“I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: for this moment I know where I am going.” ― Anna Funder
Trains represent a reliable, stress-free means of getting from one place to another. In countries such as Vietnam, they offer travellers a closer look at local life and incredible scenery. Sure plane tickets are cheap and a flight takes a fraction of the time, but why miss out on all the fun?
The last ten years have seen the North-South Reunification railway line greatly improved. You can now get air-conditioned trains from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh , which pass by Hue, Danang and Nha Trang. That said, if you are planning to travel by rail in Vietnam, make sure you have the time and patience to do so.
Due to ticket availability and a lack of planning, the trip I describe below took place on an SE3 train in a soft-seat. I would only recommend this class of carriage during the day, as it is difficult to get any shut-eye. If you have the choice, opt for soft sleeper carriages and SE1 trains.
The train from Hoi An to Nha Trang
The first thing to mention is that the train leaves from Danang, not Hoi An, and takes about 10 hours to reach Nha Trang. The second is that the hotel clerk ripped me off and overcharged me by about 200,000 VTD per ticket (about £6), so make sure you check prices online if you’re asking someone to book on your behalf.
There’s not much to do around Danang station and the newspaper vendors don’t have anything in English – it was the first time I found newspaper sellers actively avoiding me as I chased them down asking if they had a copy of Vietnam News. No luck, but I did find a can of Sanest.
The latter contains raw salanganes nest, which is essentially bird spit, the same type of product used to make bird nest soup. The drink was a sugary, glutinous, lumpy mixture, which I will never be able forget. It still haunts me at night.
The train arrived about an hour late and as soon as I climbed on I suspected I had been given the spot reserved for foreigners. The seat in front was stuck in a reclining position and occupied by someone’s sleeping grandmother. I asked one of the people sitting with her if she could lift it up, but it soon became clear the seat was broken. I asked a passing steward if he could fix it, but he just said “lock is broken”. By this time I had annoyed everyone in the carriage, especially the grandmother.
I decided to make the most of my tiny space and tried to get comfortable. My chair, of course, was also broken and couldn’t recline so I didn’t have much room to manoeuvre. Suddenly I was hit by an incredible stench. It was rancid sweat mixed with something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I looked around and noticed the lady behind me had put a bare foot on each side of my headrest. I shuffled in my chair trying to get her to move and eventually she gave up one of her footrests.
After a while, I looked over to get a glimpse of the person whose feet were so odorous and was met with her husband’s smile. He must have been in his mid-sixties and had an extraordinary face. It resembled some wood carvings I’d seen in Hoi An, where a wrinkled face was carved into the roots of a tree. His facial hair seemed to grow from inside his mouth and reminded me of a wooded valley. His smile was toothless and friendly.
I turned back and moved my head to the side which had recently been vacated by his wife’s foot and opened a beer. I had bought a selection at the station for this type of occasion. The alcohol quickly settled in my empty stomach and lifted my spirits. The carriage was certainly not new, but it seemed clean enough and, despite issues relating to space and smell, was pretty comfortable.
The journey and Vietnamese game shows
One of the main pleasures which travelling by train in Vietnam provides is a look at landscapes you would never have otherwise seen. Rather than go into the usual clichés of rolling rice fields and workers wearing paddy hats, I’ll focus on what went on in the carriage itself. But believe me: the views are well worth the trip.
Throughout the journey, and I think this is supposed to be one of the perks of travelling in soft as opposed to hard seats, a TV screened various Vietnamese TV programmes. The first was a game show, where couples competed for a number of domestic appliances.
Two very excited hosts, who looked like fuller versions of Gok Wan, were making the in-studio and in-train audience roar with laughter by carrying out formulaic comedic routines. They made funny faces, spoke quickly in silly voices and, I think, made humorous comments about the contestants. One contestant in particular, an over-weight, over-excited thirty something, was enjoying the attention.
He constantly hogged the centre stage and made every effort to interact with the audience. He waved his hands enticing them to cheer while he ran around picking up vacuum cleaners and kettles. Whenever the camera panned out just before a commercial break, he jiggled his impressive mass to the sound of the game shows music, ensuring he always stood out. He was inexplicably paired with a pretty, slim brunette and contorted his face into exaggerated expressions of joy everytime he won a frying pan. It was very amusing.
Other programmes included French and Russian ex-pats being asked to speak Vietnamese (big laughs from the train carriage) and a Canadian hidden camera show. Highlights included someone pretending to be blind and walking into a tree and a friendly dog which had been trained to act aggressive. More laughs.
We were then treated to a selection of video clips from the 90s. Boy bands I had forgotten existed and a trendy young Madonna serenaded us for hours. At this point I turned my attention to the view and after a while to Paul Theroux’s excellent “Saint Jack”. I was delighted to arrive around midnight in Nha Trang.
If you’re looking for more information on travelling by train Vietnam, or indeed anywhere in the world, check out Seat61, the best train-based website out there.
Michele Martinelli is a London based writer, you can follow him on @Greatbites.