Welcome to the second instalment of the latest Brian’s Travel Spot, the occasional series in which I attempt to catalogue my travels by means other than the coffee shops I visit. This trip began just over a week ago, when I flew out to Vietnam, a new destination for both me and the Coffee Spot. Since then I’ve been in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon as was), first exploring the city (through the lens of its speciality coffee shops), then attending a week-long meeting for my day job.
In an ideal world, I’d be writing things up as I go, letting you know what I made of the city, with regular updates documenting my various adventures and experiences. However, if the last year has taught me anything, it’s that trying to combine travelling, working, keeping the Coffee Spot regularly updated and writing Travel Spots in real time just doesn’t work. Something has to give and, sadly, it’s the Travel Spot.
Instead, let’s skip over Ho Chi Minh City to the second part of my trip, which began yesterday. It’s an epic 36-hour train journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, stopping along the way at Hoi An and Hué.
You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.
This particularly instalment of the Travel Spot will only cover the train travel. With luck, my experiences in Hoi An and Hué will follow in due course, but I’m not making any promises since I still haven’t finished writing up my round-the-world trip from last year and this year’s trips to the USA and Japan.
Regular readers will know that I have prior experience with long distance train travel. Indeed, the Travel Spot was created in order to cover my trip across the USA from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, which I took almost exactly two years ago. In comparison to that trip, which involved three nights on the train, this one, involving a mere 36 hours on board, is a minnow. However, by any other standard, it’s still pretty epic.
Vietnam is not exactly blessed with an extensive or comprehensive train network. However, if the trains go where you want to go and you’re in no hurry, then, much as it does in America, the train is a pretty effective method of getting around. Vietnam’s main train line connects the commercial and business hub of Ho Chi Minh City in the south with the capital, Hanoi, in the north. The country’s busiest line, it has five departures a day. When compared to, for example, Chicago to Portland (part of my trans-USA trip) where there’s one departure a day, it seems a frequent service. In contrast, though, there are at least 10 trains an hour between Tokyo and Osaka, the Coffee Spot’s previous overseas destination. As ever, it’s all a matter of perspective.
Rather than doing the whole trip in one go, I’d decided to split the journey roughly in the middle with stops at Hoi An and Hué. This involved catching an overnight train from Ho Chi Minh City to Danang (the station closest to Hoi An), making the shorter (2½ hour) ride from Danang to Hué and then rounding things off with another sleeper from Hué to Hanoi.
Incidentally, this meant that I was pretty much following in the footsteps of Bex of Double Skinny Macchiato, only she cheated (was more sensible; delete as appropriate) and flew most of the way, only catching the train between Hué and Danang (she went to Hué first, then Hoi An).
For me, the main advantage of the train is that you get to see something of the country along the way. I also find it much less stressful than flying, although in this instance, flying would have been an awful lot quicker. Another advantage of the train is its comparative cheapness: my ticket from Ho Chi Minh City to Danang (the first leg of my trip) was around 700,000 Vietnamese Dong (including booking fees), or just under £25. Bearing in mind that this included my bed for the night and you can see what excellent value it is.
I booked all my tickets well in advance, using Baolau. This was a straightforward experience and even included an interactive seat map which allowed me to select my seat. The tickets arrived by e-mail: all I had to do was print them out and show the right one to the attendant when I boarded.
Talking of which, you can see what happened when I caught to the train to Danang after the gallery.
The first leg of my journey, from Ho Chi Minh City to Danang, was also the longest, a total of 18½ hours. My choice of train was largely dictated by work (my meeting finished at lunchtime), but turned out rather well, since the only sensible train I could catch was the one departing Ho Chi Minh City at 2.40 in the afternoon, arriving in Danang at 9.10 the following morning.
A word about Vietnamese trains. They’re not the most modern in the world, but they get the job done. Each train has a mix of sleeper and standard carriages, with the precise details depending on the specific train. For more details, see the excellent The Man in Seat 61 website.
I travelled on Train TN2 in the most expensive class, a four-berth sleeping compartment which I ended up sharing with three teenage Vietnamese, two girls and a boy. Our carriage was near the back of the train, consisting of seven compartments, each with a sliding door which can be locked from the inside. These open onto a long, connecting corridor along the right-hand side of the train with a toilet at one end. There’s also a sink down here (with a kettle) next to a small room for the attendant (one per carriage).
The compartment is fairly sparsely equipped: there are four fixed bunks, two on each side. There’s adequate storage space for your luggage beneath the two lower bunks, while if you’re in one of the upper bunks, you can use the large space over the top of the door (although you have to get it up there in the first place). A single table, more of a projecting slab, sticks out between the two lower bunks, taking up maybe a third of the width of the compartment. When it comes to sitting, you’re stuck with perching two-by-two (or three-by-one in our case) on the lower bunks or squatting, cross-legged, on the upper bunks.
I’d chosen a lower bunk and was rather pleased with my choice. Compared to many sleeper trains I’ve been on, the upper bunks have plenty of headroom but getting up and down is a real challenge. There are no ladders, just a footrest maybe a metre off the floor and a handle maybe two metres up, with the bunk itself about 1½ metres up. Getting up and down involved a rather acrobatic procedure which the teenagers managed with an athletic grace. I shudder to think what a struggle I would have had getting up, while getting down would have been even worse!
Having a lower bunk also gave me de facto squatters’ rights to a seat by the table/window, vital for getting this Travel Spot written. It also improves the view no end: while you can sit on the upper bunks, don’t expect to see much from up there. That said, sitting on the bunk for any length of time was uncomfortable. The bunk itself is quite hard (more on this later) and while you can use the pillow as a back rest and lean against the compartment wall, you’re then a long way from the table/window. I ended up writing this Travel Spot alternating between sitting up at the table and leaning back against the wall, laptop on my lap.
A few more practical pointers. The carriages are air-conditioned, with the effectiveness of the air-conditioning being correlated to the outside temperature (which makes sense). Hence it worked far better during the evening and at night, to the extent that it was cool enough for me to put a jacket on at times! It’s also worth noting that the corridor is air conditioned, just not as well, so it’s a little hotter/more humid out there. A thermometer at the end of the corridor read about 26⁰C for the duration of the journey.
Talking of corridors, the air-conditioning worked better with the door to the corridor closed. Unfortunately, the door’s a solid lump of wood with no window, which means you can only see out of one side of the train when the door’s closed. If, like me, you’re trying to sight see, you’ll want the door open, so be prepared to have to compromise.
Talking of solid things, the train is pretty well constructed, but takes no prisoners. Don’t expect much in the way of rounded corners or padding. There are plenty of sharp edges and protruding bolts to snag the unwary, plus, if you’re tall, beware of the bracket holding up the table! There are a couple of power sockets underneath the table (not nearly enough for four people and all their devices) but nothing helpful like a reading light. Once the sun goes down it’s either all the lights on or all the lights off. There’s also no Wi-Fi, although I wasn’t expecting there to be.
That’s enough critiquing the carriage. What about the journey itself? You can see how I got on after the gallery.
The first task was to catch the train and, when there’s only one departure every few hours, this isn’t too onerous a job! I just walked into the station, across to the platform and got on the train. More good news is that we left on time, although if you’ve only got five departures a day, that really shouldn’t be too difficult either.
The first part of the journey, through Ho Chi Minh City, was painfully slow. As I’d noted during my wanderings in the city, Ho Chi Minh City is completely flat and the Vietnamese don’t really do bridges. So the train line makes it way along behind rows of houses and across multiple roads, each equipped with a level crossing, all of them, it appeared, manned by someone in a neat uniform.
Slowly the city fell away, although for probably about an hour, we were travelling through a very urban environment, with buildings and industry very close to the tracks. After that, the city gave way to countryside, but the views weren’t up to much. Again, being essentially flat, there was no elevation, and frequently all that could be seen was a line of trees or a field next to the train.
After about three hours, things started to open out a bit more and, for the first time since I’d arrived in Vietnam, I saw hills. The landscape was very mixed as we headed roughly east towards the coast, sometimes with views out across open fields to the hills in the distance and other times with towns and villages close up the tracks. What surprised me was how familiar the landscape seemed. I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but the trees (although not the occasional stands of palms and banana trees) could have been from anywhere in the British countryside, particularly the regimented rows of an obvious forestry plantation. What also surprised me was the lack of obvious agriculture in much of the countryside, although what I was seeing as large, empty fields could easily have been rice paddies.
We left at 2.40 and I enjoyed four hours of views before being rewarded with a lovely, lingering sunset just before we hit the coast, where we turned north for the rest of our journey.
Check back later on this weekend to see how the rest of the journey went!
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