Friday, November 27, 2009

Hoi An to Hue via rail

[NOTE: When we traveled to Vietnam in 2009, I used Posterous for a lot of the photo hosting for this blog, because it as an easy way email photos from my phone.

With the subsequent death of Posterous, now most of my Vietnam travel posts have broken image links... I have the photos still, but it will take some time to recreate the visual narratives... Apologies for broken links below.] 

Our concept of travelling light was pretty much blown out of the water after just a few days in Hoi An. You can get custom clothes and shoes made probably pretty much anywhere in the country, but Hoi An has really made it the thing to do while you're in town -- it's very easy to get caught up in the low prices and many options. Those of you who know us well will know that Daniel and I are not ones to shop like crazy, but besides the stuff we got for ourselves, we decided to go ahead and get the gift shopping mostly out of the way in Hoi An. Here's what we left with (in addition to our original luggage -- and full disclosure, this isn't even really all of it). Right before we left, once we were done with the last minute shopping, we stepped out and bought big rolling duffel so we'd have something to carry it all in for the rest of the trip...

After the car we had hired in advance accidentally took us to the airport first, we found the train station to be a little overwhelming -- the airports are very English-speaking friendly, but rail is how the locals travel, and nothing was in English that I could see. Plus we now had more than we could really carry ourselves (at least for any distance), so I was a little worried about how we would get everything onto the train and stowed away.

Fortunately, kind of like airport curbside service, they have guys with carts ready to "help" -- I guess if you look lost like we did, they don't even ask, because as the taxi driver was unloading our stuff from the trunk, a curbside guy just came up and started loading the stuff on to his cart, wheeled us into the station and parked us in the back, probably not coincidentally, by two of the few other westerners in the station. He looked at our tickets to see where we were going, motioned to indicate that we could keep the cart, and then left. We still weren't sure exactly what was going on... Do we get ourselves to the train? What do we do with the cart afterward? How would we know which train was ours?
We spent a nice hour or so chatting with the Irish couple who have been travelling since February -- they couldn't really tell us what was going to happen with our stuff and the cart, either -- the only other leg they had travelled by train, the train was already in the station when they arrived and they walked right on and settled themselves in.
Eventually, a train pulled in, and I guess it was ours, because the cart man showed up and wheeled us into line with the other passengers, and then headed up the walkway at a fast clip towards the far end of the train, motioning all the while for us to follow.

OK, so now we realize he's going to help us all the way -- I was glad, because we had no idea what was going on. He got us to the right car, and started unloading our stuff from the cart. We figure, OK, he's helped us, he's taking his cart back, now would be when we would tip/pay him, so Daniel got out some money out (having no idea how much is appropriate). The cart man waved it off, which was really surprising at the time, but we thought maybe he works for the rail company and it's his job.
Fought our way onto the train, found our seats (it was very full, and everyone, like us, had too much stuff -- some were sleeping on the floor, probably having bought a seat instead of a berth, because it's cheaper -- the guy behind us had a TV in a box on his lap). Though crowded as it was, people were surprisingly nice -- I had trouble finding our seats (the numbers weren't going in a logical order that I could discern), and so I showed our tickets to a random local, and they pointed us in the right direction. And once we got to our seats, the man sitting behind us moved some of his stuff to another overhead rack so we'd have room for the largest of our bags. In the end, we had some above, some on hooks, some at our feet, some on our laps, some under our seats...just like everyone else.
Then the cart man came back -- apparently, helping us means not just leading us to the car, but making sure that we're in our seats and settled. And now he's ready for us to tip him.
Tipping is not generally expected here but is appreciated (though, apparently, in certain situations like this, it is not just expected but required). Daniel tried to give him 10,000 Dong, but he says, no, it's 30,000 Dong. This is not very much money, less than $2US, but it's a rather large tip compared to what we would tip a taxi or cyclo driver, especially since the train tickets were only $6US. However, since he really did help us and we really had no idea what the hell we were doing, it seemed fair and reasonable. I'm not sure what he would have done if we didn't have the cash on us.
This stretch of the Vietnam rail system is purported to be very beautiful, which is one of the reasons we decided to take the train (the bus route is more inland). We met some travelers from Oregon who seem to be travel-by-rail junkies, and they say it has a worldwide reputation. The weather was pretty overcast, though, and we were on the wrong side of the train to really be able to see the ocean views. But it was still very pretty (completely not evidenced by this photo -- I would have gotten up and taken a better picture, but I had a lap full of luggage). Even the locals were standing in the aisles so they could look out the window and see better.

Our side of the train had lovely, though foggy, rural and mountain scenes like this.

We went through some tunnels.

Then it started to rain in earnest, and we were left with not much to do but play with the camera.

And practice taking pictures of ourselves.

3 hours later, we pulled into the station in Hue, the novelty having worn off a little, but fortunately there were no delays and the train arrived in Hue more or less on time (as I said, the guidebook says this leg is anywhere from 2.5 to 6 hours -- we saw some really big boulders near the tracks that had clearly rolled down the mountainside -- one of those on the tracks would push it beyond the 6 hour point, I'm sure).

We are taking advantage of the slower pace in Hue to take it easy and see the sights at our own speed. Ate some real street food in a residential/non-tourist area of town, and last night, had a very nice meal and a bottle of wine at a Vietnamese/French restaurant. This morning, resting and catching up on blogging, then probably some more walking around. Tomorrow morning, we leave via air for a 4 night stretch in Hanoi, with a 1 night cruise of Halong Bay in the middle.


  1. You guys are such good travelers! Wonderful, wonderful.

  2. Great train tale, and the tunnel pic is wonderful!

  3. Love reading your travel stories. You and I mentioned not having any idea what Vietnmese music sounds like. Do you have it down now? Have you seen any local live music?

  4. The train trip was a real trip! I almost fell out of the chair laughing when the tunnel pic came up :))) Your experience with the boarding reminded me of the Tokyo story I told you about. At some point you get that sinking felling you're "not in Kansas anymore". Terrific experience you won't forget. Thanks, Kim. -- dewdad

  5. What a wonderful adventure so far. Daniel looked ten feet tall opposed to the squatting cobblers and mini chairs. Ironic how the little girl might have lifted your phone and the "cart-man" helped you find your way. Would you photograph some currency? Also what's with the naked Super-Babe? ...just as fast as a to leap on a balcony rail in a single's a bird, it's a, it, well it kinda looks like your profile picture..only bald and nude. See ya'll soon!

  6. John, haven't seen any live local music yet. The areas we are staying are pretty urban and touristy -- lots of karaoke in the bars... At one point yesterday, we were taking a tour via cyclo, and one of the drivers burst into song; the other one said it was a traditional folk song. But they could have must been putting on a show for the tourists.

    At least in the cities, the music is the street life -- the vendors, hawkers, etc. An example: a few nights ago, we were taking an afternoon nap and got awoken by a repetitive, beautiful tone. Bong bong bong bong bong... 30 second pause ... bong bong bong bong bong. Finally roused ourselves to see what it was, and it was a man with a handcart, and some kind of handbell or gong - he was picking up the garbage in our alley from all of the restaurants and hotels, and the tone was to let people know he was there. The street is full of sounds like that. In Hoi An, the trash truck (a big dumpster-sized truck) played music like an ice cream truck or the paleta man at home.

  7. Hey, anonymous, we'll post pics of the currency if you tell us who you are :)

  8. What is with the Cupie Doll?

  9. Oops, sorry guys, this one and the previous one were me, Bradley... don't know who was the first or the ones on newer posts. Will identify myself from here on out. Now show me some dong! Uh, that didn't come out right. See ya! -Brad.


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