Hue-bound: The Wrong Train and the Right Connections in Vietnam

A train in the lush green lands of Vietnam. On the right there is a the Imperial Citadel of Hue. The image is drawn in a Van Gogh Style Image generated with DALL E AI.
Davide smiling while holding a rat

Written by Davide Crestini

June 14, 2023 6 min read

During our travels through Vietnam, Bea and I chose to take different paths from Ninh Binh to Hue. What seemed like a simple separation became an adventure when I ended up on the wrong train. Thanks to the help of attentive crew members and available customer support, I corrected the mishap. Along the way, a series of delightful surprises unfolded, from engaging conversations with young fellow travellers to the unexpected camaraderie with customer support. These twists and turns reminded us that travel is as much about the surprises along the way as the destination itself.

Bea and I had a bit of a puzzle figuring out how to get from Ninh Binh to Huế. She was pretty keen on trying a sleeping bus, with its comfy, wide seats made for snoozing. Me? I had my eye on the train.

The decision led to an intriguing turn of events on our journey; for the first time, we resolved to embark on two separate experiences, following different paths. While it might sound unconventional, I saw it as an opportunity for both of us to savour some time alone and to immerse ourselves in the experiences that particularly resonated with us. Plus, it meant double the adventures and stories to share later on. So that's what we did. Bea hopped on the bus, and I went for the train.

On the day we're set to leave, Bea's bus is due to head off around 7:00 PM. So, 20 minutes before, we both head to the agency, and after a cheerful wave and a smile, I leave her to find something for dinner. By 8:45 PM, I'm back at our place, where I find our host Doan and my soon-to-be taxi driver having a good time.

After sharing a few laughs, I grab my backpack, thank Doan warmly, and hop into the car. I figure the station will be quiet at that time, but surprise! It's heaving with people. Lucky for me, I find a handy spot to charge my phone and take a seat, keeping my ears pricked up for the call for my train.

A lot of people are waiting for their train in Ninh Binh Station

After a half-hour wait, an announcement in Vietnamese echoes, and everyone begins to move. I understand that it must be my train, show my ticket to a crew member, and position myself on the platform, waiting. After a few minutes, a train makes its entrance. Convinced it's mine, despite being 10 minutes early, I board and head to my couchette. As soon as I enter the bunk, I immediately sense that something is off: two young French guys are sitting right on my bed. I ask them if they are indeed in the right place, and they show me their ticket, confirming that they are, indeed, in the correct spot. Doubt begins to creep in, especially considering the train has left at least ten minutes early.

Soon another passenger who booked the other two beds in the couchette arrives, so I turn to a crew member, trying not to look too embarrassed: "Am I on the right train?". His response leaves me stunned: no, I'm on the wrong train, I've taken the SE3 instead of the SE19! Despite everything, I remain relatively calm. After all, the train is going in the right direction. The worst thing that could happen to me is spending the night on a seat instead of a bunk bed. Not ideal, but certainly not the end of the world.

I try to find a solution with the help of the train's personnel, but communication turns out to be a bit of a pickle. Many of them don't speak English, and my Vietnamese is, unfortunately, non-existent. Thank goodness for Google Translate! It comes to the rescue, and after a bit of back and forth, one of the staff members suggests I should get off at Thanh Hóa and wait for my train there. Meanwhile, I'm in contact with the customer support via WhatsApp. The person on the other end is super helpful and even proposes to stop both trains at an intermediate station to let me on, something I appreciate but seems a tad over the top. We finally decide to aim for Thanh Hóa, a stop already scheduled for both trains. My adventure "on the wrong track" isn't exactly an action-packed thriller, but at least it seems to be resolving without too much fuss.

As I wait for my stop outside the couchette, one of the train staff offers me a folding chair to make the wait more comfortable. I barely manage to pull out my book before the two young French guys from the couchette come out to keep me company. They're headed to Da Nang for a festival, their first time, and the excitement sparkles in their eyes. During the journey, we chat about everything from the beauty of travelling to European colonisation in Southeast Asia, and even the challenge of learning new languages. Despite their young ages, 18 and 20, they're incredibly mature, and the hour's journey to Thanh Hóa seems to fly by. Their company makes the wait and confusion of the situation so much more bearable. As we part ways, I can't help but smile, thinking about how small mishaps like this can turn into pleasant surprises. It's a gentle reminder that sometimes, the unexpected twists in our paths can lead to the most memorable moments of our journeys.

Just before arriving at the station, around 11:30 PM, a guard notifies me that it's time to get off. I bid the boys farewell and leave the train. Once down, I see that the station is nearly deserted, with only a couple of members of the staff and some locals around. I find a free bench, put down my bags, and wait for my train, lost in thought.

Meanwhile, I chat with Bea, some friends, and even the railway company's customer support on WhatsApp. The support guy turns out to be a real gem. He answers all my questions, and in a flash, we become almost friends. We end up talking about the challenges of learning English, and he even asks for feedback on his English and some language tips. It's an entirely unexpected but refreshing and appreciated conversation, something new and unusual that adds a pinch of flavour to the night.

After a brief wait of not even twenty minutes, I see my train finally approaching the platform in the distance. I gather my bags, shoulder my backpack, and approach the edge. Before the train comes to a stop, I address one of the crew members and ask for confirmation that it's indeed the SE19 train. "Yes, yes, this is your train!" he responds with a nod of approval. A sigh of relief, and moments later, I'm on board.

I find my couchette, and, opening the door gently, discover that there are three girls already asleep. I tiptoe around, trying to make as little noise as possible while I grab my shorts to sleep in instead of the really uncomfortable cut-off jeans.

Interior of couchette of my train (the right one) from Ninh Binh to Huế, Vietnam. The couchette contains four bunk bed, with the beds unmade as the picutre is taken in the morning. In the middle it's possible to see a little window with some green plants outside. The window is partially covetrd by curtains

Interior of couchette of my train (the right one) from Ninh Binh to Huế, Vietnam

I head to the bathroom to splash some water on my face, then return to the cabin and crawl into bed, setting the alarm a touch early to make sure I don't miss the stop for Huế. Beside the bed, I find bottles of water and an array of snacks. I crack open a bottle and nibble on a packet of peanuts, then try to nod off. But the bed's no luxury, and the lingering heat doesn't help either (the air conditioning seems to have taken the night off), so sleep doesn't come easily. I toss and turn, glance at my phone, but soon enough, weariness wins the battle. My eyes close, and I drift into sleep, the evening's mishaps tucked away as memories of another day on the road.

8:00 AM, and the alarm rings, shaking me from sleep. Moments later, a member of staff swings by to make sure I'm ready to disembark. In a flash, I pack my backpack, throw it over my shoulder, and make my way to the exit. Huế, here I come!

As soon as I step out of the station, a swarm of taxi drivers descends upon me, each trying to catch my attention. I negotiate with a couple of them and eventually find the right one. I follow him and get in the car. Meanwhile, a man around 40 years old approaches me, offering a motorbike ride to Hội An. At that moment, I don't pay much attention to him and tell him I'll think about it, then get in the car and head to our hotel.

View from the train window while it's approaching Hue, Vietnam

Meanwhile, Bea, having arrived around 6 in the morning, is already exploring Huế, and she happens to find herself halfway between the station and the hotel. I flag the taxi driver to pull over so she can hop in. As soon as she's settled, she starts teasing me about my wrong train escapade. We laugh over this little mishap, and before we know it, we're at the hotel's doorstep, ready for a new day and a fresh adventure. This unexpected twist in the journey has turned out to be a delightful detour, brimming with random meetings and fascinating connections. It's a nudge, reminding us that the best tales often emerge from life's unplanned turns.

As we step out of the car, a surprise awaits us. The man from the station, who had pitched me the motorbike ride, has followed us all the way here, and he's back to propose the same journey. And here's the kicker: Bea had already spoken to him, having been offered the exact same trip just a few hours earlier. It's an unexpected and slightly odd encounter, but that, well, that's a story for another time…