The Night Train

Rucksacks slung over our shoulders, Brian and I board the Reunification Express, a weathered, no-frills train at Hanoi Station. Like so much of Vietnam, it feels like a bit of a time capsule. Through the PA system overhead, an authoritative recording blares instructions at an almost comically loud volume. I get the impression that it’s peppered with nationalist propaganda; the Communist tenor is conspicuous to say the least.

The cabin interiors are clean, if well-worn. After all, the night train, as it’s known, is the quintessential mode of long-distance travel for most Vietnamese because domestic airfare is simply too expensive. These train cars have seen many a traveler. Our four-berth cabin is small yet charming with simple linens, some pillows, and a tiny table just large enough for a couple of books. Brian and I chuckle upon trying out our bunks; our fussy American-style mattress at home has ruined us. The ones here on the train are much more simple and practical, and I’m sure I’ll have the stiff back to prove it come morning.

We depart Hanoi at 8 p.m. The timing is just right for an overnight journey. Our bellies are full from a swoon-worthy dinner at Banh Mi 25, near Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

The ladies who run the impossibly small sandwich stand epitomize Vietnam’s warm, industrious women. They were happy to make both of us second servings and chuckled as we stooped atop two tiny plastic stools, devouring one pate-and-veggie-stuffed baguette after another.

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The meal has us sleepy and ready to kick our feet up. Brian and I sit and take in the sights as we make our way southbound out of the city and into the countryside, trading street food stalls and neon lights for Red River Delta rice paddies and pitch-black jungles that hug the coast and crawl up the mountains above us.

It doesn’t take long for the steady rocking of the train and the dense, enveloping darkness to lull us to sleep.

Two or three hours into the journey, the door to our cabin opens a crack, pouring light from the corridor into our bleary eyes. An older French couple enters, whispering, “bonjour” and “pardon” and a few embarrassed utterances. I smile at their politeness as they settle into the other two bunks in our cabin and wish a “bonne nuit” to us both. Sleeping four feet from total strangers never seemed so charming.

Shortly after 5 a.m., I awake to a stiff back and absolute darkness outside the cabin window. I’m normally the type to loll around in bed as late as possible, but sitting up is both the more comfortable option and the more rewarding one. Through the window, half a dozen cars ahead, I can see the engine banking a turn. Its headlights cast a narrow beam along the wild, vine-canopied track, a solitary interruption in the deep-black calm of the pre-dawn morning.

As the sun rises, I begin to make out my surroundings: jungle so dense it’s easy to see why machetes might come in handy. Kudzu vines coil around every available tree and bush, an effect that’s strikes me as both beautiful and suffocating. Not far beyond the forested hills below us, the South China Sea crashes against the craggy shore. The scale of it all is dumbfounding. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and more than ever, I feel a world away from home.

Our French cabin-mates wake and depart tidily with a “bon voyage” for our journey ahead. In the corridor, the loudspeaker propaganda has been replaced by the sales pitch of a cheery train attendant, her cart of snacks rattling over the lumpy-carpeted floorboards. We buy a sticky, round, peanut-sesame snack cake to share and thumb through our guidebooks.

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Before lunchtime, we’ve arrived in Da Nang. I’ll admit I’m glad the fourteen-hour journey is coming to an end, but I already miss waking up to the jungle and purple-tinted rice paddies at sunrise. We certainly don’t have those back in Colorado.

Brian and I have already decided this won’t be our last visit to Vietnam. Next time, we plan to travel farther inland, but we’ll definitely make time for another night train journey along the coast. And next time, we hope to have our future children in tow.

Watch a short video of our night train journey here.


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