After Hanoi, it was on to the old capital of Huế in Central Vietnam. Hue is the location of the Imperial Citadel, which is still standing unlike Hanoi’s older one, and was built after the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was the capital of Vietnam for almost 150 years (1802-1945).
I was taking the overnight train from Hanoi to Hue, the first time I’ve ever done so. I got to the train station by motorbike at 10 or so, due to my taxi being a noshow, in time to catch my 11 pm train. I was a little nervous, and had insisted on a helmet, and as we whizzed through crowded streets in the Old Quarter, I half expected to crash into someone at any moment. We then passed through quieter streets as we left the quarter and got nearer the train station. My driver was my hotel’s security guard Bac, an older guy who spoke a little English, who I had a decent conversation with while I was waiting for the taxi. Though he charged me 100,000 dong (roughly US$5), which I later realized was probably too much for a 15-minute motorcycle ride, I do think he was a decent guy.
I shook hands with him and then walked into the station, a little hesitant because I didn’t know if it’d be hard to find my train. The station was French-built and quite old, though not too shabby, and the platform was pretty much directly behind the entry gate. The train was already boarding and there were quite a lot of Vietnamese scrambling to it, while vendors walked up and down the platform selling snacks and drinks. This was the Reunification Express, which ran from Hanoi all the way down to Ho Chi Minh, a journey that took over two whole days. The train looked like it was at least 30 years, slightly rusted, boxy carriages but it was not too shabby either.
I got to my cabin which was roomy, claimed an upper bunk, and spent the night with 7 people. How? There was a family of four, with 2 small and noisy kids, and a grandmother and her little granddaughter, who, in stark contrast to the other kids, was quiet. The train started moving and the streets of Hanoi soon gave way to a highway and a river. It was a new experience for me. I’d been on train before of course but this was the first time I ever spent a night on a train and it was hard to sleep at first. I was awake enough to know at times the train stopped for a long time, right in the middle of the tracks. When the train did move, it swayed in a slight to-and-fro motion which was comfortable enough when lying on my bunk bed in my cabin, but would be a pain whenever in the toilet, especially since water would be swishing in the toilet tank and even splashing out. As an aside, I have to say the toilet was not as dirty as I feared and there was even toilet paper.
When you’re sleeping in a cabin with 7 other people, it’s bound to be a little hard, but with noisy kids, it’s harder. The brother was especially noisy and he slept with his father directly beneath my bed. While awake, there was a long period of time when seemingly every 5 minutes, the father would angrily shout something at his son. This happened so often, I wondered if the father was really trying to discipline his son or just joking around. The next morning, I woke up early before 6, lay on my bed for a while, then got out and stood in the hallway to look out. The Vietnamese countryside was marvelous. I saw small lakes, hills, rice paddies and giant straw mounds, but the most ubiquitous sight was water buffalo and farmers in conical hats toiling in the green fields. There were small villages and temples, even cemeteries. It was something I could look at for hours and I did. Unfortunately, I spent a longer time than usual watching the countryside since the train took an extra hour and a half to arrive at Hue. I kept checking the timetable posted on the wall and my own printout, but no doubt, we were arriving at Hue well past the scheduled time. I felt like asking the train guard but didn’t, since he didn’t speak English. He did reassure me the train would go to Hue when I’d showed him my ticket earlier. The train stopped at Vinh, the city where Ho Chi Minh was born on the outskirts of, and a couple of small towns I don’t remember. It’s still a mystery to me since the train left on time but arrived 1.5 hours late.
Meanwhile, I was trapped in the same cabin with the naughtiest little kid in Vietnam, it seemed. Besides fidgeting, running around in his Barcelona Lionel Messi jersey in the hallway, driving his father nuts (by then, I sympathized with him rather than be annoyed), and making his sister giggle constantly, he actually tugged on my pants and smacked me playfully on two occasions. I got to like him and at the end, he gave me one of my best memories of Vietnam and Southeast Asia. When the train finally arrived in Hue, I started to walk to the exit, a little disappointed I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to the kid since he had run off elsewhere. Just like that, he came down the hallway and seeing me leave, runs up to my small suitcase and tugs on it with all his might. I tried to pull away but the boy didn’t let go and was still holding on. I couldn’t help laughing at the little rascal and I said “bye, bye” a few times to him and his sister, who’d reappeared as well.
The good feelings lasted only as long as when I reached the station exit. A mob of taxi drivers were there and instantly I was approached by drivers and touts. To be continued……