Night trains in Vietnam are one of the quickest ways to travel around the country. They’re cheap, reliable, fast (compared to buses) but not luxurious in any way, shape or form.
Remove any idea you have of the Hogwart’s Express or a trip on the Orient; Vietnamese sleeeper trains have a no-frills attached policy and are more musty than magical. However, on a tight budget and timeframe to see so much of the country, don’t be disheartened. There are ways to survive them – it’s all about being prepared and toughening up!
Here’s my top tips for surviving night trains in Vietnam:
1. Bring a sleeping bag liner
I cannot tell you how much I adored my sleeping bag liner while I was travelling around SE Asia, and I’m not sure I could have survived the night trains without one.
Depending on your route, the train will probably already have had guests staying in your cabin, so it’s likely the bed sheets will have been slept on and they definitely won’t be changed over for new guests. The best thing to do if that happens is to whip off the train’s sheet and snuggle down in your sleep liner. Most have a bit of a hood which will act as a pillow case, but I also wrapped the pillow in my scarf.
I picked up mine before an Interrailing trip (similar version here!). But if you don’t have a sleeping bag liner and you’re already on route, I spotted a lot of shops in Hoi An and Nha Trang that sold silk sleeping bag liners relatively cheap, or a single duvet cover will do the same job!
2. Prepare for the smell
Obviously, you won’t be carrying around a Diptyque candle in your backpack (who actually packs travel candles anyway?!) but there are ways to stifle the stench of the carriage.
Everything on the trains smells a little damp to begin with, but add to that a cabin beside the non-flushing loo, the aircon which seems to be burning the insides of the vent and a fellow passenger with a dodgy tummy and you have one very smelly journey ahead.
Here’s a couple of things you can try:
- Use baby wipes in the corners of your bunk bed with dabs of tiger balm on them (or I hung them from the aircon vent all night!)
- Have your sleeping bag liner laundered before your next night train
- Leave some conditioner in your hair
- Have an aromatherapy massage before getting on board
A little luxe in the fragrance department can go a long way on these night trains, trust me!
3. Be prepared for a bug invasion
I’m not going to lie, there is a strong chance creepy crawlies will get into your cabin.
Cockroaches are common (our neighbouring cabin had three in the space of an hour) and there were rumours of mice along the corridors too, but I never saw any. Not to mention mosquitos! Apply as much deet bug spray as you can (that might make the cabin smell better too!) and have something ready in bed to swat away any intruders. My trainers did the job well!
4. Limit how much you drink
Night train toilets are not pretty and the last thing you want to do after settling in for the night is to then have to get up for a wee in the dark.
Not the healthiest thing to do, but we limited how much we drank ahead of the night train and only needed one trip to the loo on a 12 hour journey. Obviously that’s not always possible, so if you do have to get up in the middle of the night, bring a torch, don’t wear flip flops (toilets can overflow), bring your own tissues and take a look out the loo window while you’re there. You’ll at least have the prettiest view of passing twinkling lights as you use the squat toilet!
5. Layer up
Night trains can be a mix of Baltic air conditioning blowing all night long or a sweat box with no ventilation at all.
I ended up wearing two t-shirts and a fleece jumper on one of my journeys and there was lots of ‘putting on and taking off layers’ through the night. Top bunks are colder, so having a big scarf or extra jumper is handy.
6. Block out the noise
We found that Vietnamese trains liked to do play some very energetic (read: annoying) music every time they arrived at a stop – regardless of what time of the night it was! If you know what time you’re due to arrive at your stop, set your alarm on your phone and get those ear plugs in if you want a good night’s sleep.
7. Keep your valuables safe
Most sleeper cabins have 4 beds in them and if you’re sharing with strangers it’s worth locking up your valuables.
I slept with my bumbag on (passport, phone and money inside) and put everything else inside a compartment of my backpack that was lockable. Storage on the sleeper trains is limited; either under your bed (on the bottom bunk) or above the cabin door there’s a cubby hole of space for top bunk users. I wedged my bag in that cubby hole and slept with my head next to it, I figured I’d wake if someone started rummaging near my head at least!
Night trains are an experience, but it doesn’t have to be a traumatic one! We heard so many horror stories and rumors of just how hideous the conditions were that we were actually pleasantly surprised by all of our trips!
Once you’re prepared you can actually enjoy the ride! Finish that book, write in your travel journal, edit your trip photos, write postcards home…whatever you want to do to pass the hours.
Have you travelled on night trains? Love them or hate them, share your tips in the comments below – we’d love to hear from your experiences too!