A flash-looking Kia, with ‘Top Speed’ written down its side, pulled up in front of our guesthouse. The driver was late to collect us. We said goodbye to our host, Quy and our little, blue and white, beach bungalow. Inside the car, clear plastic covered the seats and ceiling.
For the next 30kms from Hoi An to Da Nang (the closest train station), we drove slowly down the dual carriageway. The driver sat in the fast lane and meandered along at 40km/h – the traffic behind growing long and frustrated.
The further into the city we travelled, the more congested the streets became. Our driver was forever in the wrong gear and kept staling the car. Every time this happened, loud static came onto the radio and the driver took a few minutes to flip through the channels to find the music he had been listening to. We missed several traffic lights, much to the discontent of the drivers behind us.
We watched as time clocked by. We had intended on stopping along the way to take photos of Da Nang’s Dragon Bridge. Fearing we would now miss our train, we told the driver to keep going – my dad stuck his camera out the window and snapped as we moved along. We were going so slowly, the photos were in focus.
Panic entered our chests. Motorcycles drove all around us. Again, the driver staled. We debated whether to get out and walk. Finally, we pulled into the train station. We thanked the driver and rushed out of the car.
Inside the waiting room, we checked the boards to see which train was ours. We couldn’t understand anything. There were a few other confused-looking tourists around. We banded together and asked one of the attendants. The train wasn’t ready to depart yet.
Relieved, we used the time to visit the bakery down the road and stocked up on supplies for the journey. My dad stayed in the waiting room to watch over our bags. A young man with an American accent sat next to him and they struck up a conversation. The man was a local and had never been to the States – he had learnt his near-perfect English from playing video games.
We presented our electronic tickets to the conductor. Our carriage was a lot older than the one from Ho Chi Minh to Da Nang. The interior was panelled in wood. Inside our compartment, we had a TV but it didn’t work. There was wifi coming from the station to distract us from the heat. We couldn’t open the window (the carriage was completely sealed) and they didn’t start the air conditioning until we got moving.
The train departed at 6:40pm. Our carriage wasn’t full. Despite this, a mother and daughter shared the fourth berth. They mostly kept to themselves and roughly two hours before Hanoi, they alighted.
Once again, we were given sheets to make our beds. I soon fell asleep with the blanket protecting me – it was growing colder the more the engine heated up. We awoke in the early morning to a change of scenery. The flat rice fields were full of water and a dense row of karst lined the horizon. Farmers dried their grain on the station platforms and the streets of the small towns we travelled through.
We arrived at Hanoi Station after 17 hours and 20 minutes – 25 minutes earlier than expected. Google said our AirBnB was only 10 minutes away from the station, but it was too hot to walk with our big backpacks (it was already 39°C). Out the front of the station, taxi drivers competed for our attention. The first driver wanted VND 200,000, which we clearly knew was a rip-off. The second driver wanted VND 100,000 but we bartered him down to VND 70,000 (our most expensive taxi yet).
He took us to ‘Brika House’ – our AirBnB. The 100-year-old, French colonial terrace looked run-down from the outside. A shopfront selling electrical lights spilled out onto the footpath. The apartment was down a corridor between the terraces and up a grand, wooden staircase.
We had the two-bedroom apartment to ourselves. The ceilings were high and the floor tiled. Green-painted French windows let in plenty of natural light. The place had an air of grandeur and history. The only disturbance was the thunder and rattle from the nearby railway line – a train passes by twice a day.
Transport: we arranged via our guesthouse for a driver to take us from Hoi An to Da Nang train station. It should take about 50 minutes to drive the 30kms between the two locations (unless you get the same driver we had and then it might take close to two hours).
We bought our electronic train tickets from Da Nang to Hanoi 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!
Travel time: 50 minutes by taxi and then 17 hours and 45 minutes by train.
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. If you buy noodles, you should be able to get hot water on board.
I also recommend you carry a roll of toilet paper with you, just in case.
Accommodation: In Hoi An, we stayed at Cashew Tree, which we booked via AirBnB. It was located just outside of town and super close to the beach.
In Hanoi, we stayed at Brika House’, which we also booked via AirBnB. The apartment was located inside Hanoi’s Old Quarter and 200m from Tong Duy Tan Street (night street food). Hanoi native, Binh, sublets the apartment with AirBnB. He and his friends made all the furniture and quirky decorations inside.
Photo: the overnight train from Da Nang to Hanoi, Vietnam.