Vietnam by Train

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.

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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.

Eating in Northern Vietnam

Visiting Vietnam in the spring of 2016 was a dream come true.  We began in the north, going from Hanoi to Sa Pa on an overnight train for a two-day trek, then back to Hanoi on another (much bumpier) overnight train, then a van to Ha Long Bay for an overnight junkboat tour through the Cat Ba Bay, and finally back to Hanoi for a final meal before yet another overnight train to Hue.  Despite having limited time there, I fell in love with Hanoi and have ached to go back since.

bun cha 01

Bún Chả Đắc Kim*:  I’d had plenty of pho in Philly, but our first stop in Vietnam would be a dish we were unfamiliar with outside of other peoples’ descriptions—bun cha—and it was the perfect primer.  Pork patties grilled streetside, combined with fresh noodles, a tangy fish sauce-based dipping sauce, and a plate piled high with lettuces and herbs I hadn’t seen before welcomed us to the country, as did a few bottles of local cheap-ass lager.

Phở Kiều Chuyên Bò: For dinner, Hanoi offered us our first bowl of beef pho and a wonderful plate of spicy beef stir fry at a small, standard cubbyhole of a restaurant. In a place packed to the gills with tiny family-run restaurants, we followed the first rule of eating on the road when you don’t have a place already picked out: eat where the locals eat.  And the tiny plastic stools outside were filled with locals.  They didn’t steer us wrong.

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Homestay in Sa Pa: The homestay mom cooked us a full meal in a kitchen that was little more than an open fire with a few pots and pans, teaching us to roll spring rolls before serving them along with tofu with tomatoes, chicken with vegetables and fruit, garlic fried cabbage, pork with onions, and rice.  It was way too much food for the five of us staying there (including the homestay mom), but I tried my damnedest to make sure there were no leftovers.  We were all rewarded with “happy water” shots for our troubles.

pho thin

Quán Phở Thìn: After Ha Long, we were dropped off at the Hanoi Hilton (sorry) in the French Quarter and walked to Pho Thin.  I’d just read Graham Holliday’s Eating Vietnam, and amidst all the names and food descriptions he threw out, this was one that stuck in my head, and damn I’m glad it did.  We took a seat at one of the communal tables, bright orange chili sauce waiting next to us, and were each brought a bowl of beef pho absolutely loaded with green onions and other vegetal goodies.  The beef, rather than simply cooking in the hot broth, was grilled and added a smoky flavor to the soup.  It was—and still is—the absolute best bowl of pho I’ve ever had.  As a fellow traveler told us as he was leaving, “After this, everything else is just water.”

After coming back to Philly and trying to search out as perfect a bowl of pho as we had at Pho Thin, I believe him.

*Be careful with this one – there are two bun cha places right next to each other, and as we learned too late, we ate at the wrong one.  Next to the famous bun cha place, an imposter popped up to target unknowing tourists, which we were. Don’t eat at the one directly on the corner—though it was delicious—eat at the one next to it with the yellow sign.

All pictures other than the Pho Thin picture were taken by LeeAnne Mullins.