Hanoi to Hoi An by train was quite an experience for me. But before I continue, I need to come clean and explain that I do not have much experience of train travel in Asia or other parts of the world. About 10 years ago we took a trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, which was a little scary as the inspectors were constantly stopping the train, and inspecting the wheel directly under our carriage. I also took a horrendous, overbooked train from New York to Hartford, USA, where I sat on the moving connecting bit between carriages, on my suitcase with the worst hangover ever, and which possibly was the catalyst to ensuring I never had a hangover again. But other than that, my experiences have been Europe based. I haven’t been strapped to the top of the roof of a train, or sat for 10 hours on a wooden bench, so I guess experiences are all relative!
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The unforgettable train experience
Let me describe to you our train journey from Hanoi to Hoi An: 14 hours, on a soft bed (as in toffees are soft!), in a sleeper carriage with 2 strangers.
It felt weird to be sharing a bedroom with 2 strangers, but then I reminded myself that when I fly, I share my sleeping quarters with 500 people! Our 2 strangers were quiet and kept to themselves. They would not be lured into any form of conversation. Soon the light was off, and we were rocked to sleep by the slow, noisy train. At about midnight I awoke. I was cold. Not something you expect in Vietnam. It got colder and colder. The aircon must have been set to about 15C or less. Eventually my toes were frozen. At first I thought that if I open the carriage door for a bit, the warm 30C+ air from outside, with negate the cool from within. Not a chance. The air-conditioning was blasting in at an arctic force.
A rare toilet find
Okay I decided, defrost by walking around a bit. I walked up and down the adjacent carriages, only to find that my earlier experiences of trying to use the squat toilets on a rocking train (training for when I am in India I assured myself), had been unnecessary. There was a perfectly usable western toilet in the next carriage along. Result!
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Back to the cabin. Everyone else still seemed asleep. Time for action. I had to manoeuvre Tim’s backpack out the way to get to mine, then in the tiny space available, unpack the entire contents, to try and find the very few warm things I had packed in deep storage, right at the bottom of my bag: pashmina, long-sleeved t-shirt, little bolero jumper, snood. I wore them all. Still not enough. Then I pilfered a bedcover from another bed where someone had got off the train early.
Finally warm enough to sleep! Since then, I have not been cold. In fact, I have sometimes been so hot, I wanted to crawl out of my own skin.
Dinner, breakfast and coffee
They did wheel around a trolley full of mealies (corn) and something in a closed container just after we got on, but the installation didn’t look particularly sanitary. What we didn’t want, was to spend more time in the train toilets than absolutely necessary, if you get my drift …
We decided to have a bag of crisps and a 10.000 VND (33p) beer instead. By morning we were starving, but the only food available was a trolley full of mealies (corn) and something in a closed container – ah, leftovers from last night! We decided to share our other small bag of crisps and buy some mango instead.
The mango was served with a little pouch of soup powder, and the mango itself had clearly been washed in salt water. Very strange. Reminded me of when we were growing up, and my dad taught us to eat spanspek (cantaloupe melon) with salt. I assumed everyone ate it with salt. The same way we used to eat avocado & sugar. Anyway, I digress …
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A man came around offering coffee. Tim was pleased. He needs his morning caffeine fix. But what we didn’t expect, was for the train stewart to rummage around in this trolley, and produce a kettle. He went down the passage to fill it up, returned to our carriage and gestured for us to move our backpacks so he could plug it in in the carriage.
He patiently waited for it to boil whilst Tim was holding it in place, produced a sachet of pre-sugared coffee powder, and delivered him a lovely cup of sugared coffee, complete with straw!
Hai Van Pass and views
The train route takes you along the Hai Van Pass, a spectacular route over the mountains, with incredible views.
This is why we took the train. The best way of seeing the pass, is via motorbike, but Tim wasn’t keen on the biking idea. This was the next best thing. The weather was beautiful and the views breathtaking. In hindsight, would I have spent 14 hours on a train for these views, if I could fly in about 40 minutes? Perhaps not. But, I am glad we did it. After all, it’s left me with a story to tell.
Booking the train
If you want to do this journey form Hanoi to Hoi An by train, I suggest the following:
- Book in advance. Sleepers are popular. You can do this online. We booked through baolau.com.
- If you want full information on all trains, try seat61.com , they have some pretty good information on train travel around the world, including Vietnam, and will give you details on which trains have been refurbished, making them more comfortable.
- When you get to Hanoi Train Station, you need to wait in the waiting room on the right when you come in, until the train is ready for boarding.
- You don’t need to print out your tickets. They’re perfectly happy with electronic tickets.
- Have warmer clothes at hand, you will need them at night.
- If you don’t fancy potentially dodgy train food, plan in advance and bring some food along. Train food options are limited.
- Bring along a roll of toilet paper. The toilet paper ran out in all toilets.
- Carriages do have european style 2-point-plugs, so you can charge up devices.
- You could also book a train to Hue, and do the Hai Van Pass another way: private car, motorbike etc. But be aware that the buses don’t take the pass, they take the tunnel, which means you could miss it entirely!
Hope you’ve found some of this information interesting. Always happy for feedback to improve or enhance the content, so let me know if I missed anything.
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You can follow our trip by reading some of our earlier posts covering Hong Kong, Bangkok and other parts of Vietnam. See them here: altrinchamlivingandtravel.com or follow us on Instagram: @liezlhesketh and @timhermolle.