As many a traveler will tell you, taking an overnight train in Asia is quite an adventure, one that I have always found to be enjoyable and something to look forward to.
Overnight trains are my favorite means of covering long distances because they’re usually friendlier to my budget and more comfortable than taking long road trips being cramped in a small car or bus.
The other advantage is that you get to stretch your legs out and get a good night’s sleep in exchange for just a little bit more than you would pay for a hostel or budget hotel.
That said, it helps if you’re open to surprises and don’t easily get irritated by minor unexpected events. It’s all a part of the ‘travel in Asia’ experience and best taken with a pinch of salt.
Earlier this year, while travelling in Vietnam, I took an overnight AC soft sleeper train from the capital Hanoi to Lao Cai to get to the mountain town of Sapa .
If you’re planning to take an overnight train in Vietnam or are simply curious about long distance train travel in Asia, you’ll find this list of ‘things to know before you go’ useful.
Sapa – 7 Things To Know Before Travelling by Overnight Train
Just as you would book your Vietnam online visa before you arrive, it’s advisable to book your train tickets in advance via a travel agent especially if you’re planning to travel during peak tourist times or public holidays or have fixed travel dates.
This can easily be done by emailing well known operators and paying online through secure systems. Typically, you receive a voucher by email which needs to be exchanged for an actual ticket at the operator’s counter at the train station before you board the train.
Once you’re in the country, you’ll notice that the locals in general have a small frame. Vietnamese sizes in local stores are much smaller than standard sizes. Their trains are small too.
What I mean is that the corridors inside the train are quite narrow and you’re likely to get stuck if you’ve strapped on a backpack that is too large or broad or if it’s stuffed with a lot of pretty things that you could not help buying from the local markets (like mine was).
Whether it’s a backpack or suitcase you carry, ensure that it’s not too large and can easily be stored along with the bags of fellow passengers under the lower berth of the cabin.
Lower or Upper Berth?
The peculiar thing about the overnight train that I took in Vietnam was that unlike what I’d seen in the AC Soft Sleeper trains in Thailand, there wasn’t really a ladder to get up to the Upper Berth.
Instead, there was a tiny peg between the upper and lower berths to place one foot, and a stainless steel frame on the edge of the Upper berth that you could hold onto for support and use to hoist yourself up. Not a good idea if you’re a little heavy or suffer from knee or leg injuries of any kind.
On my way back from Lao Cai to Hanoi , due to the carelessness of my travel agent, I was allotted an Upper Berth that I had to take in spite of an injured knee. It was an unpleasant experience every time I had to step down or get up again.
The elderly lady on the opposite Upper Berth also expressed her discomfort with this which makes me believe that the Lower Berths are far more comfortable for the elderly.
Based on my experience travelling by the Sapaly Express AC Soft Sleeper, I think it’s a great way to cover long distances in the country while getting a good night’s sleep.
The mattress, though thin is very comfortable. The bedding is clean and every berth comes with its own reading light and electrical charging point.
The toilets are clean but remember to carry your own toilet paper. It’s also a good idea to travel with your own disinfectant hand wash as often the taps may not work, and there won’t be soap available.
During both my journeys from Hanoi and returning from Lao Cai, I arrived one and a half to two hours later than the mentioned time of arrival, which makes me believe that this is a frequent occurrence. Don’t expect to arrive at the time mentioned in your travel agent’s email, arrival times of trains in many Asian countries are almost always delayed.
If you plan onward travel, like I did to Halong Bay on the same morning that I arrived in Hanoi from Lao Cai, be sure to allow enough time for delays.
Food and beverages can be bought on board – instant noodles seem like the most popular meal onboard.
Though it’s definitely a better idea to bring your own food to snack on for long journeys.
Beware of Scams
When you arrive at the train station, look around carefully to find the counter of the travel company whose name is mentioned on your voucher so that you can exchange it for an actual ticket. Do not hand over your voucher to a random stranger who offers to help you or someone who is not from the company.
There have been cases of touts offering to help tourists who naively hand over the voucher to the tout, only to have money extorted from them in return for the voucher.
Ensure that you have the contact number of the travel agent who booked your ticket so that you can get in touch in case you don’t find their counter at the station.
Enjoy the Journey!
Finally, remember to enjoy the journey! Depending on how long it is and which route you take, the ride will take you through traditional villages, farms or mountain scenery.
The country offers some fantastic views to wake up to which easily make up for the minor delays.