We arrived at the Hanoi Train Station at 7:10pm. Our Intrepid guide Khoa motioned us to follow him and we took a short cut to the platform through a loading bay entrance. We walked a few car lengths of the Reunification Express, peeking into what the train sleeping arrangements looked like, finally arriving at train car “11A”. It was first class! We settled into our cabins, which was quite nice. Bottled water, wipes and chocolates were placed on the table while fresh, clean duvets, pillows and linens were on the beds. I had read that you might want to bring a sleep sheet and I would definitely agree if you were sleeping in anything but first class. The beds are not the softest, so as I had a sleep sheet, I slept on top of the duvet for that little extra cushion.
We had put in a take out order earlier in the day, it arrived just before we departed at 7:30pm. I had read in the Lonely Planet guide that it is best to buy snacks and food before for the trip as these items are priced quite high onboard. So keeping this in mind I also stopped off at a convenience store earlier in the afternoon to pick up some snacks, a bottle of water and a couple beers (who can say no to 25 cent beers). They have water dispensers (bottled water) at either end of each train car which is great, was nice to refill my water bottle as it was quite hot. I was very happy that we had ordered food and snacks as the food carts did not look appetizing. The cars are air conditioned however it seemed at certain times it was having troubles keeping up with the crazy heat we were experiencing.
The bathrooms are an experience in themselves. We didn’t have squat toilets (those are found in a few cars down), but they aren’t the cleanest of spaces. This is where I was very happy to have Lysol wipes on me and a toilet paper roll. It seems like the bathrooms in first class cars are better kept than others, I didn’t need the toilet paper as it seemed there was always some (however I wasn’t going to risk not having any) and checked on a more regular basis.
The views from the train are really interesting. It’s not the Rocky Mountaineer by any means. If you are travelling on your own, you will be confined to your bunk and you could be sharing the cabin with other travellers. I had the bottom right bunk so the views from my seat were quite good. I really enjoyed the trip in the early morning when we woke. About 6:30am we were about 2 hours from Hue, enjoying views of workers in the rice fields. Lotus flowers separated the tracks from lush fields, while hundreds of white ducks seemed to be enjoying the ponds every so often. Some areas you couldn’t really see too much, like when we crossed over the remnants of the DMZ (de-militarized zone). There wasn’t even a marker. I basically knew it from keeping track of our movements on a map. Most backpackers depart in Hue and so does most tours. Hue is somewhere we didn’t have time to visit, however I’ve been told it is a highlight. We continued on the train to Danang, however the stretch between Hue and Danang is beautiful. The train takes quite a scenic route over the mountain overlooking picturesque and prisine beaches. This is where you want to make sure you can take in the scenery.
In regards to safety there is some luggage space under the bottom bunks and in a storage space above the top bunks. It is always recommended to have your cabin locked. Someone at some point at night did try our door, however we did have it locked. There is no security between classes, anyone can walk the length of the train. If sharing the cabin with others you don’t know, wear your money belt with your absolute valuables (passport, credit cards, cash, etc) and bring it with you when going to the washroom. Keep larger valuables away from the door, I had my head facing the door (feet were at the door, head at the window) and kept my camera in the corner, under my pillow. This way if the door was unlocked, no one can do a quick grab of anything. I did feel safe on the train, but was happy I read up on what to expect on the Vietnam overnight trains in the Lonely Planet guide. The conductors do know where you need to get off and do speak some English.
We pulled into Danang just after 11:45am and departed the train. I did enjoy the experience and it was worth it. If you want a reasonable way to travel from North to South Vietnam (or vice versa), the train is an awesome option.