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Board a train in Phnom Penh, and half a day later, you’ll be stepping off in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s time to jump borders again, something that is remarkably easy to do in this neck of the woods.
The capital of former South Vietnam, HCMC (or Saigon) has its own share of heavy history, but there have already been large doses of that, and it’s time to keep things light for a few days. Before the war broke out and the Americans arrived, Vietnam was a part of the French Empire – make the time to walk about the city to take in some of the gorgeous architecture that’s been left behind. Vietnam’s history deserves a little bit of delving into the War Remnants Museum is a good place to get a feel for it. The rail distance from Binh Thuan to Ho Chi Minh City is 146 kilometers (equals to 90 miles or 78 nautical miles). The average train travel time between Binh Thuan and Ho Chi Minh City is 3 hours and 14 minutes. THe Reunification Express runs between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh… (Benjamin Vander Steen )Reporting from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam a€” The voice was guttural and raspy, the language deep and tonal.
Ho Chi Minh City is a good place to do that, to – as the base of the American operations in the country. Everyone in Ho Chi Minh City gets around on two wheels, and the roads are always covered by a veritable swarm of motorbikes. Swing by the Notre Dame Cathedral, sitting pretty in a square, and when you’re done there; pay a visit to the airy post office across the way from it too.
It’s only natural to compare it with the other big memorial on this trip – but where Choeung Ek in Cambodia was about emotion, the museum here bombards you with imagery and text that tell stories of atrocities and suffering. The brand name stores lining the broad avenues are still busy, and people are getting ready to have a good time.
It has quite a bit of a city-slicker vibe left over, though not in a way that takes away from its innate charm. It’s rather unnerving at first, navigating your way across roads, and you’ll be the only one waiting if you’re looking for a break in the almost-constant traffic.


There’s also the Reunification Palace, once headquarters to the South Vietnamese government; it’s an imposing, grand structure that has been left untouched since the fall of Saigon. It’s a sobering, thought-provoking circuit, one that deserves the better part of an afternoon to do justice to.
Snag a table at the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel, an HCMC landmark, and get yourself a sundowner as you watch the neon-lit city prettifying itself for the night, with the Saigon River winding in the background. He wore a light blue apron over his blue button-down shirt and pushed a silver metal cart laden with cardboard packages of rice, scallions, sprouts and spring rolls. It’s a city that’s got neon lighting up the skyline and immaculately-dressed residents walking along its broad pavements, sitting check-by-jowl with tiny lanes crammed with traditional ‘pharmacies’ and quiet temples offering respite from the chaos outside.
Watch the locals get across a time or two – there’s no looking at the traffic involved, just a steady focus on the goal – and you’ll get the hang of it.
Behind him, a slender woman pushed a similar cart stocked with Bia Ba Ba Ba (333 Beer), thit kho bo (bagged beef jerky), shrimp chips and bottled water.
Outside our window, a tableau of steep emerald-green mountains whooshed by as the train chugged through rice paddies, swamps and villages.
They wore T-shirts sporting slogans in broken English and snacked on bowls of noodle soup as their eyes fixed on the car's several televisions, which showed translated versions of Discovery Channel's "MythBusters" and reels of comedy clips that resembled "America's Funniest Home Videos." This was not your usual train ride.
Two friends and I were on the Reunification Express, which crawls down Vietnam's long, magnificent coastline between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City, better known as Saigon, in the south, a distance of 1,072 miles.
We were in Hanoi for the summer, working at a media organization called VietNamNet and decided to take a week to explore the country we were temporarily calling home. We wanted to travel the Vietnamese way, so we set off for Ga Ha Noi, Hanoi's train station, to get our tickets. We soon learned that in Vietnam, one buys tickets the way Americans buy cold cuts at a deli.
When our number flashed, we asked our teller, "Chi co noi tieng Anh khong," or "Do you speak English?" She responded, "Yes," and we asked for a sleeper car to Nha Trang, a popular beach resort 800 miles down the coast.
Then came the bad news: Because it was the height of tourist season, all sleeper cars were already booked, so we grabbed an air-conditioned soft-seat car, something like an Amtrak car.


You can get tickets at the station in advance, or most hotels will be happy to book your ticket for you with a slight commission.) Our tickets cost us about $37. Without too much time off from work, we decided we would hit Nha Trang, said to be the most idyllic and popular beach destination in Vietnam, then move on to Ho Chi Minh City, eight hours to the southwest.
We left early the next afternoon on the SE5 train (southbound trains have odd numbers, northbound trains have even) and were quickly roaring through thick jungle and small towns with tin-roofed shacks, open cafes and crisp, new VinaPhone retailers, all built into Vietnam's wet, swampy terrain.
By nightfall we had reached Vinh, the first major city on the trip and the first place where we saw the turquoise waters and mossy cliffs the train would hug for the rest of the ride. Unfortunately, we traveled most of the coast by night, able to see the shimmering water and dramatic topography by only the moon and illuminated buoys. By late that night we had crossed the now-invisible border between the north and south and were coasting into Hue, a majestic, well-preserved city that saw heavy fighting during the Vietnam War (damaged areas have been rebuilt).
As we glided past limestone cliffs, my friend and I did our best to socialize with our neighbors, a family from a Hanoi suburb off to Nha Trang for a beach getaway.
As the only Westerners on the train, we drew some attention and friendly attempts to show us how to eat certain foods. Soon we were munching shrimp chips (not my favorite) and a cucumber-like fruit called oy, with a Vietnamese mother, her teenage son, two teenage daughters, and a young, mischievous son who poked me and grinned ecstatically.
I conversed in my shaky Vietnamese and gave the poking-grinning boy a Red Sox hat, which tickled the crowd. We made them paper airplanes with my friend's dollar-bill stationery, drawing a frenzy of riders who grabbed at what they soon discovered was just paper. We were big hits, as the family a€” who became our friends a€” invited us to dine with them in Nha Trang and suggested that we should marry their daughters.



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