Well, we’ve probably had our most interesting train ride yet.
Travel infrastructure is still being developed in Vietnam and there is no perfect way of getting around. Roads are slow (rarely we’ve hit a maximum of 80 km/h) with buses taking a long time to get anywhere, and the train system feels ancient.
However to travel anywhere far, the only plausible option was to take overnight trains. This is mostly how we made our way south to north.
Our first train ride was a 12 hour ride overnight from Nha Trang (the coastal town our motorcycle ride finished in) to Hue (the former capital of Vietnam) in a 6-person sleeper car. This way all of us could bunk in a room together.
The look on everyone’s faces when the train first arrived was memorable. Everyone’s eyes bulged and jaws dropped as an ancient train squeaked its way into the station. Window shutters were crookedly hanging from the window sills and the colors were well faded. “Third class” came to view first – tiny fans blew at the masses of sweaty people crowded onto little wooden bench seats.
We on the otherhand boarded “first class”, walking into the wood panelled walls of a teeny tiny room, where 3 beds were stacked on top of one another on each wall. The steel beds had a tiny plastic mat and a set of worn blankets on each one. I felt like we were going to war in the 1960s.
We all laughed, cramming onto the bottom beds to gather around the table – which thankfully was full of the wine, beer, and numerous snacks we purchased to make this ride just a little bearable.
Funnily enough, after getting ourselves settled, this tiny space started to somehow feel cozy…
After lulling ourselves into a sleepy state with some drinks and the steady rock of the train, we each crawled onto our little cot, already sweaty (the little air conditioning fan couldn’t keep up with a room of 6 people), and a little giggly at the thought of our tiny little slumber party. When else do you get experiences like this?
The night was not what I would call restful, as we developed pressure sores against the minimal padding of the cot and train lurched to a stop at frequent points along the road. Occasionally a lady would stroll by the cabin doors, knocking loudly, in an attempt to sell some questionable soup or coffee.
Now you’d think that would be our worst train ride of them all. After all, 6 people in a tiny 3×2 m room might sound a little too cozy for comfort. Well that’s not quite true…
We were expecting our next train to be an upgrade, as we booked 4-person cabins which we figured would be roomier. However, this ride quickly outdid the first for a number of reasons:
- Our neighbor was a high American girl who would barge into our room frequently because she either lost her way to her room or wanted us to come party.
- Said American girl took frequent smoke breaks on the non-smoking train, hotboxing us with smoke in our tiny room.
- Three large bugs required exterminating prior to bedtime.
- Trien swears he saw a mouse. We still don’t know if we believe him.
- The bed sheets were used, requiring us to change our own, revealing what 30 years of use does to a mattress.
- Did we mention this train ride was 14 hours in length?
So after all that, you can imagine our great pleasure where our third and final train ride to the tourist destination of Sapa upgraded us to a privately owned “Violet Train”.
Suddenly the floors, walls and fans were clean. The bedsheets were upgraded to an almost-hotel quality. Purple bedazzled the train curtains and sheets. A tiny red lamp created a romantic red glow as we once again sat crammed into the bottom bunks chatting the night away. What luxury!
Practical Information: Booking Trains
Most trains in Vietnam are run by the government. There are some private trains that run on the same tracks as the government trains just at different times. However, all trains can be booked online through a single website.
The time you wish to leave will largely dictate which train you take. There are options of 4 person and 6 person sleeper trains with “hard berths” and “soft berths”. The main difference is that the soft ones you sleep on a yoga mat like pad, and on the soft ones you get a proper mattress. The mattress is more comfortable and worth the extra money. Each sleeper cabin has its own door that can be locked overnight. In each car there are two washrooms that must be shared by all in the car.
When you book your tickets online you can pay with credit card. The full price is charged up front and the tickets are delivered to you via email approximately 2 weeks prior to travel. The tickets must be printed prior to boarding as electronic tickets are not accepted. More information and booking here