As the world dials back on the meaning of holidays after a long hiatus, slow travel is emerging as a beguiling option. It makes for languid discoveries - all the better to see more with - and has the wonderful effect of bringing respite as the world reverts to the frenetic pace of pre-pandemic times. Slow travel isn’t about the destination, but like the old adage emphasises - it’s all about the journey.
Taking this seriously is The Vietage - a luxurious railway experience to explore central Vietnam’s scenic landscape in the most opulent way. The lovingly refurbished 12-seater carriage, attached to the Reunification Express that runs from Ho Chi Minh City Saigon to Hanoi (and back), was first designed for Anantara guests moving between its resorts in Hoi An and Quy Nhon. The train is currently open to all guests.
Launched in 2000, the project met with hiccups when the global pandemic rolled across to the country, and the service had to pause. It resumed operations in April 2022, and remains a Vietnam attraction only a select few have heard about.
Clad in woven rattan and soft upholstery, The Vietage is a plush invite for those seeking such slow escapes - particularly if you’re looking for unique things to do in Vietnam.
It takes you on a six-hour ride through the central landscapes of Vietnam, passing provinces like Quang Nam and Quang Ngai before reaching the coastal city of Quy Nhon in Binh Dinh. Along the way, you will see breathtaking scenes of paddy fields, lotus lakes and long mountains, interrupted by small pockets of township where locals buzz through on their motorbikes. This languid journey turns out the best of romantic train travel with its local vignettes, and makes for a quintessential picturesque chapter in one’s Vietnam itinerary.
Boasting a thoughtfully-planned journey with curated experiences on board, the luxury train felt every bit that way when I was on board. From a dedicated staff meeting you at the station to bring you onboard to small service touches like welcome drinks and pastries, every segment of the rail journey felt thoughtfully catered to.
This butler-like approach was a treat at the Danang station but became more necessary at Quy Nhon for the return trip, when the station lacked English signs and announcements for non-Vietnamese-speaking travellers. But more importantly, while I never felt a lack of assistance during the six hours, at no point was the attention so overbearing as to make it burdensome - a true mark of intuitive service.
I was ushered to my assigned seat after boarding. The configurations were in six pairs - three pairs on each side of the cabin with generous individual seats facing each other. With a small table between the two passengers, it made the seating far enough to give strangers some distance but also able to give couples and friends some intimacy. The woven rattan screens accorded extra privacy between passengers. Below each seat is an amenity kit. Within it were a blanket, neck pillow, slippers, eye masks and even a small freshening up kit.
At the heart of the cabin is the bar, which most guests will be happy to know, includes a free flow of crafted beverages. While meals will be served at your seat, drinks can be had at both places, and the bar is a spot great for socialising or chatting with the friendly staff.
Separately on the return trip, I had the pleasure of speaking with Tien and Thao - both of whom were happy to share more about the passing provinces as well as their personal experiences. Even as you sip on your drinks or banter with your companions, you won’t have to worry about missing out on the scenery, as windows run through the entire length of the space. And imagine my surprise that within this gentle rolling vehicle, I discovered some of the best cocktails in Vietnam. Between watching the staff lovingly muddle and finesse the creations, and sipping the delicious complex flavours with the scenes trundling by, one really couldn’t ask for more.
At other times, I would be at my seat having the specially-prepared meals. Cooked by the resort chefs and prepared on the train, the delicious three-course menu featured local ingredients for an extra connection with the terroir.
Picking out drinks from the specialty menu was the hardest, given how extensive the selection was - one that featured international and local flavours. Find regional beers, wines and some bubbly, along with a tea and coffee menu that can put any cafe to shame. The Cafe Tonic here was a game changer for me.
And just when you think things can’t get any better, there’s a 30-minute massage waiting for you at a time slot of your choosing. Just past the bar and before the connection to the rest of the train, the therapy room is manned by your onboard masseur. Sink into the upright massage chair, close your eyes, and let the rocking cabin and your therapist lull you into deep relaxation.
At the ticket price of USD$350 (approx SGD$500) one way, The Vietage experience can be said to be a steal compared to other luxury rail operators. It presents itself as a scenic way to enjoy the lesser known regions of Vietnam in the most idyllic of ways, as one luxuriates into the countryside with the inclusive three-course dining, free flow of wines, cocktails and beverages, a relaxing massage and other small surprises - I won’t spoil it for you here. If six hours sounds long in most other instances, it was hardly enough for this ride through Vietnam’s scenery. Even on the return ride in the evening where I reasoned the missing views would make the journey less engaging, my conversations with the staff rewarded me with a storied experience still.
While Vietnam might not be known for its rail experience - the Reunification Express being almost a century old and having seen little improvements - the designers of The Vietage at Anantara have created something the country can be proud of. The unparalleled luxury on this train ride looks set to change minds about Vietnam train travel in the beautiful country.
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