The train station in Hue is hectic. Two waiting rooms are filled with restless passengers; some wrestling with enormous backpacks, others carefully balancing snacks and drinks on their suitcases while trying to connect to the Wifi for one last check of Facebook before forced offline time for however many hours. Parents wrangle runaway toddlers and sunburnt backpackers attempt to navigate train timetables as rusted fans blow out gusts of warm air.
A voice comes over the loudspeaker and our leader, Phat, stands up. “Phat-boy-slim group!” he announces, scanning the room for the 14 members of our group, travelling on Intrepid’s Vietnam Express Northbound Adventure. We struggle up under the weight of our packs, suitcases, and copious amounts of snacks.
We head out onto the platform. The tracks are lined with rickety stalls, selling spicy nut mixes, jars of prawns suspended in jelly, lurid-green durian sweets and fridges filled with cans of Huda beer. The atmosphere is far more festive than inside the stifling waiting rooms. Station attendants march up and down, blowing whistles to alert us to the impending arrival of the 5pm train to Hanoi. We jostle together, trying to get the perfect phone shot of the train pulling into the station.
Pack on my back, suitcase in hand, snacks cradled in my forearm, I take the big step up onto the train (it’s so big, someone has to take me by the elbow and pull me in). Fifteen hours of riding the rails? Here we come.
All aboard the overnight train to Hanoi
Our group is ushered into four four-bed compartments, and given very specific instructions about train travel in Vietnam: shut the door and lock it when you’re in your room, keep your valuables on you at all times, and don’t eat the food offered by trolley-pushing train employees at ANY time. Sounds easy enough, if a little alarmist/prison-like.
The rooms are much more comfortable than I was expecting: two single bunk beds (long enough to accommodate my 5’ 10” height, with wriggle room) with a clean sheet, pillow and blanket, a small table (complete with an arrangement of plastic daisies in a plastic vase), reading lights above the beds, curtains and a single power point above the door. My roommate and I score a cabin to ourselves, making the semi-poky space far more spacious. We cross our fingers for no midnight arrivals.
The train lurches out of the station, and we’re off into the sunset, the Hue cityscape giving way to rural villages, farms and rice paddies.
What is that?
Phat wanders between cabins, checking that we’re all happy and comfortable. Earlier in the day, he bought us dinner from a takeaway joint near the station – a much better option than a potential side of salmonella from the on-board meal trolley – and he distributes noodles, fried rice and pizza among the group. Despite the fact that it’s only 5.15pm, we crack open a beer and dig in, as the first of the food trolleys wheels past. The attendant shouts “Pork! Egg! Chicken feet!” and I’m grateful for Phat’s forward-thinking.
After that, there’s not a whole lot to do. It’s dark outside, so there’ll be no wistful gazing out the window. There’s no dining car or vending machines either (not that we need any extra food), so there’ll be no marauding through the carriages like undercover spies aboard the Orient Express. Instead, we settle into an evening of card games, diary writing, book reading, chats and attempts to put the sheets on the beds (fact: this is much harder than it sounds). After a second trolley rolls through the carriage, this time selling train-branded caps and bags, we start a guessing game creatively titled “What will be on the next vendor trolley?”. No one wins.
Journey to the end of the carriage
Without going into too much detail, you probably don’t want to spend a huge amount of time in the bathrooms on the overnight train to Hanoi. Two girls in our group returned from their first trip, loudly exclaiming “THAT WAS DISGUSTING!” but I’m not sure I’d go that far (I’ve definitely seen worse). Needless to say, don’t throw back too many cans of beer or guzzle too much water, and be sure to wear your shoes when you make the trek to the end of the carriage; one end has a Western toilet, the other a squat toilet, and both bathrooms had pretty nasty smells and very puddly floors. It’s also a good idea to carry a roll of toilet paper, some wet wipes, and a small bottle of hand sanitiser with you.
At 10pm, nestled into our beds under brown, scratchy blankets and with our cabin door locked, we attempt sleep. Initially, the stop-start jolts and clackety-clack movements of the carriage make the idea of sleep seem impossible, but before long, we are contentedly snoozing.
The sun is coming up as we choo-choo into Hanoi. Phat knocks loudly on the door, and we gather ourselves together as the loudspeakers blare tinny classical music through the carriage. The train pulls into the station and we step onto the platform, blinking in the hazy morning light of Vietnam’s second-largest city. While it wasn’t the most comfortable night, our time on the overnight train was a unique, and fun, way to get across Vietnam. Driving past the sights in an air-conditioned tourist coach or the backseat of a private car may be alright for some, but I’d rather do it how the locals do, even if that involves puddly floors, and the scent of fried chicken feet.
After leaving the station, we dawdle onto our waiting minibus. First stop: hotel. Second stop: a visit to a puddle-free bathroom. Third stop: the strongest iced coffee I can get my hands on.
Ready to experience overnight train travel in Vietnam? Ride the rails on an Intrepid small group adventure.
All images c/o Patrick O’Neill.
Are there showers?
Hmm, from memory, I don’t think there are. All part of the experience, I guess!
Cabin looks great, what train line is this?
We generally travel on the SE2 service between Hue and Hanoi, which runs along the tracks of the Reunification Line. These trains are super comfortable – Intrepid passengers are booked into air-conditioned, 4-bed soft-sleeper cabins, which have electrical outlets, curtains, clean sheets and blankets.
One of the best experiences I have had travelling and I’m over 50 really enjoyed it ! research is always the best prep you can do before you travel then there’s no surprise. Walking the length of train is recommended so called 2nd class 6 beds not 4 like first class probably not recommended for those who don’t like tight spaces. Getting up before sun rise is great watching the landscape and locals starting their day fantastic
We are traveling on the overnight train tonight, however we travelled from Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi earlier in the week. We ate two of the meals served by the train staff. I even ate some of the veggies. No problems with any dodgy tummy. Certainly the toilets were a little damp but after some in Indonesia they were cleanliness personified. Do not travel in Asia if you cannot deal with mice and insects. I might draw the line at rats on the train.
Did the overnight from Nha Trang to HCMC. A loved being in with the locals and experiencing their way of travel. We had some laughs along the way and I was actually surprised how well I slept (must have been the rocking motion of the train). We too did not eat any food on the train as our guide said the same thing. We had snacks, played cards and chatted to other travelers. It was a great experience and I was glad I did it!
We did the same trip and were entertained by a number of mice who were game enough to eat any crumbs we dropped. Bedding had been used and when we went to ask for fresh linen the woman in charge cried and hid. Out intrepid guide was able to sort it fornus. This was a great trip, far from luxury but fun and would do it again.
We (couple and 2 big teenage boys) did the Vietnam Southbound trip and the train left Hanoi at 11pm so we’d already eaten when we boarded. We all squeezed into a 4 berth cabin (tidy and just like the picture in this article) and wrestled our packs up into a shelf area. It was not a big space for 4 of us! Sleep was hard as the train rocks from side to side a lot so it feels like you’re in a washing machine. When we woke the next morning we were in the middle of Vietnam and all we could see was jungle and little villages on one side, and a lagoon with a few Vietnamese in boats on the other – it was magical. We’d just bought bananas and bread from Hanoi and bottles of water and that did us just fine until we got into Hue. 12 hours trip and it was very easy. The only tricky bit is the toilets – wear footwear, take toilet paper, don’t breathe while you’re in there, and you’ll be fine 🙂
Hey Vickie what company did you travel with if you remember?
Haha I did the same journey – you were lucky to have a nice cabin. My bed had definitely been slept in – the bedding was everywhere. And we shared with some Vietnamese ladies who invited their whole group to sit and chat on our beds at 5am pushing our feet out the way!! Cheeky buggars. Our door was unlocked multiple times from the outside – luckily I’m a light sleeper! It was an interesting and fun journey for sure but certainly not the calm experience of this article.
The best advice we were given was by our Intrepid tour mates who had done a companion trip in the past: silk sheets/liners! They are inexpensive, lightweight, and take up very little space in your bag. We picked up one each for about $5 in Hanoi, as I recall, and felt so much more comfortable slipping into what we knew were truly clean sheets. The ones on the bed looked like they’d been used. Our experience was definitely in the “not for faint of heart” category but, thanks to great roommates, we still enjoyed ourselves.
So different from an overnight train from Dehli for hours…not luxury, definitely far from luxury, but an experience you will never forget, good and bad.
Sounds like a dream compared to the overnight train in India , I mean, a reading light? A door to lock ? Such luxury. We had a blast though. Love Intrepid! Next stop Vietnam.
Yeah.sheets? never seen such a thing in India,but fellow travelers made us welcome.
You surely didn’t travel in any air-condition class where sheets are provided with blankets and face towels.
I took this train on the Intrepid trip 3 years ago and I can say – wow, there isn’t another person I know that would have been able to do it. We had mice running in the floor and at least 10+ roaches crawling in the sheets and on the walls. It was definitely an experience, but not one for the faint of heart or expecting a experience similar to those in Europe. You’re still in a third world country!
Did the overnighter from HCMC to Hue…I wish someone had warned me to get to the loos early in the trip..and to have my earplugs at the ready..shared a cabin with an Aussie girl and 5 vietnamese!!all on two bunks..!..who I might add were extremely friendly and shared their food…would I do it again..probably not..flying maybe boring but sooooo much more comfortable and quicker… 22hrs was just a bit beyond the pale..
best advise I was given before going & it turned out to be true take a bicycle chain lock (or a ski cable lock) so you can lock your bags in your sleeper compartment to the structure (bed) . We were fortunate enough to be on a train with a bar car which 10 Aussies promptly retired to (we took our passports & all our cash with us) but had locked our bags & our compartment so were relaxed about life.
Hi Emily: thank you for the insights on the overnight train adventure in Vietnam. I’m not by all means turned off but trying to be prepared for my own trip to Vietnam next month. Just got back from Ukraine and had a full experience of riding an overnight train there. I would like to hear more about Vietnam if possible. Just to strategize in advance how to optimally enjoy my time there. Any advice or a link to more reading about your travels in Vietnam would be highly appreciated.
After reading this, I wish we had opted for the train rather than the bus. The buses can kill even a stomach of steel. In January, we took the bus from place to place starting in Hanoi all the way Na Trang. We tossed the rest of our prepaid bus tickets and flew to HCM City. Sixteen hours of listening to a girl throw up into a plastic bag on what felt like a jet boat ride rather than a bus killed my appetite to see the rest of the places on our list. Planes and trains are better than bus. Except to Phong Nah. Make sure you plan a few days there, Easy Tiger or Gecko (they mean it though when they say “no coffee till 7am). Have fun!
My husband and I did this exact train trip back in 2010 and it was a laugh for sure, especially as we were delayed by rain over the tracks about 3 hrs out of Hue. When we should of arrived into Hanoi early in the morning we were still stuck god knows where in the jungle of northern Vietnam. Not to fear, we eventually made it to Hanoi 17 hrs later than scheduled at midnight! Wasn’t laughing at the time but no good stories come from everything going to plan
Thanks for suggestions. Any recommendations for keeping the packing to a minimum on a 15 day package? includes trains and boat.
On a scale of affordable, overnight train adventures Vietnam is doing pretty well. I highly recommend this trip to anyone travelling in Vietnam. The train stations are the hardest (busiest) part. Overnight trains in India though…now that’s another matter!
Ahhh fantastic we are going on the same tour and I was really worried about the train! This has made it so much better thank you!
We did that trip 10 years ago with our 4 kids aged 14-10. They still talk about it, but a highlight was walking the length of the train to eat in the dining car with the railway officials… delicious and safe. We booked 2 cabins (8 beds) for the 6 of us – first class ‘soft sleeper’ . An amazing experience and highly recommended.
Sounds great you should try an over night train in india
We are thinking of taking the overnight trains for our travels through Vietnam in the summer. Thanks for your insight into your journey and we hope that we will be lucky like you and no one else will join our cabin. We will also make sure to get food before we board the train and not get tempted to buy anything of the carts.
The thought of just being able to hitch it on and know straight up you’ve packed everything.
We had customers on a similar trip a couple of years ago. They were nervous about it before hand but said that the whole experience really made their trip. Yes the toilets weren’t great, and it got a bit cold at night. But they felt like ‘intrepid travellers’. Its definitely an experience we will be recommending to others!