India by train

In an average day, about 23 million people ride on Indian Railways, the fourth-largest railway system in the world. This is about the same as the entire population of Australia!

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Victoria Railway Station, Mumbai.

We took a lot of trains during our four-plus weeks in India; it’s a big country. We rode on sleepers and day trains and subways and coal-fired trains from the 1800s. Like our experience on trains in Vietnam, we believe this is one of the best ways to see a place. From big cities to tiny villages to rural agriculture, we loved experiencing India this way.

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It’s common to see dozens of people sleeping in the train stations.

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A metro station in Delhi.

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Keep your wits about you; the crowds are intense.

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A six-berth sleeper carriage.

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The locomotive of Darjeeling’s “toy train.”

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A carriage of the toy train.

One of the primary tourist attractions in Darjeeling – in addition to tea plantations – is the “toy train,” a narrow-gauge railroad built by the British in the late 1800s that runs for about 78 kilometers through West Bengal. The train was revolutionary when it was first constructed, since it both traveled at altitude (Darjeeling is at about 7,000 feet) and navigated treacherously steep mountainsides.

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Emptying spent coal from the train’s furnace.

Nowadays it’s rather quaint (and slow), with piercingly loud horns and clouds of pollution from the coal, but it remains one of Darjeeling’s most popular tourist attractions.

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Despite its crowded cities, much of India is still almost entirely agricultural; this was often the view from the trains.

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It was always a little disconcerting for our group of Westerners to conspicuously walk into a lounge labeled as “upper class.”

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Chaiwallahs offer hot, sweet tea throughout the train carriages.

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I’m not sure what the plan is if the hammer isn’t there.

Just like everything else in India, the trains are hot, crowded and noisy, but they’re a quintessentially Indian experience. Can you travel India more efficiently? Of course. But the greatest gift the trains offer is time; they force travelers to slow down and experience a country at its own pace. We’re so glad we saw India by train.

Vietnam by train

Thus far on this trip, we’ve used just about every imaginable method of transportation, so long-distance trains in Vietnam fit perfectly into our plans.

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Hazy sunrise over the rice paddies.

Long-distance trains were established by the French in Vietnam in the 1880s; the North-South line, connecting Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), opened in 1936. The line was cut in 1954 at the beginning of Vietnam’s war against the French when the country divided into North and South. It was rebuilt in 1976 and is still known to many as the Reunification Express.

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No one is striving for architectural greatness at these train stations.

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Though it’s officially called Ho Chi Minh City, the station signage and the timetables still use Saigon. We’re not certain which one is socially correct.

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It is advisable to purchase snacks for the journey from the station vendors, though they will almost certainly shortchange you.

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This doesn’t show the large family groups camped in the room behind, but the waiting rooms are clearly both luxurious and comfortable.

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Unlike the precision of Japan, Vietnamese trains are on a bit more of a casual schedule.

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A four-bed “soft sleeper” cabin.

Train accommodations in Vietnam come in fairly self-explanatory flavors: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper; sleepers can be either four-bed or six-bed. We first used soft seats for day trains, but learned the hard way that this meant we’d be subjected to Vietnamese musicals played on the communal televisions at ear-splitting volume. Presumably this was very enjoyable for the Vietnamese passengers, but it did diminish our love of train travel somewhat. So did the physically aggressive food vendors who hopped on board at stations.

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This rice paddy photo is clearly lacking the iconic tiny Vietnamese woman in a conical cap.

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Everything – and we mean everything – is under construction in Vietnam. This includes every single hotel we stayed at.

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Railway crossings are not automated, so the train employee runs to shut the barrier as the train passes.

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Almost every house we passed had a large vegetable garden.

In addition to the vegetable gardens we saw at most homes, families also harvest part of communal rice paddies. Their allotment is determined by the size of the family, so there is certainly an incentive to have more children. Obviously, no one actually owns land here; land is theoretically owned collectively by the people, but of course in reality controlled entirely by the government.

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On many occasions, we passed close enough to touch the buildings outside.

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We were a little surprised by the cavalier attitude towards crossing live tracks, but when in Vietnam…

Here’s the honest truth: trains are not the most efficient way to travel around Vietnam, and unfortunately they’re not the most economical, either. Though we had planned on doing all of our travel up the coast via train, budget airlines like AirAsia and JetStar have made the decision much more difficult. From Da Nang to Hanoi, for example, it’s sixteen hours by train and about ninety minutes by plane. The trains are by no means particularly comfortable or clean, and the airline tickets are often cheaper! So we’d love to tell you that we honored the backpacker credo and traveled slow, but that’s not the entire story. This is a complicated, difficult country, and the vagaries of train travel are just the beginning.

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We finished our train journey about halfway up the coast at Da Nang, or “China Beach” to Americans.