Officially this train was called the S4, but everybody referred to it as the Ho Chi Minh Express or the Reunification Express. This is one of several trains that run daily from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, by way of Biên Hòa, Xuan Loc, Nha Trang and lots of other places along the coast or just a short ways inland.
The distance from Da Nang to Hanoi is 791 kilometers (about 491 miles). When I took this train in 1995 it took all night and all day, arriving in Hanoi several hours behind schedule at 16:00, that is four o’clock in the afternoon.
This was my least comfortable train trip in Vietnam, because the bunks were all sold out so I booked a “soft seat”, which turned out to be sort of a garden chair with a canvas back stretched across a metal frame. Unfortunately the metal frame was just big enough for the average Vietnamese traveler but much too small for a Westerner, so I had parts of the frame jabbing into my back no matter how I tried to sit.
At that time Vietnam still had a dual pricing system in which foreigners paid much higher prices than Vietnamese for the same journey, but I have read that this system was abolished in 2002, so now everyone pays the cheaper Vietnamese fares. Also I’m told that the Vietnamese trains have been very much upgraded in the past fifteen years, so the seating is more comfortable in all classes than it used to be.
Just being in Hanoi in 1995 was a totally exotic experience for me, since back in the 1960s when I was an American soldier it was the last place in the world I could have gone.
The American air force was bombing Hanoi constantly back then, and the only Americans in Hanoi were bomber pilots who had been shot down and were kept in an old prison complex in the center of Hanoi that had been built by the French in the nineteenth century to hold political prisoners. The official name was Hoa Lo Prison but the Americans called it the Hanoi Hilton.
In 1995 most of the old prison buildings still existed, and I rode past them several times on my rented bicycle. I understand that since then most of the prison complex has been torn down to make room for a new high-rise building, but a small part still remains and is used as a museum.
By the way, there now really is a Hilton hotel in Hanoi (built in 1999, evidently), but in hopes of avoiding confusion they have named it the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, not the Hanoi Hilton.
When I was in Hanoi in 1995 I stayed for three nights at the Hotel Huong Giang at 44 Le Dwon Street. I don’t remember much about this hotel, except that it was small and the people were very friendly. They were the ones who rented me the bicycle, which was rather small for me but otherwise fine.
One of the places I rode to on my bicycle was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where I stood in a long line of people, mostly Vietnamese, and walked solemnly through under the severe observation of numerous uniformed guards to have a look at the small embalmed corpse of Vietnam’s revolutionary leader and later prime minister and then president.
This was a strange experience, especially since Ho himself had rejected this sort of personality cult and had asked to be cremated.
Besides the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, I also went to the history museum, the Lenin Park and the Temple of Literature, and rode my bicycle out to the Long Bien Bridge on the outskirts of Hanoi.
Also I went to see a water puppet show at the Hong Ha Theatre at 51 Duong Thanh, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. The Hong Ha is an older theater which in 1995 was still the main venue for the popular water puppetry shows.
Since then a modern new theater for the water puppet shows has been built, and the Hong Ha Theatre is now the home of the Vietnam National Tuong Theatre, which is devoted to preserving and performing classical Vietnamese “Tuong” operas. I have never seen a live performance of “Tuong” opera, but I used to listen to them on the radio sometimes, as mentioned in my post Tân Ba 1965.
After three days in Hanoi I took an overnight train, the S3, from Hanoi to Hué. Again I could only reserve an uncomfortable “soft seat”, but I slept much better this time because a member of the train crew offered me the use of his bunk for a small fee.
Evidently this was something the train crews did routinely to earn a bit of extra money.
Thanks to my son Nick for the photos from 1995. I revised the text in 2017.
Next: Cycling around Hué, 1995