I was abruptly awoken to a banging on my train cabin door. Immediately I noticed smoke billowing over the small opening at the top of the door. My British friend was yelling “We’ve got to go! The train is on fire!”

I shot up, bonking my head hard against the ceiling of the train cabin. I was on the top bunk and could barely get down (short girl problems) without having to dangle a few inches above the ground and fatefully drop the rest of the way.

My brain immediately starting thinking about all the blog posts I read about trains derailing and catching on fire in Thailand, the passengers being stuck in the middle of the jungle for days waiting for the train to be fixed or someone to come transport them by bus.

But wait...

But this wasn't Thailand. We were in Vietnam, and the train system was supposed to be up to par here.

between two trains

We were on our way to Sapa in Northern Vietnam, a land known for its’ gorgeous mountain landscapes complete with rice terraces intricately carved into its’ sides. Taking an overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to save time and also money since we wouldn't have to pay for a hostel for the night (#backpackerlife).

Earlier that night we had fallen victim to a classic scam. When we arrived at the train station we were already running late. We thought it would be as easy enough to find the train number on our ticket walk down the platform and get on the train. After receiving our ticket we quickly realized that there wasn't any numbers on it at all...just a bunch of Vietnamese writing.

We stood dumbfounded looking around like aliens who just landed on Earth. I’m sure our faces gave it away, because within a matter of seconds we were approached by a Vietnamese man, even shorter than me, asking if we needed help.

train rail

We should have run away right then!

I’m not really sure if it was his pleasant nature or fear of missing our train that made me forget everything I had read about common scams to avoid.

Before we could even think the man had grabbed our tickets, flashed a smile full of missing teeth, and then took off running down platform. Not knowing if he was trying to steal our tickets, or if we needed to be that much in a hurry, we quickly took off after him, running as fast as we could with our huge backpacks.

He led us down off the platform and on to the actual train tracks. We crossed over 5 different tracks in front of 5 very large trains and then zig zagged our way in between two more.

My adrenaline was rushing as steam from the trains clouded my vision. Whistles and sirens blared as the trains got ready to carry on to their next destination.

Finally our spontaneous guide stopped in front of an open train door motioning that this was our train, and immediately stuck out his hand demanding money for so kindly bringing us to the correct platform.

If I had asked for help I would have gladly given the guy money, but he took it upon himself to grab our tickets out of our hands and run.

We jumped on the train, leaving the now very angry man behind, and found our cabins fairly quickly.

ron and nick on a train in vietnam
So happy and oblivious to the problems headed their way....

Smooth sailing from here on right?..

As we got settled in for the night I went to the ‘bathroom’, which was pretty much just a tiny room with a hole cut out of plywood and a toilet seat placed on top.

The toilet seat was the most awkward height from the floor, but fortunately I perfected my Asian squat toilet maneuvers (No way in hell was I sitting on that toilet seat!)

You’re probably wondering why the heck I am telling you about toilets and squatting over them… I promise I am getting to it.

While doing my business, I noticed the toilet didn’t have any water in it, but instead was full of sawdust. “Now what weird Vietnamese contraption is this?” I wondered. (I felt pretty silly later because I found out it was a compost toilet. Pretty common in any part of the world.)

Not thinking much more about it I went back to our cabin where I tried to get comfortable enough to sleep for the next 6 hours while the train carried on to our next destination.

Now back to when I was abruptly woken up to smoke billowing into our cabin and our friend banging on the door screaming “Fire, Fire!”

I stuffed everything into my backpack and ran out into the hallway. We could barely see 2 feet in front of us from all the smoke quickly filling up the train cabin. And that's when it hit me..the train was still moving, and didn't seem like it was coming to a stop anytime soon.

So we hadn’t derailed, and the train was still moving along at a steady pace. Did they not know our cabin was ON FIRE?! Why weren’t they stopping?

This Is Not A Drill Folks!

We pushed our way through the hallway, and in to the next car. I kept trying to turn around to make sure Ron was behind me. But the hallway was too narrow for me to turn around with my backpack on.

We waited for what seemed like an hour. Eventually the train attendee motioned for us to come back to our train car. Hesitantly we went back to our cabin, trying to figure out what happened.

We found out that someone had thrown a cigarette in the compost toilet, and the toilet had started on fire!

So they put out the toilet and everything was good to go! Everyone went back to their respective rooms and went back to sleep like nothing had happened.

We still had about an hour to go before we arrived in Sapa. My adrenaline was pumping way too much to go back to sleep at that point.

I laid in my bed staring at the ceiling wondering what the rest of this amazing adventure was going bring. Was this trekking and homestay going to be worth it all?

jess on a train in veitnam
I'm alive!

Do you have travel misadventures to share? Leave a comment below and tell us about it!

Avoiding scams in Vietnam and the train ride from Hanoi to Sapa that almost didn't make it. Learn from our mistakes before choosing your transportation.

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Jess Drier is a life long travel bug and co-founder of Unearth The Voyage.

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