Observations From a Train in Vietnam

Written By: author image Kyle Cash
author image Kyle Cash
Kyle is the writer behind The Travel Runner. He’s a full-time traveler and adventurer who’s visited over 20 countries, including places like Thailand, Mexico, Vietnam, and Albania.


Is that a foot? I thought to myself.

I’m not a trained podiatrist or anything, but it did look like a foot.

It poked out from underneath the bench opposite me. Long toenails threatened to cut a nearby backpack open if they came in contact with it.

I nudged my girlfriend, Kaitlyn, and my friend Donovan and pointed to the floor at the rogue body part.

They both grimaced. The corners of their lips furled, their noses lifted, and their eyes squinted in disgust.

“Is that a f—ckin’ foot?” Donovan asked.

I nodded.

“Where in the hell are we?” He asked as he laughed.

It was kind of off-putting, and there may have been a slight odor.

Donovan on the train Vietnam

But, we had expected some interesting events after all.

My birthday was coming up, and Kaitlyn wanted to do something special for it. So, she searched and discovered Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Vietnam.

She knows how much I enjoy hitting the trails. That part was easy for her.

But, she wanted to take it a step further and help us see the local side of Vietnam.

“I booked tickets for the train. We’re sitting in something called the hard seats. They were cheap, so I figured it’ll be a fun experience.”

The train ride left from Da Nang and traveled to Dong Hoi, which was about a six-hour train ride heading north of Da Nang.

After that, a car would pick us up and take us to our hotel near the national park.

I loved the idea. Being a person who was inexperienced with train travel, I was ecstatic.

So, here I was. Face-to-foot on my first train ride.

I looked around.

Besides us, everyone in the carriage was Vietnamese, most who were traveling overnight to get to the city they worked in.

Hard, wooden benches filled the carriage. They were placed back-to-back, creating small seating areas.

Not comfortable areas, I’ll add, which made for an awkward train ride.

The carriage looked like a bomb scene. Bodies were everywhere. Spread out underneath the benches. Splayed over the ends. If there was a bit of space, someone was lying in it.

The train Vietnam

And that’s how we arrive at the foot.

An entire person was sleeping under the seat opposite me, which was quite astounding considering the whiplash-inducing movements of the train.

I poked my head under the seat like a 5-year-old intrigued by something.

The woman was lying on an unforgiving train floor. But, she looked like she was in a 5-star hotel.

It was around this time the conductor came through to check tickets. And, once he noticed us, he immediately asked to see ours.

“Did you book the correct cabin?” He asked. His brow furrowed as he scanned our tickets.

“Yup,” we responded with a slight grin.

He glanced at us, then back at the tickets, then back at us. A quick shake of the head, and he carried on, unperturbed by the silly foreigners.

After that, a man in the seat next to us gave us a similar reaction. He leaned over and, using the little English he knew, asked, “Are you in the right place?”

We nodded our heads and laughed.

He looked around — still confused by our answer — shrugged his shoulders and went back to napping.

I’ve come to enjoy these reactions. The type of reactions you get when you’re not somewhere foreigners usually go.

Lower-income Vietnamese book the hard seats, I’d find out later.

They were cheap — although still a considerable expense for them — and were an easy way to get back and forth from work.

They weren’t comfortable, and glamour wasn’t their strong suit. But, the seats got the job done.

So, that’s why they were shocked to see us here. People like us (westerners) reserved 1st class cabins and sleepers, equipped with A/C and amenities.

But, there we sat. And my ass was beginning to go numb from the hard wooden planks.

Maybe I should have checked with the conductor about those upgraded seats, after all, I thought.

The rest of our ride was spent in silence.

So, I stared out the window and thought.

Mostly, I thought about how similar people are.

Growing up in America, we’re insulated. We’re so enveloped in our world, we’re convinced Copernicus was wrong. Everything revolves around America, not the sun.

If you don’t believe me, look at how I’ve taken a post about a train in Vietnam and made it about America. We just can’t help ourselves!

This “America everything” way of life forms a naive perception of other countries, more so if the news never reports on them.

“Other countries are unsafe.”

“You’ll be at risk if you travel there.”

“You’ll be a target.”

I’ve heard all these things and more. Always out of genuine care, but naive opinions nonetheless.

Then, I traveled and I realized something simple.

Most countries aren’t any more or less safe than the U.S. And, the citizens in every country want the same thing Americans want.

  1. A roof over their head
  2. Food on the table
  3. A job that pays
  4. A healthy and safe environment for their family

Finally, this brings me back to the train ride, and the point behind this long detour in my story.

Most of these people paid for daily or weekly train rides to get to and from work.

They were riding for six hours, some overnight. And, when they arrive, they begin working.

Then, some will take a train back after work, and others will find accommodation for the week.

I knew people in America who did this same thing. Hell, I have family who used to do this.

And I met people in each country I visited who were doing a similar thing and stretching themselves — simply so they could have those four things I listed above.

It reiterated an obvious fact neglected in our world.

We all want the same thing, and are the same thing.

So, moving past the misunderstandings and violence is essential. We have to live more harmoniously.

Eventually, the train arrived at our destination, and the foot’s owner was revealed.

A short, cheerful Vietnamese woman in her 50s-60s grabbed the sides of the bench and lifted herself into the aisle. She wiped the sleep from her eyes, smiled at us, gathered her things and exited the train.

Just like the foot, there is much more to other people than we see at first glance.

The foot from the train Vietnam

author avatar
Kyle Cash Owner
Kyle is the writer behind The Travel Runner. He’s a full-time traveler and adventurer who’s visited over 20 countries, including places like Thailand, Mexico, Vietnam, and Albania.