Where do you start?
Well virtually anywhere on the network – Da Nang? Hanoi? – the trains are the same, long lines of carriages pulled slowly along by huge work-a-day diesel units, no streamlined euro trains these! Passengers gradually assemble in large echoey station waiting rooms and are entertained by Vietnamese soaps at high volume until the gates are opened and everyone streams out across the tracks to hunt down their carriage, conscious of large machines moving in the dark as engines are changed with much clanging and not a little shouting.
Small groups gather at the ends of each carriage, proffering a variety of tickets and vouchers to attendants keen to get everyone aboard and the train on its way. Cases are thrown up into the carriage, followed by their owners pulling themselves up the steep steps and into the corridor. The slight feeling of anxiety that pervaded the waiting room and subsequent search for carriages begins to ease – you are on the train, your ticket has been checked, so you are likely to be on the right one and it can’t now go without you!
The compartments are revealed by sliding doors, two bunks to each side and a small table by the window with small bottles of water, bananas and biscuits. There is a pillow and quilt on each bunk, if you are lucky they haven’t been used yet.
Who do you travel with?
A partner in adventure is fun and enables you to colonise half of the compartment with top and bottom bunks, but traveling on your own creates more opportunities for interaction with others.
If you are not particularly lucky you may share with a prickly antipodean whose travel experience is truly encyclopaedic and who is not averse to voicing derision at some of the travel choices you have made (why would you visit Vietnam before Australia?) and a young Japanese man who retreats into his top bunk away from the tension and static.
If you are lucky you might share the compartment with a Vietnamese couple and their sleepy young son, travelling from where they live and work in Da Nang back to their home town for a family wedding. They explain that they have only just been ‘home’ for Tet but are clearly excited at the prospect of a big family occasion. Sufficient English on their part enables a discussion about the importance of family in Vietnam and the imperative for families to be together for Tet. They then settle quickly on their bunks, the little one snuggling in with his mum.
Or you might share with a young French couple happy to exchange travelling information and tales before extolling the virtues of the Alps just north of Nice. You could share your memories of Nice, swimming off the rocks and the harbour full of super yachts before they remember that they are going straight onto a 2 day trek from Sa Pa and need to get some sleep.
What do you do?
For the 1st World tourist used to being confronted by a myriad of choices (where shall I eat, what shall I drink? How much should I pay? etc) the sleeper train offers a respite from complex decision making – there are only so many places to explore: the (small) compartment; the (only relatively) lengthy corridor and the (inevitably) smelly toilet. However, tasks have to be completed – this, after all is no holiday! Luggage must be stowed under the bottom bunk, the small hinged step that assists ascension onto the top bunk must be opened and tested and of course the bedding has to be arranged – by which time a screech of the engine’s klaxon accompanied by a lurch and a lot of clunking tells you that your journey has begun. It is customary to look out the window at this point to confirm this impression and see dark shapes slowly moving away. ‘Slowly’ describes progress with precision – if you are still watching as the train moves across Long Bien bridge over the Red River out of Hanoi (which the French toiled to build and the Americans struggled to destroy) you might share a chuckle with your companions as mopeds, 4 up, overtake your lumbering snake of a machine.
If you are lucky you will remember to go to the toilet before you take your shoes off and climb up on to the upstairs bunk and wrap yourself up in the duvet. If you have forgotten and the train has already been clattering along for some time you will probably glimpse the carriage attendant fast asleep on his or her bunk in their small narrow compartment, their work done – for now.
How do you sleep?
Remarkably well actually, given that you are probably kipping down with total strangers who may snore, fart and have smelly socks – and that you have to manage your own anxiety that this may equally apply to yourself. The swaying motion of the train, accompanied by the creaking and gentle moaning of the couplings, lulls and rocks until you wake briefly at each stop as the carriages jolt suddenly against each other and then come to a rather abrupt halt. The ensuing silence is soon broken by hurried footsteps along corridors, muffled voices and then the slamming of doors. You peer momentarily out of the window but indistinct outlines in the blackness leave you none the wiser, so a check on the watch is required to reassure yourself that this is unlikely to be your stop. Just as you start to relax the scream of a klaxon rents the night – this is the sleeper train after all and the engine driver doesn’t care who knows it and does not wish to exclude the paying passenger from this! Nevertheless the lulling and rocking return to good effect and by the time you reach your destination you are sound asleep and may well miss the slowing of the train and awake with a start as that sudden jolt tells you that you have to spring instantly into action and get you and your gear together to be off the train before that klaxon sounds what will be the announcement of departure.
If you are lucky the carriage attendant will know where you are and where you are supposed to be leaving the train and will knock loudly on your compartment door as the train starts to slow and shout (once) the name of the approaching station. If you are really lucky you are woken by this and have time to quietly sort yourself out in good time without waking your companions and be ready to climb down from the carriage as the train comes to a stop. If you aren’t awake and moving by the time the train comes a stop the attendant will return to your compartment and fling open your door with a ferocity that sends it crashing back against its stoppers, whilst repeating the station name at the top of his voice with an insistence that sends you headless chicken and wakes the whole compartment to a level of communal anxiety (‘where are we?’,’ Is this my stop?’ ‘Switch that light off!’). Stung into frenzied action you stuff belongings into bags, force shoes on feet and, apologising profusely, run down the corridor and eject self and bags out of the carriage door and down (quite a long way down) onto the trackside. You may feel a bit stressed and worry that you have your shoes on the wrong feet – but you’ve made it off the train at the right stop and your embarrassment at the nature of your exit is tempered by the knowledge that you are unlikely to see your companions of the night again. You walk slowly over to the station buildings where a few dim lights show and struggle find someone to tell you where you go next. 10 minutes may pass in a fruitless search for guidance before you realise that the train is still standing where you left it, the screeching klaxon yet to announce its departure.
When should you travel?
It’s just too lazy to suggest that the clue is in the title of this piece and there is a more important factor here. You should take the night train when you are able to do so – when you have both the money (not for the fare itself, as by Western standards it is cheap) but for the airfare to Vietnam in the first place and when you have the time to travel the country. These two differentiate even the most frugal and financially challenged traveller from the vast majority of Vietnamese, whose average monthly income is $150 and who will be amazed that anyone has the time to wander round looking at things – they are too busy earning that meagre living.
If you are lucky you may come to better appreciate your position as coming from a group of people in the world who (to quote my friend Phil) ‘have won life’s lottery’ traveling through the country of a group ‘who have not.’
Why should you take the night train?
Because it is cheap and saves precious time for the traveller intent on seeing and doing as much as is possible as it combines two unavoidable necessities: travel and sleep. But the thing is that there really is nothing like it and to miss it for a bus, car or a plane ……..
If you are lucky you will meet people in neutral but intimate circumstances who will enrich your experience and understanding of what it is to be a traveller like yourself and / or someone who lives, works and brings up a family in a country that is trying to develop its way out of a truly shocking colonial past, even by western colonial standards!
I was really lucky. On top of all this, on a dark drizzly morning in Lao Cai square, fresh off the night train from Hanoi, I met, by chance, a good friend that I hadn’t seen properly for far too long.