When Sean approached me with the idea of taking a 17-hour train from Hanoi to Hoi An in Vietnam I found the words NO coming out of my mouth. When I looked at that adorable face of his with his eyes all wide it made me pause. Suddenly my no’s turned into a why? Sean pointed out the flight would be expensive but also that the view was supposed to be incredible and that it would be an adventure. He got me with the “Think of the Instagram” which I am not ashamed to admit worked on me. What can I say he knows me well.
After confirming that the train was significantly cheaper (we do have a budget) and after reading a few reviews, I gave my okay. Which is how I found myself on a Saturday night boarding a Vietnam Railways train for what could only be summed up as well, a memory.
That is not saying I didn’t enjoy it, in fact, I would rate it a 7/10 in traveling experience. Despite the 17 hours of travel it actually went by really quickly. If you are thinking of trying this experience out yourself (which can’t believe I am saying this but everyone should do this once) then keep on reading below.
What To Book
If you are planning on doing this journey then I would BEG YOU to make sure to get a soft bed-bed. Do not do the seats as I honestly think one of the reasons why the journey went by as quickly as it did was because of the flexibility of laying down to sitting up. The beds are slightly hard but do the trick. Just a little warning, if you jump on the train after the first stop, don’t expect new sheets. Yup, they do not change the bedding until the end of the stop. If you are leaving from the original destination you’ll be fine. The bedding is fine and the pillow is soft but my neck wasn’t killing me at the end = a win.
For our journey, we booked the two-lower bunks in a 4-bed berth. We were lucky for our train companions were nice and let us do our thing. Normally, I would have gone for a private room but couldn’t justify the cost. If you can afford it, there is a private 2-bed room but honestly, it was an experience. We ended up having a nice Austrian girl whose family was just a few berths down and later on a very nice Vietnamese girl who was about my age. We had some conversations but also were able to take naps, read and in general do what we wanted without it seeming rude. Plus there was space. Unlike with flights you don’t need to worry about leg space as there is plenty.
Top Tip: I highly recommend booking the lower bunk as it has a little more space plus if you are a bigger person/afraid of heights it feels a little more stable. Also, you get a little more space to store luggage under your bed versus a hole on top. So if you are traveling heavy i.e. 20K suitcase it is worth booking it just for that alone.
When booking there are a few ways you can do so. There are plenty of online booking agents that charge a small service fee and we went with Baolau. It was easy and we had no issue using them. Buying your tickets you will also have to decide which train to go with as there are Vietnam Railways and then two other private train lines. The private tends to be more tourist based and a little more expensive. We went with Vietnam Railways and were happy with our choice.
Will You Sleep
Will this be the best sleep of your life? No, not at all. In fact between midnight to about 4 AM you will be wondering what the hell you got yourself into. The thoughts of WHY DIDN’T I JUST FLY will occur. It will be loud. The car will shake and as there are stops along the way you will also hear announcements along the way. Make sure to press the sound button OFF. We didn’t discover this later on after they stopped the frequent announcements. You can find this above the berth door.
I’m not sure why but it was much easier to sleep after 4 AM then it was during the night. I was able to sleep but found myself waking up every few minutes it seems. I think this has to do with the tracks more then anything but also the doors on the berth don’t seem the best fitted. Which meant that it felt like the door was hitting the wall every few seconds. It can be off-putting but it does get better, I promise!
I love a good bathroom. I wasn’t expecting the best scenario on the train. As such, I kept my expectation very low. Here is the thing, I couldn’t easily go to the bathroom. It was a bit of torture not being able to poop for 17 hours. Not only that but the western style toilet on our car wasn’t working after a few stops. Which honestly I was okay wth that as it smelt so bad. It was also hot and you know what I am getting at it… It just was not a good experience.
There our a mixture of toilets on the train. There are western and squat toilets. I was able to use a squat toilet at one of the stops and it was fine. It didn’t smell at all but be warned. Squat toilets tend to fill up i.e. stop flushing and then it is just full of pee. Swashing back and forth and well I wasn’t about to put my luck to the test and or my shoes in harm’s way. So I held it in.
I wish I could say it got better during the 17-hour train ride but it just got worse. If you are super desperate to let it go try other cars but there is always a long line. My experience a long line means it because people are taking time in the bathroom which can only mean one thing… So just be prepared for not the best bathroom experience and do not forget toilet paper!!!
What To Bring With You
Beyond your luggage here is what I recommend you bring with you for your train journey including ways you can better prepare for it.
There will be a man selling drinks and food and coffee, we skipped it as we weren’t actually that hungry. We ate a really good last meal in Hanoi and also had a few beers to help. Instead, we bought some crips, wasabi peanuts, two big water bottles, Oreos and dried spicy beef. Not the most nutritious but it did the trick for us.
Ear Plugs or Noise Canceling Headphones:
The train during the night is VERY loud as I mentioned above. I ended up just playing podcasts during the whole night to keep the sound at bay but what I would have done for some ear plugs. I would recommend getting some ear plugs for the night and or noise canceling headphones I think this would have made a very big difference in sleeping.
I put some on as soon as I got on the train not only because it gets a little cold (the AC works fairly well) but also, it makes me feel a little bit cleaner. Sean did not do this and I judged him. Wear socks guys.
I know I mentioned it in snacks but staying hydrated is very important. The only downside, you will have to go the bathroom more.
Pre-download all books and or shows and movies as Sean and I sort of forgot to do that and if I had downloaded a good book before leaving, I think the journey would have been an 8 instead of 7.
Baby Wipes and toothbrush. It is amazing what a good brush of the teeth and baby wipe on the pits can make you feel. Also, TOILET PAPER!
Would I do this again? Maybe. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be and it was actually maybe even a little fun. The next time if anything I would be better prepared for a better journey and the views from Hue to Da Nang were really beautiful. You find yourself going along the ocean which is all shades of blue. You see this while up on the mountain and it truly is beautiful. Now is it worth a 12-hour train journey before that view?? Not sure.
I do think if you have the time and are looking for a story you should go for it. I often find that the trips or moments that aren’t 100% are the ones I find smiling or laughing about later on about. Do your research and if you’re worried about sharing a berth look into a private one. When staying in a 4-bed berth there is a risk. I acknowledge we were lucky with who we ended up with. I think it would impact the overall trip if you had people who weren’t meshing with you but again, it depends on your budget,
Any questions ask them below? What has been your longest train journey?!