If you’re looking for the most memorable way to travel in Central Vietnam you couldn’t choose a more spectacular and local journey than the coast-clinging train route between Da Nang and Hue. Hugging the Hai Van Pass on one side and winding across the rugged cliffs overlooking the East Sea, this four-hour journey not only offers one of the quickest routes between the two cities, but gives you a chance to rub shoulders with the locals and sample some pretty good tucker along the way.
What Paul Theroux wrote of his journey along this route in his Great Railway Bazaar still stands:
” ‘No one knows it,’ said Cobra Two. No one in the States has the slightest idea how beautiful it is. Look at that — God, look at that!’
We were at the fringes of a bay that was green and sparkling in bright sunlight. Beyond the leaping jade plates of the sea was an overhang of cliffs and the sight of a valley so large it contained sun, smoke, rain and cloud — all at once — independent quantities of colour. I had been unprepared for this beauty; it surprised and humbled me in the same degree the emptiness had in India. Who has mentioned the simple fact that the heights of Vietnam are places of unimaginable grandeur? Though we can hardly blame a frightened draftee for not noticing this magnificence, we should have known all along that the French would not have colonized it, nor would the Americans have fought so long, if such ripeness did not invite the eye to take it.”
Four fast and direct trains run this single track route daily, the SE 1 and SE3 travelling south and the SE2 and SE4 running north. With prices fluctuating wildly — depending on how many seats are available — it’s a good idea to try to book at least a couple of days in advance. The easiest way to do this is through your hotel or a local tour company — the extra couple of dollars commission payable saves a lot of expense and bother involved in going to the station to book your own. If you prefer to take your time, you can alternatively catch a slow train, which can take anything up to six hours from door to door.
When booking, you will be presented with a choice of soft or hard seats. If you want to ride with the fun crowd, choose yourself a hard seat and expect a whole lot of competitive beer drinking, a fair amount of smoking and a hell of a lot of camaraderie.
If the thought of that turns you off, then go soft: these air-con soft-seated compartments will give you the peace and comfort to sit back and enjoy the view while at the same time allowing you to dip in and out of the rabble in the hard-seated restaurant. Soft isn’t a bad option if you value your liver, lungs and buttocks. If you are heading south from Hue, book window seats to the left of the train, and right if heading north from Da Nang for the best views. If these seats are not available though, the beauty of travelling by train is that you can wander in and out of the restaurant carriage and get the best views of all by flinging open the window.
If food and drink are high up in your list of priorities, both stations are crawling with street food vendors; a trolley will also pass by your seat every 10 minutes. You can also pre-order a hot lunch from your seat: chicken, rice and a plastic bag of soup for 30,000 VND.
After years of camping in her back garden in the New Forest, Caroline Mills’ parents went wild and jetted her off to Morocco where her dream of becoming a traveling belly dancer was born.