In 1881 construction started on the 70km railway line from Saigon to My Tho. Completed in July 1885, the rail network was gradually expanded to the whole country. During the war, the country’s railways were heavily damaged and it was only in 1986 that Vietnam was able to restore its main railway lines and stations.
Today’s network is better and faster than it was 10 years ago. If in the past it took two days to travel from Thanh Hoa to Saigon, now it only takes one-and-a-half. Train travel is affordable and offers attractive scenery from the comfort of an air-conditioned environment, and new services like the commuter service from Saigon to Bien Hoa have sprung up. Tickets can even be booked online. However, the most interesting aspect of train travel is the human cargo it carries.
On the train from Saigon Station in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 3 to Bien Hoa and back, these are some of the people I met.
Destination: Thanh Hoa
“I am taking [my son] home to leave him with my mother. [I and my husband] have been here six years and are both factory workers, and busy and not able to take good care of him. He’s skinny, isn’t he? It’s better to leave him with my mother.”
Destination: Quang Ngai
“My eyes have a problem so I had to go to Saigon. It was not a one-time treatment, though. I had to go back and forth many times. But this time was the last treatment. I am going home for good. I stayed at a family place in Saigon for a week. Everything in Saigon is expensive. Good to be back home.”
“I used to work in Saigon, sometimes as a worker, sometimes as a delivery guy. But then I came back to live at home, as my mother wanted. I am going home after having my stomach checked by the doctors. Not sure when the treatment will end.”
Departure: Bien Hoa
“I’m from Bien Hoa and married to a Saigonese man. I come to Bien Hoa three or four times a week to visit my family. I travel by train because my husband’s house is next to the train station. Plus, it’s quicker than by bus. The train normally just takes 40 minutes to get back home, while buses require around 1.5 hours.”
Departure: Quang Binh
“I used to work at a clothing company in District 12 in Ho Chi Minh City. Then they moved to Binh Duong and I couldn’t follow them. Plus, the salary was not that high and sometimes we had to work overtime. So I quit, but they didn’t pay me the final salary due and other insurance fees. I am coming back to Saigon to collect what I’m owed.”
Train station: Bien Hoa
“I am waiting for my mother to come back from Thanh Hoa. She’s 84 years old and is travelling alone. I didn’t have the time to go with her and she wanted to visit her family. The trip started at 9am yesterday and the train is supposed to be here at 3.30pm today. This train trip used to take longer, two days and two nights, it’s faster now.
“I don’t want her to travel by plane. It’s so complicated and I don’t want her to get lost. I came to Bien Hoa from Thanh Hoa in 1990 and decided to settle down here. I asked my mother to move in with me many times. Eventually, she did.”
Departure: Thanh Hoa
“I am visiting my nephew who is working in the army in Saigon. I come to Saigon once every year, as I only can afford that. Life in Saigon is fun but everything is expensive. You know? I’m a farmer, and agriculture is dying now.”
“My whole family live in Saigon but my wife and I went to Hue to visit relatives and for a holiday. Our ancestor house is in Hue and it’s looked after by my younger sister. It was a boring trip as it was raining a lot in Hue. We used to go to America before. I bought this hat there. It was US$56. Cheap?”
The Saigon to Bien Hoa Train
Saigon to Bien Hoa trains run every day. Depending on the type of seat and train, the fare costs between VND26,000 and VND34,000. The trip takes 40 minutes. Visit dsvn.vn for the full schedule and online tickets.