Chugging Along & On the Road

Continuing on from – Off the Rails in Hong Kong

Part 4

Chugging Along

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Back to cultured and reserved – in comparison to brash and reckless Saigon – Hanoi and time to start looking for the next train on the journey – the Hanoi to Da Nang leg which was going to be the longest leg so far at about 14 hours. My train south wasn’t for another few hours. Ignoring the blandishments of The Irish Wolfhound Pub, I sat on a tiny plastic stool on a street corner at some busy intersection in the old town and drank bia hoi, or so called fresh or draught beer which, for some reason was incredibly cheaper than drinking beer in a bar. Each generous glass of bia hoi cost 5,000 dong (about US 25 cents) as opposed to the more usual 25,000 or 30,000 dong in bars.

I had booked a sleeper to Da Nang yet every backpacker I talked to mentioned that they were going to Hue (Huey, as one girl pronounced it). Hmm, thinks I, have I made a mistake here, I wonder. No-one seemed to be that interested in Da Nang! Sure enough, at Hue at about 10 the following morning, half the train emptied out as I strolled down the swaying corridor. Nevertheless, the best part of the ride was between Hue and Danang as we seemed to crawl along a series of precipitous cliffs looking down on deserted rocky beaches on one side while on the other side, rice paddies with muddy water buffaloes standing passive sentinel, stretched away to misty mountains and outcroppings and I congratulated myself on that.

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Arriving in Da Nang at about 2:30 Pm – the train really went slowly along the cliff face – I was met with the usual gaggle of taxi and motorbike touts but shouldering my backpack, I marched through them and started to wander. Whenever I came to a junction I turned right, hoping that something appealing would appear but in sharp contrast to Hanoi – and more so to Saigon, the streets seemed oddly empty, both of people and traffic. Why, it was perfectly feasible to cross junctions with barely a look to the left, right, behind, in front, left and right again before crossing.   Beginning to get hungry – the last time I had eaten was a good 20 hours previously – I was getting desperate for a coffee and something – anything – to eat when a large motorbike sidled up beside me and a guy politely asked if he could help me with directions.

Turned out he was an “Easy Rider” guy, one of a growing band of semi-professional drivers and guides who specialize in taking travellers off the beaten path on do-it-yourself style tours. I had used an Easy Rider before in Dalat and had a great day out with them. You give them the general direction you might like to follow and they take you there by back roads, over rivers and sand dunes, through the mountains and down the valleys in a way that scorns the tour bus.

On the Road

Just take me someplace for a coffee and then I’ll decide, I told Binh. It turned out that we had been born in the same month and year although he claimed to be a year older as an extra year had been added on to his birth year during the recent Tet. (Most Vietnamese do not celebrate their actual birthdate – birthdays are a western phenomena. Instead, every Vietnamese starts off at the age of one and then gets an extra year tacked on every Lunar New Year, hence Binh’s seniority.

Anyway, the upshot of the whole deal was that Binh convinced me to saddle up and leave Da Nang immediately and head on up the road to Hoi An about 45k away and finishing the coffee, I put on a real motorbike helmet – not one of the more usual, plastic coated tin hats most people seem to favour – swung my leg, with some difficulty, over the back support and settled on to another Easy Rider drive.

Whipping down the coast highway, Da Nang seemed to be experiencing a construction book in luxury holiday and golf resorts. The beach side of the road was lined with immense gates and walls with immaculate landscaping but both the accommodation and the beach were out of sight. Skirting by the ruins of the largest US air base during the American War, the other side of the road was taken up by lush green fairways for the several golf courses that looked squeaky new and manicured.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And then we were into Hoi An and Binh obligingly picked a rather fancy looking hotel right on the river, a few hundred metres from the iconic Japanese bridge which has become a hallmark for this World Heritage town. Luckily, the hotel while looking quite fancy – it even had a swimming pool – was not exorbitant and well within my budget.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Before he gave me directions to where I could get a cold beer, Binh persuaded me to sign up for a full day motorbike trip around the surrounding countryside, promising an array of sights culminating in Vietnam’s own “Angkor Wat”, the ruined Champa kingdom at My Son.  Ruined was haerdly the word for it.  Devastated time and war blasdted would be more accurte.4  US marines had “saved” the site from the Vietcong back in the day by pulverising the remaining buildings and temples, apparently.

Back on Track (part 3)

Continuing on from – Off the Rails in Hong Kong

And then, miraculously, order prevailed. Smart uniformed guards stood attentively beside each train carriage and, as it turned out, mine was the first carriage directly opposite where I wase spat out.

Compartment No. 3 was easy to find as was my bottom berths number 5  but unfortunately my berth was already occupied by an outstretched man defiantly smoking despite the no smoking sign above his head. Reluctant at first to go – he was already tucking into his styrofoamed packaged dinner with his bag stowed under my bunk – and it was only with some urging on my part – brandishing ticket under his nose, jabbing my finger at the numbered berth, shrugging disconsolatedly (but sternly) and that sort of nonsense that he shuffled his bare feet into his grubby sandals and buggered off, muttering audibly, no doubt about round-eyed foreign devils.

Punctually, the train jerked off at 6:30 and it was time for another few nips from the diminishing bottle of Stolly peach. Disappointingly, the restaurant car appear to be closed to passengers as once again the train official were occupying all tables but I managed to persuade them of my thirst and a 5 yuan can of warm Pabst Blue Ribbon beer was produced for me!

About four hours later the train lurched to a stop at the Chinese Border. Passports were collected and checked for exit forms and then everyone with their luggage had to get off the train. Luggage was – for the fourth time? – scanned while us passengers huddled sleepily together. And then pick up the bags and back on the train.

Passports were handed back just as the train lumbered past the final Chinese border checkpoint and I was officially back in Vietnam. Less than an hour later, the Vietnamese Border post where once again all bags had to be put through the scanner (again with nobody looking at the results). Passports were handed in to a tired looking, Immigration officer seated behind a plain table in the doorway of a small room.

Waiting for my name to be called I was pleasantly surprised to a) recognize my name (Mista Tee Ven) and b) retrieve my passport so quickly. However, I had to wait until all the passengers had received their passports before I could get back on the train and sleep. While waiting, I shared some of my dwindling vodka with two guys from Argentine and skillfully blended my Spanish and Italian remnants of language to amuse and baffle everyone.

Finally getting back on the train, I somehow caught my watch strap on the door and just managed to catch my watch as it slipped off my wrist.   Least of my concerns at the time and it seemed all too soon when the lights in the compartment came on and the conductor banged the door to announce arrival in Hanoi – only this wasn’t Hanoi main station. Instead this was a fairly small station north west of Hanoi called Gia Lam.

Apparently the rail gauge differs between Vietnam and China so the only common line they share is the spot between the border and Gia Lam. After that, Vietnamese trains need a different track width.

Arriving in predawn darkness, we stumbled off the train to be greeted by a line of the smallest taxis I have ever seen. Most of them looked to be no bigger than a Mini or the old Fiat 500. No choice here, really so I attempted to bargain the fare down a modicum and then squeezed into the back seat and off we were to an unknown street that I had picked from the map.

Sometimes, I suppose, it is better to book in advance and have a hotel ready for that awkward arrival time of 5:30 AM especially when the street you end up on remains firmly shuttered and the heavy rain begins.

No point being fussy here, thinks I, and I dashed around the corner, ducking under awnings and around parked motorbikes and barrows to the only hotel I could see which had a light on.

The Hanoi Orchid was just fine with a long, corridor like room but who cared about the shape when all I needed was a decent sleep.

Hanoi was radically different from Saigon, I noticed immediately when hunger finally drove me out later that morning.

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Much less busy with regard to motorbikes, and the pavements were almost uncluttered, while ancient trees seemed to shroud so many streets. Petals from purple jacaranda and red hibiscus littered the promenade around the Lake of the Recovered Sword while the twisting streets of the old town changed their names bewilderingly every few metres.

And then there was Halong Bay

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and the lure of spending a night on board a cruise ship. Halong Bay was declared a world heritage sight by UNESCO in and is a bizarre area of jagged limestone and karst outcroppings, some honeycombed with vast caves, rearing up from a bay of tranquil luminous water. No matter what the weather – clear and sunny or shrouded in mist and rain, Halong Bay is reputed to still cast its aura of beauty, peace and mystery over all who see it.