I took two overnight sleeper trains in Vietnam. Both were interesting experiences that were as equally exciting as they were nerve wracking, and I definitely wouldn’t be able to call them ‘sleeper’ trains – there certainly wasn’t much of that going on. I travelled with my boyfriend in August 2013.
Ho Chi Minh City – Nha Trang
22:55 – 6:30 (7 hours and 35 minutes)
We had two beds in a four-berth soft sleeper to get from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang overnight. I booked the tickets through Vietnam Impressive after doing quite a bit of research online. Vietnam doesn’t actually have an official rail site, despite some pretty official looking impostors and I’d read warnings of dodgy sellers taking your money and running.
The two tickets were $105 (£65) including postage and packing and these were sent to our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City for us to pick up on arrival. The guys at Vietnam impressive were friendly and helpful in their emails and I’d definitely recommend them.
The train pulled in about 30 minutes before we were due to leave as Ho Chi Minh City was the start of the line. We jumped on as soon as possible: eager beavers that we were. The film Darjeeling Limited, set on a train in India, is one of our favourites so we were both very excited to get stuck into some long-distance train travel in Vietnam.
The room was cool. My boyfriend had the top bunk and me the lower one directly underneath. There was space below my bunk for our rucksacks and we both slept with our smaller bags attached to us. I wore my rucksack actually on my front the whole time, we obviously both had travel insurance, but still feared the Vietnam train travel horror stories we’d heard.
We were soon joined by a little Chinese guy who was pretty much glued to his iPad from the second he took his shoes off. I sized him up and decided I’d definitely win in a fight: should there be any reason to have one, and I was comforted by that.
We were all settled in and then just before we pulled off a rowdy, drunk Vietnamese man stumbled into our cabin and took the spare bed diagonally from me. When the ticket master came round it was obvious he didn’t have a ticket, but he bribed him to be allowed to stay. They chatted for a while, obviously I had no idea what they said but saw money change hands and no ticket before the conductor slinked off.
The train pulled away and we decided to get in bed, seeing as there wasn’t much else to do. I lay there listening to the chugging and the low noise of our fellow passengers down the hallway. It was great. The gentle motion made me sleepy so I turned the light off and locked the door. I’d read stories of intruders that would get on board and come in the carriages, so decided we were better off locked in with these little guys rather than being open to anyone from the outside. The drunk man murmured something in Vietnamese when I flicked the light and I froze still. Nothing more, so I got myself comfy back in bed.
I feel asleep immediately. Two hours later though, I woke to go to the toilet and just could not get back to sleep. My mind was racing with bad thoughts. Would the drunk man get in my bed? How could I defend myself? What if he had some sort of drugged cloth and held it over my mouth? And so it went on, each thought more dramatic and ridiculous than the last.
The light coming in wasn’t helping, but I was too scared to use my airline-issue eye mask as I decided it could be used as a weapon against me. I was spooked and in my mind I was planning how I would defend myself if the drunk guy should try to get me. Of course, he was fast asleep, as was the Chinese guy and W. above me. But in my sleep deprived state every worst case scenario came to my mind.
I eventually managed to drop off and get about one more hour’s sleep before the commotion of everyone else waking up woke me up. I admitted defeat and went to see the sunrise from the window. I may have only had three hours sleep and spent another five torturing my mind, but experiencing train travel overnight in Vietnam and the beautiful colours lighting up the and made the trip and sleep deprivation worth it.
Nha Trang – Da Nang
20:30 – 6:45 (10 hours and 15 minutes)
Just two days later and we ended up with a six-bed hard sleeper this time. Meaning for $105 (£65) we were treated to the two top bunks on the top level of a run of three for the ten hour plus train journey. The train was the same height as the previous one though, so if your maths is as good as mine, you’ll have worked out we had a lot less space. We’d bought a few beers for the journey beforehand but couldn’t actually tip our heads back enough to drink the dregs.
And hard sleeper pretty much says what it is, hard to sleep.
We were sharing with a group of four little Vietnamese men over the age of 50. Again, sizing them up I decided I’d definitely win so I was happy enough to stay in the room. There was space up top for our big bags and I stacked mine is such a way I could hide my essentials one at the back, safe in the knowledge that no one would be finding that. My things felt safe here.
On both trips I wore soft trousers and a t-shirt. No chance of any big reveals if I wriggled in my sleep and it was respectful enough for me and my cabin mates.
And so I tried to sleep. I read a whole book during my overnight train from Nha Trang to Danang as there was no chance of getting any shut eye on the shelf I was on. I now know what unused toys feel like. Mainly though, it was thanks to my cabin mates who were silent for no more than two hours of the 10-hour journey. It was around 2am when one of the guys got a phone call that the the whole lot of them decided to join in on. Christ, it seriously went on for hours. The man diagonally opposite me also had his little bed light on all night long, yet made every attempt possible to cover his eyes with his sheet. I desperately wanted to explain to him he could turn it off, but somehow it didn’t seem right to talk to him in the middle of the night. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to explain it to him without reaching across his bed anyway. I decided to deep breathe and let it go instead.
And on top of that, the announcement system kept crackling and announcing every station we pulled into as loud as possible. I finally arrived in Danang absolutely exhausted and thankful that our next leg, from Danang to Hanoi, would just be a two-hour flight.
Despite all my moaning here – I would absolutely, definitely recommend trying the trains in Vietnam, although maybe not so many, so close together. It was an experience I won’t forget.
Safety tips for travelling by overnight trains in Vietnam
- Connect the opening of your rucksack to you somehow, maybe with your laces if you have nothing else.
- Lock the door as soon as the final person is in.
- When you order your tickets ask for a top bunk, I felt a lot safer.
- Don’t drink too much before you get in – going for a wee is not fun.
- Have an alarm with you although they will come and wake you up. If this is your phone, make sure it’s well hidden.
- If you’re sensitive to cleanliness take your own pillow – the black hairs on mine didn’t bode well against my blonde.
- Make sure you have some music with good earphones – again, keep this well hidden.
- You can’t go to the toilets when the train is in the station so make sure you’re prepared for the long stops.
- There is a powerpoint in every bunk, so there’s no need to worry about charging everything.
- There were no food or drink facilities on board so take some snacks with you.
One last top tip: don’t lose your train ticket as ticket inspectors come around regularly and you’ll definitely be asked for it on the way out. I’d tucked mine in my bra ready in case they came round. Obviously I totally forgot about it when I went to take my bra off in the bathroom ready for sleeps and it was only in the morning I realised I didn’t have it. I managed to scrounge it off the bathroom floor though, disgustingly wet. I washed it and stowed it away in my pocket. I didn’t trust it, and neither did the woman collecting tickets on the way out. She actually refused to collect it and just ushered me on. I threw it away at the first opportunity, ewww.