So it turns out that overnight trains aren’t too bad here! We travelled from Hanoi to Hue (pronounced hway) on one and the experience was fine. Luckily the beds were just the right size for someone of my stature (or lack thereof) and we’d had the foresight to buy silk sleeping sheets in Hanoi so didn’t have to brave the stained linen of the cabins.
Tom and I shared with a lovely Canadian couple from our tour group who didn’t snore, sleep walk or suffer night terrors- hurrah! We had already ordered meals to be delivered to the station from our tour guide’s friend’s restaurant which was lucky as the ‘restaurant’ on board wasn’t the cleanest. It was a bit awkward as the cabins really were pokey. They consisted of a narrow bunk on each side of the cabin with little to no standing room so four people trying to cramp around a tiny table with sloppy meals was a bit tricky. Still we survived and most of us managed to get some sleep.
Here’s the wee cabin in all its glory…
The only real issue was that the trains in Vietnam don’t slow to a stop like others, instead they slam on the brakes in a dramatic fashion so that you’re woken up every couple of hours or so. Still, our quarters were first class in comparison to all of the other carriages. Tom and I took a stroll to the front of the train to stretch our legs and saw some pretty grim sights. Bunks with three beds on each side so that you’d have to roll into them. Whole families lying underneath the hard wooden seats on nothing more than some news paper, trying to get some rest. Mucky food carts that sent foul smells throughout the rest of the train and bathroom conditions that made our flooded little toilet (that we shared with the whole carriage) look good – just to name a few. After our walk we felt very lucky to be where we were and it made me realise how accustomed we are to always having access to clean facilities and comfortable conditions. For some, it’s not an expectation at all.
Getting off the train, we were bombarded with a whole lot of street vendors who would yell out options to those on the train and pass meals through the windows. They smelt amazing and it reminded me of the women on rowboats in Halong Bay (minus the inflated prices). It seems that Vietnamese people are always sure to keep people fed, no matter where they are.
After the train, we had some time for a quick swim in the hotel pool and a bit of brekky before we headed off on a motorbike tour of Hue. This has definitely been one of the highlights of the trip for me. Jumping on the back of a bike was a bit daunting after witnessing the way people drive here but it is seriously the best feeling. My driver was a little man who I’m pretty sure could have zipped in and out of the hectic traffic blindfolded so I felt very safe. He seemed ok with me cuddling him for most of the day (the pink you can see is a Valentines rose our tour guide bought for Tom to give to me…ahh romance).
First stop was the biggest tourist attraction in town, the Citadel. Hue was once capital of Vietnam and this was where the King resided along with his 500 wives and 100 or so concubines according to our tour guide! Our guide turned out to be quite classic and was a very confident English speaker. So much so, that he found it necessary to throw in lots of cliché’ sayings that barely make sense to English speakers let alone someone using it as a second language. This was somewhat tiring after the third or fourth use of “you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” or was it “when the cats away…” – I can’t remember which. Still, he had a lot to offer and told some amazing stories about his family through the war time. He also felt the need to share his fertility problems with us. He and his wife had been married five months yet still had no children. This is not normal apparently so he was off to the doctor to check whether anything was wrong. He thought it may be due to the amount of tofu he eats – naturally (?!)
As he was a local, our guide also had a way with words in his native tongue. We witnessed some of this smooth (or at least persuasive) operating at a bakery on the way. The group stopped for lunch and Tom and I jumped to the front as it was Tom’s favourite here – Banh Mi (the yummy French style baguettes filled with various meat, herbs and something that resembles pate). We were about to hand over our money when our guide stopped us and starting speaking to the owners of the bakery. A bit of a tussle was going on in Vietnamese so we all stood around blankly wondering what was holding up lunch. After a couple minutes our sandwiches were suddenly three times cheaper than we had expected. They worked out to around 50c each. We bought three.
The greatest thing about riding around town on the bikes was the fact that we got to see so many sights that we would potentially never have found ourselves. The place is made for bikes as hardly anyone in Hue owns a car. Our guide said that this is mainly due to the floods that happen every year. Unlike cars, bicycles and motorbikes can be hoisted up to the ceiling along with the furniture when the floods come – yes, they actually do that.
It was incredible being able to nip down narrow alleyways filled with children playing who all waved and yelled ‘Hello!’ or stretched out their hand for a high five as we passed. We saw farmers at work in the rice paddies and really got to experience the landscape as the locals do. It was a very special feeling and something I would totally recommend you do (through an organised tour company rather than a Xe Om – motorbike taxi- who are known to rip you off). I wish I knew how to contact the group that took us around because they were locals that had been promoted from the rice paddies to the prestige of being a tour driver (in other words, the real deal when it came to knowing the place). Best to ask your hotel or tour leader if you have one.
A highlight of the tour was visiting the rice museum where we got to see what back breaking work the people here go through to produce their primary export. A little old lady showed us the machinery used for each part of the process, from harvest to creating rice flour. She didn’t speak English so communicated through body language and it turned out that she had quite the sense of humour. At one point Tom acted as her buffalo, she got the whip out and everything – if you’re wondering what the red in her mouth is, it’s a rather unfortunate side effect of a type of leaf they use like chewing gum in the paddies. Still, what a fantastic smile she has.
After watching her go through the process and seeing the piece of bamboo she used as a pillow (yep, that piece of wood under her head below), I have a whole new appreciation for where rice comes from and will be thinking twice before I waste any again.
Another great moment was when we went offroading and ended up at the equivalent of makeout point in Hue, overlooking the Perfume river. It happened to be Valentines day so it was full of loved up teenagers sharing picnics and exchanging gifts. We stopped for a photo opp and must have looked like right tourist knobs on the bikes as a few of the teens ceased their canoodling to come and have a laugh at us. Some even took photos for themselves! Here are some we caught having a wee gawk/chuckle.
As we were leaving I saw one couple who were having a bit of a Valentines row. She was wrapped around a tree sobbing and refusing to look at him while he looked to be asking her what was wrong. She probably said “I’m fine!” in that way that all men know means the exact opposite. Some things aren’t so different here.
We only had one night in Hue before we were back on the bus to Hoi An, a seaside town known for its many tailor shops – excitement levels were high. Clothes made to order back home are quite out of reach but here they’re totally affordable (never mind that we have limited bag space). More on Hoi An next time as we stayed there three nights and had the best time – aside from one potentially disastrous incident which I’ll share (or overshare as the case may be) in the posts to come.
– Photo credits go to Tom who skillfully took most of these while on the back of his bike!