It should be said right up front: if you are planning on taking a train anywhere in the world, first go see The Man In Seat 61. This is as comprehensive a website as you’ll find. You find the segment you want to travel and it will give you a rundown on the types of trains available, the ticket cost, what everything looks like, where to buy the tickets, and step-by-step instructions for every single part of the process. This website is an invaluable resource for anyone who is traveling by train anywhere in the world.
Our train travel in Vietnam involved only overnight trains, which are always a great idea. You save on accommodation, you don’t cut into your vacation time with travel, and you wake up at (or close to) your destination refreshed and ready (most of the time).
We did the overnight trains three times in Vietnam: Hanoi to Lao Cai for our trek in Sapa, Lao Cai back to Hanoi afterwards, and then Hanoi to Hue. The two Sapa trips were about eight hours each, which was perfect. The trip to Hue was around 11 hours, which gave us time to eat and hang out a little bit on the train, and then actually see the countryside when we woke up and still had a few hours to go.
The first train – and my first experience with an overnight train – went as well as you could hope. There were four beds, and the people sharing the room with us were nice and as interested in sleep as we were. The beds must have been exactly six feet long, because the top of my head rested against one wall while the bottoms of my feet rested against the other. I didn’t mind, as it made me feel more secure in the top bunk.
We all went to sleep pretty quickly after figuring out how to work the air conditioning unit in our berth, and slept well to the gentle rocking of the train car. I did, anyway – unfortunately, my snoring is pretty prodigious so I’m not sure about the others. But I don’t remember any dirty looks in the morning.
If you’re concerned about something like that that, you can rent out all four beds in a berth if you want some privacy since they’re so cheap, but we didn’t feel it was worth the cost. And if the porters try to stuff someone in there with you anyway, good luck arguing with them in Vietnamese.
For the ride back from Lao Cai, I was ready to be gently rocked to sleep for the eight or so hours back to Hanoi. I don’t know if we were on different tracks or in the wrong car, though, because the ride back was anything but gentle. We spent the night bouncing all over the place; I’m almost positive our car came off the tracks multiple times. Needless to say, we arrived back in Hanoi tired and a bit frazzled. Luckily, Vietnamese coffee was there to save us.
Our final leg, from Hanoi to Hue, was a little more like the first. I was bracing for another bumpy ride, but it turned out to be smooth sailing. Other than a woman with a few small children who shared our berth and didn’t seem eager to turn the lights off, it was fine. And at that point, we fell asleep with the lights on anyway. They left halfway through the trip and another couple go on who seemed more in tune with the sleeping idea.
All in all, I’d say the trains exceeded expectation. The beds and pillows aren’t much, but they’re comfortable enough to fall asleep on, even if you’re a little taller. There are plugs to charge electronics, and some food service. The bathrooms are pretty rough, but do have everything you need to get ready in the morning. My one suggestion would be to bring a lock and a small wire to keep your bags secure under your bottom bunk, since the doors don’t lock and anyone could potentially grab your stuff while you sleep.
As I said, though, the cost of the train ticket is great for anyone trying to travel on a budget; you save on accommodation and don’t waste your waking hours on an eight hour train ride you’d end up falling asleep on anyway. That, and it just seems like taking an overnight train is part of the whole Vietnam experience. Try it at least once. You’ll be glad you did.