So, it was time to leave Tony, Vinh and Hanoi behind. I really enjoyed some time getting to know local people and really starting to understand the good and bad points of their country. I’ll remember fondly our beers sitting at an Old Quarter pavement bar, sharing snacks and chat until some chicken feet appeared on the menu. I was so glad when, having tried them and found them to be completely inedible that Tony agreed… Bushtucker trial avoided!
One point that really struck a chord with me was Tony’s assertion that whilst the Vietnamese GDP seems very low, actually the general standard of living and people’s overall happiness in the country is much higher. I’d tend to agree, life here whilst hard work for the average person is more relaxed than so many other places in the world. There’s more to life than cash…
Anyway, I made my way to the main railway station, and quickly encountered the country’s bartering culture again in an amusing manner, as the stallholder on the snack stand outside tried to overcharge me for a bottle of coke by a heinous 10p or thereabouts, but happily accepted the lower price I offered. You can never relax unless there’s a price sticker on it!
Through the station, and straight onto Reunification Express 1, standing at the platform a good hour before its departure. I’d bought tickets the previous day to make the journey pretty hassle-free. Whilst I’d wanted to travel in Soft Sleeper class they had run out of tickets, so Hard Sleeper it was.
By way of explanation, most Asian trains have a few classes that I’ve encountered:
1st/luxury class or similar: 2 bunks in a closed, lockable compartment. Some have an en-suite toilet and shower.
2nd class/soft sleeper: The most common ‘traveller’ class. Consists of 4 bunks in a closed, lockable compartment
3rd class/hard sleeper: Normally these are open carriages with open bunks. I travelled in this class a lot in India.
Seated: This is normally subdivided into ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ seats. The main difference being the reservations. If you don’t have a seat reservation you get joined by as many people as will fit, or not, into the compartment
Standing: This is a bit of a Chinese institution. It can be hell on earth if it’s packed, but my train from Xiamen to Shenzhen also had some people standing in the nice carriages so it’s no bad thing if other tickets run out.
Hard sleeper doesn’t mean hard beds! Actually it’s sometimes a preferable option to the compartment as the airflow is so much better if it’s hot outside. And it seems that on Vietnamese trains you do actually get a compartment, as pictured below. As a top tip the middle bunk is the best as you don’t get refrigerated by aircon vents inches about your head, and don’t have to share your bed if people want to sit and chat! Rumour also has it that Platzkartny, the Russian version of Third Class, is a great laugh and very social. Next time maybe!
So, the cabin on this train was surprisingly comfy- Far more so, in fact, than the soft sleeper carriage I’d had on the Vietnamese trains I took in 2010 on the same route. It seems standards are going up, I certainly didn’t get complimentary water or a vase of plastic flowers last time. Vive la difference!
Arriving early left me time to get my bag stowed and settled in before my cabin mates inevitably arrived with their 6000 suitcases, huge boxes etc. It also allowed me time to meet Lin and Tom in the cabin next door, a really nice and interesting Dutch couple who’ve jacked in their old lives and have decided to travel, work via a few Workaway.info placements and then maybe settle in Sweden. Their website’s here: Lin and Tom around the world. It’s a mixture of Lin’s writing and Tom’s music. I seem to meet lots of interesting escapees on my travels, although I think the real trick is staying gone.
My cabin mates were two old Vietnamese ladies who, as with most people in Asia, found me and my crazy dimensions thoroughly amusing. After initially telling me that I should go to bed by the medium of sign language, they both laughed as I tried to shoehorn myself under the upper bunk and into bed. #tootallforasia
Before finally turning in however I did manage to have a wander around the train, cup of tea from my brew kit which has become so invaluable- Standard free boiling water present in Vietnamese trains too!- and the now ubiquitous train hat selfie. The conductor on the carriage was a nice guy who was most interested in my Russian tea so I had to do it when he wasn’t looking. Maybe this can become a set?
I always have high hopes for sleep on trains which rarely materialise. This train was a rattly, clanky nightmare and between the train’s normal movement and several near-emergency stops which nearly propelled me floorwards, combined with the annoying food seller who went up and down the carriage all night shouting, I got very little sleep.
We arrived in Hue the next morning bang on time. I mean, to the second. Really impressive when you’ve been rattling through the countryside at 50km/h all night with no real expectation of arrival at any time near schedule.
So, at 9am the next morning, I was loose on the streets of Hue. Bypassing the legions of touting taxis I set out on the road towards the centre. Research indicated it was only about a mile and along the river, plus it was a really nice day so no great hardship. I avoided the various rickshaw touts on the road (“Hey man, whe’ you from?’) and grabbed an ice coffee at a local-looking place by the front. Perfect. Off the tourist route too, so local price of about 55p.
Further into town I saw the now-familiar sight of a group of ladies dancing to music. A short distance from them was a street vendor- On closer inspection she was selling what seemed to be a yoghurt/tapioca-type concoction. Some of the dancing ladies taking a break indicated I should have some, telling me it was 3000VND (About 8p). Great! I gave the vendor the money and took a bowl. Sadly she seemed intensely annoyed that the ladies had prevented her from applying a tourist tax and so sulkily left the money on top of the cart. It was a nice dish. I feel no remorse whatsoever!
I’d made a conscious decision to research the general accommodation area but not to book a place until I got there. It’s sometimes nice to have the freedom to arrive, have a wander and to decide where looks good- It feels a bit more independent than just booking somewhere online and getting a cab there.
So, my wandering caused me to arrive by chance at Jade Hotel, just outside the main tourist area. When I researched hotels this one seemed well-regarded, so I went in and asked about a room. I had in my mind the fallback plan of the Backpacker Hostel, with dorms at £5 a night, but thought I’d see what else I could find.
This turned out to be a highly successful strategy. I was immediately welcomed into the hotel and presented with a superior double room which, with some very mild bargaining, I got for £9.50 including breakfast. Well, 2 breakfasts in fact as they fed me immediately upon arrival too!
So, a lovely room with aircon, ensuite and huge bed for 4 quid more than a dorm bed? Yep, no brainer. I needed to catch up on sleep after 2 nights of limited sleep and then virtually no sleep on the train.
This all boils down to proving a point that it’s not always best to book in advance. I think a lot of places actually bump up their prices on Hostelworld et al to account for the large commissions they have to pay. In this example the same room would have been about double the price booked in advance! Jade Hotel was hardly short of business either as there were plenty of other travellers there.
So, suitably showered and refreshed I set out from the hotel for an explore and unexpectedly, one of the best photos I think I’ve ever taken, as I was about to cross the bridge to the old town.
Marriage happens early in Vietnam and it’s extremely common to see just-wed couples taking loads of photos in all sorts of different locations. I’ll grant you that this is a slightly odd one, but the Hue bridges seem to hold a great deal of importance for the city.
I happened across them taking pictures of the happy couple and took the opportunity… this is why I love the Sony RX100 as it genuinely is pocket-sized yet produces some amazing shots with plenty of creative control (Not that I generally use it!). Mine is now extremely battered looking but slips into my pocket and allows the kind of off-the-cuff shots you would miss with a bigger camera.
I continued on to the main sight in Hue, which is the Citadel, or the Forbidden City. An impressive place, and I’ll let the pictures do the talking:
After then, by the miracle of Couchsurfing I met another local guy for dinner. Street food, naturally. Wouldn’t have it any other way but it does lead to some bizarre meals. After the standard noodles and soup combo he suggested going to a dessert place by the river. Why the hell not…
This place seemed really popular with loads of people pulling up in cars to sample the wares. There was a mixed assortment of desserts available including red beans (not my finest hour) and tapioca etc, served in glasses with ice. Quite refreshing but a mere sideshow to the main event that Tong had told me was worth waiting for… The speciality dessert there is made in small batches which sell out quickly so we had to wait for quarter of an hour for the next one.
Yep, deep fried pork balls with a sweet custard filling. Bizarre on paper and to be honest, bizarre in real life but actually really nice. I do like a bit of bushtucker.
So, a pleasant day relaxing in Hue, overnight at The Friendliest Hotel In The World (TM) and a good night’s sleep. Genuinely, the staff at the Jade were lovely but it got a bit too much, having doors whipped open as soon as you approach, asked by name about every aspect of your day etc, etc. I get a bit uncomfortable with ‘service’ anyway so it was all a bit bewildering! Couldn’t fault the place though and well recommended.
So, off to bed- Tomorrow signals the first of 8 days on a motorbike exploring the Ho Chi Minh trail and central highlands, a journey which will take me to the coast near Saigon. A long way!