for us was a stay at the incredible Bai San Ho beach resort, near the town (and station) of Qui Nhon. Here, you’re surrounded by empty sandy beaches and traditional over-water fishing hamlets, where locals still use circular ‘coracle’ boats to head over the warm surf and out to sea. Our children loved canoeing, paddle-boarding, splashing in the surf and the private pools; we relished the delicious and bountiful seafood cuisine, and the unspoiled views over pine woods and azure seas.

From here, continue –  again we recommend the night train to minimise Boredom-on-Board – to the lively beach resort of Nha Trang. There’s no shortage of hotels, restaurants, shops, pagodas and beach bars; nor, it must be said, of tourists enjoying them. We recommend staying a short shuttle ride outside town, at Mia Resort, set on its own little beach with kayaks and paddleboards, pool and spa.

the i-escape blog / Great journeys: vietnam by train / Mia resort

We flew out from here, feeling no need for a second bustling metropolis; but if you want to complete the journey, a final overnight- or day-train brings you to Vietnam’s capital, Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City). Home to over 8 million people (and 7 million motorbikes), you can lessen the stress by staying at Villa Song, a short speedboat ride from the centre.

To book individual hotels directly, see all our Vietnam hotels.

For train information, see Seat 61.

To book this trip (hotels, train tickets and guides), ask our recommended Tailormade Tour Operator.

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the i-escape blog / Great journeys: vietnam by train / Vietnamese girl