Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Seeing Vietnam by Train: Chuggin' Along

When we decided to visit Vietnam over our winter break, I had the bright idea to travel throughout Vietnam by train. I had always wanted to travel by train; it all sounded so romantic. The train seemed like the quickest way to see as much of the country as possible given our time frame, a notion that was confirmed by everyone we spoke to in Thailand. I did some research, and it turned out that Vietnam has an organized and efficient railway system that goes from north to south and vice versa. It sounded easy and comfortable. Night trains have sleeper cars with four-berth (which had "soft sleepers") or six-berth (which had "hard sleepers") compartments, with the four-berth soft sleepers being more comfortable. Food carts were available on the trains for purchasing meals. It sounded perfect. I found a great Vietnamese travel agency online and booked all three legs of our train trips with them. They were responsive and even delivered our train tickets to our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.

Our first train trip fell on Christmas Eve, going from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang, where we were to travel to Hoi An, a quaint coastal city. The trip would take about 12 hours, so we were to sleep on the train that night.

We checked out of our hotel room early that morning since we were taking a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels that day, which would put us back at the hotel after checkout time, and kept our bags at the hotel during the day. When we got back from the tour at three o'clock that afternoon, we ate a late lunch, got our bags, and headed for the train station, figuring we'd hang out there until our train arrived at 6:30 that night (an hour earlier than its departure time of 7:30) and thinking we'd get our dinner on the train.
The train station in Ho Chi Minh City.
The train arrived and we boarded. Our compartment was so tiny we could barely fit all three of us and our bags. Which was fine since we were just going to be sleeping in it anyway. There were pillows, sheets, and blankets on our beds for us. A friend who has traveled on the Vietnamese trains suggested that we bring our own pillow cases for sleeping, which we did, and were glad we did, as these pillows had been used by who knows how many passengers already before we got them. Our "soft" sleepers were hardly soft, though, and felt hard as wood. I can only imagine how hard the "hard sleepers" must be!

When the train started, it was a louder and bumpier ride than we were expecting. Before the train started, my son had needed to use the bathroom, but we found that the bathroom door was locked. A fellow passenger conveyed to us, in broken English, that the bathrooms weren't accessible until the train started moving. After the train began moving, my husband took my son to the bathroom. They came back with the grim report of the disgusting conditions of the bathrooms. As if that wasn't bad enough, they both reported that it was hard to aim straight into the toilet because the train was moving so much, so the toilet seat was wet with urine. I was horrified. I thought I could wait to go to the bathroom until we got off the train the next day, but I knew a full bladder would keep me up all night. So I waited until the last possible moment before going to sleep to go. It was completely revolting; I tried not to touch anything and got out of there as soon as I could.

Once that disgusting part of the trip was over with, we sat on our beds waiting for the food carts to come by and buy some dinner. After half an hour passed with no food in sight, my husband went searching for it, but found none. Another half an hour passed before the carts finally started rolling around. One cart had chicken feet, which we passed. Another had snack foods. Finally, a cart holding sticky rice, dried pork, and corn on the cob came by. We bought two portions of the sticky rice and dried pork and two corns on the cob. The rice and dried pork were fine, but the corn was the worst corn I had ever had -- it somehow managed to be overcooked, but hard and chewy, at the same time! I felt awful that my kid was starving and couldn't get a proper dinner.

The other strange thing about the train ride was the lack of privacy. While we had a door that we could close and lock, we kept it open while we were awake because the compartment was so tiny and claustrophobic. People walking by would just step into our compartment to let others through the narrow hallway or just to poke their heads in for a look. It was kind of funny. But even when we locked our door while sleeping that night, the train conductor would unlock it a couple of times to look in and show boarding passengers our compartment because we still had one unoccupied bed. Needless to say, between the sometimes jerky movements of the train, the stops, the noises, the hard bed, other passengers talking, and having our door opened and closed, we didn't sleep well that night. My son had a good time, though. He had a top bunk, which excited him to no end. He loved being able to look out the window while snuggled in bed.

The next morning, Christmas Day, we were up bright and early, before 6 a.m. Around six o'clock, our train stopped for about 20 minutes at a station that was alive with the morning market. We opened our door to take a peek and to see where we were. I was still waking up and a bit disoriented when, suddenly, a Vietnamese woman appeared in our compartment, asking if we wanted baguettes and coffee. We had no idea what was going on, thinking this woman was one of those food cart people, so we said yes. A few minutes later, she appeared with three baguettes, a container of Laughing Cow cheese, and two coffees (when we asked for only one as I don't drink coffee), and asking for a payment that we knew was way too much for what she was giving us. It was then that we realized that she was a vendor from the market at the station, trying to sell her food on the train while it was stopped. I told her that what she was asking for was too much and tried to give back the food. She got angry, shoved the food back at me, and took the cheese. We gave her back one of the coffees and told her we would pay her half of what she was asking. She was very upset and tried to grab more money from my husband! We went back and forth like this for about a minute or so. Finally, we told her we were just paying her what we had already given her and told her to go away, which she did. But she came back at least three more times to try to sell us more food. What a way to start our Christmas!

Many more vendors from the market came on the train, giving us the once-over and accosting us in our sleeper compartment with their goods. It was extremely intrusive. Even when we closed our door, they would open it and stick their goods in to try to sell it to us. It was a relief when we finally pulled out of the station.

Even after that experience, though, it was still sad seeing the farmers toiling away in their fields by 6 a.m., the peasants peddling their goods so early in the morning, and even some of the people on our train, with their old and ragged clothes and plastic bags as luggage. They have to work so hard to have the lives that they do, and even then, it's a very difficult life. I felt so lucky to have been born into the circumstances that I was and to be living the comfortable life that I am. One old woman on the day train we were on a couple of days later, sitting behind us, particularly saddened me. Being Asian with white hair, she reminded me of my beloved maternal grandmother. She had with her a big plastic bag of round objects -- maybe something she was selling? -- her clothes were ill-fitting and mismatched; the skin of her hands was worn, shriveled, and wrinkled; her nails were dirty and ragged. Her eyeglasses were crooked on her nose. She couldn't take her eyes off me and my son for the entire trip, looking at us silently with her sad eyes. Seeing how the Vietnamese people live has given all of us some perspective. I think it really opened my son's eyes to see that there are kids his age who don't live like he does, who are out on the streets, barefooted and unwashed, trying to sell bananas to tourists.

Still, I would say the train was a good and quick way of seeing Vietnam. Because of the train, we got to see much more of Vietnam in less than two weeks than we have seen of Thailand in five months -- other cities and towns, the coast, the mountains, the countryside. As long as you know what to expect and prepare yourself for what's coming, it's not a problem. The only reason I would recommend against traveling on the night train in Vietnam is the condition of the train bathrooms.

Here are some pictures I took of the scenery while on the train from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang. Vietnam really is beautiful.
All the scooters waiting for our train to go by.
The market where the Baguette Lady tried to take our money.
A big cemetery. We saw several small graveyards scattered around the countryside, some of them quite close to houses and rice fields, which made us wonder if people just bury their dead family members by their homes.
Our day train ride from Da Nang to Hue was much better than our night train ride. The seats were comfortable, and I didn't have to be subjected to the bathrooms because it was only a two-hour ride. Still, passengers left their trash -- fruit peels, food containers, eggshells -- all over the train, and the conductor had to sweep it all up. It also was loud on the train. So many people were playing music and watching movies on their phones and tablets without wearing ear buds. It was really annoying, though not surprising. Still, I managed to get a nice nap in. 

This ride took us along the coast and mountains; the view was spectacular, even with the fog and rain that never left us that day. At this point, the temperatures were in the upper 50s or lower 60s, much lower than when we were in Ho Chi Minh City, which was at least in the 80s and hot and humid. We were bundled up like we'd never done before in Asia, wearing four or five layers of clothes. The chill in the air made me miss the U.S. more than I'd felt the past two months, remembering warm fires in fireplaces and the coziness and warmth of our home in the U.S.
Watching the front of our train snake around the mountain.

The overnight train ride we took from Hue to Hanoi was a bit better, since we now knew what to expect and were better prepared. We bought dinner to eat on the train before boarding, did not buy any breakfast from anyone at any market, and the bathroom was a little cleaner. But the ride itself was as bumpy as ever. The train made many jerky stops during the night, and we were woken up each time. These train rides were definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that we will not forget anytime soon.

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