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.
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 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.
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.
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.
When you’re ready, take the overnight train to Hue (book it in advance through 12GoAsia). 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.
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, designing our own colourful leather trainers, and watching the streets come alive with lanterns at sunset. Stay at La Siesta Resort, which has two pools and bicycles to borrow.
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.
Otherwise continue in one fell swoop – 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 Asian and Russian 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.
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.