It was time to begin our train adventures. After a few days exploring Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong River, we took our last Grab taxi to Saigon Train Station. Our destination – an overnight train to Da Nang and then a 50-minute drive to Hoi An.
Although we had started our journey in Cambodia, we hadn’t yet been on a train. That’s because the train tracks are not in use in Cambodia, forcing us to dilute our train travels with plane and coach rides.
Saigon Train Station was crowded with people. We were early for our 7:30pm train. Several shops around the large indoor waiting room sold snacks and drinks. We each bought 1.5 litre bottles of water to accompany the pastries we had already stocked up on early that day.
We went outside to the street vendor next to the station and sat at the tiny plastic stools around a low plastic table. I ordered vegetable pho (a Vietnamese noodle soup made from broth, rice noodles, a few herbs and a few vegetables. Usually meat is added). I washed it down with a local can of beer.
The train arrived a few minutes before departure. We went back through the waiting room and out onto the platform. A stern-looking train conductor guarded the entrance to our first class carriage. She wore a light blue three-quarter shirt with a dark blue neckerchief, as well as grey trousers and a grey felt hat. We presented our electronic tickets (which we had printed just in case) and she scanned the barcode with the smartphone in her hand.
Our train was made up of 14 carriages. Most of them were set up as four-berth sleepers like ours, while some had six beds to a cabin. Down the end of the train, one of the carriages was set out like a normal intercity train with shared, soft seating. The last carriage only had old-style wooden seats.
My dad and my partner climbed up to the top bunk beds on either side of the cabin and I took one of the beds below. We had no idea who was to be sharing with us. That is, until a middle-aged Vietnamese woman peered into our door and after slight hesitation, she smiled at us, entered and sat on the bed opposite me. She only had a little bag with her – we each had two backpacks, one large and one small, which we had cramped under my bed as well as in the storage shelf above the door.
Another, older, Vietnamese woman entered the cabin. There was some discussion (which, of course, we didn’t understand) and then the older woman also sat down on the bed opposite me. The two women appeared to be very affectionate with each other and talked non-stop. Perhaps they were mother and daughter.
The conductor came to the door with blankets and sheets for the beds. There was more talk in Vietnamese and then the conductor left. The two women returned to their chatting.
It was obvious they were talking about me. They seemed fascinated with my newly shaved head. The younger woman took out her smartphone and starting taking photos of me, while the older woman peered over her shoulder at the screen. I decided that I also wanted a photo – and the younger woman posed for a selfie with me. The moment was successfully captured on my phone.
The train pulled away from the station and we watched out the window as night scenes from the city went by. People, old and young, filled the corridor outside the cabin and also watched from the windows there.
As the train began to pick up speed, wind circulated between the windows – relieving us from the humidity. People began to pull out their thermoses and food containers in time for dinner.
We made our beds and settled in for the 17-hour-odd journey. When it was time for lights out, the younger woman shut the door, rolled out a grass mat and laid it on the floor. She slept in the thin gap under the older woman’s bottom bunk bed. In the middle of the night, I ventured out into the corridor (I needed to use the toilet at the end of the carriage) and found it full of people also sleeping on grass mats on the floor.
There was no air conditioning on the train. We had left the curtains open and the top window down to let in the fresh air. We awoke to the 5am sunrise reflected on the passing flat rice fields, full of water. The city walls of Ho Chi Minh City were long gone now. Instead, farmers were already out in the coolness of the early morning, ploughing, sowing and weeding.
The stern-looking conductor opened the door. She had a trolley of food and drink. We could see foothills on the horizon to the west. The people sleeping on the floor had disappeared. My dad bought a coffee from the conductor and she gave him a smile.
She returned not too long after with new sheets for the fourth bed. Later, I went to the toilet and she was there, cleaning it. Another time, she was at the entrance of the carriage, checking tickets as new people came on at each stop. Her duties seemed endless.
Mid-morning, we pulled into a station and the two women in our compartment got out. Only the younger woman returned. She had bought little bags of food from the platform. Perhaps the women hadn’t known each other after all. She sat on the bed and smiled her beautiful, friendly smile. She seemed to always be smiling.
Another woman (a third woman) came into the cabin. The younger woman moved aside for her and said something. The new woman seemed hesitant but then sat down. Soon, they were chatting (with the same affection and animation as the younger woman had been chatting with the woman before). We gathered the younger woman didn’t have a bed. She seemed to be making friends with whoever was there, so that she could, at least, have a seat for the long journey. It was amazing to watch.
Not long before Da Nang, the two woman got off and a girl got on. She wore a face mask and didn’t seem to have the slightest interest in us. She promptly shut the door, drew the curtains and pulled the fresh blanket (which the conductor had just dropped by) over her head. We sat in the darkened, quiet cabin, now deprived of our view and the melodic rhythm of chatting in Vietnamese.
Our driver was holding up a piece of paper with my name on it as we exited Da Nang Train Station. We had pre-arranged for him to collect us through our accommodation in the World Heritage Listed town of Hoi An.
Da Nang is the third largest city in Vietnam and is located at the halfway point along the coast between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. It also has closest train station to Hoi An.
From the station, we drove over a long bridge whose steelwork was shaped like two parallel dragons, painted bright yellow. We followed wide, new boulevards with little traffic to the coastal road. Then, uniformed high-rise hotels and resorts populated our view to one side – the expansive ocean to the other.
A sign told us that Da Nang has “the 10th most beautiful beach in the world”. I had met a Vietnamese man back in Australia who had said that Da Nang was his favourite place in Vietnam – because it was modern and wealthy, a place where the upcoming middle class liked to holiday.
We turned off the wide coastal road into narrow alleys and stopped in front of a white building with blue window frames and a beach vibe. We had arrived at Cashew Tree guesthouse just outside Hoi An (and about three minutes walk from the beach).
We said goodbye to our driver and Quy took us to our room. Our eyes bulged at the sight of it – two double beds, air conditioning, a fridge, a hot shower and mosquito nets. We immediately took out three cold beers from the fridge, only to be then presented with ‘welcome’ glasses of passion fruit juice from our chatty hostess.
We had survived our first long train trip.
Transport: we bought a local sim card and downloaded the Grab Taxi app to get around Ho Chi Minh City, including getting to the train station.
We bought our electronic train tickets from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang via 12Go.asia – an online transportation service for Southeast Asia. We got first class sleepers. They were such a good price that we didn’t hesitate to get them, especially as it meant we could all fit into one compartment and have soft beds! After seeing what the other cabins were like, we had definitely made the right choice.
We arranged for a driver to collect us from Da Nang Train Station and take us the extra 50 minutes to Hoi An. We did this via our accommodation. It’s also possible to take a bus or a taxi direct from the station, but this way, the price was pre-arranged and we got to our destination faster.
Travel time: 17 hours and 20 minutes by train and then 50 minutes by taxi.
Travel advice: stock up on food and water supplies before you take the train. It can be expensive to buy things on board and they may not have what you want, especially if you need Western food for breakfast.
Accommodation: we booked a room at Cashew Tree via AirBnB. Quy was a super host and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay. Bear in mind, the guesthouse is located outside of Hoi An. This was great for us as Hoi An can get super crowded and we could easily pop over to the beach to cool down after a full day of sightseeing in town. Cashew Tree also offers bicycles to use free of charge, so it’s easy to get around.
Photo: the train attendant on our over-night train from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang, Vietnam.