The reality of Vietnam’s sleeper trains
VIETNAM’S sleeper trains are a brilliant way to travel long distances cheaply and somewhat efficiently.
The Tuyen Duong Sat Viet Nam (Vietnam Railway Lines) consist of Duong sat Bac which runs from Lao Cai in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south; Duong sat Ha Noi, which operates in Hanoi and surrounding areas; and Duong sat Sai Gon, which operates in Saigon and surrounding areas.
These three lines can deliver you from the north to the south in less than two days and they certainly beat being cramped in a non-airconditioned car or bus for hours on end.
Depending on which ticket type you opt for, you can also score a bed for the journey, which we highly suggest you do if your journey is longer than four hours.
If it’s your first time traveling on one of Vietnam’s sleeper train, it’s worth understanding what your journey could entail to save you from 13-plus hours of shock.
Steering clear of referring to themselves of first class and second class, the cabins are instead called hard-sleepers and soft-sleepers.
Hard-sleepers normally have six beds, a small table, and air conditioning. The soft sleepers differ with four beds, softer mattresses, thicker pillows, and a marginal price increase.
While neither boasts luxury, they do offer a place to sleep, stretch your legs, and recharge for the night.
However, if you can budget for up to US$45 for a soft-sleeper cabin, do it. You’ll get a bit more sleep and have fewer strangers with questionable habits to contend with.
No matter which type of ticket you purchase, from seats to top-end four-berth cabins, you’re likely to encounter a cockroach or two.
This is because cleanliness throughout the sleeper trains isn’t a massive priority for operators, who instead focus on punctuality (to little avail) and safety.
So be prepared with a bug squasher and avoid leaving food open in your space.
There are three ways sharing a sleeper train cabin with strangers can go.
Firstly, you all admit to loving Taylor Swift and fill the hours with improvised karaoke.
Secondly, you all fall asleep quickly, nobody snores or invades each other’s limited space.
Thirdly and most likely, you’ll find yourself contending with some bizarre characters who think it’s okay to rest their sockless feet on your bed, despite having a bed of their own.
They may also play music out loud and ignore the “No Smoking” signs dotted throughout the carriage.
While it’s annoying, there’s not much you’re able to do about it and the Vietnamese train guards are unlikely to enforce the already loose rules on a local.
You can either pop in some earplugs and ignore the annoyance or match it with some equally frustrating antics.
Unfortunately, no matter where you choose to sleep on the train it’s going to be noisy.
Whether it’s the sound of the carriage doors slamming with every turn or the screaming out the next stop, you’re going to be interrupted.
It’s best to use earplugs or headphones to shut out as much noise as possible.
Let’s just say it’s not a good idea not to drink too many beers while on the sleeper trains as you won’t want to spend much time in the bathrooms.
Thankfully there are separate sinks to brush your teeth in, but sometimes travelers like to use these as ashtrays.
Besides the bathrooms, the cabins are relatively clean but don’t count on having fresh sheets.
The same sheets are used for multiple journeys before being washed. If this bothers you, sleep fully clothed and use a t-shirt as a pillow cover.
Except for prepacked instant noodles, it’s a good idea to stay away for the potentially salmonella-riddled snacks the conductors roll through the corridors, especially if you’re wanting to stay out of the onboard bathrooms.
Pack some food before you board and enjoy a midnight snack.
Set an alarm for sunrise
A sleeper train ticket includes a sightseeing tour of the Vietnamese countryside.
Admittedly most of the journey will be done during the night but if you set an alarm for sunrise, you’ll get to see an unparalleled view of rural Vietnam just as farmers enter their fields and peddlers load up their baskets for a day of trading.
If “it’s going to be a squeeze” enters your mind when booking a sleeper train, don’t do it.
Often, these trains can be delayed by one or two hours without any justification so if you need to catch onward transport, either book an earlier train or find alternative means of travel.
Where to find timetables and prices
If you’re undeterred and want to experience this unique adventure, head to VietnamRailway.com to check timetables and make reservations.
Reservations are essential for any journey and that you need to book way in advance to guarantee a hard- or soft-sleeper cabin.