I’m a big fan of trains, and was looking forward to ambling up the coast by train. Trains are a good way to see the country generally speakng, and that holds true for Vietnam. There is, however, a but, and it was one that had me travelling by air or by bus. The state of the trains is one thing, but it is the state of the track that is the problem.
One aspect common to all trains was the quality of the service, which was excellent. The food trolleys passed up and down the train at regular intervals, all carrying savoury soups, rice dishes, tofu and meat dishes, plus fruit. You don’t need to bring your own meals in Vietnam Railways. Prices are more than reasonable, too.
The first train I took was SE6 from hcm to Nha Trang. The air-conditioned soft class was fine, though did not appear to be one of the refurbished ones promised
by the man in seat 61. It was faded round the edges, but comfortable enough when stopped. The problem was the bucking bronco effect that lasted the 7 hours. The line is a single narrow-gauge one, which might exacerbate the problem, but those who suffer from sea-sickness should take to the air.
The second was the SE4 to Quong
Ngai. This did seem to be a reconditioned carriage, but was again a little tatty round the edges. It did have USB ports in every seat, but they weren’t working. Again, there was the bucking bronco effect, though it did smooth out aftera couple of hours. The train does pass through some pretty countryside, and worth it for that.
The third, SE2, had not been refurbished, as the photos show. I liked its memories of the seventies, but it was frankly dirty. A lot smoother, but grubby would be my summary, and less than ideal for longer trips.
However, you can easily forget all that if you take one of the day trains from Da Nang to Hué. It isn’t a long journey, though it does take around three hours. The reason is simple. The scenery is stunning. Shortly after leaving Da Nang, the railway follows the coast and begins to climb. It snakes around the cliffs until it reaches about three or four hundred metres, all the while following the track carved into the cliff. The views are stunning as the coast drops away beneath your feet, especially where the drops are sheer. At several points you see the train in front ( I was at the back) above or below you, as it winds around the steep bends that only narrow gauge railways can tackle. It is some feat of engineering, this section. It was this range of hills, by the way, that prompted the French to abandon their attempts to March on Hué, then the seat of government, and instead move down South to Saigon, where the river was navigable and the terrain flat.
I was perhaps the only person on the train who didn’t know what was in store for us. Having found my seat, moved to another where the seat in front hadn’t jammed in down position thus preventing access, I arranged my pack as a pillow and fell into a dreamless sleep. I was awoken by a lady gently shaking my shoulder.
” Sorry, I can see you’re really tired, but have a look out the view. ”
Too weary to do anything acquiesce, I did, and snapped awake. I have to say I owe that lady a lot. I spent the next 45 minutes glued to the window. I haven’t a great head for heights, but some sights eclipse minor problems like that. The great camera disaster had happened so I have no pictures, but the memory hasn’t begun to fade yet.