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Vietnam 2008 -- On the Trains Banner

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We made the trip from Hanoi to Saigon in three separate legs on the trains of Vietnam: First an overnight trip to Hue, then a day trip to Nha Trang, and finally another overnight to Saigon. Yeah, it would have been faster to fly, and cheaper by bus, but I've been a devotee of train travel since forever, and if time and money are both in conjunction, then I'll take the train every time.

I had the feeling that Minh would rather have not taken the train, but good sport that he was on the whole trip, he pretty much went along with my selfish wants, and riding the trains was one of them.

We took the overnight train from Hanoi to Hue, leaving on the evening of the 15th of September. After taking a cab to the train station, it turned out that the guy at our hotel who had made our reservations on the train had screwed up (intentionally or not was another issue—he may have made the reservations for the cheap train and pocketed the difference), and we found ourselves in a ratty rattletrap train car that was the "local" run, not the express to Hue that we had reserved -- and paid for.

This was one of the many times that traveling with a native Vietnamese and fluent speaker of the language helped. I probably wouldn't have recognized the dilemma on my own, at least not until we started slowing down to stop at every wide spot in the road. Or, as Minh later put it, when you woke up without your pack, your suitcase, your clothes and maybe even your life, since bandits tend to target tourists on the local trains. Of course I have no idea if that's true or not, but it was enough for me to want to get off that goddam train ASAP.

Luckily we had gotten to the train station early and so we had plenty of time to correct this error. I trailed Minh to the ticket counter where, first, we were "assured" that our tickets were correct. Minh was equally forceful in assuring them that they were not. To his credit he did not get angry or raise his voice to them. Not much, anyway, while I did my best to stand off to one side of him and glower at them.

When they finally admitted that we had gotten the wrong tickets on the wrong train, then they started to pull the old "it's too late now, we don't have any more vacancies" shit. Minh, again being more forceful and assertive than they were, eventually broke down their reserve and their reluctance, and all of a sudden -- a miracle! -- they found us a vacant compartment in the luxury car on the express to Hue.

As I say, we were fortunate enough to have gotten to the train station early enough, but by this time the train was in the final stages of loading. We had to sprint down the concrete apron to our car and were hoisted aboard at literally the very last possible moment, since no sooner did my feet hit the steps but the train started moving.

It turned out that having the wrong tickets for the wrong train was a lucky break for us. Because we were so late in getting the arrangements
On the Train
on the new train, we were bumped up from "tourist" to first class accommodations. The Levitrans Company, which has run trains from Hanoi to the tourist areas on the north, such as Sa Pa Sapa and and Dien Ben Phu, was, that very day, starting their initial run south from Hanoi to Da Nang, with a luxury car hitched onto the regular train. I still don't know how it happened that we got a whole compartment to ourselves (they normally hold four people), but that it was available to us at the very last minute. Looking back, what probably happened was that the people ultimately in charge back in Hanoi did not want "rich Americans" -- especially one who was a "travel writer"* -- to go home and say bad things about their train system.

*Yes, Minh did pass me off as a "famous travel writer" on several occasions during the trip. I don't know that it helped a whole lot, except probably in this case. And, since I am writing about the trip here, and on my blog, it wasn't totally a lie.

On the train we met our luxury car's equivalent of a flight attendant (I told you it was luxury),
thumbnailMe With our "Stewardess"
Nguyen Thi Huong, or Miss Huong. Like so many Vietnamese, of the north anyway, as soon as she found out I was an American she wanted to practice her English. It wasn't bad all in all, but she did need lots of practice, and I of course was more than happy to give it to her. She spent upwards of a couple of hours or more in our compartment during the early evening; once her boss came by and she introduced him to us. I asked if she was going to get in trouble spending so much time with just two people, but she said no, that her boss was encouraging her to learn English so the more practice she got the better he would like it, and he agreed.

The compartments on Vietnamese trains are unlike compartments on any other trains I've ridden (Latin America or Europe, for example) in that the compartment consists of two bunks, an upper and a lower, on each side, and no chairs or seats. So you spend the journey propped up against the wall with your legs folded under you, or stretched out on your back. Nevertheless, the beds in the luxury compartment were terrific, and so, lulled by the clackety-clack of the tracks, by ten o'clock we were fast asleep. No, I don't know where Miss Huong spent the night, but I assume that it was in a crew quarters that were not nearly as nice as our compartment.

After a very restful night, we arrived at Hue in the morning of the 16th, and that's the subject of another story in this chronicle.

After our overnight in Hue, we caught the day train from Hue to Nha Trang. This was the only daylight leg of the journey, but since the Vietnam coast between Hue and Nha Trang is among the most beautiful in the world, I didn't want to skim past it in the dark. This is also the one leg of the trip where the rail line hugs the coastline for most of the trip.

The only negative part of this leg was that the train car was not a luxury model, just a plain utilitarian one, complete with a stainless steel squat toilet at the end,
Squat Toilet
and our compartment was on the "wrong" side of the tracks -- i.e, we were on the land side, not the coast side. But that was no big deal, since it was just a couple of steps to the sliding door -- which we always kept open, and the companionway, the hallway that ran the length of the car. And it had some large picture-window openings, so you could see the coastline just fine.

There were dozens of pristine-looking coves with white sand beaches and nobody on them. I predict that it's only a matter of time until the Vietnamese, who are suddenly into tourism in a big way, figure out how to capitalize (odd word for a communist country, but oh well…) on these coves and beaches and in a few years you'll see an overload of luxury hotels and expensive time-share condos ruining them.

During the course of our three train trips, we had a compartment all to ourselves. Minh said it was because our tickets were stamped "foreigner" and they didn't want us corrupting any locals who happened to get stuck in our car. Plus,
thumbnailVietnamese Beach
Minh himself is still technically considered a "pirate" by the Vietnamese, based on his escape from Vietnam way back in circa 1979. I won't go into a lot of details at his request, except to say that when he first proposed this trip to me I asked if he minded having a goofy American veteran tagging along, and his response was that I would actually be doing him a favor, since the last time he'd returned to Vietnam it had been one hassle after another with the local cops, the military, etc., all of whom resented that he'd gotten out.

There had apparently been a change of heart, so to speak, in the meantime, and the Vietnamese government finally recognized that having native Vietnamese returning for a visit would be a good thing, since they brought a lot of cash into an ailing economy, but the harassment
thumbnailPristine Cove
kept up, only at a much lower key. But a Vietnamese returning to the country for a visit was still something that they had two minds about: Yeah, he was bringing money into the economy, but he was still a traitor, a turncoat, a pirate.

On the whole trip, the only time that I was aware that this became important was on the train trip between Hue and Nha Trang. The train stopped in Quang Tri to load and unload passengers, and suddenly we had two more passengers in our compartment.

Okay, I've been around "law enforcement" for most of my life, not only as a "consumer" in my wild and reckless youth, but also as a provider (I worked as a state investigator for many years), and the very second I saw these two guys every nerve in my body went on Red Alert.

I don't care, once you've developed that cop sense (it's like "gaydar" to gay people), you are almost never wrong. It works even in foreign countries. I watched Minh stiffen up as soon as they started talking to him, and watched his body language -- as well as theirs -- and I knew, I just knew, that these guys were from the Secret Police, the Vietnam equivalent of the Gestapo -- or the KGB in the former Soviet Union, if you want to get a little closer ideologically. He eventually got around to introducing me, and I gave them a perfunctory greeting and went back to what I had been doing. Which was pretending to read while all the while keeping an eye on the proceedings. Even though I don't speak Vietnamese, I didn't really need to, since body language is pretty much universal.

Finally they got off the train about two hours later, dragging them their pathetic attempt to make it look like they had been real travelers, and I immediately starting giving Minh the third degree.

Yes, they were cops, and most likely Secret Police. They knew who he was and where he'd been, and they'd started asking him some pretty pointed questions. He deflected as many as he could, and then made it a big deal to introduce me, the rich and influential American travel writer, in hopes that they would back off. Apparently it worked, since very shortly after that introduction, he started cracking jokes (in Vietnamese, of course -- I saw it happen but didn't have any idea what was going on) and shortly after that they all relaxed -- I could see it in their body language -- and very shortly after that they decided that their train trip was over and they departed.

Who knows what might have happened had I not been there? On the other hand, if I hadn't been there, Minh wouldn't have been on the train in the first place… Anyway, it was a good reminder that, despite any outward appearances, we were still in a totalitarian state and needed to watch our steps at all times. As much as I wanted to take a picture of these guys, I didn't dare do it. It was a small compartment and there was not way to take one "casually", the way you can get away with outside. For the first and only time on this trip I wished that I had brought my old 35mm SLR -- I have a lens attachment that takes pictures at a 90-degree angle and it is easy to take candid closeups of people using it.

After a full day of coasting on the train, we arrived in Nha Trang for our two day layover at the famous beach resort (see story).

The last leg of the trip on the train was another overnight trip to Saigon (story). After the "exciting" day between Hue and Nha Trang, it was pretty uneventful and boring. Except for the fact that we got another luxury car for this leg. And if you are stuck with a luxury car in Vietnam, it's best to have one on an overnight leg of the journey. It wasn't Levitrans, though (I think they operate solely in the north), so we didn't have a cute stewardess who wanted top practice English. Ah well…