With Backpack

One World in One Lifetime

The Trains in Vietnam and Other Ways to Get Around

Posted by Heliocentrism on May 5, 2017

Thursday, April 6, 2017 — 19:30

Top Bunk

Come and Ride the Train

Mark bought our train tickets from the travel agent at our hostel. He was a little dissatisfied with this process. He kept having to explain what he wanted. He also had a hard time understanding what the agent said too. With the length of time it took to get the ticket, he felt the commission rate the agent took was too high. In the end, Mark felt confused and he just hoped everything worked out all right.

It did. But not wanting to go through that again, Mark turned to the internet the next time we took the train. Buying the tickets online, doing it yourself, and doing it in English leaves little up to chance.

Bottom Bunk

Later we met a man and his cousin who wanted a compartment to themselves. They went to a travel agent. She told them to get a compartment for just the two of them, they would have to book all four beds in a soft sleeper berth. “Fine,” they said. “Give us the best bunks you have.” One was sold 2 upper bunks and the other sold 2 lower bunks.

When they boarded the train they found that the two sets of bunks were in two different compartments. One compartment had a screaming brat of a child. The other had Mark and me.

It took a while for Mark and me to find our berths. There was a big drunk guy fumbling with his ticket pulling a rather large non-spinner suitcase behind him and blocking the way. “I don’t have my glasses,” he kept repeating. “I don’t have my glasses.” If I wanted to hurry things along, I had to help him find his bunk.

I took his ticket and looked at it. “Oh, you’ve past it,” I told him.

“Did I?” He seemed very surprised. “I don’t have my glasses, you know. I couldn’t tell where I had to go.”

“Yes,” I said. “I think you’ve mentioned something about that.”

He spun around, but with his suitcase in front of him, he was too drunk to move it. Both he and his luggage were too large for him to just pick the suitcase up and place it behind him. He kept spinning around hoping that one more try at turning would somehow get to suitcase on the other side.

It took no time at all for a line of people to form in the corridor. I had to get this fat man out of the way quickly. He was just so drunk and clumsy.

“Hey!” I tried to get his attention, but he kept turning. “Push it instead of pulling.” He didn’t seem to hear me. “Or you could walk backwards.” I got no reaction out of him. “Probably to uncoordinated for either of those anyway,” I thought to myself.

Then I suggested that he step into any compartment, pull his luggage further down the way, then step out again. That would have easily solved the problem. But by then he was squeezing around his luggage. He wedged himself between the wall and his suitcase. There were groans and inelegant Chris Farley-like twitching.

I looked past the drunk and saw some train officials headed his way. The man was still telling everyone about his lack of glasses as he struggled to get free. Just as the officials got to him he popped out on the other side of the suitcase as it fell over.

I got everyone to back up a bit and showed him to his bunk. The train officials carried his enormous suitcase for him and placed it next to his bed. Thankfully, he was on a bottom bunk.

Later I heard him, a man of about 60, flirting with some teen-aged school girls. It made my skin crawl.

the neighbors

When we got to our bunks there was a man in his bed already. He had a little radio blasting old timey Vietnamese music. Mark and I got into our bunks and waited for everyone else to get on the train. We both had top bunks.

The fourth person in our compartment entered, pulled out a vodka bottle, and tried to talk to everyone. Only radio man could speak Vietnamese. Vodka guy asked Mark and I, “Where from?” But that was the limit to his English. We told him, but he did not understand our reply.

Giving up on conversation, he tried offering everyone vodka. Mark, radio man, and I declined. Not wanting to drink alone he left the bottle on the table unopened. Vodka guy offered many more times, after dinner, right before everyone  went to sleep, as soon as he woke up the next morning, after breakfast, and a few more extra times. There were never any takers, so the bottle sat on the table the whole ride, unused.

Since talking was out (I guess radio man was not that interesting) and drinking was unsuccessful vodka guy took out his smartphone and played American pop music. This was probably a gesture on Mark’s and my behalf. But, mind you, radio man was still playing his radio.

I began to wonder how I would deal with this. Listening to one persons bad music was one thing, but two! Then the train itself started to play very loud awful music too. It was deafening. Both Mark and vodka guy scrambled around looking for a volume button to turn down.

Once they found it, the train music was turned off. After that the duel of crappy music didn’t seem that bad. At least it wasn’t horrendously loud.

About an hour before I wanted to sleep, radio man’s radio had long since been turned off and vodka guy’s phone’s battery was dying. I prayed that he left his charger at home. Right by his head was an electrical outlet. I knew that the outlet worked. Both Mark and I had been charging our electrical devices.

Vodka guy took out his charger and my heart sank. He plugged it in. He waited a while then unplugged it. Then plugged it in again. His outlet didn’t work! He had to turn his phone off to save power. I was never so glad for a dying battery.

The Train

Best Information: Seat 61

Buying Tickets: Baolau

Pro:

  • Usually cheaper and faster than buses.
  • Generally more comfortable than buses.
  • It has air conditioning.
  • You can buy food on the train.
    • There are meal, snack, and drink carts that come by.
      • Everything cost 20-30,000 VND
      • If you are in the first car, the food cart might run out of food before it gets to you. If this happens just go to the dining car at the opposite end of the train.
    • There is usually a dining car at the caboose.
    • At longer stops, vendors from that station will jump on the train and quickly sell drinks, food, and snacks.
  • There is always a bathroom you can use.
    • If the nearest bathroom is extremely filthy, try the other end of your car or another car.
    • All train bathrooms are dirty, but not all are filthy.
    • There is usually toilet paper, but it might not get restocked often enough. Bring your own to be safe.
    • Bring your own hand soap or hand sanitizer.
    • Unlike in other countries, the toilet is never locked when the train stops at a station. This is the best time to go!
  • Very low chance of being in a traffic accident.

Con:

  • You have to go to the train station which is usually a cab ride away from your hotel.
    • Many tour/ long distance buses pick travelers up in the downtown area just a few minutes walk from most hotels and hostels.
  • Doesn’t run as often as buses in some areas.
  • Doesn’t stop at every city.
    • Some towns are between two train stations.
  • Trains only run north or south.
    • If you need to travel east or west, you have to take a bus.

Tips:

  • Bring your own toilet paper, hand soap, and hand sanitizer.
  • Bring your own snacks.
    • Even though they sell lots of snacks on the train, you might not like any of them.
  • There are hot water dispensers on every car, but they look really, really gross.
  • Book your tickets online (https://www.baolau.com/) or from your hotel.
    • Don’t buy tickets from someone who doesn’t speak English very well. You might not get what you asked for.
    • You pay a smaller commission when buying tickets online than buying at your hotel or hostel.
    • If you buy your tickets at the train station you pay no commission, but that might be quite a hassle.
  • If you try to buy your tickets on the same day you plan to travel, you run a huge risk of either getting no seat or getting a really bad seat.
    • You don’t have to buy your tickets too far in advanced, unless the day is on or near a holiday.
    • Buying tickets a few days ahead of time will do.
  • Get a soft sleeper for long rides or a soft seat for short ones.
    • The soft sleeper is softer than the hard sleeper, obviously.
      • The bottom bunks are better, in my opinion, but it costs more. (Like a few dollars or so more.)
    • The soft sleeper has 4 beds per cabin; the hard sleeper has 6.
      • You can sit up in a soft sleeper, but not in a hard sleeper.
    • I’ve never tried a hard seat, but it just looks like torture to sit on for more than a few minutes.
      • Essentially, it’s just a wooden park bench on a train.
  • Since the toilets aren’t locked when the train is pulled into a station, that’s the best time to use it since it’s not moving.
  • Don’t expect too much.
    • The trains are dingy, but so are the buses.
    • The bathrooms are dirty, but so are the ones on the buses and at rest stops.
    • The dining cars are also dingy, but so are a lot of restaurants in Vietnam.
  • Unless you are leaving from Hanoi or Saigon, your train will depart behind schedule.
    • When heading south, the further away from Hanoi you are, the more off schedule your train will be.
    • When heading north, the further away from Saigon you are, the more off schedule your train will be.

The (Sleeper) Bus / A Rest Stop / Bus Ticket

Best Information:

Buying Tickets: Baolau

Pro:

  • There are more bus destinations than train destinations.
  • Sometimes, they pick you up right from your hotel.

    The Sleeper Bus (bottom bunk)

  • The stops are right in the down town area.
  • There are many buses to choose from throughout the day.
    • There are tons of bus companies.
  • You meet a lot of backpackers.
  • The bathrooms at the rest stops are better than the ones on the train. But, only in that the train moves making it harder to aim.
    • Bring toilet paper and hand soap/ hand sanitizer.
  • You are usually given a bottle of water for free.
  • Most of them come with wifi
    • It’s good enough to check your e-mail, but that’s about it (if it works at all).

Con:

  • They are more expensive than trains and have longer travel times.
  • There is no sleeping on a sleeper bus.
    • They are uncomfortable. There is never enough room.
    • They are usually either too hot or too cold.
    • Every time you drift off to sleep, the driver will honk loudly at no one in particular on the road.
    • If you are in the bottom bunk, the person above you will constantly drop things on you and never ever apologize.
    • If you are on the top bunk, things will always slip out of your hands when the driver swerves. It’s not your fault; never apologize!
  • Half the time horrible loud music will be blasted from cheap speakers.
  • On board, there is usually no bathroom or the bathroom is broken.
  • Companies try to pack as many people aboard as possible.
    • This is not too bad on buses.
    • On vans, this means that someone (or a few someones) has to sit in a jump seat.
  • There is a higher risk of traffic accidents with the bus than with the train.

Tips:

  • Don’t take a bus if you have a weak bladder.
  • Use your headphones. (You’ll be surprised how many backpackers act like they’ve never heard of headphones or earbuds.)
  • Don’t drink too much water. Bathroom breaks are too few and far between.
  • Keep a jacket and a fan with you. Sometimes it will be too cold; sometimes too hot.
  • Bring snacks and water.
    • But, again, don’t drink too much water!
  • Wear comfortable clothes. (Well, if you’re traveling, you’re probably wearing comfortable clothes everyday anyway.)
  • Some seats are better than others.
    • On the sleeper buses, there are seats that are a lot shorter than the rest.
    • You might prefer a bottom bunk or a top.
    • Ask about the seats when you buy your tickets.
  • Take the train, if you can!
    • I have met people who genuinely enjoyed taking the sleeper bus. I’m just not one of them.
    •  Do research. There are some sleeper bus companies that have high road accident rates.
    • As for non-sleeper buses, if it’s a short trip (3 hours or less) it’s okay. Still do your research of the bus company’s safety record.
    • Check online reviews for the company before buying tickets.

And of course there is always flying. Air fare is sometimes cheaper than train tickets, but getting to and from the airport can be a big hassle. I would fly if I were pressed for time. Since I haven’t flown domestically in Vietnam, I can’t do a pros and cons list.

Tip:

  • Take a shuttle bus to and from the airport. Try not to take a taxi.
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One Response to “The Trains in Vietnam and Other Ways to Get Around”

  1. […] took the yellow public bus #01 from Hoi An to Da Nang and took the train from there. The train ride was pretty uneventful except for one thing. Mark and I shared a berth […]

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