Hitchhiking Vietnam
travel tips
A childhood dream...
photo There are 2600 km of track along the coast from Saigon to Hanoi and destinations north (Haiphong, Lao Cai, Lan Son). The train from Saigon to Hanoi is the famous Unification Express - express being a bit of a misnomer since it now runs slower than when the French first built it 60 years ago (average speeds are between 10 and 30 mph). One of the reasons for this is the lousy tracks courtesy of the war - the VC repeatedly sabotaged the line south of the DMZ and the Americans bombed the north.

It is a most extraordinarily relaxing way to travel - hour after hour swaying to the mesmerizing rhythm of the track.

It has significantly more leg room than a bus - you can sometimes actually stand up and walk around.

It is quite reliable by Vietnamese standards.

You can go to sleep in one town (lying down, no less) and wake up in another.

You sit at this huge open picture window and watch the most spectacularly beautiful countryside slide by. It's even better than a PBS special.
You may arrive at your destination at an ungodly time of the night.

You may at some point have to use the train restrooms.

You will be forced to stay on the most beaten part of the beaten path. Lovely little seaside towns like Sa Huynth, for example, are not on the express route and therefore completely overlooked by most train travelers.

Theft is occasionally a problem.

It is significantly more expensive than most other forms of transport in Vietnam.

The windows often have grates over them - for good reason - cutting down dramatically on your view.

The heavy window grates are supposed to be down whenever the train is moving. In the beginning I ignored this rule and pulled them up whenever I wanted to look out the window. At one point I was filming and I heard what sounded like a gun go off right in my ear. Apparently a boy had thrown a fist-sized rock at my window - hard enough to make a dent in the metal window frame. A foot to the right and it would have been lethal.

Theft: Since you may be sleeping on your journey, make sure your stuff is well tied down and in an awkward place for a thief to get at. Do not store anything under your seat (where it can be reached from the seat behind you) or in another compartment. I once left a bag of groceries in another compartment (ostensibly under the eye of some British travelers). I went back for it within minutes of realizing it was unattended. The bag was gone but I could see the contents scattered through the baggage of several Vietnamese passengers. No one seemed the slightest bit embarrassed.

Both times I had something stolen on a train I had left it in the care of another foreigner. Just because they look like you doesn't mean they have your best interests in mind.

You can transport your bicycle in the freight car (if your train has one) for a small fee. Make sure your bike is locked.

The better seats come with catered meals. If you thought the mystery meat in your school cafeteria lunch was unappetizing, don't take the lid off of these culinary creations.

You can buy fruit/snacks/cooked food at every stop - the vendors stand at every window and virtually push food down your throat. Be a little careful of well-handled raw foods.

This is one of the few places I would suggest dehydrating before you get on the train. The bathrooms filthy (they're just a hole in the floor onto the tracks).

Odd-numbered trains go south, even numbered ones go north (in case you're a Vietnamese train-spotter)

Hold onto your ticket until you are out of the station. There are usually people checking at the exits (they're trying to catch ticket-evaders).

If you just happen to be carrying an unusual cargo (lets say, a serpent-crested eagle, a Vietnamese gibbon, and four leopard kittens) then make sure they're properly stowed before the conductor comes by...

You have two choices:
The local trains are painfully slow - they run at around 10 mph - and stop at every little station along the way. Since they don't have priority on the track they also spend a lot of time waiting for the express trains to come through. They may only have hard, half, and soft seat options.
The Express train runs at a blinding speed of 30 mph if there are no breakdowns. They are somewhat more expensive and will have a wider choice of seating. There are six different classes of ticket you can buy:

Half-seat. These seats are the cheapest, and invariably packed with poor locals. Passengers face each other down a central aisle with their knees interlocked. I call it "zipper seating".

photo Hard-seat. These seats are also packed. They are arranged a bit like cafe booths with room for six passengers around a small metal table. Six foreigners do not fit into one booth. There's a reason they're called hard seat.

Soft seat. Soft is a relative adjective here. If you spend your first six hours in the hard seat and then buy your way up then these seats really will feel soft.

Hard berth. These are basically plywood boards, six to a compartment, that you can lay down on if you're not too tall or fat. The middle berth is raised and locked away during the day while everyone and their cousin crowds in to sit in your compartment. The upper berths are the least expensive but are quite comfortable (provided you don't have any desire to sit up) except when it's hot or someone is smoking below you.

Soft berth. Soft berth has a thin sheet of covered foam rubber stretched over those hard berth boards. More importantly, there are only four berths to a compartment. The other passengers will have just as many relatives during the day and their children will be more spoiled and cry more.

Super berth. I hear rumours that there is now such a thing as a super berth which only has two berths per compartment and may actually be air conditioned. Yeah, right.

For some ungodly reason, the Vietnamese train system had never outgrown its pre-electronic origins. Every station along the line is given a predetermined number of tickets to sell, after which the train is "full". This meant that entire carriages can be both booked out and empty, and others crammed two or three people to a seat, while roving conductors patrol the corridors to discourage passenger osmosis.

Never one to leave a niche unexploited, the Vietnamese have quickly moved in to profit from this apparent discrepancy. The conductors run a tidy business selling upgrades for one and a half times the published price and splitting the proceeds among themselves. Even the government joins in at its own feeding trough, charging foreigners nearly three times the going rate for seats, and limiting them to the more expensive express trains.

photo You should book at least a day in advance, more if you want one of the cushier berths. It makes sense to book your ticket leaving town when you arrive by train in town. Not exactly how I'd run a tourist industry, but the Vietnamese government works in strange and mysterious ways.

Provided the seats you want are physically available on the train (some trains only carry hard seats) and the station won't sell you tickets, you can buy your way up once you're on board. The conductors do a tidy business upgrading tickets. (see excerpt)

You may get to a train station (anywhere other than Saigon and Hanoi) and be told that tickets are all sold out. Be patient. Shortly before the train arrives the ticket office will get a phone call (hopefully) telling it how many additional free seats it can sell. You may get lucky. If you really get stuck then talk to the conductors.

Be sure to bring your passport and visa when you buy a ticket (see excerpt). If they ask for your papers and you can't produce them then you won't be allowed on the train.

Some trains are mysteriously off limits to foreigners, though I was sometimes still able to get on board... Be aware that you will be paying a 400% surcharge for being a foreigner (even a returning Vietnamese). This makes the train only 1/3 less expensive than the plane. It also sets you up to be overcharged in other arenas, since the Vietnamese quite logically assume that since the government can cheat you, why shouldn't they?

Rates are calculated by the kilometer, so there is no financial penalty for breaking up your trip.

There is only one track connecting Saigon to Hanoi. This means that whenever there are two trains heading in opposite directions, one of them has to give way (rather like the north-going Zork and the south-going Zork in a Dr. Seuss story). The train without priority (that would be the one you're on) pulls off onto a little side track and waits. The real kicker is how the trains communicate: As each train goes through a station, it picks up a heavy looped cable with a hand-written note attached to it. The note describes the speed and distance of the oncoming train. The engineers do some quick calculations, check their ratty old photocopied schedules, and decide which track they have time to pull off onto. Radios, anyone?

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