“Ugh, no,” said our newfound Dutch friend, when we told them in Ho Chi Minh city that we planned on taking multiple sleeper trains during our trip through Vietnam. “I think they are very small,” her boyfriend chimed in. “And loud.”
This, to our dismay, turned out to be exactly right.
As I learned on my three week trip through Vietnam, taking the sleeper trains is an adventure unto itself. Fortunately, there are some options when it comes to selecting which ticket to buy on the train that can help make them a little more comfortable. (Note: I said a little more comfortable. You’ve been warned.)
There’s a lot of misinformation out there, as well as a lot of fake websites purporting to be the “official” train website, so I’ve put together this post specifically to help travelers figure out the sometimes-confusing recommendations out there about travel by train.
Vietnam, comparatively speaking, isn’t a huge country. Specifically, it’s not very wide, which means there’s only one rail line in the country, running south to north. There’s only one train that runs on this line, and it’s called the Reunification Express, built in the 1930’s. So it’s old, and loud, and (as our Dutch friends warned us,) small. The entire room is about the width of a King-sized bed, and it holds four (or sometimes six!) people.
On the Reunification Express, there are four ticket types:
- Hard seat: This is a seat, in an open area, with no padding. Don’t choose this unless you hate yourself
- Soft seat: A slightly better option than the hard seat, but still advised only for masochistic types
- Hard bunk: This is the “sleeper” part of the sleeper train. You’ll have a hard bunk (no padding) on the top, middle, or bottom of a carriage, which is separated from the hall by a sliding door. The room has a very small amount of storage space, unlike the hard and soft seats. There are three bunks on each side and small pegs on the walls to facilitate climbing up. You’ll be sharing with whomever else happened to book the beds – don’t expect a private cabin or any amenities.
- Soft bunk: Ahh, the gold standard of train travel. Just kidding. It still sucks. The only difference between this and the hard bunk is you only have four people per cabin, and you get a private reading light at each bunk. No guarantees that it works, however.
No matter which seat you pick, all of these are considered the “local” sleeper train.
For our first sleeper train, being the high-class travelers we are, we went with a soft sleeper. This was, unfortunately, still a mistake. Our cabin was crawling with cockroaches (saw about, let’s say, 30 or so) and the two folks who joined us halfway through the ride were intent on being as loud and active as possible until about 3 am.
How to Avoid the Train
For some destinations, like Sapa, in the far north, you’ll find that the train is by far the easiest and most common mode of transport. However, unless you want to rent a private car, your only other option to the train is the bus. Here are a few recommendations for sleeper buses, based on where you’re going. Keep in mind, though, that the roads in Vietnam are not nearly as safe as they are in Western countries, and that bus accidents and, shall we say, creative interpretation of the driving laws are not uncommon.
- http://www.sleeperbusvietnam.com/ serves the most destinations. Fares range from $15-$90 USD, depending on destination
- https://futabus.vn/en-US cheaper, but serves a smaller number of destinations. Should still be good for travelers going to most major destinations, though
- Hostel/travel agency buses: In Vietnam, you’ll find tourist travel agencies in most major destinations near the ‘backpacker’ parts of town. Just swing by and ask if they have any buses headed to your next destination; we were able to take a one-way trip on what would otherwise be a round-trip tour bus for about $9 USD each.
How to Choose a Train
For most destinations, you’re stuck on the local train – see “how to survive the sleeper train” below for some tips. However, if you’re going to Lao Cai/Sapa, in the north, there are some enterprising companies that offer a slightly higher class experience than the local trains. Companies like Fanxipan Express, Pumpkin Express, the Livitrans, the Orient Express, and a handful of others have recently purchased old Reunification Express sleeper cars and refurbished them to offer a more luxurious experience. Collectively, these are called the “tourist trains.” These have more comfortable cabins, slightly nicer bathrooms, and offer some basic amenities, like water, toothbrushes, slippers and (if you’re lucky) toilet paper!
If you book one of these cars, you’ll still have four people to your cabin, unless you book an entire “VIP” cabin, which is basically just a standard cabin with the two top bunks folded up to create additional space. Fansipan has the best reviews, though it’s the priciest.
On our trip, we chose the Fanxipan Train, and we sprung for the VIP cabin, as our first experience on the local sleeper train was so miserable. Though it’s definitely more expensive, at $80 USD each, there are definitely some added benefits to having your own car, beyond the privacy aspect: you’ll have more room, you can change/sleep in whatever you want, and you won’t wake up every time your neighbor above you climbs up or down, or opens the (rather loud) metal door to the cabin.
Worth it? In my opinion, yes; though that could be shaded by an especially bad experience on the local sleeper. We were able to (more or less) sleep the entire time, and felt awake enough to actually do something the day we arrived in Sapa, rather than having to immediately take a nap. Consider it, unless you’re a true budget traveler, in which case the section below is for you.
How to Survive the Sleeper Train:
No matter which train you take, the train is, in general, uncomfortable. Here are a few tips to make it slightly less so:
I’d love to hear about other experiences with the train in Vietnam – just let me know in the comments!
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