Night Train

Emerging into the midday sun, we found ourselves well-rested, well-caffeinated and with urine-free trouser cuffs. In short, we had achieved complete night train success.

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The previous evening, we had arrived at the station in Hanoi and sought out our compartment on Vietnam’s SE1 train, which runs the length of the country from Hanoi to Saigon. The two youngest in our group delighted in the discovery of top bunks with steel guard rails and spent the evening practicing parallel-bar routines above our heads. Fortunately we had purchased a supply of wine in the station and sat happily below their swinging feet enjoying an evening drink while watching the lights of Hanoi stream away from us.

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The wine and the clickaty-clack of the train passing over rail seams, lulled us into a restful mood and we all took to the bunks with our books.

It was at this peaceful moment that I recalled my most recent overnight train journey, 13 years ago, from Jakarta to Yogyakarta. I spent that long night trying to sleep in a partially reclined seat while the train’s entertainment system played an all-night loop of Mr Bean films interspersed with Kenny G concert clips.

Now on a train journeying down the Vietnamese coast, I stretched out my legs on the bunk and reveled in the lack of obligatory soft jazz.

Despite fearing that it might spoil the spell of train perfection, I knew I needed to make a trip to the train’s lavatory. Trying to suppress older memories of Indian railways toilets, I wobbled down the corridor and slowly opened the door. I was prepared to see a squat toilet (fine with me, except on trains) and a floor covered in urine. Instead I saw a perfectly clean, seated toilet and a fresh roll of toilet paper. There was no need to step carefully between suspect wet smudges or to roll up my trouser cuffs in order to avoid peeing all over them as I squatted and swayed back and forth with the train’s motion.

Returning to the compartment, I found that the gentle rocking of the train had put everyone else to sleep and I swiftly joined them. As our train was not due to arrive until 11:26 the next morning, we had no fear of a predawn wake up and we all slept deeply.

Eventually the light filtered to the children’s upper bunks and they lifted the shade to stare out at green fields and water buffalo. The sound of a drink cart rolling down the corridor woke us from our dreamy trance. Coffee was served and it was strong enough to blow the sleep out of our eyes and sweet enough to serve as breakfast.

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Reading books and watching the world pass by easily occupied the remaining hours. Just enough time to become slightly bored and glad that we weren’t taking the train all the way to Saigon. Instead we were well-rested and ready to emerge from our train cocoon and transfer by car from Da Nang station to nearby Hoi An.

I am already dreaming of future train rides. Do you have a favorite Asian night train to recommend? Or an experience so horrible that you must share?

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10 responses to “Night Train

  1. I love traveling by train. I once took a three-week train trip from Belgium to HK back in the 90s. These were the major stops and lay overs if I could remember them correctly: Brussels, Cologne, Warsaw, Moscow, Irkutsk, Ulaanbaatar, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. The Moscow to Irkutsk section being the longest stretch (a 3 night-4 day ride crossing southern Siberia) with numerous 5 min to ½ hr village stops along the way.

  2. Ha! I did have my paperbacks with me but rarely found time for them. I have to say that long stretch was my favorite part of the trip. I was traveling with my best friends and their families as a group of 8. We were also part of an international tour group of 22 (mostly of Brits and Aussie). The train was decent (except for the food). We were assigned two persons to each cabin with two bunk beds that meant for 4 people so we had plenty of room spreading out and never felt cramped, and we were all located on the same train car. The whole group mingled so well together it felt like a nonstop party on wheels.

    Part of the Siberian landscape was breathtaking and we got to interact with some of the village folks, however briefly, during our numerous stops in between. I have to admit when we got to HK we were all kind of sick of trains at that point and was glad that we would be getting on a plane for home 🙂

  3. Glad to hear that Vietnamese trains are so civilized! It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a train and too many overnight buses with that same, “OH, god, what kind of toilet situation are we going to have”.

    I remember in Thailand an old woman brought something bloody in a bag (like raw chicken) and as the train progressed, I watched the blood run down the corridor…

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