We had booked our tickets through the Vietnam Railway website (https://www.vietnam-railway.net/). We opted for the Reunification Line SE6 which had the fewest stops and would get us to our destination the quickest.
There are several types of seats available: hard seat, soft seat, hard berth and soft berth. Since we would be on the train overnight, we chose the soft berth (4 to a cabin). The hard berth sleeps 6. We didn’t know ahead of time whether we would have an upper and lower berth, or if we would luck out and get two lower berths. We read up on the trip on www.seat61.com which is an excellent resource for researching train travel all over the world. We brought along some snacks “just in case”.
The train was scheduled to leave Sai Gon at 9 am and arrive in Ha Noi at 19:58 pm the following day. We had read that the trains tend to run late here but ours was waiting for us to board at 8:30 am. We located our car and berth and were so happy to see that we had the two lower berths! This old woman would’ve had a miserable time climbing up to the upper berth; there is no ladder provided. There is a step on the wall that you can use to hoist yourself up, however. Our cabin mates turned out to be two Vietnamese men that spoke no English. They looked to be traveling for some type of construction work given their bag of cables and power tools that they brought along. Every time one of them climbed up or down from that berth, I was thankful that we scored the bottom berths. One of the men generously offered to share his beer with us (he had quite a supply with him) but we felt uncomfortable taking any from him.
The train was air-conditioned which made the ride pleasant. Each berth had a thin mattress, duvet, pillow, reading lamp and usb port. On the downside, there was no wi fi. I had read on-line that there was wi fi so we were a little disappointed that we would not be able to go on-line. There were a few station stops along the way where we were able to access the internet while the train was stopped to drop off/pick up passengers.
At 9 am, the train left the station. Announcements were given in Vietnamese and then in English. Unfortunately the English was virtually impossible for me to understand. I think they mentioned something about smoking in designated areas only and about staying in your assigned seat. And, you can’t use the toilets while stopped at a station (I assume because the toilets empty directly onto the tracks). Beyond that, it was a mystery what they were saying. I hope it wasn’t too important! You hate to not follow the rules in a communist country. . .
Following the announcements, music was loudly played over the loudspeakers. Let’s just say that it was not too enjoyable for my western ears. There was no way to turn it down, either. Fortunately, it only lasted a short time and was then turned off.
We had stops about every 2 hours. In between, we watched the scenery. It was hard to take pictures but I tried to capture what we saw along the way: lots of rice paddies, cows, water buffalo, rolling hills, palm trees, fields of dragon fruit trees, jungles, graveyards, temples and cathedrals.
At 11 am on the first day, a man pushing a trolley offered us some food. We had read that you had to pay for meals so declined. The other two in our cabin took the food and we did not see that they paid for it. We figured if the trolley rolled by again we would go ahead and get a tray of food. Unfortunately, it didn’t come by again! We shared a small bag of Doritos for lunch and drank the water we had brought along. There were snack trolleys that came by every couple of hours. You could purchase chips, rice cakes, soda, cup of noodles (there was a hot water dispenser at the end of the car), fruit and various other goodies. There was also a trolley selling chicken and sausage. I had read someone’s blog that had purchased meat from one of these trolleys and gotten violently ill, so we chose not to purchase any of his food.
Dinner was brought around at 5:30 pm. We were given a foil container that had rice and meat and cup of something that turned out to be cold cooked cabbage. We also were given a small cup of water. The meat was “interesting”. I did try a bite; it was mainly chunks of pork fat with a small slice of actual meat attached to the edge. I knew that if I ate it I would regret it, so instead just at the rice and a few bites of cabbage.
Breakfast the next morning was Banh Chung which is a rice cake formed out of gelatinous rice. It looked like a brick with a slug on top. I am not sure what the “slug” actually was but the rice itself was OK. We purchased 2 coffees for 30,000 Dong ($1.32); it was poured from a Pepsi bottle. I also had milk added. The Vietnamese use sweetened condensed milk with coffee. It is probably an acquired taste that I have not yet acquired.
There were many families on board. A toy vendor came through the cabin in the morning of the second day.
Lunch was much like last night’s dinner except it was chunks of chicken (I think) that was in a spicy sauce. It was mostly bone so not much meat. At least the price was right! We never were asked to pay for the meals so am assuming that the cost was part of the train ticket. We did not get dinner on the second day, which was fine.
We had contacted our hotel in Hanoi (Oriental Suites Hotel and Spa) regarding taxis in Hanoi. We didn’t want to get ripped off again and so asked how much we should plan on paying to get from the train station to the hotel. They gave us an amount (no more than 100,000 Dong) and some recommended cab companies. I got another email from them saying that to avoid any problems that they would send a bellman to the train station with a cab to meet us. He would be carrying a placard with our name. When we arrived we looked around for our placard; there was none. I called the hotel and the person said he would check on it but we got disconnected. So, we just grabbed a cab. When we arrived at the hotel one of the front desk guys came out to talk to the cabbie to make sure we got charged a fair amount.
We checked in and were told that we were being given a bottle of wine as a welcome gift. We also were given cold juice and cold water with lime as well as a bowl of candied pineapple. Unlike most hotels, any food in the minibar area was free for the taking. We would be provided with 2 bottles of water daily (always welcome in the heat). And, as a most unexpected touch, there were rosebuds strewn on the bed!
Since we had not had dinner yet, we headed down the block and ate at a Burger King. This was the first American place we have eaten on this trip. After our train food, I needed it!