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Updates from the Road – Singapore to Vietnam by Rail

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Updates from the Road – Singapore to Vietnam by Rail

When my brain first gave birth to this idea several years ago, it was a half-formed, vague little wobble of a thought. The first time I remember voicing it was during a backpacking trip through Indonesia, spoken aloud over drinks on a starry night with the invisible waves crashing in the dark distance. I’m not sure I ever thought I would actually make it happen – I wasn’t even sure it was possible.

But, three years later, here I am; typing the first update of my trip at a rickety old table on the roof terrace of an ancient shophouse in Chinatown (now a shabby-chic boutique-hotel-cum-badminton-memorabilia-museum), listening to the sounds of the light rain and the call to prayer and distant dog barks rise up from the streets below. The roof terrace of this gloriously quirky little hotel is lit by strings of lightbulbs – soft yellow light spilling onto a small forest of pot plants – and I have the place to myself. Sitting in the quiet, revelling in my solitude, drinking a Tiger beer… this is exactly the trip I had dreamed of.

Singapore to Hanoi by Train: Part One

The idea is simple, really, and it’s nothing new – although it is less common than other travel routes. I’m travelling by train (and boat) all the way from Singapore to Vietnam, on a trip that will take me through five countries. Right now, I’m in Georgetown, Malaysia, having travelled 800km by rail from Singapore.

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Because many of the destinations on my itinerary are ones I’ve visited before, I’m able to put a lot more focus on the journey itself, and guiltlessly restrict my sightseeing to only those things that interest me – like food, street art, and wandering aimlessly through the chaotic streets of Asian cities. Because this isn’t a press trip and no one is paying my way, I can travel without feeling like I’m on a content-gathering mission. I can wear the same stinky outfit three days in a row without anyone batting an eyelid. In short, I can do whatever the hell I like – and in just a few days this trip has brought me back to all the things I fell in love with about travel.


Singapore was the perfect starting point for my journey. A melting pot of Asian cultures and influences (and foods), where I spent a day on a very specific personal mission.

My grandparents were stationed in Singapore with the RAF in the fifties, when my aunts were still little and my mum wasn’t even a thought yet. When I told my nan that I was visiting, she gave me two places that I had to visit. The botanic gardens, which were her favourite place, and the old Britannia Club where she and my granddad used to hang out. The first was easy, and lovely, so I spent the morning wandering around looking at flowers and trying not to look too sweaty.

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Singapore Botanical Gardens

The Britannia Club is now the NCO Club, and while it looks the same on the outside, the interior is home to a cluster of fancy bars and restaurants. I visited during the afternoon, when everything seemed to be closed, but since the front door was open I wandered in anyway. The building was deserted, expect for a few staff who I walked in on napping in a room upstairs (pretty sure I wasn’t meant to go there). But there was an installation of old photographs of the Club as it was in the 50s and 60s, which I followed down the stairs, trying to imagine my grandparents in their youth, and wondering if it was them I got my travel bug from.

READ MORE: 12 of the best hostels in Singapore

Just 24 hours after landing in Singapore, still nursing my jetlag, I hopped in a taxi to Woodlands Station and took the train across the border. It makes me sad that you can’t depart from Singapore’s now closed, once fabulous Central Station anymore. But you can take the train across the border into Malaysia, and that’s the part that counts.

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Gardens by the Bay in Singapore

Malaysia by Train

Bright (or, rather, still dark) and early the next morning, I headed to JB Sentral Station to start the journey “for real”. The train was this brilliantly retro boxy silver thing, all slow and clunky, and exactly what I’d had in mind. On the first train, the doors didn’t shut properly, so we chugged along to the sound of them clattering open and closed. Safety first!

I changed at Tampin, where the station guard insisted on locking my heavy backpack in his office for an hour while I went to buy water and food. It seemed ungrateful to tell him I already had water and food, so off I went to wander around outside the station for ten minutes and take some pictures of, frankly, nothing. I’m not sure what the rest of Tampin is like, but the area outside Pulau Sebang station is very ugly.

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After nine hours of travel time, I made it to Kuala Lumpur, where I spent one night in a tiny, windowless hotel room (when did windows become a thing you pay extra for?). I was staying in the Brickfields area, a sort of “Little India” right by KL Sentral Station, so I went to the nearest restaurant I could find to shovel the biggest biryani you’ve ever seen (and two butter rotis) into my fat greedy face. That was all I had time for – but having been to KL three times before, I didn’t feel too bad about skipping the sightseeing.

READ MORE: 8 of the Best Hostels in Kuala Lumpur

Georgetown, Penang

From KL, the four hour train to Penang was easily the prettiest so far. Sprawling green landscapes, endless palm forests, distant mountains, and occasional rocky, forest-covered peaks jutting out of the greenery. I changed in Butterworth for the ferry, paid all of 20p to catch it, and twenty minutes later I was in Georgetown – still reeling at how easy it’s all been!

Georgetown has been bliss. It’s the quintessential Asian backpacker town; a small, beautiful historic centre, chaotic but not too chaotic, and tons of incredible street food (Penang is apparently the best place in Malaysia for street food).

I’ve spent two days here wandering around, following the street art trail and just enjoying the town. The street art is a great way to structure your sightseeing, as it took me down some really pretty roads that I might not have walked along otherwise. Although the murals, mostly by Ernest Zacharevic, are more famous, the official trail is all about the black iron comic-book style sculptures, which tell the history of Penang in quick, cute little details. A trail of rope dangles from a window with iron bars – the sign tells me this used to be a prison. On Love Lane, a fat man escapes from his mistress’s house as his wife comes hunting for him, and over near the temple a woman trying to worship is beset by street vendors trying to sell her jossticks and lucky birds. The street art trail is comical, quirky, and brilliantly captures the history and daily life of this wonderful little Malaysian city. 

READ MORE: Dim Sum, New Friends, and Chicken Feet in George Town

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Comic Book Street Sculptures in Georgetown

Singapore to Hanoi by Rail, Part Two

The horns of Ho Chi Minh City are relentless. From the air-conditioned interior of a coffee shop, I can hear them blaring and beeping, cutting through the quiet folk songs on the radio, infiltrating the peace.

Reminding me that I am well and truly back in Vietnam, with its chaos of mopeds and shouts and screeching horns.

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I arrived a few hours ago, on a nearly-dead bus that rattled uncertainly all the way from Phnomh Penh. Behind me is Cambodia – the only country on this journey that was new to me. Ahead of me lies an overnight train to Hoi An, and beyond that, Hanoi and the end of my trip.

It has all gone by, as it always does, in a flash. But equally, that first day in Singapore three weeks ago today seems like an age away. Since then, I’ve travelled some 2850km overland – not counting a brief detour to the Andaman Islands in Thailand – through four countries, by rail, boat, rickshaw, and bus. I’ve seen new things, tried new foods, been violently sick, and spent who knows how many hours staring out of windows, watching the world go by.

READ MORE: How to Travel from Singapore to Vietnam by Train

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On the overnight train to Bangkok


When I left off the last update, I was still in Malaysia. The next day, I took a train to the border with Thailand, then a seventeen-hour overnight train to Bangkok. That was one of my favourite parts of the journey so far! Rocked to sleep in a train bed, and rocked awake again in time to watch the sunrise over the rice fields of Thailand.

READ MORE: How to Travel from Malaysia to Thailand by Train

What this trip has given me, in abundance, is time. Time away from the screen of my laptop or the constant connection of my mobile. Time to sit and think, and write – by hand, in a notebook – or to simply stare out the window, or to read. Just like on my digital detox, I am remembering the simple pleasures of doing very little. If you were wondering what would posess me to spend so much time on trains, it is that!

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A Detour

I planned my trip specifically to coincide with my little brother’s first backpacking trip. We met in Bangkok, did the usual touristy things in the city, then hopped on a flight to Krabi. This week-long detour to Koh Phi Phi wasn’t part of my adventure, so I’ll write about it separately at some point. While I needed it – needed a week of sunshine and beaches, a week of holiday – by the end of it, I was itching for the road again.

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Sunset on Koh Phi Phi

Siem Reap

After two more nights in Bangkok, mostly spent working from an air-conditioned room in a quiet hotel, I was back on the trail. This time, on the early morning train from Bangkok to the Cambodian border. We crawled out of Hua Lamphong station at 5:55am, and chased the sunrise through the high-rises and street markets of the city, out into open countryside, heading east in search of a new adventure.

The train stops 6km from the border, so I took a rickshaw the rest of the way, then walked into Cambodia, where I took a shared cab with three other travellers all the way to Siem Reap. Cramped, hot, and somehow sunburnt despite having spent no more than three minutes outside all day, I arrived in a very bad mood, not at all ready to enjoy Siem Reap.

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Angkor Thom

But it’s a very easy city to love, and it wasn’t long before I was spell-bound by Cambodia. This was the only country on my journey that I hadn’t visited before, and for some reason my guard was up. Very quickly, Cambodia wore it down, and I was intoxicated.

It wasn’t only Angkor Wat – although that complex of temples, which I’d longed to visit for so long, was easily one of my highlights of this trip. It was the gentle chaos of the city, the warmth of the people I met. One particular highlight was the Phare Circus, a social enterprise which raises money to offer free education and professional arts training to underprivileged and at-risk kids in Cambodia. More on that in another post, I think, because it was one of my favourite things I did in the country.

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Performers at Phare Circus
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Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Phnom Penh

One thing disappointed me about Cambodia. There are no trains, which threw a spanner in the works of my epic rail journey plan. I had planned to travel from Siem Reap by boat, but when I tried to book it, I was turned away. One agent told me there’s “not enough water”. Another said the boat’s broken. A third told me they’ve stopped running it altogether, because not enough tourists are taking it. I suspect that last is the closest to the truth.

Instead, I was forced to take the bus. It’s actually quicker and cheaper than taking the boat, but far less adventurous or romantic. I had my heart set on the more old-fashioned modes of travel, and buses just don’t fit with the journey I’d been planning.

With just a day and a half in Phnomh Penh, it only left a fleeting impression on me. But what I saw moved me deeply.

At the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, I toured the infamous S-21 prison, where thousands of detainees were tortured and sentenced to execution. From there, I headed to the Killing Fields, where the executions were carried out – sometimes hundreds a day. I was worried about such a tragic place being treated as a tourist attraction, but it also seemed important to go – and I was glad I did. I came away saddened, but more educated about Cambodia’s recent past.

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Bracelets left as offerings at a mass grave in the Killing Fields

Not wanting to end there, I spent the rest of my time in the city exploring various non-profit businesses, like the fabulous Daughters of Cambodia cafe which employs and trains victims of sex trafficking. It was the ideal way to restore my faith in humanity, and a reminder that there is plenty of hope left in Cambodia.

Singapore to Hanoi by Rail, Part Three

Xin chào from Hanoi! I have finally reached the very last stop – if you’ve made it this far, thank you for following my adventure to the end. In the last month I’ve taken 10 trains, 3 buses, and 8 boats – as well as a bunch of rickshaws, taxis, and mopeds – to travel over 4,500km from Singapore to Hanoi. This has truly been one of the best trips of my whole travelling career, although it’s hard to put my finger on why, exactly.

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I think it’s the fact that I’ve had – for the first time in a while – almost unlimited freedom to do what I wanted, post what I wanted, and write what I wanted. It’s been years since I wrote so much and with such abandon! I’ve filled an entire notebook with scribblings that will most likely never see the light of day, but it felt so good just to simply write it all down.

The other thing that I’ve loved about the trip was having a clear goal and a purpose. My last few solo, non-work-related backpacking trips have been a bit on the… vague side. I’d simply book some flights, show up, and “bum around” – drifting from one spot to the next based on where people I knew were going to be, or what struck my fancy at the time. That was always fun, but also surprisingly limiting. I’d get stuck in places because I could never make a decision about what my next move should be. Or I’d do something crazy; like fly to New York spontaneously from Mexico in the middle of winter without a single item of warm clothing.

Having a purpose and a rough idea of an itinerary was, in a lot of ways, more freeing. Knowing the direction I was going in freed me to focus on other things, and to relax more about what I did everyday. As long as I was on the right track, nothing much else mattered.

HCMC to Hoi An

When I left off the last update, I was in Ho Chi Minh City. From there, I hopped straight on an overnight train to Da Nang.

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From Da Nang, it was another hour by taxi to Hoi An. By the time I arrived at my Hoi An hotel, I’d been travelling for a full thirty-one hours. Despite being tired to the point I couldn’t properly function, I still went straight out to the old town in search of my favourite sandwich in the world – banh mi! Specifically, the one from Banh Mi Phuong. I am not exaggerating when I say that this trip was partly inspired by, and structured around, getting my hands on that sandwich again! Hoi An was a pretty big detour on my Vietnam itinerary but I included it because of Banh Mi Phuong, and I’m very happy I did! 

It rained the whole time I was in Hoi An. And when I say it rained – I mean IT RAINED. The streets were flooded, and I constantly had to paddle in ankle-deep water to get to places. So what else was there to do but spend all my time indoors eating?

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Banh Mi Phuong!

Hoi an to Hue

The next part of the journey was, in theory, pretty quick and easy. A taxi back to Da Nang, a 2.5 hour train to Hue… and I’d be there with half a day to spare. Unfortunately, the rain and flooding dragged the whole thing out into nearly nine hours. I arrived into Hue exhausted, grumpy, and starving – not the best start!

My one full day in Hue was mostly spent eating, drinking, and wandering around feeling nostalgic. Four years ago this month I was in Vietnam with my ex, on a six week adventure. It was a really bittersweet feeling to be back, seeing how things have changed, and realising how much I’ve changed since then. Revisiting a country you love can be a dangerous game, because you can never repeat exactly the same circumstances. But I’m happy to report that I love Vietnam just as much as before, if not more.

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Random Adventures in Hue

My sister has been trying to find a small-scale charity to get her kids into the idea of giving to others at Christmas time, so she asked me to check out a local orphanage while I was in Hue. My friend Lien, who I met last time I was in Hue, told me they wouldn’t mind if I just showed up for a visit, so off I went.

The orphanage is about 20 minutes drive from the city centre, and next to the tomb of King Thieu Tri. Which I stupidly decided to visit first. After all the rain, the almost-non-existant path to the deserted tomb was essentially a bog. By the time I’d been there and back my legs were covered almost to the knees in mud.

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At the tomb – with very muddy feet!

So I rocked up at the orphanage, looking like the beast that crawled out of the swamp, and realised that no one there spoke English. The ladies on duty tried to invite me in, so I pointed to my feet – and one of them took my by the arm and walked me around the back to a garden hose.

Through mimes, we managed to establish a couple of things, but conversation was pretty limited. Most of the kids were at school, and the smaller ones were having their afternoon nap. I sat awkwardly on a stool feeling like an idiot on a fool’s errand, and was just trying to make my excuses and leave when a fifteen year old girl, named Mui, showed up. She translated a few of the lady’s questions (the usual things like “where is your husband” and “why don’t you have a husband”) and then asked if I could help her with something she was stuck on.

And so I found myself, at two o’clock in the afternoon on a random Tuesday, helping a Vietnamese teenager with her English homework!

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Statue a the Tomb of King Thieu Tri

Hue to Hanoi

The final leg of the journey was also one of the most beautiful. Opting for the 14 hour day train, so that I wouldn’t miss a second of the landscape, I was up at 4am to head out into the rain-streaked night. The train left at 5am and creaked out into the countryside. This time, there was no epic sunrise – just a gradual dissolving from dark to light grey. As we travelled I got a real sense of how bad the floods in Central Vietnam are at the moment.

Whole fields were underwater – and although that’s normal for this time of year, some vast expanses had actually become lakes. Farmers were wading, and even swimming, across their fields to maintain the crops. People were fishing from the sides of roads. Some brave souls were out on mopeds, tented by enormous plastic ponchos, hunkered down against the insane downpour.

As we moved north it got less soggy, but also cooler. We passed misty mountains, lush green forests, and muddy fields dotted with wallowing water buffalo. This was the Vietnam I remembered and loved.

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Returning to Hanoi felt triumphant. I had finally made it! More than that, I felt jubilant to be back in the place I first fell in love with Vietnam. For two days I’ve wandered around the city, not really sightseeing – because I’ve seen most things before – but just looking. Exploring. Living and breathing the spirit of a city that I, for some impossible to define reason, adore.

I’ve done a food tour, been to a spa, and drank coffee in dozens of cafes (including the famous Hanoi egg coffee, which is my new favourite thing). It’s so nice to explore a city without feeling like I “should” be doing certain things or ticking off certain sights.

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Egg coffee – so decadent, SO good!

What’s Next

Tonight, I fly home to the UK. I plan to write a massive blog post all about how I did this trip, with all the logistics and things I think you need to know if you want to travel SE Asia overland on a similar trip.

So – if you have a question for me that you think I need to cover in the post, PLEASE get in touch. Scroll down to leave a comment, or shoot me an email. I love hearing from you, and it would be so helpful to hear the things you want to see covered!

Once again – thanks for following me this far! Hope you’ve enjoyed the journey!

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