I have never been to Glastonbury, but if I had it probably would have prepared me in some small way for the toilet facilities in carriage 19 of the night train from Hanoi to Hue.
We had a few hours to spare upon our return from Ha Long so after a quick bite to eat we decided to head to the station early. It was packed with people and was quite intimidating. However a train that was not ours was soon loaded and we were left alone with a few travellers and some small and enthusiastically manned street stalls. We chose the stall that beckoned us with the most vigour and settled into small plastic chairs (like we use in primary schools, only more flimsy) and had a coffee.
The coffee here is superb. I didn’t realise that Vietnam is a huge producer of coffee and they are very proud of their brews. They make it with a stainless steel dripper which sits on top of a glass. Hot water drips through the ground coffee into the glass below where it settles on top of condensed milk. They drink their coffee extremely strong (stronger than Espresso) but with the sickly sweet condensed milk it is actually extremely addictive. I’ve developed a real taste for it and Jim and Pete from our Halong tour both couldn’t get enough either. Pete had bought a dripper and some beans to take back to Canada in fact!
With 90 minutes to go before the train was due to leave I thought I would take a stroll and see if I could work out where we needed to be, and most importantly, when. I came face to face with endless Vietnamese in various different uniforms (they do like a uniform), none of whom understood me and vice versa. But salvation of sorts came in the form of a family of Swedes who homed in on me with cries of “please do you speak English?” My reply was something along the lines of “I am English but I have absolutely no idea what is going on!” We quickly concluded we were to be on the same train so I went to fetch Claire and the bags. Upon our return the Swedes had managed to find out where the train was so we followed them across numerous train tracks and very quickly found our room.
We had paid for First Class Sleeper Bunks, though when we examined our tickets we had in fact overpaid. This is normal for Vietnam. They like overcharging tourists as much as they like uniforms. We are also pretty sure we were in fact in the standard sleeper carriages. The sheets were stained. The mattress was filthy. The bars to stop us from falling from our top bunks were wrapped in dirty old bandages! It wasn’t pleasant. I found the below pic on the net. This is exactly what our room looked like before thousands of people had used it.
We shared our room with an elderly Vietnamese couple. We learnt from our tour guide to the Cu Chi Tunnels that some Vietnamese are still rather suspicious of westerners – the older Vietnamese in particular. This is something we can blame the French and Americans for I guess. The younger Vietnamese are more comfortable with westerners but we also learnt that some young Vietnamese can be very proud just to be close to westerners.
When our room mates arrived they didn’t like where we had put our big bag. We tried to explain that we had put it in the only place it would fit and they seemed to understand. They didn’t speak English so it was all very much grunts and gesticulation. It was quite intriguing to see them in action though. The woman very quickly declared war on a mosquito and wasn’t holding back with her rolled up newspaper They both woke up at 4.30, put all the lights on, brushed their teeth and the man had a Heineken. Then 3 minutes later they turned the lights back off and went back to sleep. Very strange.
We were befriended by some French from the compartment next door also, which probably didn’t do us any favours with our room mates either. The French were an extended family from France but originally from New Caledonia. The dad spoke some English and the young son spoke quite a lot having spent time in Newcastle. Claire foolishly told them where our hotel was in Hue though and they have followed us here.
The train journey took over 11 hours in total and we looked to be going around 50mph. There were a fair few stops in the middle of nowhere and 2 or 3 station stops before we got off. As we neared our destination we needed to let our room mates know that we needed to get our luggage out from behind them. They seemed keen to try and communicate, though it was all pointing at maps and hand gestures. I suspect they realised we were not Americans at some point. We shared a friendly goodbye in the end.
We managed to work out that they were spending another 10 or so hours on the train as they were travelling to a city a couple of hundred miles north of Saigon. So they would be on the train for nearly 24 hours!
This was the first time we had spent time close with real everyday Vietnamese people. Aside from them it has all been hotel staff and tour guides.
The people here are hard to work out. They are naturally suspicious but sadly they seem to see westerners as easy money. Be it a taxi driver or a person selling something they bump the price right up for tourists. Most of the time it isn’t a major issue…£2 instead of £1 for example…but sometimes they really overdo it. We think we got stung big time for our train tickets to the tune of about £50 for example. We won’t be falling for that one again! Comically the only time we decided to stand our ground was when trying to buy two oranges in Ho Chi Minh. When we turned and walked we soon realised we had effectively refused to pay £1 for two massive oranges. Idiots!
The problem with this is that you end up not trusting anybody. Which is sad. On arrival at Hue a chap kept telling us we should buy our train ticket to our next destination, Hoi An, immediately because of the full moon festival. We just fobbed him off but have since read that this is completely true.
I read up on the whole overcharging tourists thing and it seems travellers vary rarely return here because of it. This a real shame as it is a stunning place and the people are actually quite nice a lot of the time, even if they don’t know how to queue!
We are now in Hue and it is nice to be back in the heat. Hanoi was quite mild and wet and as you have seen Halong was overcast. Hue seems nice from our short stroll and our hotel is a bargain at US$25 for two nights bed and breakfast in an air conditioned room.
(Special prize for anybody who can name the TV show which influenced the title of this thread)