What to Expect on an Overnight Train in Vietnam

We arrived at the Hanoi Train Station at 7:10pm. Our Intrepid guide Khoa motioned us to follow him and we took a short cut to the platform through a loading bay entrance. We walked a few car lengths of the Reunification Express, peeking into what the train sleeping arrangements looked like, finally arriving at train car “11A”. It was first class! We settled into our cabins, which was quite nice. Bottled water, wipes and chocolates were placed on the table while fresh, clean duvets, pillows and linens were on the beds. I had read that you might want to bring a sleep sheet and I would definitely agree if you were sleeping in anything but first class. The beds are not the softest, so as I had a sleep sheet, I slept on top of the duvet for that little extra cushion.

We had put in a take out order earlier in the day, it arrived just before we departed at 7:30pm. I had read in the Lonely Planet guide that it is best to buy snacks and food before for the trip as these items are priced quite high onboard. So keeping this in mind I also stopped off at a convenience store earlier in the afternoon to pick up some snacks, a bottle of water and a couple beers (who can say no to 25 cent beers). They have water dispensers (bottled water) at either end of each train car which is great, was nice to refill my water bottle as it was quite hot. I was very happy that we had ordered food and snacks as the food carts did not look appetizing. The cars are air conditioned however it seemed at certain times it was having troubles keeping up with the crazy heat we were experiencing.

The bathrooms are an experience in themselves. We didn’t have squat toilets (those are found in a few cars down), but they aren’t the cleanest of spaces. This is where I was very happy to have Lysol wipes on me and a toilet paper roll. It seems like the bathrooms in first class cars are better kept than others, I didn’t need the toilet paper as it seemed there was always some (however I wasn’t going to risk not having any) and checked on a more regular basis.

The views from the train are really interesting. It’s not the Rocky Mountaineer by any means. If you are travelling on your own, you will be confined to your bunk and you could be sharing the cabin with other travellers. I had the bottom right bunk so the views from my seat were quite good. I really enjoyed the trip in the early morning when we woke. About 6:30am we were about 2 hours from Hue, enjoying views of workers in the rice fields. Lotus flowers separated the tracks from lush fields, while hundreds of white ducks seemed to be enjoying the ponds every so often. Some areas you couldn’t really see too much, like when we crossed over the remnants of the DMZ (de-militarized zone). There wasn’t even a marker. I basically knew it from keeping track of our movements on a map. Most backpackers depart in Hue and so does most tours. Hue is somewhere we didn’t have time to visit, however I’ve been told it is a highlight. We continued on the train to Danang, however the stretch between Hue and Danang is beautiful. The train takes quite a scenic route over the mountain overlooking picturesque and prisine beaches. This is where you want to make sure you can take in the scenery.

In regards to safety there is some luggage space under the bottom bunks and in a storage space above the top bunks. It is always recommended to have your cabin locked. Someone at some point at night did try our door, however we did have it locked. There is no security between classes, anyone can walk the length of the train. If sharing the cabin with others you don’t know, wear your money belt with your absolute valuables (passport, credit cards, cash, etc) and bring it with you when going to the washroom. Keep larger valuables away from the door, I had my head facing the door (feet were at the door, head at the window) and kept my camera in the corner, under my pillow. This way if the door was unlocked, no one can do a quick grab of anything. I did feel safe on the train, but was happy I read up on what to expect on the Vietnam overnight trains in the Lonely Planet guide. The conductors do know where you need to get off and do speak some English.

We pulled into Danang just after 11:45am and departed the train. I did enjoy the experience and it was worth it. If you want a reasonable way to travel from North to South Vietnam (or vice versa), the train is an awesome option.

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My Guide to Hanoi, Vietnam

I arrived into Hanoi via Taipei on a Vietnam Airlines flight at 9:35am. Hanoi was my first point of entry into Vietnam and I had no idea what to expect. Upon landing, immigration was my first stop. As I already had my visa (I got it at the Vietnamese Consulate in Vancouver), so I joined in the very short immigration line. Glancing over at the very long “Visa On Arrival” line, I knew I had made the right choice. A few seconds later, my passport was scanned and stamped and I was on my way into the baggage area. Once I collected my bag, I went through the sliding doors into the arrival hall. The sticky, heavy, humid air hit me like a brick wall. It was hot in Hanoi, in some ways a much needed change from the unusual cool weather we’ve been experiencing in Vancouver. I then began searching the almost overwhelming crowd, yelling at me for my arrival transfer. I was glad I had booked it in advance. Hanoi is notorious for taxi airport scams. Most guide books and websites recommend organizing a transfer through your hotel or making sure you use a reputable taxi company, your hotel or hostel can recommend the best taxi to use. As I was on an Intrepid Real Food Adventure tour, I booked my transfer through them. I finally found the Intrepid sign in the crowd with my name underneath.

The drive into Hanoi from the airport is about 30-45 minutes depending on traffic and where your hotel is located within the city. The traffic is crazy here, you need to have patience. The streets are not blocks, they weave in many directions. As it’s an old city, the modern and the antique cross over each other. Once I had arrived to my hotel (May De Ville City Centre 2), I freshened up in the main bathroom (my room was not ready until 2pm) and asked for a map. The map I was provided with had recommendations on what taxi companies to use, marks on the city map where the hotel was located and popular landmarks.

I headed out to check out the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake areas of Hanoi. I walked down one of the main roads, Hang Duong (pretty well one road from my hotel which was quite good), I passed many stalls and was taken back by the grungy beauty of the Old Hanoi. I did have my camera with me and felt safe with it. I heard about motorcycle snatchings, however they are more prevalent in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I was able to take some amazing photos along my walk. I loved the people. The people here are somewhat friendly, the odd stranger will still glance a smile your way, if not only with their eyes.

Crossing the streets for the first time in Vietnam can be quite the experience. Look for a crosswalk first, if there is one, wait for the light, but then make sure there are no motorcycles looking to sneak through. When crossing where there is no crosswalk, just be deliberate. Walk slowly and don’t stop unless it’s a car (apparently they won’t stop for you, unless you are really giving them the sign you are crossing lol). The motorcycles will just go around you while you cross the street, don’t be intimidated, but don’t speed up, run or stop, that’s when the accidents happen.

Along Hang Duong, you will find many stalls of clothing, cell phone accessories and even different counterfeit items. Here, you will also find the Dong Xuan Market. I would say Hanoi and Hoi An is the place to buy typical Vietnam souvenirs. I found Ho Chi Minh City to be extremely overpriced, especially in the markets there. Hanoi is much more reasonable and had some pretty cute boutique style shops as well. Once at Hoan Kiem Lake its a really nice walk around the lake. On Saturdays and Sundays the roads around the lake are closed off to traffic so that families can easily enjoy family time near the lake on the roads and creates more walkable and useable space, its a great new initiative. The pagoda on the lake is quite beautiful, very picturesque.

The food in Hanoi is diverse and delicious. French influence is everywhere here, and the baguettes are so authentic you would think you were in France. Crispy on the outside and so soft and fluffy on the inside, makes the perfect Banh Mi. Make sure you try the following foods and restaurants:

  • Banh Mi 25 – Amazing street food, small food stall in Hanoi where you line up among the locals for a delicious Banh Mi sandwich.
  • Bun Cha Nem Cut Be Dac Kim – Bun cha is another type of noodle soup consisting of vermicelli, pork slices, pork meatballs (which are the best part) and a mountain of herbs. Another small restaurant where you will be eating along with the locals.
  • Egg Coffee – Best egg coffee in Vietnam is found in Hanoi. There is a really good place just across the street from the Chau Long Market (the locals market), we were taken there on a street food tour. The egg coffee was amazing and the back sitting area was quaint.
  • Pho Huyen – 31 Chau Long – Amazing pho! Was just around the corner from my hotel and directly across the street from the Hanoi Cooking Centre.
  • KOTO – A social enterprise that helps disadvantaged and at risk youth by giving them training in the hospitality industry. The food was incredible. Make sure you visit this location or the one in Ho Chi Minh City.
  • Hien Tra Truong Xuan – A traditional tea house near the Temple of Literature. Offers a traditional tea ceremony with lotus tea (bitter but good) and several other teas. My other favourites were the ginger tea and the peach tea.

As for safety, as a single woman, I felt quite safe in Hanoi and walked around with a cross body purse along with my Canon 6D camera with no issues. I did read up on the scams and saw most of them in play.

In Hanoi, the biggest scams to watch out for are:

  • Women with the fruit baskets – they will try to put them on your shoulders and then take your picture, they typically overcharge for a photo and harass you until you pay them what they want.
  • Cyclo tours – Cyclo touts cheap rides, but normally way over charge by the time you are finished. Some may even lead you far from where you want to actually go then ask for a crazy amount to take you back. Before sitting down in one, make sure you agree to a fare and if you don’t feel safe ask to stop immediately (an excuse to use the washroom, etc).
  • Shoe repairs/shoe shines – Along some streets you will see some men sitting on the ground in cramped areas, they throw or dab disolvants onto your footwear and offer to fix your shoes, keep walking.
  • Free samples – Vendors along the streets will offer you free samples of donuts, fruit or other items, however once tasted they will demand unreasonable payment.
  • Taxis – Make sure they have a meter, also watch the meter and make sure it’s not going too fast. Speak to your hotel regarding how much it should cost to go to various locations around the city, most places should be within 15,000 to 75,000 Dong depending on traffic and location distance.
  • Drink spiking – As with anywhere in the world spiking of drinks in clubs and bars is popular, keep an eye on your drink if you are planning to enjoy an evening out. Drinking out of a bottle and keeping your thumb over the top is more safe than a wide open glass.

I really enjoyed Hanoi. It is a very walkable city and quite safe overall. I’m so happy I was able to experience this city which is over 1000 years old. The architecture and sights are intriguing and I wish I had spent a few more days here to explore. If you have any questions about Hanoi or if you would like more recommendations, please contact me!

Packing for Vietnam

I usually start packing for a trip about a week to two weeks before I go somewhere, this way I find it’s not a mad dash at the end, and I’m able to mindfully make decisions about what I pack (and what I don’t).

As I unpacked from my 1 night repositioning cruise on the Ruby Princess, I’m repacking the same carry on with my items for Vietnam. Yes, I am taking just a carry on to Vietnam.  I guess I’m challenging myself, I’ve always overpacked. Many times coming back from a destination I’m sitting on my suitcase trying desperately to zip it up, and/or buying a secondary bag to fit souvenirs I’ve accumulated along the way. I know I need to simplify, so to resist the urges of buying unnecessary items (partially to save money for my Europe trip in August), carry on it is.

I’m going to be packing light. I’m flying with China Airlines and Vietnam Airlines, carry on limit is 7 kgs, plus a personal item such as a purse. I’ve decided dress in layers, wearing the heaviest items of clothing that I’m planning to bring, this way it won’t effect my carry on weight. I get cold on planes anyways, so this way I’ll be warm and comfortable haha. I won’t be bringing my MacBook this time, I’m taking a journal to write in instead.

Traveling to Asia is definitely an adjustment. Public washrooms can be a very simple squat toilet, or a western style washroom with the toilet paper located near the paper towel where you wash your hands. I’ve learned to be and travel prepared. I always carry a roll of toilet paper or at least tissues in my purse, not to mention antibacterial wet wipes and hand sanitizer. I always wipe public areas down with wipes, especially my seat area in an airplane (tray, armrests, in-seat entertainment system and sometimes the window if it’s smudged), bathrooms, hotel rooms, etc. I might sound like a germaphobe (ok, if I’m honest I am one), but I really hate getting sick during a trip. For health related issues I bring Pepto-Bismol, Benadryl, Gravol, Advil, Ener-C packs (contains vitamins and electrolytes, important for hot, humid climates and warding off plane germs) and last but not least, Saje Immune roll on (for warding off colds and other germs).

I’ll be taking one swimsuit, I’m really hoping we will be able to kayak in Halong Bay during our overnight cruise. I know the hotel in Hoi An has a pool, so one swimsuit will be fine.

For technology, I’ll be taking my iPhone 6, for photos and posting to Instagram and Facebook, and to keep in touch with my family on FaceTime. I’m bringing my GoPro Hero 4 with waterproof housing. I brought it with me to Thailand and Bali and got some great footage with it. I’m also taking my Canon 6D for those photos that I want the extra quality for.

I have to say, I’m getting excited! Really excited, only a couple days to go!

Vietnam Countdown – 4 Weeks to Go!

My Vietnam countdown is officially on! 4 weeks to go!

I’m so excited and can’t wait to share my adventure with you all!

I am doing a “taster trip” of Intrepid Travel’s Real Food Adventure – Vietnam. Our journey will start in Hanoi and end in Ho Chi Minh City, spanning over nine days! This trip includes a couple cooking classes, an overnight cruise on Halong Bay, an overnight train to Danang and many street food stops along the way. I’m planning to document this trip day by day and also by video.

This past Thursday, I made the trip to the Vietnamese Consulate downtown Vancouver to get my Vietnamese visa. I paid $103.00 Canadian Dollars to get it completed and I will pick it up on Wednesday (so just under a week). I know there are other ways to get the visa for Vietnam, such as paying to get a visa on arrival. After doing quite a bit of research, I decided that getting it done before I left was the best (and safest) route for me. If you apply through a third party agency, you could be taking your chances. Not only that, when you arrive you have to make sure you have all your documents and passport photo with you, along with paying a “stamping fee” in US Dollars at immigration. The lines can be long and I just want to get to my hotel and start exploring Hanoi once I land. I’d rather not have any extra stress, just enjoy this journey.

On to what I’m packing… Still debating on bringing a suitcase, however I think I’m sticking to just a carry on. Going to be interesting, but I’m going to try. I tend to overpack and really not need half the items I take, so it’s going to be a test for me. My apartment is also getting very full, so by taking just a carry on, I’m limiting the unnecessary souvenirs I might purchase along the way.

May 18th can’t come soon enough!