“By train or ferry you get to see where you're going, unlike planes where you're strapped in like a piece of freight and told to sit still like a naughty child,” says seat61.com creator Mark Smith. “[On a train or a ferry] you can move freely, sleep in a bed, walk around, read, think, watch the scenery, talk and interact with other passengers.”
A self-proclaimed ‘career railway man,’ Mark left his native Oxford in the UK to launch a career on the railroads in rural Kent. He worked his way up through the ranks in various guises, and eventually ended up as the UK’s expert on rail fares and ticketing for the Department of Transport in London. In 2001, he launched his website, seat61.com.
A one-stop shop for those looking to travel by train or by ferry, seat61.com lists train schedules, fares and general train travel advice for numerous countries across six continents. Mark’s philosophy for the site is split into two parts — the first goal is to help people easily find information on alternatives to travelling by plane, while the second is to inspire people to travel far, far beyond the airport.
“Travel should be about journeys, and not merely destinations — you might say it’s like food, which should be about flavours and not just keeping you alive,” he says.
In September 2007, Mark quit his job and began working on the site full time — a move he doesn’t regret. The effort it takes to keep the site running is, according to Mark, much more fun than ‘real work’. Yet 12 years, two books and a TV series proposal later, Mark still protests that he had no idea the site would get this big. “It was a cry in the wilderness, and I didn't really expect anyone to read it,” he explains. “And now it has over one million visitors each month.”
Mark’s enthusiasm for train travel in Vietnam is evident from the extensive amount of information available on his website. The Vietnam page, which is always among the ‘top ten most visited’ pages on the site, lists everything you need to know in order to get from Lao Cai to the Mekong Delta. I asked Mark a few more questions about his experiences travelling by train in Vietnam.
How do you compare trains and train travel in Vietnam to the rest of the world?
In terms of modernity and comfort — we're talking Southeast Asia, not Europe here — I'd say DSVN's air-conditioned 'SE' trains are better than many Indian trains, though not as good as Thai trains. Nevertheless, they're an ideal way to get around and see Vietnam at ground level.
What are the common misconceptions that people have about train travel in Vietnam?
It's all about expectations. Any seasoned traveller who has visited Asia or Africa before will find Vietnamese trains a great way to get around. However, those western travellers who have never been outside their own country before, and who expect to see the world from westernised airliners, western-standard tour buses and western chain hotels will find them scarily, well, Southeast Asian. They're the real Asia, of course, not the 'tourist Asia', a real means of transport and not a deluxe tourist facility — but then that's the point of using them; to be a participant, not a mere spectator in the country you're visiting. If that sends some people scurrying for the plane, that's a great shame, as the journeys in Vietnam are as much part of the experience as the city sights. Sharing a four-berth also comes hard to inexperienced westerners when it's no real problem and even part of the experience; you may meet some Vietnamese this way. Ironically, the same travellers will happily share a cabin with 400 others trying to sleep slumped in a seat, elbows touching their neighbours’ elbows, knees in the small of someone else's back, on the plane into Vietnam, because that's what they've been conditioned into thinking is ‘normal’!
What's your favourite part of the north to south train journey in Vietnam?
The coastal section between Hue and Da Nang is easily one of the most scenic sections of railway in Southeast Asia. The train snakes from cliff to cliff with the sea breaking on the rocks below, passing under the higher peaks through a series of tunnels, each with a watchman holding a yellow flag at the entrance. Then it heads inland through a densely wooded valley to the Hai Van Pass itself. Fabulous!
What changes have you seen in both the country and the railways since your first visit to Vietnam?
I first came in 1999, since then both the quantity and quality of trains has increased significantly. The whole country is far more orientated towards tourism than it was, and in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City it now seems that every erstwhile cyclist now has a motorbike, and every motorcyclist a car.
How do you view the interaction between foreigners and the locals on the train?
In the tourist cars to Lao Cai from Sapa, you're more likely to be sharing with westerners than Vietnamese, but on the trains between Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City you'll likely be with Vietnamese. I've shared a four-berth soft sleeper with a Vietnamese family, and it's always interesting seeing how other people live — and they do ‘live’ on the train, making themselves at home!
What's the most extraordinary thing you've ever had the opportunity to eat on a train in Vietnam and worldwide?
I always regretted being insufficiently brave to try the sautéed chicken penis at Saigon's wonderful (and cheap) Bo Tung Xeo restaurant. I can't imagine it’s very big, and since then I’ve always wondered if you got a heap of them, or just one, beautifully presented. Last year I returned to Vietnam, and to the restaurant, but sadly the menu is now far less exotic.