Train Travel in Vietnam

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.

Train ticket

Train ticket — about $13 for a 270 mile trip

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.

Full train to Nha Trang

Full train to Nha Trang

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!

hue to hanoi train

Burning in the fields

Burning in the fields

Scenery on the way from Saigon to Nha Trang

Scenery on the way from Saigon to Nha Trang

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.

From Danang to Hue

From Danang to Hue

Misty coast

Misty coast

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.

That sunset ride is pulling in

That sunset ride is pulling in

hue to hanoi train

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).

Bunks on the overnight from Hue to Hanoi

Bunks on the overnight from Hue to Hanoi

My bunk, with the homemade whiskey just visible in the corner there

My bunk, with the homemade whiskey just visible in that rucksack in the corner there

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.

Tien Truong and Van Hien

Tien Truong and Van Hien, who insisted on posing for photos and asked me to pose as well

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.

hue to hanoi train

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.

A Different Kind of Lunch Break

One of my favorite memories of the temples of Angkor doesn’t involve the temples at all–it involves a sticky plastic seat, a table in the shade, and two hours of conversation. After a morning at a couple temples, I took my driver’s advice and ate at the little restaurant across from Banteay Samre.

My My, Jo, and Tui show off their drawings

My My, Jo, and Tui show off their drawings

Two teenage girls took my order, and their mother brought out a delicious fish amok soup. One of the girls disappeared in the back with her mother, but the other one stayed out with me and chatted. My My, as she introduced herself, was sweet and silly, giggling after every sentence. Her friends, Jo and Tui, joined us, and they talked with me about school–which they sometimes go to and sometimes skip–and boys–one of My My’s friends, age 15 like her, has just had a baby. Tui’s English was almost perfect, but Jo and My My were able to hold a conversation just fine as well. I brought out a packet of coconut crackers and handed them around for everyone to share.

Fish amok soup--so good

Fish amok soup–so good

But as with nearly all the friendly conversations I had with locals throughout Southeast Asia, I felt an undercurrent of discomfort because the income inequality was always so evident. All three girls were trying to sell me something over lunch; My My had bottles of water and Tui had little ornaments. For me, the two hours we spent talking over my soup were a midday break, a relaxing lunch, but they were still on the clock. Every so often, one of the girls would break into the conversation with “Buy this one, just one, please help”; Tui, especially, was persistent. I didn’t buy anything til I was leaving, at which point I bought a water from each of them. They were very clear that buying just one water would only help that one girl; is there a system of quotas going on? I’m not sure if I shouldn’t have bought a lot more things, or overpaid by a lot, or if that would contribute to their staying out of school even more often, or what. Not sure what the Good Tourist move was.

But before I bought the waters, My My ran into the back and came out with large pieces of paper. I loaned them my pens, and each girl drew a picture, which they then gave to me to keep. I played several games of tic-tac-toe with Jo and My My showed me how to write her name in Khmer script. They teased me about not having a boyfriend and turned shyly away when I asked them if they had boyfriends. We took a photo before I left, and My My shouted my name as I got into the back of the tuk-tuk and the driver headed down the road.

My favorite lunch in Cambodia

My favorite lunch spot in Cambodia

I was a walking wallet but also a source of fun for them. To me, they were an intimidating reminder of how much I have and how much others don’t have, and also lovely individuals with personalities I can clearly remember now, months later. I hope we were something good to each other and that they had as much fun as I did laughing over soup and crackers.