Train Travel in Vietnam.
Anyone who visits Vietnam is bound to travel by train at least once during their stay in this beautiful slender country. The train line runs down the backbone connecting all the larger tourist centres, called the Reunification Express, with a slow but picturesque journey. Like many visitors and locals, instead of flying to Da Nang to reach Hue we took the overnight train. For many travellers it is a way of saving money, for us it was more about the experience. Taking the plane would have actually cost us less (150€) or at most the same. However, Jerome had never been on an overnight train and I had not had the pleasure of sleeping in a proper bed on a long train journey so I had decided to book us a soft sleeper cabin for four on the train to Hue after our return from our three day cruise in Ha Long Bay.
Booking Train Tickets
Vietnam Railways has a fairly good reputation in terms of safety and also for being on time. I had used the famous Seat 61 website for initial research and booking our ticket through 12go.asia was as easy as reserving flight tickets on any major website. Note that tickets for Vietnamese trains are on sale from 2-3 months before the travel date. Check the fare regulations for children with your ticket office/agent, they seem to vary depending on who you choose to buy the tickets from. Also do not be surprised if there are both age and/or height restrictions, the guard might even ask your child to stand at one of the measuring spots in the carriages. Jerome already paid the full adult fare as he was already over ten years old and taller than 1.31m.
Choosing the Right Cabin
First of all I had decided what train to take, choosing the SE1 at 19:30, which gave us enough time for dinner after our arrival back in Hanoi from Ha Long. Vietnamese trains have a choice of seats and sleepers, I opted for the soft sleepers, also called 1st Class, and bought a whole cabin for 4 to make sure that we would not have to share with a stranger. I was able to choose a cabin during the booking process and decided it was better to be 2 cabins away from the entrance to the carriage as I was not sure about any disturbance from the toilets and entrances. The difference between a soft sleeper and hard sleeper is basically the thickness of the mattress. Some people have complained that the soft sleeper is still too hard for us westerners. Having slept on futons in Japan many times before I was less worried about the issue.
Hard or Soft Seats
If we would have made the journey during the daytime we might have gone for normal soft seats in an air-conditioned carriage. Vietnam also still offers wooden hard seats on their train, they might be fun for a short journey but otherwise probably unbearable. There are some private companies that attach their own “luxurious” sleeper carriages to the trains, but from my research there is almost no evidence that they are more comfortable than the Vietnam Railway carriages, they just have a more modern feel and design.
Arriving at Hanoi Station – Ga Ha Noi
After finishing our dinner around the corner from Hanoi station we walked the two blocks to the entrance – there are three stations in total so make sure you are actually heading for the right one! Our train to Hue was due to depart from Ga Ha Noi, the main station and the largest of the three. Walking into the train station we noticed a ticket desk to our left, a waiting area to the right and a little kiosk next to the gate leading to the platforms. We bought some water and biscuits for the journey and checked our platform on the departure board. The board was very basic, no modern electronic display, but a list of train numbers, followed by the departure time and the track number.
Looking for the Right Train to Hue
Jerome and Chris stayed with our luggage, while I went to see if the train might already be at the platform and if there were any seats where we could wait. Heading for track 1, I spotted a waiting train. When I went to check the display at the platform I realised that it was indeed the train that would take us to Hue. I went to get the boys and our trolleys (there are advantages to travelling light with hand baggage only, we had just a trolley bag and small knapsack each). The tickets were on my phone, stating our coach, the cabin, plus the berth number. Once we reached our platform we looked for carriage No. 7, the numbers were displayed on the outside of each section and next to the entrance doors. The guards in their uniforms stood next to each door with a red lantern hanging from a hook. I approached our guard and showed him the tickets, he then let us board the train.
Checking Into Our Cabin for the Journey
Jerome ran along the aisle to find our cabin for the night. The trains had a certain rustic charm that I can still remember from my very early childhood years. The inside was constructed entirely from wooden planks and the windows were the kind that you could push down. The only luxury was the cool air coming from the air conditioning system. Our cabin was basic, two bunk beds to either side, a small table in front of the window and some curtain to provide us with privacy and darkness. The beds were not the softest but also not as hard as I had imagined, I was sure we would be able to sleep on them. The cotton sheets were freshly washed, although we had heard some horror stories of people going to Hanoi from the South joining half way and they had to live with warmed sheets from other travellers. We happily made ourselves comfortable in the cabin, Jerome put his cuddly travel companions on the top bunk.
Exploring the Train and Station
There was still plenty of time before our departure and I decided to have a wander around and take some photos. Jerome joined me and we headed for the front of the train. At first there were many more similar sleeper carriages, it was interesting to get a look into the different styles, then the soft seater coaches started and they looked just like any other modern train coach. Leaving through one of the open doors we stepped onto the station platform and could see the full length of our train, with the dining car plus the diesel engine at the front. I enjoyed walking along the platform looking into the windows of the cabins and watching other tourists and locals board the train. Suddenly the lights went off in and outside the station, apparently a power cut! The neon lights of the station and trains drowned the station in a dreamy light. Jerome got anxious, not because of the lack of light but he was worried we could miss the train in the darkness.
Watching the World Outside Our Window
Back on board we returned to our cabin, we left our door open for a while, until a group of noisy travellers that seemed to have congregated in the aisle outside one of the cabins forced us to close it. Eventually it was time for the train to leave, it was slowly set into motion and we moved out of the station. It was too dark to see much on our way out of Hanoi apart from the lit up windows and passing motorbikes and cars. It was interesting to see the throng of mopeds congregated at the level crossings like flocks of sheep, waiting for the train to pass and the barriers to reopen. It was too early for us to sleep and so we got our pack of cards out and played a few rounds of rummy.
Before we hit the beds to sleep we made a much dreaded pilgrimage to the toilets. I have to say it was not as bad as expected – in fact not much worse than I have seen on the Eurostar or some trains in Germany.
On the way back to the cabin I noticed our guard gazing out of the window at the passing nightscape. He appeared to be completely lost in his own world, maybe his thoughts were with his girlfriend or family back home.
We made ourselves comfortable on the beds and I was surprised how easy I found it to fall asleep. The constant rocking motion was not as disturbing as I had imagined and somewhat therapeutic. I did wake up at some point in the middle of the night as some noisy laggards wandered past, I left the cabin for a quick toilet stop and found the guard asleep in his room, with the bed protruding half way into the corridor.
Early Mornings on the Train
When I woke in the morning the train had stopped, early morning light seeped through the curtains and I found Chris already sitting on his bunk below. Jerome was still lying opposite me, asleep, but I knew he would wake up if Chris and I started talking. I was too curious to stay in bed for longer and joined Chris on his bunk. The train stood inside a station, some shopkeepers were busy with early customers, others had only just opened their kiosks and set up their goods and wares outside. It was compelling to watch them and made me long for a hot cup of coffee. Just as Chris and I discussed if we would have enough time to venture outside to grab a coffee from one of the stalls, we heard someone pushing a trolley along the corridor in our carriage, offering coffee and tea to the early risers.
Enjoying the Views From the Train
After a few sips I felt somewhat more awake and I wanted to take some photos of the passing countryside. I joined a French gentlemen by the windows in the corridors. He had opened one of them and we could feel the warm breeze frill though our hair. I leaned out to take a photo towards the front of the train and got a good shot just as it turned a bend.
Rural Life Outside Our Window
There were already many farmers in the lush green rice fields, the water in the irrigation dykes sparkled in the low sunlight. Some of the farmers were only recognisable due to their non la hats, others were accompanied by water buffalos. Jerome, still half awake, came and joined me at some point. He was curious as well, to get a glimpse of the vast countryside towards Hue. As the scenery glided past – the train hardly rushes – other common sights that still stick in my mind were cemeteries and lonely graves, isolated houses, villages and lotus ponds dotted with pink and white blossoms.
Approaching Hue Station
The time passed surprisingly fast and we were approaching Hue station soon. Jerome made sure his cuddly crew was packed in his backpack and we had not left anything behind. Outside our window the buildings got denser and larger. The train crossed a big bridge over a river – we would cycle across it a few days later – and arrived on time at Hue station. I would have never thought the trains in Vietnam would actually run to schedule but from what we could see every stop was perfectly timed, in fact the train left Hue slightly early, so always make sure you arrive at the station with plenty of time to board.
We had thoroughly enjoyed the trip from Hanoi and Hue on the overnight train, there were no creepy crawly encounters and the overall experience was a good one. It was another experience we could tick of our list. For our return journey I had booked a flight from Da Nang to Hanoi as it actually turned out to be somewhat cheaper…but I would certainly take the train again. Our pre booked taxi was already waiting outside the station, it would drive us to Pilgrimage Hotel, which would be our home for the next few days exploring around Hue.
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