The great train experiment

Our great train experiment ended up as a qualified failure. Our plan was to take the overnight train from Hanoi to Hue and then from Danang to Saigon. We did take the train from Hanoi to Hue, but ended up deciding to take a plane from Danang to Saigon.

The Vietnamese railroad has some “special” (express) trains that run from Hanoi to Saigon and back. The first class sleeping cars are air conditioned and contain four bunks. A ticket from Hanoi to Hue cost about $60 if I remember correctly, but our tour agency guaranteed us a private compartment by buying us tickets for all four bunks. This doubled the cost and the conductor was not too happy about it. Having the compartment to ourselves was kind of nice and saved us potential hassles with roommates. The air conditioning was  intermittent and just barely adequate. The train left Hanoi at 7PM (sharp), so it was dark outside and there was not much to see from our large window. The compartment itself was not all that clean. It was not all that dirty, but there was a bit of a greasy film on the compartment walls. Examining the mattress and single, off white sheet, we were a bit worried about the bedding containing six and eight legged fellow travelers, but, in fact, we had no indication of any actual bugs or bites after our night in the bunks.

So, it wasn’t luxury travel, but that is not what caused us to opt to forego the second leg of our train journey. The real issue turned out to be the violence of the train motion. We were tossed around in all directions in a seemingly chaotic fashion. This might have been tolerable except that the train motion also included a kind of “crack-the-whip” component that caused a violent, front-to-back lurch at unpredictable times. This knocked anything on the little table between the lower berths off onto the floor and startled one out of any level of sleep one might have been experiencing.

To add insult to injury, the bathroom next door to our compartment was of the squat variety. I was fine  given the flexibility and standoff nature of my male equipment. Not so lucky, Kris gamely made the best of it. Kris had done some online research on the proper use of a squat toilet and aimed to master the technique. However, I cringed when a crack-the-whip episode occurred while she was in the bathroom. Sure enough, she appeared a few minutes later, proud, unbowed, head high, but rather damp overall. (To make matters somewhat worse, we discovered in the morning that the bathroom at the other end of our train car was Western-style.)

In the end, Kris did not sleep at all because of the train motion, which was an unacceptable outcome. When dawn finally came, we were rewarded by a few hours of some breathtaking views of the countryside. The sun came up. Farmers were out in the rice paddies, plowing their fields with their water buffalo. We actually saw water buffalo cavorting with each other, demonstrating a lighter side of that usually solemn beast. Later, we saw uniformed school children waiting at the railroad crossing for the train to pass. We got big smiles and friendly waves as we (they?) zipped by.

The organization on the ground that is handling our Vietnam tour is called “Trails of Indochina.” They have been great. On arrival in Hue, we told our guide that we wanted to change our plans and take a plane from Danang to Saigon. The guide called headquarters and they just made it happen. Our flight to Saigon was the usual modern airplane ride: uncomfortable, but only an hour long. As it turned out, Kris had some beautiful views of Vietnam from the air on the way down the coast. We also got a little more downtime in Saigon than we would otherwise have had.

A real question is what this experience means for our plans to take the train in India on our way back home from Sri Lanka. If the train motion is this bad in India then we may need to punt and come up with a better idea for getting around.




  1. SHANNON said,

    September 29, 2008 at 2:26 pm


  2. Tim said,

    September 30, 2008 at 6:30 am

    There is a certain advantage to being hard of hearing like we are. I suspect that it helped me to sleep that night on the train to have the train noises filtered out.

    I wonder if we can find someone on the web who can comment on the Indian train experience?


  3. November 10, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    […] very inexpensive. Finally we returned to Hanoi and put on the night train to Hue. I have already posted about this adventure and so I will get back to work on preparing the pictures that I took in central Vietnam (Hue, […]

  4. Kris said,

    November 13, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Since I was there–I think the solution is to use trains during daylight hours and sleep in hotels. The bouncing all night was not good sleeping or even napping, and if the point of travel is to see the sights, why suffer needlessly? Hotels do not have to be destination resorts–the new trends in tourism seem to think that people go to a hotel rather than to an area. I hope I never descend to the level of hotel traveler; too many places in the world are wonderful to see and the traveler only needs a clean bed and bath and a good lock on the door.

  5. November 23, 2008 at 10:01 am

    […] a Vietnamese pharmacy. I have described the trip from Hanoi to Hue by train in my report on “The Great Train Experiment.” The results of that experiment were that we slept most of the day of our arrival in Hue in […]

  6. December 14, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    […] ride was as rough or rougher than the train ride we took in Vietnam from Hanoi to Hue that I blogged about earlier. The car often lurched from side to side throwing me […]

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