Editor’s note: Nguyen Chi Lan opted for railways to travel from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City to celebrate the Lunar New Year (Tet) holiday late January, and ended up writing an ‘open letter’ to Vietnam’s railway operator upon finishing the 40-hour ride.
The Hanoi Train Station was quiet and quite deserted on the night of January 25, three days ahead of the Lunar New Year fest, a completely opposite scene of the overcrowded and overloaded airports across the country. Only a few passengers carrying heavy luggage were hurriedly boarding their train for a homecoming ride to be reunited with their family for Tet.
A young attendant, who introduced himself as Pham Ngoc Thai, hailing from the northern province of Thai Binh, came to check my ticket, and ushered me to my cabin – an air-conditioned couchette with four beds.
The beds were rather small and old, located next to the windows having been bleached by the elements. Passengers who loved enjoying the view during their journey through those windows would surely feel disappointed as all they could see were only opaque and blurred images.
And yet all of the other amenities in the cabin were run-down, too.
There I would sleep on stinking musty mattresses whose bedclothes had turned from white to brown, beneath an air-conditioner installed on the roof, which operated with loud noise mixed with the sound of the running train.
The train car’s floor and the toilet both looked untidy and dirty, whereas the on-train menu was limited to only a couple of dishes. What was most scary was the plastic bowls and dishes served aboard, which were viscous and tended to slip through my hands, apparently because they were not properly washed.
Despite all these inconveniences, it was not cheap to travel by this train.
The ticket for the Hanoi-Saigon route in the air-conditioned sleeper cabin cost VND1.3 million (US$60) at most, according to the price list on January 25. You may be able to book a Vietnam Airlines ticket for the same route at a lower price, while low-cost carriers offer even better rates.
Thai, the attendant, said when the train reached Thanh Hoa Province, half of the passengers would get off, and some would board when it arrived at the station in the central city of Da Nang for short rides to Nha Trang, Binh Thuan or Ho Chi Minh City.
This means few passengers will travel the whole journey from north to south, as not everyone is patient enough for the 40-hour ride.
Do Thi Thu Dep, 22, who shared the couchette with me, said the only reason she chose to travel by train to her hometown, Quang Ngai Province, was that she had too much luggage. “I always look forward to coming home to celebrate Tet with my family, but it would take me as much as 20 hours to complete this train journey,” she said.
After this first-hand experience with the train operated by the state-run Vietnam Railways, I could not help but recall a speech by Nguyen Phi Thuong, general director of the Hanoi Bus Company, during a session of the lawmaking National Assembly on the law on railway improvement in November 2016. In his speech, Thuong straightforwardly pointed out the weaknesses of Vietnam’s railway, including outdated technology, inadequate management mechanisms, and poor service and competitiveness.
Other passengers and I know that we cannot dream of the day when Vietnam has modern train services like the bullet trains in Japan or Europe. We only hope that the Vietnamese railway sector will improve by solving the simplest problems, those that they cannot blame poverty for, such as clean toilets and dishes on board.
Photo: Passengers are pictured on a north-to-south train in Vietnam.