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677: The Little Island
Escape the late-winter blues with a tropical blast from the past
675: Scenic Spirituality
Commune with religion and nature in an ancient land
673: Aoni Onsen
Return to a forgotten time at one of Honshu’s most remote getaways
671: The Golden Rock
One of Burma’s many splendid attractions hangs by a hair
669: Hida Takayama
For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama
665: Okayama
A serene stroll through history awaits at this seaside retreat
663: Cruising the Bay
Ha Long Bay offers a breath of calm away from Vietnam’s urban rush
661: Agamachi
Fox fires and bar codes help a rural Niigata town reinvent itself
535: Hotel California
Mark Parren Taylor kicks up the desert dust in Palm Springs, the perennial Hollywood star retreat.
531: Race through time
The Xterra Saipan triathlon journeys through tropical jungle, up steep mountain paths and across the sands of history. Tama M. Lung joins the chase.
527: Bohemian rhapsody
No visit to Paris would be complete without taking in the Montmartre district. Bon vivant Simon Rowe dusts off his French to go exploring.
523: Slow Motion
Mark Parren Taylor touches down in the timeless former seaport of Lukang, Taiwan.
519: Rock of ages
From ancient times to the present, Gibraltar has always been an island of legends. Stephen Mansfield sifts through its history.
515: Go west, young man
Simon Rowe takes in the big skies and dust trails of Western Australia's East Kimberley region.
511: All mixed up
Mark Parren Taylor makes land on Macau and finds an enigmatic blend of cultures, cuisine and heated competition.
505: Earth, wind and fire
A historically imperiled town in Papua New Guinea holds the keys to a magical getaway. Carlo Niederberger splashes ashore.
501: Off the rails
Braving the 2,010 kilometers of Vietnam's Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is quite the adventure. Simon Rowe goes along for the ride.
493: Rites of passage
From firecrackers and cheek piercing to divinations and buffalo races, Thailand's most colorful customs come alive at two annual festivals. Mark Parren Taylor joins the crowds.
489: Paradise found
Beaches, battlefields and a colossal casino provide tropical pleasures on the Pacific isle of Tinian. Carlo Niederberger touches down.
485: Through the grapevine
Stephen Mansfield drinks up the delights of the Château Monbazillac in southwest France.
481: Pleasure island
Saipan awaits the young and young at heart with its pristine beaches, pointy peaks, and perfect amount of entertainment. Carlo Niederberger checks in.
477: Reservoir of dogs
Simon Rowe visits the Kingdom of Tonga, where storms burst without warning and wild canines rule the night.
473: Into the bat cave
Sarawak’s Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds on the brink of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to Simon Rowe.
469: A fork in the river
Laos’ ethnic minorities battle the forces of time. Stephen Mansfield goes upriver in search of them.
465: Action scene
Sick of the short, humid Japanese summer? Tired of the winter? In NZ it’s summertime and the living is easy, the food and drink inexpensive, and the evenings long and lazy. Mark Devlin heads south to explore and party.
457/458: In living color
Simon Rowe soaks in the glow of Samoa's kaleidoscopic streets.
454: From Jamaica with love
Michael McDonagh soaks up the atmosphere in James Bond's balmy birthplace
449: See worthy
Dan Grunebaum drops oar in the stunning caves of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay
445: Great heights
Simon Rowe packs his hiking boots and sets out for Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu
441: Split personality
There are few cities with such an exacting dividing line between past and present as Lijiang in China's southwestern province of Yunnan
438: Fierce creatures
Simon Rowe introduces us to the untamed charms of Australia's Kangaroo Island
434: Leap of Faith
Simon Rowe dives into a tropical island paradise of waterfalls, reefs and bush rugby on the Fijian archipelago
430: A week in Provence
Stephen Mansfield explores the historic festival city of Avignon, a medieval diamond in the south of France
426: Outer space
Surreal sites, lunar landscapes and UFO sightings go with the territory in Chile
422: The Big Easy
The Moorish streets of Granada, Spain are alive with a new Bohemian rhapsody
418: Small awakening
Japan's microbrewers
414: Fowl play
The animal kingdom comes alive in the Galapagos
410: The river of spirits
Wading through soulful waters in Varanasi, India
406: Heading north
Marching to the beat of a modern drum in North Korea
403: Santa's lap
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finland’s Lapland
399: Shanghaied
Seeking the past in China's megacity
395: Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatia’s phoenix city, Dubrovnik.
391: The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
387: Prague
World heritage site
383: South Africa
Land of hope
381: Hawaii
Pearl Harbor
377: Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
The river mild
367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
Memo from the Lower Mekong
360: Cuzco, Peru
Lost cities
357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
Mad about Madurai

ISSUES 349-   

Off the rails

Braving the 2,010 kilometers of Vietnam's Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is quite the adventure. Simon Rowe goes along for the ride.

Daybreak unfolds slowly over the Red River delta. Hours before the mist has lifted, the eerie glow of squid fishermen's lanterns drift through the haze from the river mouth and the South China Sea beyond. The sights and smells of the pre-dawn hours hang heavy with a mystery and timelessness that would be hard to appreciate from the economy class of a French-built Airbus or the cramped aisle of a fume-belching village mini-bus.


All aboard
For my fellow passengers on train NI201 bound for Hanoi, still dozing under a blissful veil of sleep, appreciation seems to extend only to the next passenger whose shoulder they are borrowing as a pillow. The rush of cool air through the iron-grill windows does little to stir their bedraggled souls. Only when glasses of cafe den (hot black coffee) arrive and the first breakfast cigarettes are ignited, do the bleary eyes begin to adjust to the early-morning spectacle outside.

Fifteen years ago, Vietnam's Reunification Express, or Thong Nhat, was little-known or largely ignored by tourists who generally preferred to base themselves in Ho Chi Minh City for a week or so of day trips south to the Mekong Delta. Back then, taking a train north was for intrepid travelers, determined anthropologists and the odd pen-for-hire from National Geographic magazine.

An aging fleet of diesel locomotives trundle along the country's only north-south trunk line

Braving the bone-rattling 2,010 kilometers of small gauge railway from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi these days is still an adventure, though you're more likely to be sharing it with aÊgarrulous Australian businessman, a returning American war veteran or a bleached-haired German backpacker, than a pajama-clad peasant farmer. An aging fleet of Polish and Czech-made diesel locomotives continue to ply the country's only north-south trunk line, and despite the unscheduled stops, occasional flood, typhoon and derailment due to stray buffalo, the system actually works.

Make no mistake, the 45-hour journey will test your mettle: the army-style rail meals, cramped seating and boozy all-night card games of your fellow passengers, not to mention the spontaneous cat fights between elderly female vendors which sometimes erupt at each station, can turn even the toughest old Asia hand into a delirious basket case. The chance to learn Vietnamese local-style while viewing some of Southeast Asia's most dramatic landscape, on the other hand, rate this as one of the most spectacular train journeys in Asia.

From the fetid and steaming streets of Ho Chi Minh City, we head north toward the coastal village of Nha Trang, a journey that takes 15 hours and cuts a swathe through the lush paddy lands of southern Vietnam. Crossing Khanh Hoa Province, we rumble on through sleepy fishing communities with their pastel-colored bungalows catching the first rays of sunlight as the incoming tide laps quietly at their doorsteps.


Home stretch
Nha Trang is comfortably more low-key than Ho Chi Minh and after the frenetic hubbub, its breezy, wide boulevards and surf-pounded beaches entice many foreigners to make a pit stop, straighten their bones, and soak up some sun for a few days. Out of Nha Trang the trunk line snakes north along the rocky coastline, crisscrossing jagged granite mountains by way of long, pitch-black tunnels. Above my head, a makeshift 25-watt bulb dangles from a bird's nest of electrical wire and serves as the sole source of light in the periods of momentary darkness. On through the salt-producing villages of Binh Dinh Province we trundle, crossing a vast patchwork of mirror-like salt pans rimmed by troupes of spindly-legged old men, which stretch seemingly to the horizon.

Worshippers gather at a temple in Cao Dai, not far from Ho Chi Minh City

At this point, breakfast suddenly appears-a plastic bowl of pho noodles with shredded pork loaf and a ladle of gritty broth-unceremoniously thrust before each passenger. I pass, opting for a glass of hot coffee sold by a young girl whose singsong voice seems to me the perfect advertisement.

With 524km under my belt since departing Nha Trang, I suddenly catch a glimpse of the sprawling, dusty suburbs of Danang. Its close proximity to the 13th-century port town of Hoi An to the south and the ancient ruins of the Cham civilizations to the west, still makes this none-too-pretty service town a popular base camp for tourists. Pulling into the Danang station, simply called "Ga," the quays instantly became a tangle of hot-headed humanity as teenage boys and round-bellied old women force their way aboard and hustle through the disembarking throngs to sell slices of green papaya, baguettes, hairy rambutans and steaming cups of refreshing jasmine tea to those heading onward.

The heady mixture of aromas, yelping kids and bickering vendors transform the carriage into a marketplace to rival any in Asia. Understanding my bemused expression, an elderly gentleman sitting opposite stubs out his long-extinguished cigarette, smiles and quips, "The Thong Nhat's never boring."

South of Danang, the port town of Hoi An features urban canals and ramshackle houses


Getting there
Many airlines, including JAL (tel: 03-5460-0511) and Vietnam Airlines (tel: 03-3508-1481), operate daily flights to Ho Chi Minh City from Tokyo. For information on tour companies and basic travel information, visit or

More information
Four trains depart Ho Chi Minh City's Saigon station between 9am and 10:30pm every day with stops at Nha Trang, Hue, Danang and Vinh before arriving at Hanoi. For the latest schedules (they change regularly), call or visit the Saigon Railways Tourist Service (Tel: 08-836-7640) in the Pham Ngu Lao area of Ho Chi Minh City.
Seat classes include hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, sleeper, air-con sleeper, and prices range from 370,000-796,000 dong (¥2,830-6,090). It's best to book at least one day in advance at one of the hotels, tour agencies or cafés that handle train ticket sales.

Photo credit: Simon Rowe