Solo Travel Southeast Asia: Staying Safe on the Overnight Train
There’s a lot to consider before embarking on a three-week adventure in Southeast Asia, even more so when you are visiting three different countries and six different cities/towns and needing transport to get between each of them.
Apart from the detailed planning, especially when you are mildly OCD like I am (color-coded Google spreadsheets are the bomb), you also worry about the simplest things like, are my flights confirmed? Did I book all of my hostels? Do I know how to get to my hostels? Did I exchange enough money? Did I make a copy of my passport? Wait… where is my passport? Have I packed too much? Have I packed too little? Do you think they have disposable razors in Thailand? What am I thinking, of course they do!
The nice thing about traveling with someone else is that there is always that shared responsibility when the silly little things happen like delayed flights or lost luggage
It sounds a little pathetic, but the reality is that it’s stressful! Then to add to the stress and multiplying gray hairs, you remember a slightly important fact that you’ve been avoiding the whole time, the fact that you’re doing this whole adventure on your own!
Solo travel is not for everyone, and it’s not always easy either… even more so when you’re a female. I wasn’t really scared to travel alone, just a little more nervous (okay, maybe a lot more nervous). The nice thing about traveling with someone else is that there is always that shared responsibility when the silly little things happen like delayed flights or lost luggage, or when there are important decisions to be made, or when you’re lost and have no clue how to get back to your hostel. Having to navigate foreign cities and streets on your own can feel daunting at times, and as a female you are instinctively always on your guard. However, despite all these things, I had felt relatively comfortable throughout my entire trip… up until I had to leave Ho Chi Minh.
Before I departed on my grand adventure, I had booked two overnight train tickets, as they were cheaper than flights and quicker than a bus. At the time I didn’t think twice, it was just a mode of transport I needed to get between cities. However, as the time drew nearer to actually having to take the train, I was suddenly very nervous. The realization that I was about to share a cabin on a train with three complete strangers brought out the paranoia in me.
What if I get mugged? What if my things get stolen? What if something happens to me? Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if I didn’t trust Vietnamese people–it’s just that I generally don’t trust anyone. The country didn’t matter; the situation I was putting myself in did. For the first time on this trip, I felt vulnerable as a female traveler.
I left the hostel to catch my first train in Ho Chi Minh at about 10:30 p.m. and I was already tense. When I eventually had to board the train an hour later, I slowly made my way to my cabin and was elated to find it empty. I quickly laid out my bedding, put all my valuables in my travel pouch and stored my bag on the bed against the wall (I thought it would be a great plan to just spoon it the whole night and keep it safe).
The country didn’t matter; the situation I was putting myself in did. For the first time on this trip, I felt vulnerable as a female traveler.
The cabin itself was lovely and even though the train was a little old, it was still neat, clean and cozy. I sat anxiously in my bed, attempting a level of Candy Crush to calm my nerves (I am happy to report I have since deleted it off my phone; it’s far too addictive) while I waited for my roommates to arrive. A few minutes later the cabin door opened and three men filed through.
I looked up from my phone and gave a nervous smile, barely able to whisper the word “Hello.” It was just my luck to be put in a cabin with three other males (Murphy and his stupid laws). However, I was surprised to be immediately greeted with big grins and responses of “hello” and “hi.” The three men in my cabin seemed really friendly and this made me feel a lot more at ease. They hauled their bags up to luggage racks, and I felt rather ashamed at the way I had stashed mine in my bed like I was about to share my cabin with a bunch of criminals. As the train started clicking and clacking down the tracks, we all settled into our beds for the night. After a few minutes one of the men got up and gestured to me if it was okay to close the cabin door and turn off the main light. I nodded “yes” and he smiled, before quickly hopping back into his bunk and resuming his reading.
Suddenly the initial nervousness about sharing a cabin with three strangers seemed a bit silly. I had been hanging out in mixed dorms with random males during the entire trip and this time wasn’t much different. Instead of a room we were in a cabin on a train–a train that had a conductor who did rounds the whole night to wake people up when they reached their stops, and where hundreds of other people who were just meters away in other cabins. There was no reason to feel scared. It isn’t to say I was suddenly going to leave my valuables lying around (first rule of traveling, always keep your passport and cash safe) but I certainly didn’t need to spoon my backpack like I was protecting the crown jewels or something.
That night on the train I had one of the best sleeps of my entire trip! I was actually looking forward to the next one purely because I knew I could snuggle in and be forced to sleep for eight hours. I woke up to friendly smiles from the three men and when we came to a stop, they all made way for me to leave first, a very gentlemanly thing to do. I survived my dreaded overnight train trip, and I had also actually enjoyed it. My next cabin was even bigger with six beds reaching all the way up to the ceiling. There was one other girl but even if she wasn’t there, I would have felt fine. Again, everyone was really friendly and more interested in their books and phones than anything else.
I wasn’t suddenly going to leave my valuables lying around but I certainly didn’t need to spoon my backpack like I was protecting the crown jewels or something.
I was glad to have taken the train after hearing some nightmare stories about the buses, even if I was mostly riding with boys! Sure, some of them can snore like a tractor (which is why you should always travel with earplugs), but that’s about the only bad thing I can say about it. The scariest thing that happened on the train was actually caused by a woman! In her defense, she was rather old, so mistaking my cabin for hers and almost climbing into bed with me can be forgiven, even if I did wake up and almost wet my pants from fright!
So yes, for any of you looking for alternative ways to travel across a country, don’t be hesitant to ride trains. They’re comfortable, quicker than the buses, and offer some amazing views of the countryside when the sun rises.
Solo Travel Southeast Asia: Staying Safe on the Overnight Train