Like many that visit Vietnam, I was determined to make the most of my time and see as much of the country as possible. While Vietnam is a long, thin country with most of the places worth seeing located in a line down the coast, the country is deceptively large and travel times between places may be longer than anticipated.
I didn’t have many days holiday left this year after starting a new job in May, but had my heart set on seeing as much as possible from south to north and didn’t want to waste any days travelling from place to place.
And that’s where the appeal of the sleeper trains came in, go to sleep at your starting point and wake up at your destination with no wasted days and doubles as accommodation for the night.
But figuring it out can be confusing, and it is quite basic. Luckily I have a few tips to help you survive an overnight train journey.
What’s it like?
In soft berth, it’s a bit like a super-basic hostel. It is far from luxurious, but if you’re used to backpacking or even festivals, you’ll survive it just fine. The mattress was thin and firm but I definitely slept.
It can be noisy sometimes (we had some bored kids in the cabin next to us banging on the walls on one train) or you might get lucky and just have people who want some shut eye like we did on another.
It’s affordable, convenient with most of the stations being in the centre of town, and means you can manage to see more of the country on budget and time restraints. Overall, it was not as bad as I thought it would be
How do I book?
You have a few options:
You can book at the ticket office at your departing station, although I found the language barrier slightly difficult and you do risk not having the spot you want.
Alternatively, you can book through the official website. I did have an issue with paying through it, but it reserved my ticket and I paid when I got there.
Avoid Vietnam-railways websitem, it looks like an official site but isn’t. We made this mistake but unlike many other unlucky travellers, our e-tickets did end up being valid but did pay a bit more. While we easily travelled, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.
Tickets purchased directly for soft berth should cost you about £25 (just over 700,000 dong) for journeys of about 9-10 hours.
Where do I sleep?
There’s a few class options on the sleeper trains:
- Hard seat – It is basically a hard wooden bench, avoid at all costs!
- Soft seat – Similar to a plane seat
- Hard berth – a six-bed cabin, three bunks on each side
- Soft berth – a four-bed, two bunks on each side
Definitely book a soft berth, and go for the bottom bunk if possible. On the bottom you can see out the window and sit at the table and store your bag under the bed. Top bunk there’s just a peg to climb up.
What should I bring?
There’s a few essentials you should have to help you get through the journey:
- Bottles of water – long journeys and likely delays mean you should take a few bottles each.
- Snacks – someone does come around selling pot noodles, but there’s not much else to eat.
- Your own blanket or travel sheet – they do provide a blanket but who knows when/how well it was washed.
- Toilet roll – there isn’t likely to be any on board.
- Hand sanitizer – again, the bathrooms aren’t great.
- Eye mask
- Ear plugs
- Ladies, consider bringing a certain piece of camping equipment (you won’t want to go near the loos toward the end of the journey and the facilities at smaller stations are, er, limited).
Which train should I book?
The hours go by so much quicker and it is more worth your money, as you won’t need extra accommodation, to book a train leaving around your usual bed time. The later you leave in the evening, the more tired you’ll be once you board, which means you’ll fall asleep faster. It also means you are more likely to have some daylight in the morning to watch the beautiful scenery pass by and it means you’ll be rocking up at your destination at a more humane hour that is closer to your accommodation’s check in time.
For our first sleeper train from Ho Chi Minh City, we arrived in Nha Trang at 5:30am, completely out of it and desperate for a coffee. Our check in wasn’t until 2pm with no luggage storage, and it was lucky we did this in a town with lots of sun loungers. We rocked up at the beach, backpacks and all, grabbed a sun lounger and had a nap. On the next one from Nha Trang to Da Nang, we arrived at an easier 9:30am, sat down at the cafe across from the train station for a coffee and some WiFi and luckily were able to drop our bags off after that.
Are some journeys better than others?
Short answer: Yes!
First, not all journeys go overnight and if you are on limited time, it wastes your days, and you’ll still need accommodation.
Second, it is obviously going to be much better cleanliness wise to use it at it’s starting point for less than 10 hours. Mainly because of the toilets. And not jumping in to sleep where someone else just was. The train from Ho Chi Minh City was also newer and cleaner than the 2nd we took from Nha Trang to Da Nang.
But some of the journeys are a great way to see some of the beautiful scenery so you might want to leave some daylight hours to sit and watch the country side go by.
How do I know when to get off?
Frequent delays can make it difficult to know when your train will arrive, and even more difficult when you can’t understand the announcements. We were lucky enough to meet a local lady who was kind enough to translate the announcements and make sure we were ready to get off on one delayed journey. The guards will come and let you know a few minutes before, but I’d recommend getting packed up before your original arrival time so you aren’t scrambling around for your stuff.
Any other advice?
Make sure you wear comfortable clothes and find somewhere to change before you get to the station, there’s no privacy on the trains and you’ll wake up feeling fresher/be more comfortable. Cotton trousers are a great choice. We had some funny adventures trying to freshen up before our journey after spending the entire day walking around with our backpacks in the heat or hanging out and the beach/in the sea. It was also a challenge trying to find places to hang out while having our bags until the trains left circa 11pm. In Ho Chi Minh City, we ended up at the Hotel Rex rooftop bar for some cocktails, looking out of place in the glam setting with our backpacks under the table, and I ended up changing in their bathroom as I wanted to find somewhere nice and clean. In Nha Trang, we ended up spending the evening at the spa to relax and get rid of the beach grime from the day.
Hopefully this helps with what took me a lot of research and some trial and error to figure out! Sorry this one is light on nice pics compared to some of my other recent posts, but no one wants to see many of what I look like after a 10 hour journey right after a day on the beach!
The bottom line is that it can save you a lot of time and money, and it can really be part of the adventure of travelling Vietnam. I’m a person that does like my creature comforts to some extent, so if I can survive it, I think many travellers can!