Take the train we said. The Reunification Express we said. Sure, it’ll be grand, we said. Afterall - the 17 hour leg in the ‘soft’ sleeper from Saigon to Da Nang went incredibly efficiently - left on time, arrived on time, left us nigh on crippled. But it got us there. So we had not a thought in our heads about having the hotel in Hue phone the Railway Station before we jumped in a taxi at 3.30 pm and headed off to catch the 4.25 pm SE2 train from Hue to Hanoi. Great wee taxi ride. Not sure if all the cabs in Hue are honest, but the ones specifically called by the hotel seem to have honest meters which is a huge plus in Vietnam - plagued as it is by malfunctioning hot meters in many cities. In any event, wheeled our luggages into the station and everything looked normal. Lots of people... sitting... waiting for trains - as you do in railway stations. We found a spot to sit and I went off to hunt for the ‘Train X will leave from Platform Y’ board which was noticeable by its absence... nope... There was however a signboard in Vietnamese that looked like it could be important... went to the ticket counter where eventually enough English was cobbled together to assist me... our train was running up to 10 hours late. Seriously? Like this isn’t some ‘have fun with the tourist’ game? Sadly not. We were advised to go back to our hotel and have someone phone up at 10 pm to get an ETA on the train. Well that wasn’t happening. Rather like a technology issue sometimes it pays to keep asking the same questions over and over again and continue to expect different answers.
Eventually enough people turned up to catch the SE2 that they set up an info desk. Also not in English - but the advice changed to ‘Stay here and there’ll be a plan at 6 pm’ - not a train mind you, but a plan. There was nothing in English on the railways site and the Vietnamese advice translated badly - and the news didn’t report it until the 29th... but it seems on the 27th of Jan the SE1 train had derailed coming into a station in the south - no casualties thankfully, but it brought the entire North/South railway system to it’s knees. Which is catastrophic in a North/South country like Vietnam - it’s a long, skinny country - there is no East/West railway to pick up the slack. Even though the derailment was cleared up within 3 hours, the knock on effect on the 27th was trains from Saigon running 10 or more hours behind - exacerbated by thousands of extra people travelling home for the forthcoming Tet/Lunar New Year holidays. We couldn’t find out anything about where our train actually was... just wait to 6 pm. Eventually found a staff member who spoke English (he was popular) and he suggested that Plan A was wait, but Plan B was to get a refund on the rail tickets and take the overnight sleeper bus that was due out at 5.30 pm. Hmmmm. Should we? Could we? We’d bought the tickets via Baolau - a brilliant site for trains, particularly in Asia, where buying direct from the national site can be tricky without a Vietnamese credit card. We knew if we’d cancelled the trip on the Baolau site for any reason we’d not have got much of a refund - so we didn’t have any faith at all that we’d get a refund of the tickets face value just by trundling up to the increasingly busy counter as word spread - but ‘lo - magically, we got back the face value of 2,426,000 dong - equivalent to A$147 (total price paid to the agent was A$160).
We were literally cashed up and laughing - and along with a dozen other brave souls lacking the virtue of patience and/or faith in the system - we placed our bet on the certainty of a coach ride. We handed over 1,200,000 (A$72) for two sleeper seats. And thank heavens we did. It felt like the right decision at the time and we kept in touch with another couple, who, having never taken a Vietnamese train before were determined to wait for the 6 pm update so they could enjoy their sleeper train experience. Anyway - the train eventually arrived at 10.15 pm - only 6 hours delayed by this stage but so chock-a-block with passengers, they ended up in seats for the whole 13 hours and didn’t get into to Hanoi until 11 am on the 29th. On a positive note, they didn’t have to find out the hard way how horrendous the the soft sleeper berths are. We on the other hand had the best experience ever - we were allocated 2 of the 3 sleeper beds at the back of the coach and slept comfortably for most of the trip... admittedly it did get quite cosy when a slim young Vietnamese bloke took the sleeper bed between us - though in his defence it was the last available seat on the coach, he was a small warm body and he didn’t toss and turn hardly at all. Similar to sharing the bed with Henry the mini-schnauzer in Saigon actually. Some of the snowflakes who also took the bus option thought it was all a bit shabby and cramped and noisey and blah blah blah... none of them had done the sleeper train before so it’s not like they had a yardstick.
As with all activities involving sleeping or attempted sleeping in Vietnam, we were prepared - sleep mask, ear plugs were compulsory and helped well along by the glass of wine and the pizza we’d pre-supplied in Hue. Snug as bugs. We are the biggest fans of sleeper trains ever... just not in Vietnam. As it turned out we made it to Hanoi in 12 hours and 45 minutes and arrived only 75 minutes later than the train was scheduled to arrive (and 4 and a half hours earlier than the train actually arrived). And with cash in hand. And with a good sleep. Checked into our pre-booked hotel at 7 am... hit the breakfast buffet immediately, had a kip and ventured out to explore Hanoi. Great fun altogether and a fab opportunity to try something new when we least expected to.