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 three 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.