Taking your first overnight train can be a daunting prospect. Even more so when you’re in an unfamiliar country and backpacking for the first-time. FYI – this was totally me! I opted to take the ‘the-less-I-know-the-less-I’ll-freak-out’ approach to overnight trains. This served me well in the run up to taking the train. But it served me a lot less when my delayed freak out occurred as I boarded the train! Therefore, a first (pre) tip I’ll share with you is: Be less me…be more prepared! Here are 15 tips for surviving an overnight train in Vietnam. You got this!
1) Get a bottom bunk
This is more of a personal preference as I like to have the freedom to be able to get up and move around on long journeys. But honestly it’s a logistical nightmare to try and maneuver yourself down from the top bunk without slipping face first to the floor or rocking the bunk so much you wake the person below up. If you want to have a little more space, easier access to your bag and the freedom to come and go, bagsy a bottom bunk!
Some backpackers opt for a top bunk because it makes them feel safer if someone were to come into your cabin in the night. However, I felt completely safe. You can hear a pin drop between cabins and staff are regularly going up and down the carriages so if anything were to occur, everyone on the train would know about it! Everyone keeps to themselves on the train and all the cabins can be locked from the inside.
2) Check your bed for cockroaches!
First things first, your cabin will most likely have cockroaches. I’m afraid they are an inevitability on an overnight train in Vietnam. On one overnight train, I found only a couple scurried away as I walked into my cabin. On another, about 50 of the little suckers were scurrying up all over the walls. It was a nightmare!
They like to hide in the bunks so when you get into your cabin, lift up your mattress and shoo any away before you lie down. But don’t worry, you won’t wake up with cockroaches crawling on your face or anything (although admittedly it was a reoccurring fear of mine as I fell asleep!). The initial cockroach wacky races which occurs when you board will quickly disappear and you’ll only see the odd one after that.
3) Take on plenty of food and water
This was the only piece of advice I was given before boarding my first overnight train. And it’s by far one of my most important tips for surviving an overnight train in Vietnam. You can buy food and drink on the train but your choices are limited and it’s just safer to bring your own.
If you’re vegan like me (or have any other special dietary requirements) it makes your food choices even more limited. I got a takeaway box of pasta from a local café to have for dinner and then bought crisps, fruit and nuts for if I felt peckish later on. Take a big bottle of water and a couple of cans too and you’re all set!
4) Take noise cancelling headphones and ear plugs
Noise cancelling headphones and earplugs are a must have if you are backpacking. Even more so on an overnight train! People are chattering, walking up and down the corridor to the toilet and banging doors. But with earplugs in and noise cancelling headphones on, you won’t hear a thing.
As a combination they are a lifesaver on any long journey to block out noise and help you sleep. But I found them essential on the overnight train. I have the Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones which are midrange noise-cancelling headphones. These particular ones have been out for a few years so they’re now down to about £100. I couldn’t recommend them enough as they’re super comfy on your ears (even to sleep in) and the sound quality it top notch.
As for ear plugs, you can pick these up from any health and beauty retailer like Superdrug or Boots. I would opt for wax ones as you can mould them to fit properly in your ears making them far more comfortable than foam ear plugs. They never fall out either which is a bonus.
5) Secure your stuff
There are no lockers to store your things on the train so keep your bags tucked away and in sight at all times. Keep important items such as passport, money, phone and jewellery, on you.
For extra security you can also buy a padlock for your backpack. Of course it’s not fail-safe as your whole bag could be stolen but it will act as a deterrent to potential pick pockets.
6) Rearrange your bag before boarding
There is nothing worse than having to empty the entire contents of your backpack to try and find your toothbrush that has fallen to the bottom. Get packing cubes to organise all your things so you know where everything is before you board. This way you won’t disturb people when you’re trying to feel around in the dark to find something.
As well as being great for organising all your things, packing cubes will save you a tonne of space in your backpack. I have the Amazon basic range ones, they’re cheap and cheerful but get the job done!
7) Avoid drinking alcohol
I know, I know, I’m sorry to be a Debbie Downer! Many a backpacker (especially if they are travelling in groups) will bring alcohol onto the train and have a mini party in their cabin. Unfortunately, it’s lights out very early on and you’re required to be quiet…at which time you’re half lit and stuck in a tiny cabin as your hangover kicks in. It’s just not worth it!
By all means have a couple of drinks, enjoy your food and play some games with your fellow travellers but avoid drinking excessively. You’ll thank me later when your head’s not thumping and you’re not too wired to sleep.
8) Bring hand sanitiser, wipes and toilet paper!
The overnight trains are reasonably clean. Bed sheets are generally changed between journeys (but not always apparently) and rubbish is cleared from each cabin before the next passengers board. But like you would approach getting on a plane, take hand sanitiser and use wipes to wipe down surfaces. The wipes were a lifesaver for me because they are so multi-functional. I used them to take my make up off, wipe my hands and clean up any spills in my backpack.
And don’t forget to bring toilet paper! As a general rule, always carry tissues whilst backpacking in South East Asia. There isn’t always toilet paper when you’re on the road and stopping somewhere but on the overnight trains toilet paper runs out quickly if you’re given any at all.
9) Download all your entertainment before you get on
If you’re one of those people who can spend hours with your nose in a book, that’s great! You can ignore this whole point. But for those of you that need Spotify and Netflix to survive long journeys, download everything you need before you board!
There is no wifi on the trains so make sure you’ve downloaded all the shows you want to watch and Spotify playlists you want to listen to before you get on the train. Eight hours is a long-ass time to occupy yourself if you can’t sleep without any entertainment.
10) Charge all devices before you get on
There are outlets on the train but it’s easier if all your devices are charged before you board to avoid fighting over plugs when you get on. A re-chargeable battery will only take you so far on an eight-hour journey.
11) Bring a neck pillow
I’ve never been a fan of travelling with neck pillows until I found a memory foam one that clipped at the front. It literally moulds to the shape of your face making it super comfortable. The clip on the front also stops your head from bobbing forward. This always woke me up before when using cheap bean-filled neck pillows!
You will get a pillow on the train but they are tiny, barely-there pillows that aren’t great to sleep on. Use your travel pillow as extra support.
12) Bring layers
You can’t regulate the temperature on the train, it’s too hot, then too cold, then sweltering, then freezing. I slept in a t-shirt and shorts which meant I was comfortable to go to sleep but dressed if I needed to leave the cabin to go to the toilet in the night.
I then layered up when it got too cold with my hoodie and scarf. If you get too hot, you can always take layers off but it’s good to be prepared.
13) Bring an eye mask
The lights are turned off at night but street lights from the window and anything residual in the cabin may keep you awake. Bring an eye mask or a scarf to throw over your head (if you hate wearing eye masks like me) to block out any light.
14) Don’t go bare foot
I mentioned before that the overnight trains in Vietnam are ‘reasonably clean’. But as the journey goes on they quickly become less so – particularly in the toilet department *wince*. Avoid stepping in anything you really don’t to be wiping off your feet late at night by always wearing your shoes when walking around the train.
Just keep your flip flops by the side of your bed if you need to go outside the cabin. You’ll avoid bringing dirt into your bed from the bottom of your feet whilst you’re at it!
15) Have fun!
There may be cockroaches, questionable bed sheet cleanliness and no toilet paper but just embrace it! Above all else don’t forget to have fun and enjoy these new experiences. Remember: “It’s about the journey, not the destination”. And friends, it’s one hell of a unique journey, so enjoy!
And that’s it folks, you’re now equipped with all the tips for surviving an overnight train in Vietnam!
If you’d like to learn more about Vietnam, check out my post on best cities in Vietnam that are totally unmissable.
Would you ever take an overnight train? Or have you taken an overnight train already? Let me know in the comment below.
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