Our First (and Only) Train Ride in SE Asia

We had heard of the infamous sleeper buses in Vietnam and were trying hard to avoid them at all costs. I knew that those buses would not be built for someone my size (6’9″). We needed to get from Ninh Binh to Phong Nha. Our amazing host at our homestay in Ninh Binh agreed with my aversion. He suggested that we take the train and, to make it even better, he said he could get us tickets at a much cheaper price than we could because he was a local and we were foreigners. The next day, he came back in the evening and had our steeply discounted tickets in hand! We were really grateful for his help, but also a bit weary of taking the 10-hour train ride.

The Train Station

The next morning, we said farewell to our homestay and headed to the train station. It was here in the station that Brittany asked me if I wanted to sit down and I famously replied, “I think those seats are for children.” They were not…they were for normal people, although the average Vietnamese person is about half my size. There was no way I could sit on one of those plastic stools without breaking it.

The train ended up being late, a normal theme we found in Vietnam. As we were waiting for the train, we were getting looks from everyone, and I mean EVERYONE. It seemed as if everyone around us had never seen a white person before. It felt pretty crazy.

This little guy was obsessed with peeking over our seat

The Seat Fiasco

Once we boarded the train, we went to our assigned seats, and noticed that other people were in them. This is another trend we found in Vietnam. No one seemed to care about the seats they were assigned in any form of transportation we took in Vietnam. We sat in two other seats instead. This wasn’t a problem until a few hours later when a massive hoard of people boarded the train. We, of course, were in someone else’s seat because someone was in ours. They came up to us and asked us to move. We tried to explain the situation, but the language gap was insurmountable. We had no intention of moving.

The person trying to kick us out of his seats went to talk the conductor. A few minutes later, the conductor came to our seat asking to see our tickets again. He checked them and, for the second time, we explained why we were not in the seats that were printed on our ticket. For the next 30 minutes or so he proceeded to frantically go up and down the train car trying to figure our where/how to seat everyone because everyone was seated in incorrect locations.

To make matters worse, there were not enough seats for everyone who was in the train car and many people were sitting in the aisles and on top of each other. I suspect the biggest problem was that some people just didn’t have a ticket, which maybe is okay on most days, but on this particular day, the train was packed and it caused chaos.

The Train Itself

This was a beaten down train. I had never been on a train this beaten down. It was in even worse shape than some of the ones we took in Romania. Half of the seats’ reclining function was broken and they were permanently in the reclined mode. In practice this didn’t matter because (we noticed in horror) the first thing anyone did when they sat down was automatically recline their seat all the way, right away, if it wasn’t already reclined by being broken. It was nuts – these people were tiny, but felt the need to take every inch given to them.

The Food

Another entertaining piece of the ride was that every few minutes or so, a food cart would come through the alley. These were not normal food carts. Some of them had fresh corn on the cob. If someone ordered one, the person working the cart would shuck the corn right then and there. Other carts had grills that were grilling sticks of unidentified meat. Eventually, we decided to get something from the cart with sweets as it strolled by, since it seemed the most appetizing. The man working the cart did not speak a word of English, making buying something pretty difficult.

Everyone in their fully reclined seats…

The Spectacle (Us)

The fact that we were on this train seemed to be a spectacle to everyone around us. Word got out to other train cars that there were two white people on the train and we had people coming from other train cars to catch a glimpse of us, the two white people. This reaffirmed our belief that we were perhaps the only white people some of these people had ever seen. At one point, an adorable old man came up to us to talk. He spoke the few phrases of English he knew and at the end of the conversation thanked us for talking to him. It was one of the most heartwarming moments of the entire trip for me.

My Grand Exit

If I had two words to describe the train ride, they would be utter chaos. Boy were we excited to get off of that train! When we finally got to our stop, I stood up to get our bags. This caused a HUGE commotion. Everyone ooing and ahhing and giggling about how tall I was. I scurried off the train and on my way out bumped my head on the doorway, which caused a massive uproar of laughter. No one else on this train was remotely close to being able to bump their heads. People were still staring and laughing as we watched the train pull away.

The experience was absolutely worth it. It was an overwhelming cultural experience that I won’t forget, but was glad to have it come to an end. If it was the most convenient way to travel in the future, we would do it again, but I am in no way eager to do this again.

Have you had any “local” travel day experiences? How did they end up going?

5 Comment

  1. Craig says: Reply

    Pete – sounds like you were a real celebrity on the train. Although it was a rough ride for you, your presence made the day for many of the locals. Good attitude. 10 hours on that train must have been very challenging!

    1. Pete says: Reply

      It was super challenging but I don’t regret the journey at all!

  2. Caren says: Reply

    What a grueling but amazing 10 hours! The passengers will be talking about you for a long time!!

  3. Janice THOMPSON says: Reply

    I am STILL …LAUGHING….tears….thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Pete says: Reply

      Thanks for reading! I’ll never forget that ride.

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