Vietnam Railroad Travel – Saigon to Hanoi in 1994 on the Transindochinois

by Dwight

Here is an article from 1994 shortly after diplomatic relations were “normalized” by the US and Vietnam. Please note the airfare compared to today.

On Different Tracks : TALES FROM TWO TRAINS THROUGH SOUTHEAST ASIA : From Saigon to Hanoi, Getting to Know Ordinary Vietnamese People on the Old Transindochinois Local

May 08, 1994|TREVOR HOLDEN STUTELY | Stutely is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, Calif. and

The Transindochinois continued north, for miles, for hours and for what seemed like days. The view from the window became so monotonously drab that we, the passengers, became theater. Walking the passageway, I discreetly peered into each compartment and found people doing what boredom demands–eating, sleeping, playing cards, reading novels. Afternoon became evening and the twilight lingered, longer now at this higher latitude. And around 10 that night, the train ambled into Dong Ha, where the soup vendors were waiting and the tableaux of commerce was played out once more. Thirty minutes later, we were in motion again on the longest leg of our journey–seven full hours to the provincial capital of Vinh. Sleep came mercifully.

 

The morning of the third day was greeted with rice and eggs, sizzling on the carriage attendant’s oil stoves in the passageway outside the compartment. With a steaming cup of cafe sua , I peered into the gray dawn and saw Vinh disappear in the dust of its poor soil and harsh climate. I imagined I hadn’t missed much. The capital of Vietnam’s most populous province has never really recovered from the bombing it received in the Franco-Viet Minh War. It is now just a traveler’s stop on the way to Hanoi. It did, however, mark the beginning of the closing stages of my journey. Hanoi was now about eight hours distant; a scant 155 miles. As we forged onward, the bomb craters that dotted many of the bridges and railheads along the Transindochinois, became more numerous. In the brown waters that now filled them, women washed their clothes while their children splashed and frolicked. And on the highway that had kept us company for much of this journey, two men rode a bicycle, each with a foot upon a pedal, both sharing the burden of forward progress.

Pushing into the Red River delta, the fields, by degree, became greener; and across the flat plain, the timeless picture of agriculture was painted once again. A cantilevered bridge held sway across the river, and through its rusting stanchions, Hanoi flickered into view. The French had once thought this city to be the most elegant in the East. And as we approached, it wasn’t hard to imagine that beneath the grease and grime of the shuttered architecture, the colonial jewel still lurked, waiting only for a good sweep and a fresh coat of paint.

The wheels of the Transindochinois clattered in to Hanoi’s rail terminal about 3 that afternoon. As the passengers emptied into the bowels of the station, I was struck by that special melancholy of travelers, when so many half-told stories are left at stations along the way. It was the end of the line.

But Hanoi was the perfect place to end this adventure. I had come looking for the soul of Vietnam, and found its humanity everywhere. Like the city in which I now found myself, all it took was to scratch beneath the surface.

GUIDEBOOK

The Vietnam File

Getting there: Since President Clinton lifted the trade embargo earlier this year, travel to Vietnam has become less complicated and more affordable. But since formal diplomatic relations with Vietnam have yet to be established, no U.S. airlines offer regular passenger flights there. So for the time being, getting from LAX to Ho Chi Minh City is still a two-stop undertaking. The most economical, hassle-free connections are through Singapore (Singapore Airlines) or Taipei (Singapore Airlines, China Airlines or Eva Airways), with round-trip fares currently running $1,100-$1,200.

Visas: Americans traveling to Vietnam need a passport and a visa. The easiest way to get the latter is through a tour operator (if you are using one for other arrangements) or through a visa service such as Zierer, with offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.; telephone (800) 843-9151 or (800) 421-6706. Allow a month for processing.

Tour companies: A handful of companies have experience in arranging all-inclusive tours to Vietnam–providing the necessary paperwork, visas, and comprehensive travel and tour arrangements covering your stay, including accommodations and guides. Among those on the West Coast are: Asian Pacific Adventures, 826 Sierra Bonita Ave., Los Angeles 90036, tel. (213) 935-3156; Travcoa, P.O. Box 2630, Newport Beach 92658, tel. (800) 992-2004, and InnerAsia Expeditions, 2627 Lombard St., San Francisco 94123, tel. (800) 777-8183 or (415) 922-0448.

Self-booking: The more adventurous may prefer to make less-structured (and cheaper) arrangements. For my trip, I pre-purchased a limited stop-over package (three nights’ accommodations in Ho Chi Minh City, two nights in Hanoi and all visa arrangements) for $660 from Adventures in Paradise (now doing business as Absolute Asia), 155 West 68th St., Suite 525, New York 10023; tel. (800) 736-8187. I booked airline reservations through a travel agent. The remainder of my three-week trip (including train journey, $80 one way) was arranged after arrival in Vietnam with OSCAN, the competent and highly accommodating government tourist agency. Their offices in Ho Chi Minh City are at 2D Pham Ngoc Thach St., near the Catholic cathedral; from the United States, tel. 011-84-8-231-022, or fax 011-84-8-231-024.

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