I’d read that train travel in Vietnam was comfortable and cheap, and the best way to see the countryside if you didn’t have a lot of time. I found it somewhat comfortable and well priced, and a good way to see the countryside. It was also a chance to talk with other travelers.
I traveled from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang on a nine-hour journey. I purposely chose a daytime trip, so that I could see the landscape as it rushed by. When I boarded the train, it looked like most of the Vietnamese weren’t really paying attention to their assigned seats, and they just sat wherever suited them best. The tourists, on the other hand, stuck with the number on their paper, so it was a funny mix of me stubbornly searching for the seat that matched my ticket while everyone around me negotiated with one another for favorite spots.
There were a few other tourists in the same car, and that’s how I met Laura, a lovely woman from London. She was traveling with a friend, Kate, whose seat was somehow several rows behind ours. Laura and I chatted most of the trip, and I hung out with her and Kate in Nha Trang, and later in Hue, when our paths crossed again. I probably should have just offered my seat to Kate so they could sit together, but I liked my window seat and didn’t want to break the rules. If I hadn’t stayed in my spot, I never would have met them and hit it off so well, so the moral of the story is that sometimes being uptight pays off!
The train had a couple TVs on it, playing flashy ads and soap operas. Nearly all the coat hooks were being used to hold people’s bags of food. A cart came around a couple times, selling treats and drinks. At one point the train stopped longer than usual at a station, and Laura nudged me, pointing out the possible reason: a couple of men in official looking uniforms, arguing with a middle-aged woman in a seat six or seven rows in front of us. A couple stations later, the uniformed men led her off the train, carrying what looked like a toy machine gun. We’re guessing the toy was hers and it wasn’t allowed? We really hope it was just a toy. It remains a mystery.
I took a train from Danang to Hue, and that was the prettiest train ride of my trip. The tracks followed the coast, and even though it was an overcast day, I saw plenty of lush tropical forest tumbling down the hills and into the ocean. This train was empty, so we all just picked which seats we liked best, which was good because the seat I was assigned seemed to have some springs poking out of it. This train was not as nice as the first one, but with scenery like that, who cares.
The last train I took in Vietnam was an overnighter from Hue to Hanoi. I was determined to be picky about my seat, since I’d paid extra for a bottom bunk in a six-bunk cabin. Imagine my surprise when I arrived in the cabin and found the pillow and blanket tossed to the side, and a man sitting on my bunk. Once I showed him my ticket proving it was my spot, he gave it up and sat on the other bunk with his friend and the woman whose bunk it was. I only meant he couldn’t sleep there, not that he couldn’t sit while we chatted, but that was just the first of a series of small misunderstandings. I fit my bags in around the five-gallon jar of homemade whiskey the guys were transporting, and then we faced each other and tried to talk. I had bought a small bag of sticky rice at the station and ate that while we talked, which the three of them found hilarious (I am not very good at chopsticks).
The two men had very limited English, and I only knew how to say “please” and “thank you” in Vietnamese, so it was a real struggle to talk. The most astonishing sunset was taking place outside the hall window, but every time I tried to peek out there, the guys pulled me back and tried to talk some more. There’s a lot to be said for cross-cultural communication, but when the language barrier is this huge, there’s really only so much that can be said. They would ask a question, and I would respond, and they’d smile, uncomprehending. Then I would ask a question, and they would respond, and I’d smile, uncomprehending. Any attempts to clarify what was said were met with more smiles and shrugged shoulders. I learned that their names were Tien Troung and Van Hien (they wrote their names for me in my notebook), and they were engineers on a work trip to Hue, returning home to Hanoi. They brought the homemade whiskey with them and were eager to return to their wives and children. Tien Truong showed me a photo of his six-month-old. That, at least, is universal. I congratulated him, and he grinned proudly.
Sleeping on that train was nearly impossible, since the guys played music on their phones and two other passengers climbed in the middle bunks midway through the night, and I had to use the bathroom twice, and tried to forget the experience each time because it was so disgusting that if I remembered how nasty it was, I’d never be able to go again.
We arrived in the capital around 6am on Gio to Hung Vuong Day, a celebration of the Hung Kings, who founded Vietnam. I said farewell to my cabinmates, scooted my bags away from the whiskey jar, and left the train behind.
What! All that time on the train talking and you didn’t even get to try a sip of the whiskey?!
Good point. Clearly, I was doing cross-cultural communication wrong!