32 Hours on the Reunification Express

Saturday, 27-12-2014 & Sunday, 28-12-2014

Days 129 & 130.

We spent the next 32 hours in a small 4-berth cabin on the Reunification Express (also known as the North-South Railway). It was one of our most memorable moments of 2014. Here's how we spent those 32 train-bound hours.

Reunification Express. Car 11. Room 3. Berths 9—12.

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We shuffled our way onto car 11 and down the narrow walkway to room three, a small box about six feet wide, six feet deep, and eight feet high, with four beds, a small table, and a vase filled with pink, plastic flowers.

Before: High hopes. Fresh-faced and full of anticipation.

Before: High hopes. Fresh-faced and full of anticipation.

We were fortunate that there were four of us, so we had a whole room to ourselves. Next door, the occupants of room two were two burly Australians (who were well into their second beers) and two petite Vietnamese. There was no common language between the two groups—except for a deck of cards.

The First Two Hours

Sure, the four beds in our cramped cabin were vinyl-covered slabs of 3-inch thick foam that were slightly softer than the beds at the Yunting Holiday Hotel, but that was okay. This was going to be an adventure! It would be fun!

The train left the station right on time, and shortly after that, the beverage cart came rolling by. The staff working on the train spoke very little English, so communicating could sometimes be tricky. But this guy was really pushing the beer. He only had one brand—Beer 333 (which Ha, our street food tour guide from Hanoi, told us was just re-branded Saigon Beer)—and it was less than fifty cents, so we got a can.

This is not a taste combination you need to try.

This is not a taste combination you need to try.

This, along with the package of Oreo sponge cake we got from our stop at the Disabled Artists Enclave earlier was our before-bedtime snack. Both items were pretty questionable on their own, but together they were quite unpalatable. Just so you know.

Soon after our snack, we got out the toothbrushes and made our way to the shared sink area of the train. I'm not sure why we didn't photograph this, but it consisted of three sinks in a narrow alcove just off the hallway.

Sinks are to the right at the end of the hall.

Sinks are to the right at the end of the hall.

Everyone else in the car had the same idea, so there were about 20 people lined up taking care of face-washing and teeth-brushing and spitting. We waited a bit until the crowd died down, then we took care of our business before sliding the heavy door of our room closed and locking up for the night. As we turned out the lights and tried to get some sleep, the novelty of being on a train had started to wear off.

Creeping dread, just before bed.

Creeping dread, just before bed.

Sleeping on a Train

Getting a good night's sleep on a train is not easy. In fact, unless you're Jackie (who can sleep anywhere), it's downright impossible.

First of all, travel by train is noisy. There's an endless clicking of metal wheels rolling across metal tracks, which I thought I'd get used to but never did, and the whole car rocks back and forth as the train rumbles along.

Secondly, there are a lot of stops. During the night, our train stopped a few times at other stations along the route, and when it stopped, it stopped hard, accompanied by a high-pitched squeal that was pretty impossible to not wake up for. And train stations themselves are not quiet places. If the people clunking around in the cabins next door to you as they disembark doesn't wake you up, the noises from outside the train will. There are whistles and talking and yelling and other trains arriving and leaving.

Even if you were asleep when the train pulled into the station, it's a pretty fair bet that you'll be awake as it pulls away. When all the people who are getting off have gotten off and all the people who are getting on have gotten on, the train starts up again, shuddering and rocking as the slack between the cars is pulled tight. Sometimes this was so violent we were almost knocked out of our berths.

Sleep did come though, but usually only in short nap-like moments. About the time I really started in with a good snooze, the rising sun had other ideas.

Morning breaks on the train

The drapes weren't all that effective in keeping out the morning light, so we woke early. In fact, the whole train woke early. It starts with coughing, farting, clearing of phlegm, and the opening of heavy doors as people got up to stumble to the bathroom and the sinks to clean up.

Each car has an attendant who is responsible for keeping the bathroom relatively clean, and they do a pretty good job. But right after the early morning rush to the sinks, there was a half-inch of water sloshing all over the floor. So that was fun.

Starting in the morning and throughout the day, the beverage cart guy would make his rounds. Every time he entered our car, he'd yell a lot of words, one of which was "coffee." That's how we were pretty sure it was the beverage guy. On his third run through our car (the first two were early, before we opened our door), I got a cup of coffee for 10,000 dong (about 50 cents).

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The coffee was pretty hot and served to me in a plastic cup, so it was very squishy and a challenge to hold, let alone drink. Other than that, it was typical Vietnamese-style coffee—very sweet. I set it on the small table, where it threatened to spill every time the train rocks back and forth (so pretty much constantly).

Another guy came around at 9:30 a.m. and asked us if we wanted lunch. He told us it would cost 17,000 dong (less than a dollar). When we asked what was being served, he paused a moment then moved his hand like a fish swimming in the water. We ordered four and asked when it would be served (not that we had anywhere else to be). He wrote down 1:00 p.m. and gave us four tickets.

A day on the train

Most of our day was spent with the four of us hanging out in our small room, engaged in a few different activities. We started out fighting boredom by busting out the travel cribbage board and getting down to a round-robin cribbage tournament. Cribbage is a great way to kill time, and it's good for working on math skills.

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But you can only play so much cribbage. After a few hours, we were surprised that lunch arrived at 11:45 a.m., much earlier than the promised 1:00 p.m. As we handed our four tickets back to the same guy who gave them to us a few hours prior, we were also somewhat surprised that it was not fish, but chicken (or something that looked like chicken). Not that it would have made much difference; it was far from the best meal we'd had in Vietnam. Here, take a look:

Lunch on the Reunification Express. You get what you pay for.

Lunch on the Reunification Express. You get what you pay for.

After lunch, Frankie worked on her knitting. Jackie worked on her Minecraft. Everyone read their books. We all dozed on and off. The night before, we'd overheard one of the Australian gents next door about the dining car. He got an answer that made him think it was further up in the train, so at one point Samantha and Frankie took a stroll to look for it.

On their journey, they learned a few things. First of all, we were in the nice cars—the 4-berth cabins with air conditioning (which was just a fan that had two speeds: on and off). In front of us were the 4-berth cars without air conditioning, then the 6-berth air-conditioned cars (the same sized room, but with two extra beds), then the 6-berth cars with no A/C. We couldn't imagine cramming two more people into a room the size of the one we were in. In front of the sleeper cars were the cars with seats (they had a television) and benches.

Up front on the Reunification Express.

Up front on the Reunification Express.

But there was no dining car. The food cart that came through our car regularly with questionable choices and the meals that you could order were the only available food options. Speaking of which, mid-afternoon, the food order guy came around again and took our dinner orders. We only ordered three this time because Jackie hated lunch. He gave us three tickets and left. We didn't ask what it was or when it would be served. It didn't really matter, anyway.

The Australians had moved on from cabin two (I think they got off in Hué) and had been replaced by a Vietnamese family—a man, a woman, and a boy of about nine or ten. About midway through the afternoon, the woman started yelling in angry Vietnamese and slammed the door. She'd apparently gotten fed up with her son and shoved him out into the hall, locking him out of the room. He started crying and wailing and pounding on the door. He was going at it for about fifteen minutes before she let him back inside. After that, we didn't hear a thing from him for the rest of the ride.

Just as the sun was going down, the meals we'd ordered were delivered. It looked—and tasted—like what we had for lunch.

Dinner looked a lot like lunch, but with different meat and vegetable products.

Dinner looked a lot like lunch, but with different meat and vegetable products.

We bought Jackie a bowl of instant ramen (5,000 dong; less than 25¢) from the roaming food cart because she didn't like the dinner. There was a hot water dispenser at the front of every car (near the sinks). So we used that to make the ramen, but it was really hot water, so it took a long time before the noodles were eating temperature. Ramen was not only the more economical choice, it tasted better. If we ever do this again (and we won't), we'll skip the cooked meals and live on ramen for the duration of the journey.

Waiting for the noodles.

Waiting for the noodles.

We ate our meals, but they wasn't satisfying. We finished what we could, but were still pretty hungry. The food cart guy came around one last time, so we thought he might have something we'd be interested in eating, but there was no more ramen. All he had was a lot of questionable looking meats on sticks and some eggs that we were wary of. Samantha raised her phone to take a  picture of what was available, but the gent pushing the cart angrily waved her off. He did not want a picture taken of his cart's delicacies.

Don't photograph the food cart. Oops.

Don't photograph the food cart. Oops.

The next few hours went by in a blur. We had about eight more hours on this train, and most of that would be spent (hopefully) sleeping. So we did the bedtime preparation, then shut the door hoping to get at least a little sleep before we reached the final stop of the adventure.

Arrival

And then it was over. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City right on time at 5:20 a.m. Unlike any of the other stops along the trip, there was an English announcement telling us we'd arrived at the end of the line.

We were tired and hungry, but happy that whole thing was behind us.

After: It's 5:20 in the morning. Time to get off this train. Hooray.

After: It's 5:20 in the morning. Time to get off this train. Hooray.

If you've made it through to the end of this post (reading it was probably slightly more exciting than experiencing it), you can get a good sense of what being on a train for 32 hours was like with this video.

Learn more about the Reunification Express (or any train in the world) from Seat 61, an excellent blog about train travel written by the Man in Seat 61.

Notable Statistics:

  • Games of cribbage: 8
  • Meals served: 2
  • Screaming kids (who didn't belong to us): 1

is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. He also drinks coffee.

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32 Hours on the Reunification Express
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