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Vietnam Travel Diary #05: Our Experience On The Sleeper Train!

Welcome to my fifth Vietnam Travel Diary! This is all about the sleeper from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang. In this post I’ll share the logistics of the journey, along with a few of my tips that I used to make it as smooth as possible!

My partner and I booked the SNT2 from Saigon Railway Station to Nha Trang. This actually has the longest duration at around 9 hours in total and it got us into Nha Trang at about 6am. There are other trains with shorter estimate times e.g. the SE2 which has a duration of around 8 hours. However trains in Vietnam don’t always run exactly to time and there can be delays, so we didn’t particularly mind about the differences in duration. We chose the SNT2 train because we didn’t want to be waiting around in HCMC too late, and luckily our amazing Air BnB host let us into our accommodation super early! (More on that in the next post!) 

How to book

We booked in advance online using baolau.com, so that we could easily plan an itinerary around the train times. This also meant we were able to know exactly when to travel to Saigon Railway station, and we didn’t have to go there earlier in the week to collect or buy tickets. It’s about a 30 minute walk or a 10 minute taxi ride from District 1 to the station so we decided it would be ideal to only go there once and be able to take a taxi and not carry our full luggage around late at night.

Cost

When researching the cost of travel, the general consensus was that buying tickets in person is generally cheaper. However, due to my tendency to worry and my keenness to plan well, we decided to pay the extra and book them online as E-tickets. It meant that we knew roughly when we would be leaving HCMC and when we would get to Nha Trang. It cost us 557,000vnd each for a bed in a soft berth cabin. That’s around £18.50 or $24.00. Considering the price of a sleeper train journey in the UK, that’s an absolute bargain! We decided to go with the soft berth because the prices for the hard berth weren’t much cheaper, and having 4 beds instead of 6 makes all the difference.

The Station

We arrived at Saigon Railway Station in the evening, ready to get the overnight train. Getting the tickets was fairly easy. After not being able to work the E-ticket machines we asked the lady at the kiosk and she told us that our printed tickets would work as they were.

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Food, Drink & Toiletries

In the station there were several convenience stores selling food, toiletries and souvenirs. There was also a fast food type restaurant called Lotteria which is where we had dinner. I would recommend that you eat something before setting off. I know that some of the long haul trains provide food, but I have no idea if the sleeper does and the concierge at our hotel was adamant that we should eat before getting on the train. We also bought one of the large free bottles of water from our hotel with us, but the train actually supplied their own little bottles of water in each cabin.

We also bought toilet paper, which turned out to be absolutely essential! I would suggest definitely bringing some along, because the toilet paper in the train toilets runs out very quickly. Also, because the train is very jerky, sometimes the toilet lid isn’t shut and water gets EVERYWHERE. I would advise that you bring:

  • Toilet paper
  • Hand sanitiser
  • A pair of slip on shoes (for walking to and from the loo)

The Cabin

Each bed is numbered, so you know whether you’re on the top or the bottom bunk. We booked bottom bunks and there was plenty of space under there to store our bags, shoes and water. On the top bunks there were also little shelves to store these things.

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Though it is rare and may be more common in the soft and hard seat areas, theft does occur on these trains occasionally. Due to this I bought a very cheap steel looped cable ( you can find it here) and used a padlock to secure it under the bed for added security. It just gives a little extra peace of mind. Of course it’s very unlikely that anyone would come into a cabin and look through your bags, but there’s no harm in staying vigilant.

The beds were surprisingly comfy and cosy. You are provided a sheet, a pillow with a case on it, and a blanket. We brought pillow cases with us from home as this was a tip that we saw several times on a few blogs. I’m glad we did because they added an extra aspect of homeliness and made it easier to settle down when it was time to sleep. I personally find it very hard to sleep away from home, so I also brought some sleepy cream from LUSH with me, which you can find here. It is an incredible product and really helps when you find yourself tossing and turning at night.

The cabin doors close easily and allow privacy. We shared our cabin with a Vietnamese couple who were very friendly. When the train sets off the lights in the cabin turn off, which happened whilst I was writing in my travel diary (the Vietnamese man in our cabin found this very funny!). However there are little individual reading lights for each bunk so that when the lights are turned off you can still read/write. The air con was good and I didn’t feel too hot or cold. It was really cosy!

The items that were essential for me:

  • Steel looped Cable
  • Padlocks
  • A pillow case from home
  • Sleepy cream (LUSH)

The Journey

I won’t lie to you… it was rocky! My boyfriend described it as “like being rocked to sleep with the subtlety of a jack-hammer”. Despite this, we got some sleep. I never thought I’d be able to drift off but I did, even if it was only for an hour or so. In the morning the train gives a ‘wake up call’ which is some calming music.

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We woke up with about an hour left of the journey, and we just watched the sun rising over the fields. It was such a wonderful experience to watch the landscape passing by. We saw farmers working in the fields, cattle grazing, rolling hills and tall mountains. It was so different to the urban bustle of Ho Chi Minh City.

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The corridors of the train are pretty narrow so we were very glad that we only had rucksacks to carry through. To get to the station we walked over the tracks.

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We then headed towards the front entrance to get a taxi to take us towards our Air BnB. By this time is was around 6:30am so we were in good time for our 7am check in. The journey was an awesome experience. It was comfortable, fun, and it got us to Nha Trang for a relatively cheap price. Flying is often quicker, but as someone who hates flying this was an interesting and convenient alternative! I would definitely recommend the soft berth on the sleeper train from HCMC. It’s not luxury travel, but it’s an experience in itself, and I’m so glad we did it!

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Vietnam Travel Diary #04: Last day in Ho Chi Minh City

We woke up in Ho Chi Minh City for the last time and headed to breakfast, where we ate a hearty helping of Pho. I got two pork balls in my broth, so I knew it was going to be a good day. We packed our bags and left them at the hotel reception, and we then travelled to the Buddhist Institute (Minh Dang Quang). We travelled by taxi and it took around 20 minutes. Our driver actually got a bit lost and dropped around the back of the institute which was completely walled off, so it took us about 15 minutes to walk all the way around and finally get inside! Once we were there though, it was a wonderful experience. It was a very hot day but we took our time exploring the grounds and climbing the many steps to the top of the institute.

Buddhist Institute Tower

Buddha Statue

Buddhist flags were lined like bunting all the way up towards top of the institute, and lotus flowers (Vietnam’s national flower) were placed all over the grounds. It was a really colourful, peaceful place. A gentle breeze blew the smell of intense around. As the city bustled around us, this seemed like a den of tranquillity and stillness.

The Buddhist Institute

Lotus Flower

When we got to the top of the institute we went into the alter room. The floor was cool and cold on my feet, and the entire room was quiet and peaceful. We sat on the cold floor of the alter room, calmly and mindfully resting and taking in the atmosphere.

In the Alter room


After exploring the rest of the institute, we headed back down to the entrance and got a taxi to Ben Thanh Market. Stepping out of the taxi and into the market was like going from 0-100 in a matter of seconds. After sitting in the taxi and letting the calm of the Buddhist institute wash over us, we then jumped head first into narrow rows of clothes and bags and jewellery and food. Ben Thanh Market was pretty intense at first. Sellers were very keen to approach us and beckon us towards their products. Eventually though, it became easier and we got used to the chaos.

I felt uncomfortable haggling, even though I was well aware that many of the starting prices were inflated because we were tourists. There’s just something about haggling that I am absolutely terrible at. Luckily my boyfriend is an amazing haggler and we realised that we could easily always walk away from a sale if things were becoming too overwhelming. I ended up buying some trousers from a woman who convinced me by saying “They have two pockets, the one’s you’re wearing now only have one pocket!” She was very observant and she had a point, it’s all about the pockets!

After getting a few souvenirs we headed back to the hotel and booked a taxi to take us to Saigon Railway Station. The concierge at the hotel was considerate and reminded us that we should eat some dinner before getting on the sleeper train. We headed to the station and got a quick bite to eat. As we were eating the heavens opened and it started to pour with rain.

Whilst we were at the station I spent a while searching for toilet paper; every travel blog and Vietnam travel guide seemed to suggest that this was a good idea, and they were right. If you’re taking a long train or bus journey in Vietnam then definitely take your own toilet paper. We then walked over the train tracks and onto the train. I’ll go into more detail about our journey on the sleeper train in the next blog. Next stop, Nha Trang!

To see my previous post about tasting Pho for the first time and seeing breathtaking views of Ho Chi Minh City click here

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Vietnam Travel Diary #03: Ho Chi Minh City – Delicious Pho and Breathtaking Views

I woke up with some seriously low energy after being very sleep deprived. The jet lag still had me fully and firmly in it’s grasp. But then… it was time for breakfast. All of a sudden, it was like I had been gifted a bowl of pure joy to cure all of my woes.

I’m talking about Pho…

Pho

Pho is a delicious mixture of broth, rice noodles, herbs and usually either beef or chicken. In our hotel they put a little Vietnamese meatball in there too! You can add beansprouts, lemon juice, and also red chillies if you’re up for a bit of spice! There are slight regional variants to the taste of Pho, and in the South of Vietnam the broth usually has a sweeter flavour.

After being far too cautious and eating mostly from the buffet the morning before, I decided to venture into new territory and went up to the Pho counter. As an incredibly socially awkward human being, I got very flustered when I saw all of the extra ingredients that were placed by the station. Just to put how confused I was into context… I put my lemon wedge into my broth WHOLE. I didn’t even squeeze it… I just dropped it in there like a berocca tablet in a glass of water. But the chef at the station was so lovely. She used tongs to take it out for me, and then got a new lemon and squeezed the juice into my broth. Within 10 seconds, and without speaking, she had properly instructed me on how to properly garnish a bowl of Pho.

It was so delicious. A beautiful blend of flavours and textures… With every spoonful of broth that I had, I felt better and better. You know how Popeye needs spinach to get all strong and brave? That day I needed Pho, and Pho worked. It warmed my soul and reminded me that travel is a wonderful and unpredictable experience that creates something truly priceless memories. I thanked the lady again when I left and she nodded and gave me a warm smile. She’ll never know how much she cheered me up that day.

We’d already seen the majority of the things we had wanted to see in the city the day before, so we decided to spend the afternoon chilling out at our hotel’s amazing rooftop pool.

Rooftop Pool

We set up two sunbeds by the pool and had a relaxing swim. It was so refreshing up there and the views weren’t half bad either!

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After we got out we sat on the sunbeds drying off and feeling the gorgeous breeze that drifted past us. We watched the occasional dragon fly come and explore the pool area. I listened to an audio book and watched the clouds roll by.

In the early evening we headed to Bitexco Financial Tower. Until January 2011 this was the tallest building in Vietnam, and you really can’t miss it! We headed up in an elevator that whisked us all the way up to the observation deck. Once you’re up there, you can see panoramic views of the entire city.

Daylight View from Bitexco Financial TowerInside Bitexco Financial Tower

We had aimed to get there about 30 minutes – 1 hour before sunset, and luckily we made it in time to see Ho Chi Minh City both in the daylight, during the sunset, and also after dark.

Night view from Bitexco Financial TowerNight View from Bitexco Financial Tower 2

This was such a wonderful way to spend our last night in the city. As I sat there, I just kept thinking about how much this skyline has changed throughout history, and how different it may look in the future.

To see my previous post all about the history and culture in Ho Chi Minh City click here

 

 

 

 

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Vietnam Travel Diary #02: Ho Chi Minh City – Heat, History and Culture

I have to say that, no matter how much preparation, research and planning we had done for this trip, nothing had quite prepared me for the HEAT. I knew it was going to be very hot, but I didn’t fully realise that Ho Chi Minh City would have heat and humidity more intense than anything I had ever experienced before. We decided to take it slow, and started the morning with a stroll through Tao Dan Park.

Tao Dan Park

As we walked through the park we noticed groups of people doing Tai Chi. It looked so graceful and elegant. We also saw people doing fan dancing, and others doing their own individual exercise routines. Another group of people were playing badminton and instead of using rackets they were kicking the shuttlecock to each other over the net.

We then headed to the Reunification Palace. This was a really grand piece of architecture. I will admit that I took every possible opportunity to casually stop and stand under the cool air vents inside the building for as long as I could without looking too much like a tourist way out of her temperature comfort zone.

Reunification Palace

It was so interesting to take a glimpse inside the state rooms. The building was very open, and light poured through each room. It was surrounded by greenery and as we walked past the windows in the hallways, we could hear the sound of birds chirping and the distant whirl of the traffic.

State Dining RoomState Meeting Room

The next place we visited was incredibly sobering. We travelled to the War remnants museum; a building dedicated to preserving photographs and artefacts from the Vietnam war and the first Indochina War. As you enter the area, you are given a sticker that depicts a white dove in front of three falling bombs. For me this was a reminder that we should always continue to strive for tranquillity, kindness and peace. The symbol can be seen on the building in the image below:

The War Remnants Museum

Inside the building there were a variety of exhibitions on both the Vietnam war and the First Indochina War. In Vietnam, they often refer to the Vietnam War as the ‘Resistance War Against America’ or ‘The American War’. The exhibitions were harrowing, and the photographs were graphic, raw and uncensored. Inside that building I saw photographs that shocked me to my core.

One of the most poignant exhibitions was one dedicated to those who photographed the Vietnam War. This was so informative as it showed the transition from black and white to colour photography, and how these photographs were used to bring awareness to the realities of the war. Photojournalism helped to raise a huge amount of awareness surrounding the Vietnam war, and many photographers gave their lives in the quest to document it’s brutal realities. A plaque in the middle of the exhibition had a list of photographers who had died or had gone missing during the war.

Photographers In the War

We took a moment in the museum to just sit and digest what we had seen. We just sat silently for a while. Visiting the War Remnants Museum was so important, and I’m really glad that it was one of the first things we’ve did. I think this was a really important stop to make.

We then took a long walk to the pink church, more formally known as Tan Dinh Church. On the way to the pink church a few guys said ‘Hello!’ and held up peace signs.  The pink church was actually closed when we got there, but the outside was a marvel in itself.

The Pink Church

As you can see, it’s a very pink church. Can you spot a very small human? That’s me. The clouds above us began to get a little grey, so we anticipated that it might rain soon. After seeing the church we headed towards the post office, and on our way we stumbled across the aptly nicknamed Book Street. It was amazing! There were umbrellas hung above the street and a sudden rain started to drizzle onto them just as we got under the canopy.

Book Street

The street had lots of independent book shops and quaint coffee shops. There was also a lush sunshade of trees above us. We sat on a bench for a little while taking in the sounds of rain splashing, people chatting and coffee cups clinking. One of my favourite things to do is just sit, observe and take in the atmosphere. This was the perfect place to do it. I’d found my own personal Eden in Ho Chi Minh City.

We got to the post office and looked around the shops for a bundle of postcards to send to friends and family. The building was another brilliant piece of architecture.

The Post Office

Whilst we were searching for postcards and stamps I had a bit of a funny turn and had to sit down for a while. I sat in the post office looking at the old fashioned phone booths, and eventually felt alright after a nice rest.

We then headed to the opera house. I’m a massive opera nerd so, when I can, I always make an effort to see the opera house in each city I visit.

The Opera House

After that we stumbled upon the town hall which was a welcome surprise, and the last item on our list of things to see on that day. We strolled to the waterfront where we sat and watched the water.

We then headed back to the hotel to have a rest. In the evening we went to dinner at Pizza 4P’s which is a Japanese Italian Pizza Restaurant based in Vietnam (quite a mouthful!). The pizza didn’t disappoint and we had a lovely evening just relaxing, eating, and talking about what else we might want to do in HMC. We walked home late, and on the way to the hotel I saw three lizards scuttling around on the size of a movie poster.

When I got back to the hotel, I felt… exhausted. As wonderful as Ho Chi Minh City had been so far, it was also proving to be quite overwhelming at times. I vowed that most of the extra anxiety was coming from jet lag, and that tomorrow would be a new day full of even more adventure!

Thank you for reading! You can see my previous travel diary all about my first impressions of the city here.

 

 

 

 

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Vietnam Travel Diary #01: Ho Chi Minh City – First Impressions

We hadn’t got much sleep on the red eye flight from Doha, despite there only being about 30 of us on the plane and having ample room to spread out (I’m serious – it was bliss). I spent the majority of the flight surfing the entertainment system; this included ‘The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants‘, which made me very happy.

The flight to Tan Son Nhat International Airport

When we stepped out of the airport and into Ho Chi Minh City it was an instant sensory overload. The humidity hit us and we were met with a whirl of noises and smells. There were people sleeping, eating and reading on their parked motorbikes, motorbikes zooming and weaving in and out of each other, the smell of petrol and heat and the constant sound of horns. It was a bustling symphony of metropolitan sounds. As we travelled into district 1 of Ho Chi Minh City in our taxi we saw motorbikes that were piled with pallets, gallons of water, piles of straw, all sorts! One man had a few tall ladders stacked on the back of his bike. The road’s were chaos, but it just… worked! It was fascinating to see the way the city flows.

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We got to our hotel and had to wait a while for the room to be done, so we dropped our bags off and went to explore some of the city. One of the first things I noticed was that we were getting a lot of looks from the locals. Not nasty or sinister stares, just a few interested looks and smiles. After just one short stroll down the pavement we had seen street vendors cooking corn and rice, Luke had been offered a shoe shine, and I had seen about six different types of fruit being pushed along the pavement in bike baskets. We popped into a 7-eleven to look for some snacks and the staff gave us a very enthusiastic ‘Xin Chào!’. There was so much to see. It was slightly overwhelming at first, but it was the best way to become acquainted with Vietnam.

Then is was time to cross the road…

If you aren’t familiar with the roads in Vietnam, you should know that there isn’t much of a strict pedestrian system in place. There are traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, but many motorists don’t stop at them. The general rule for crossing the road in Vietnam is to look left and right, and then walk at a steady and confident pace across the road. This is to allow the riders to anticipate where you are walking and let them weave around you. It’s kind of like playing frogger! It’s a trust exercise with a bunch of strangers you’ve never met and it sounds insane, but it’s weirdly exhilarating! If you’re worried about crossing, a good tip is to follow someone who looks like they know what they’re doing! Ho Chi Minh City probably had the most chaotic roads of all of the places we visited, motorbikes even mounted the pavement, so we had to be constantly alert. But it was a real rush!

In the evening we thought we would take it easy and just stroll through the city to find some dinner. Ho Chi Minh City was gorgeous at night and the culture shock that I had initially felt was slowly wearing off at this point. We headed to the ‘Saigon Centre’ which was a huge modern mall filled with all kinds of shops and restaurants.

The Saigon Centre

We walked out onto a rooftop garden in the centre and had a great view of the city. It was so alive, and watching the bustle of the city from the tranquillity of that garden was such a wonderful experience.

The Roof Garden

Ho Chi Minh City at night

Tomorrow, we thought, it’s time to explore!

Vietnam – South to North

My boyfriend and I had the adventure of a lifetime in Vietnam this Summer. After several planes, trains and automobiles we travelled from the South in Ho Chi Minh City all the way to Sapa in the North.

Vietnam is a beautiful, friendly, vibrant country filled with breathtaking scenery, delicious food and incredible history & architecture.

I’m planning on writing a many different posts about the trip. For now, here are a few of our highlights.

Enjoy!