The ultimate guide to 36 hours on a Vietnamese train
Boarding the train in Saigon is fine. A bit of a scrum through the turnstiles, a bit of a shock to find an elderly Vietnamese couple making themselves comfortable in our little cabin for two. There are apologies and head nods from all sides as they move to the four berth cabin next door, before we settle ourselves in, pleasantly surprised, considering all of the horror stories we had heard. We even have a little vase of plastic flowers, water, biscuits and coffee mugs. Oh and a rather comfortable thick mattress, duvet and proper pillows!
Yes, the floor is a little bit sticky, and there are some dubious stains on the curtains, but I’ve certainly stayed in worse places. And yes, we had paid almost double for a private cabin, but come on. We have just had an awful four days in Saigon, and we are now travelling non-stop to Hanoi, so of course we are going to take all the comfort we can get. And yes I know we could have flown, but I wanted to get the train. The Reunification line, all 1000 miles of track along the spine of Vietnam from Hanoi to Saigon, is one of the main things I had come to Vietnam to experience, and now here we are. Beer in hand, rolling out through the narrow lamp lit streets of Saigon and into the quiet suburbs, finally on our way.
Time for my first trip to the toilet at the end of the narrow, train corridor and again I am pleasantly surprised. Okay, I know we’re only at the start of the journey, but seriously if you’ve ever been to Glastonbury, then these are a dream compared to that!
Hours Three – Twelve
Sleep. Jolt. Stop. Sleep. Jolt. Stop. Sleep. Awake. Where are we? Moonlit fields. The real Vietnam. Excited. Can’t sleep. Is the door locked? Yes. I need a wee, come with me. And leave our stuff? No, I’ll go. Where are my sandals? Should I wear socks? Just go. I’m back. Is the door locked? Sleep. Jolt. I’m awake. Go back to sleep. Is the door locked?
We actually slept quite well. There really is something to be said about being rocked to sleep by the swaying of a train, although we could have done without the constant jolts and several stops. Time to use our coffee mugs and head to the hot water dispenser at the end of the carriage. It’s no Starbucks, but its wet, warm and full of caffeine. And accompanied with a shop bought sticky bun, and a view out of the window of lush green fields and rolling hills, it’s our best breakfast of the trip so far.
Teeth cleaned, hair dry shampooed, fresh clothes and we’re ready for the day ahead. I wonder what’s for lunch? I can smell something cooking. Is that cabbage?
So apparently, included in the price of our ticket is our meals. We try to ask what it is, but are simply told it is meat. Alrighty then. Meat it is. With cabbage, a rather sad looking sausage and some very watery soup. We also buy some more beers from the roaming beer trolley man, which considering we are a captive audience, aren’t too badly priced. We share a plate of food, just in case we don’t like it, but it’s really not too bad. For meat and rice and cabbage that is.
There’s not that much to do apart from drink beer and watch Vietnam unfold before you out of the window. Now tell me that doesn’t sound like a good day!
We seem to be stopping for a while at Da Nang, while they attach more carriages, and the guard tells us to stay on the train. But then I notice everyone else is getting off, and there are stalls selling beers and Bánh Mi, and I really want to try one as we haven’t had a chance to yet. So I tell Alex to jump off, which he does, but as soon as he orders our sandwich, I start to panic and think what the hell are we doing! What if the train suddenly starts to move off, and Alex is left behind, in Da Nang, without his clothes, passport, and more importantly me!
So I start banging on the window, but he can’t hear me, and I’m sure the train feels like it’s about to leave, so now I really start to shout. Finally he notices, but our sandwich isn’t ready yet, so I yell leave it. Hurry. So he runs back to the train, apologising to the bewildered sandwich maker, leaps on…and then we sit there for another 20 minutes until the whistle blows, everyone else slowly climbs back on and the train finally leaves…
But before we do the very kind sandwich lady hands us our Bánh Mi through the window. Except because we left they didn’t know what to put in it. So it’s just bread. And egg. Not quite the culinary experience I was looking for…
Hours Eighteen – Twenty
The Hai Van Pass! It’s just as stunning as we thought it would be as we wind our way past deserted golden beaches, tiny wooden huts shrouded in fishing nets and dense green jungle rising up the mountainside. There are hundreds of dragonflies enjoying the sunshine as we climb to the peak, before we start our slow rumble down the other side. Photos don’t do it justice through the speckled glass of the train, so we make do with just sitting back and watching. With another beer of course. And then at hour twenty we cross the Perfume River at sunset. Wow. What a great journey.
Hour Twenty One
Dinner Time! I wonder what’s on the menu? Ahh, meat and cabbage again I see. Not to worry, we have the cake we bought from the trolley earlier today for dessert. Wait that’s not cake. It’s flat, sticky, luminous green, and rubbery, and tastes like a cross between marzipan, a jelly baby and something else we can’t quite distinguish. What does the box say? Bán Côm. Made from glutinous rice and mung bean. Not quite the cake I had in mind…
Hour Twenty Two
Its dark outside now. Really dark. We seem to have been following the road a while, the darkness broken by the occasional headlight glare from a lorry. There isn’t a lot to see or do anymore other than read. But reading’s sending me to sleep and…snore.
Hours Twenty Three – Thirty
Other than a middle of the night toilet break, which has been cleaned, or rather has been hosed down so every inch is soaking wet, we sleep really well. While I’m out in the corridor, I sneak a peek in some of the other unoccupied cabins, and to be fair, although they are a little snug for four, definitely not ideal for six, I think they would be perfectly fine for an overnight trip. The mattresses are a little thinner, and some of the snoring, coughing and hacking coming from the other cabins, could be a little annoying, but that’s what earplugs are for. Still, for this journey, I’m glad we had our little hideout for two. Now back to bed for another snooze…oh wait we’re here already.
Hour Thirty One
As we roll through the narrow streets of Old Hanoi, you can almost reach out and grab the washing from the balcony of the homes on either side. We don’t of course. We just sit on the bed, rubbing our eyes, feeling a little jaded at being woken at 4.30am, but otherwise okay, considering we have just spent 31 hours on a train. So would I do it again. Absolutely. But I want to get off this time. From what we saw through the window, Vietnam is a beautiful country and even after our Saigon experience, I’m looking forward to returning. Just hold the mung bean cake.
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