There’s something magical about sleeping on a train. “It’s like being a baby and rocked to sleep all over again” noted our new Korean friend and fellow passenger. Although I had no recollection of my mother throwing me into walls and clattering pots and pans by my ear in a bid to send me off to the land of nod, I supposed there was something in what he said. Another collision of carriages woke me from my thoughts and I wondered if there could be some inspiration for a techno funk dance hit using the sounds of Vietnamese train noises. Squeaking breaks, clunking metal and sporadic jolts, which almost flung you out of bed, were quite the backing track for a night’s sleep in the comfortable cabins that make up the sleeper trains in Vietnam. Remarkably, it was possible to have a really good night’s sleep.
There are a variety of travel options on the overnight trains, ranging from a wooden bench to a luxury carriage with cabins for 2; including slippers and dressing gowns. We opted for the mid- range carriage with a 4 bed birth for our journey from Danang to Hanoi and were lucky enough to have the cabin to ourselves. A bottle of water, blanket and soft pillow (quite the luxury) was provided, as well as the existence of a toilet at each end of the carriage, what more could you want?
“Beer, coffay, coka, beer! Beer, coffay..?!”
Like a rabbit Andy’s ears pricked up as his eyes looked towards the open cabin door. Still shuffling the cards, he made no comment. Then the call from the heavens came again…
“Beer, coffay, coka, beer! Beer, coffay..?!” Louder this time as the voice got nearer.
The cards were laid down. The bag was opened. A crumpled handful of Vietnamese dong was taken from my purse. As the mystery voice passed the cabin Andy leapt from the bed (almost knocking himself out on the upper bunk) thrusting money into the hand of the trolley man; “6 beers please!”
6 beers?! Were we having a party? It looked like my plans for a game of cards and an early night were out of the window only to be replaced by crashing about in the dark, wobbling around the carriage aisle and trying to stand over a hole in the floor to wee, whilst inevitably refreshing my legs in the process! But of course, it was greatly appreciated and the beer was the perfect accompaniment to the wonderful feeling of romantic nostalgia that one feels on an overnight sleeper train. And as I nodded off to sleep that night I began to imagine how different it would have been, if at all, for those exploring the country by train half a century ago?
Aside from the window gazing and comfort, the true joy of travelling by train is the fellow passengers you meet when sharing a cabin. Perhaps it is the two foot square space that brings you together? Or the impossibility of ignoring one another as inevitably you will touch someone, or their belongings, at some point in the trip when trying to climb down from the top bunk? Whatever it is, we met some great people on our journies through Vietnam including an Italian couple from Ireland with whom we shared a few beers and chatter well into the early hours, and a Korean couple. Well it was really just the man that we met, as his wife spoke next to no English, but he had enough personality for the two of them. As a snowboarder he provided us with all the information we needed for a ski trip to Korea and Japan.
“And do you ski?” Andy attempted to involve the wife into the conversation,
“No!” replied our friend on her behalf, clearly shocked by the stupidity of the question “She is a mother!” Personally I hadn’t realised that being a mother exempted you from having hobbies or any enjoyment in life for that matter. Perhaps I was wrong?
I contemplated this as I fell asleep that night, high on life at the wonderful opportunities we had had to encounter people from all over the world; spurring us on to take new adventures in places we had never even considered, whilst also being thankful that should I decide to embark on the adventure of motherhood I would not be forced to breastfeed them my whole personality…
Within an hour I awoke with a start! Somehow a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig had let itself into our cabin, clambered onto the top bunk and had eaten our Korean friend. 160 decibels of snorting sounds shook me from my slumber as I realised it was not a pig, merely Mr Korea exhalting a cacophony of rhythmical, rumbling roars. (Top tip for an overnight train journey: bring ear plugs, although in this instance I am not sure they would have been of assistance.) After a few hours of frustration, which then turned to giggling since Andy had woken too, sleep managed to steal me back.
“Coffay, coffay, coffay?!” morning had arrived. It was a shame no beer was on offer at this point as I think it would have slipped down quite nicely.
And then the strangest part of overnight sleeper travel: the pack up. With only minutes separating sleep from arrival at the station, in their zombie states everyone grunts a few times before turning serious. Bags are packed, stress levels start to rise and a growing tension fills the carriage as everyone pushes each other out of the train doors where they are sucked up into the craziness of the crowded platform, never to be seen again.
One can’t help but feel a little rejected. Was last night just a dream? The laughs, stories and shared space leads to a real sense of intimacy between passengers in a cabin and yet when morning comes it is like it never happened. Didn’t last night mean anything to anyone? But the journey must continue; each person is on their own path beginning a new adventure, and I suppose it only supports the concept that the joy of travelling is in fact in the journey; not in reaching the destination.
We took sleeper trains from Danang to Hanoi (13 hours) and a return trip from Hanoi to Sapa (10 hours). To get the best deals on tickets try asking your hostel, homestay or hotel. We managed to get to Hanoi for $25, which was almost half the price listed on the internet, through our homestay. Do be wary, however, of additional charges being added for it being the weekend as this is not the case. We were able to get a quoted $50 return journey down to $32 by going to a travel agent rather than trusting the hotel, so shop around. You will be given a voucher for the return leg of the journey which you need to collect from the office at the station an hour or so before departure. Remember to try and eat before and to take ear plugs.