A different kind of travelogue. As an avid young traveller I often wondered what would it would be like when I got older, gathered commitments, created children and accrued debt. This is what it's like.
Top Ten Train Travel Tips for Families in Overnight Sleeper Trains in Vietnam.
Hue to Saigon. We are off again on our fifth sleeper experience. This has become a family favorite. It’s not just the grown ups, though we love it for the views, the safety and the value. It is a kid favorite too; bunks, rattles, funny toilets, room service, noodles and sleeping all together.
It is a beautiful trip from Hue south. We get to see the coast from a spectacular elevated and exposed old railway. We get to see homes and farms from a different point of view, one that is not the increasingly homogenous view you get from a car. The road sides of the world seems less and less varied. You just don’t see that many adverts for giant American Multinationals from the train.
I have been asked over and over again about the train travel experience with the family. Here are a collection of the ten most common questions and my rambling answers.
Top Ten Tips for Overnight Train Travel in Vietnam.
1. Where should I start my planning? Start with www.seat61.com Figure out what you want. Some trains are better than others. Some trains leave rather late for kids bedtimes. Some overnight trips will land you at your destination very early which we found difficult; everyone wanted a shower, everyone was a bit too tired to enjoy a day walking around a city and to arrive at a hotel as 06:00 usually meant paying for an extra day.
2. When should I get my tickets? Book your tickets early. Months before if you can commit. You will struggle to get the cabins and train times you want if you try to book it close to your intended date of travel. Especially if its a holiday period in Vietnam.
3. Where should I get my tickets? Book through an agent; the fees are very low and the service offered is more than worth it. We bought our own and used two different agents; our recommendation is www.vietnamimpressive.com
4. What are the stations like? Stations can be a bit smelly and dirty. Sometimes the chaos is a bonus and the train lines that are markets for every moment that the train is not actually on them are a sight to behold. Hanoi in particular was amazing.
However you do need to arrive a little early just to make sure you navigate the station and find out where you need to be. Stations can smell of urine or worse. Waiting rooms can be very hot and uncomfortable. The station toilets can be awful so make sure you all use alternatives before you get there.
5. What is the food like? You can buy street style food at the stations. There are shops with food you can bring with you but it may be largely processed. Perhaps grab some fresh fruit or veggies early in the day and wash it for the trip. There was a working samovar in every carriage when we travelled. Get some good quality noodles. Even vegetarians have a decent selection of noodle in Vietnam. Its not easy to find these in the stalls around the stations but if you go to a dedicated vegetarian restaurants you can stock up.
Remember noodle will have salt and monosodium glutamate. This means thirst. Thirst means drinking water or cold beers and drinking means more visits to the toilets! There is also a procession of food trolleys during the trip. The price and quality is fine. A cold beer is basically the same price as on the street. The coffee is a little sad but it still works! I always travel with a vietnamese coffee making set up so I make my own.
6. Will my cabin be private? You can book an entire cabin but we enjoyed mixing in with the locals. There are more expensive tourist carriages available. We never took one. We shared our carriages with the vietnamese and it was a highlight of travel in Vietnam. Cabins are usually available as Soft or Hard Sleepers. Soft Sleepers are fine. Hard sleepers are fine too, the ones we used were basically the same bed as the Soft Sleeper but each cabin had three bunks on each side rather than two. If you are a family of 5 or 6 this might be fine. But you more or less cannot sit up, perhaps not a big deal if your trip is from 10pm to 6am or if you can do everything lying down. I like sitting up and looking out the window. We left the door open to the corridor and chatted to the other passengers.
7. What are the beds like? We travelled 4 out of 5 times in Soft Sleeper because we are a family of 4. Beds are just long enough for me at 6 foot 2 inches. They have plastic/PVC covered mattresses so it can be a bit sweaty. If you sleep on the bottom level you have other people in you face but you get a view. If you sleep on the upper level you get more privacy/better protected personal space but less view. Our trains had working air con units which in theory could be adjusted from inside the cabin but in practice just stayed on all with. The top bunks got blasted with the cooler air we needed our sleeping bags up there.
The supplied bed linen is okay. The quilted blankets are not covered and not washed between customers. Consider bringing your own linen etc if this bothers you. Reading lights usually worked. I bring a tiny Petzl head torch everywhere I go just in case.
There is lots of space under seats and above corridor for luggage. We could lock our cabins from the inside and never felt concerned about personal safety.
8. What are the toilets like? The toilets are train toilets. Prepare yourself. Cleanliness varies with numerous factors; how far into the trip you join the train, the enthusiasm of the attendant and the time of night. Ours were generally fine. We had a few bad ones. It depends on the people that use your toilet too. We did share a carriage with a very elderly gentleman who had had a stroke, he wobbled a lot and had limited mobility and he miraculously left the toilet spotless everytime. He was more skilled at extreme urination than we were. That said I have walked into the toilet to find it sprayed with urine. There is a hand held hose for washing your backside so I hosed the place down (it all drains out and dries very quick) and washed my hands (scrubbed them) before I used the facilities. If you like things like hand sanitisers, this is the place to use them.
9. What is it like arriving at your destination? Not all sleepers trains arrive in the early morning. You can book one for a daytime only trip. Obviously you save on accommodation costs if you book the overnight trips. If you are traveling overnight with kids think about when you arrive. The overnights are fun but not necessarily that restful with you and your kids in a cabin. We didn’t leave our bags at stations. I didn’t look for left luggage, we just dropped our bags at the accommodation and went for a wander. The kids were able to go for long wandering walks through the city we arrived in but in truth on each occasion at least one of us and sometimes all of us felt like we had been up all night. I’d suggest you ensure you can drop your bags at your hotel early or even check in early. You will want a shower. Some hotels can help even before you get a room. Be alert to taxi hassles or scams in the melee of the arrival. Hue in particular has a problem with taxi scams bringing you to hotels you don’t want.
10. Would I do it all again? Yes. I would do it in a flash. I would carefully plan my entire Vietnamese holiday around it. I would ensure that I got on and off trains at times that suited my family and the activities planned for any day. For example; If I was to visit Hue again; I would arrive early. Have a hotel booked and insist that the hotel sends a driver to the station. You probably cannot drag kids around the citadel after an all night train but a cruise up the river is very chilled. Have the same hotel book a shorter (4-6 hour) boat trip with a pack lunch. If you can afford it hire the entire boat ($25, see Grand Tour #23). I recommend a hammock or a sleeping mat. We just slept on the life-jackets. Get with the locals and have a sleep on the boat with the locals to augment your sleep on the train with the locals. This is just one example. Each destination will have a fun activity that you can plan around but you may need to think about the items you carry with you and those that you are leaving in the accommodation/hotel. Think about it while you are on the train not in the lobby of a tiny Vietnamese Hotel while the rest of the guests are checking out. Just because I am traveling with my children doesn’t mean that I am not traveling with style. I carry a hammock almost everywhere so I have a bed perfect for the tropics in my day pack/bag at all times. It’s sort of a hedonistic ultralight travel thing. And I love hedonistic ultralight travel things.
(I must tell you that story about the solar eclipse in Venezuela.)