Thursday, January 24, 2008

Riding the Dragon-Vietnam by Train by Saigon Charlie

May 22, 2007 –1,726 kilometers and 40 hours

(2nd Edit - 2007.09.24)

It has been quite an interesting few days since I departed Hanoi by train to make my way eventually to Saigon.

Hanoi was great in all ways and has left me with a warm impression although along the way I have discovered that all that visit there did not like it, which rather shocked me. I guess the most voiced opinion from those I spoke with" was the coldness of the people" although I found that not to be true in my case.

I think I am beginning to see that ‘certain types’ are targeted for the tourist “hustle’, with me being a single traveler, somewhat older and male, not so easy to prey on. Personally however, I boarded my train south; happy and content.

I can’t really relate a large amount of detail about the actual train to Da Nang except to compare it with other trains I have traveled on in the region.

The trip from Hanoi to Da Nang, my chosen stop at a mid-point down the coast, was about 15 hours in duration and combined with a decent sleeper cabin, not so bad. As I had opted for a ‘soft sleeper with air-conditioning’, accommodations were adequate but at a rate of 530,000 Dong, I later discovered it was yet one of many rates 'tariffs' levied on the unsuspecting tourist (I later found out the actual ticket price was only 493,000 Dong and maybe even lower...).

As I have traveled extensively by train all over Thailand, I was of course using those experiences as the 'base line' for my travels by rail in Vietnam.

Compared to the cost for a comparable berth on a Thai train, the Viet rail was double that of a similar trip with comparable ‘amenities’ in Thailand.

Thai trains and staff far outshine the Vietnamese version their ‘Reunification Express’ but if you consider that it wasn't that long ago foreigners were being charged over $100 for the coastal run, I guess I am getting a good deal.

If you are curious as what the difference between the 2 country’s trains are, the Thai trains have a steward that turns down your bunk for the evening and makes your bed from a sitting arrangement to a bunk. In the Vietnamese version, you are simply assigned a bunk in a cabin with 3 other intrepid travelers. Some thin sheets are on each 'mattress' and you are on your on.

There is also a ‘dining car’ of sorts on the Thai train where there is none on Vietnam’s trains that I could find. It also seems they make an effort here in Vietnam to ‘lightly monitor’ the ‘foreign devil’ as there was an ever present ‘watcher’ in my coach, who was a young man whose eyes were scanning and probing everything and everyone where in Thailand, even after the military coup, no such animal.

As usual there were interesting conversations onboard, beginning with my bunkmates. They included a French couple who as expected spoke little English but seemed very pleasant. The woman across from me was Australian from Sydney, and could she talk up a storm! Within an hour, I knew her entire life’s history and all about her past and present lovers....

The next few hours progressed rather slowly as I listened to her tales and was rather thankful that around 10 PM, there appeared to be an effort by the others to dim the lights and hunker down for the night's ride and sleep down the coast. After 3 hours of 'socializing', I was rather happy for this as I was all ‘listened out’…..

As usual on these trains in the region, when they say ‘aircon’, they mean ‘AIRCON’ as the cars turn to freezing as the night goes on. I had a bit of a problem sleeping on this leg of my trip as it was too cold and even though I had chosen a ‘soft sleeper’ as my bunk, 'hard' where the ‘soft’ was suppose to be.

The night wore on and when dawn came I was up with it grabbing my camera and shooting photos from the windows in the narrow corridor that ran down the side of each car. Every third window was fortunately not locked and this really helped my ability to find a spot to get clear shots. This changed however others began to join me with their cameras, eventually forcing me into the car's toilet where the window was down and no one else was standing. It was rather 'raw' however...

We eventually reached Hue where it seemed most were getting off. I considered doing this as well but instead opted to continue on to my original destination of Da Nang. As it turned out that was a very smart decision as the scenery turned from simply nice to amazingly spectacular!

With the early morning light the train began to snake its way out of a low coastal plain and onto a rugged, steep and narrow path along a coast of turquoise seas with white sand beaches. This was the South China Sea that I had imagined I would find when I came to Vietnam.

It was only later that I discovered when talking to other travelers that most seemed to get off the train in Hue and travel on down the coast to places like China Beach and Hoi An by bus, thus missing out on some of the most spectacular scenery there is in the world.

The coastal train trip is incredible by any standard often winding through steep gorges, passing white beach coves as it enters and exits mountain tunnels. The hillsides in May are filled with color, from deep tropical greens to brilliant whites of flowering blossoms. Quite a site to behold!

What also astounded me along this leg were the number of grave sites that seemed to dot the landscape in randomness and scale. There were also the occasional large cemeteries holding the remains of soldiers from battles long ago but it was the bewilderment of colorful crypts and their locations that continued to catch my ever scanning eye.

I wondered in amazement at the legacy of these tombs and beliefs that put them where they were. What spirits occupied the land and if the ancient ancestors were happy with their sea
side views. My only question was what happens to the spirits when the land becomes so valuable that they must be moved? Will the spirits accept a larger and prettier shrine and be pacified not so close to the sea? A question that someday must be asked.

I was also once again fortunate to meet another couple who were headed a bit further down the coast than my destination guest house on China Beach. They were from the U.K. and quite a nice couple and after talking about cameras and technology as the coast floated by, I eventually downloaded by shots to them and their laptop after we got off the train in Da Nang.

The train did arrive in Da Nang on time and after saying our goodbyes, I grabbed a cab for 120,000 Dong (6 Euro) to Noa’s Guest House, a place highly recommended by Matt at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel. As it turned out, it seems it has also made it into the Lonely Planet which isn't always best if you are planning on staying there as I was.

As usual the taxi drivers and tout were pushy, and when my driver tried to raise the price from the agreed price of 120,000 to 130,000 Dong (after my bags were in the trunk and we were underway), I started to open my door as we were leaving the parking lot and the care was moving and threatened to get out. He got the point and shouted “no! no! 120 OK!”. It took a little bit of theatrical flair but he got the point!

We arrived at Hoa’s Place on China Beach about 15 minutes later. This was after making our way through downtown Da Nang and hitting the ‘superhighway’ beach road south to China Beach and Marble Mountain.

If one understands that China Beach is 21 kilometers long by itself, one starts to grasp the size of Da Nang.

At on point in recent history, this was one of the largest bases that the American’s used during the Vietnam (American) War with remnants of that presence still quite visible in the form of bunkers, aircraft shelters, oil storage tanks and old runways along the beach.

I arrived at Hoa’s Place and was given a key to what appeared to be another guesthouse just up the street from his guest house. Hoa’s Place is on the last corner before you reach the beach and just across from the police training academy which appears to be quite large with several hundred officers out doing their morning exercises each day.

It seemed that his fame from Lonely Planet was taking its toll and he had to put his ‘overflow’ guests in places other than his, which is OK by me but unfortunately I got stuck in some room with a fan with no window or any ability to get fresh air. As it turned out, it was a nightmare to sleep in and with the outside day temperatures hovering at 40 degrees Celsius; I was up during the night taking showers to cool down with the occasional 3AM stroll down the beach to get relief form the stifling heat of the hotbox I was staying in. Ouch!

I don’t want to complain too much as it was only $5 a night and the evening social banquets of 15 or more guests and the surroundings more than made up for it….it was just that it was hard to even breathe and I was soaked in sweat even with the fan directed at me constantly.

Others I met in the morning had the same problems and combined with the occasional power outage, outside was far more pleasant than inside. Maybe that’s the excuse for the beach parties lasting until daybreak? Or maybe the often heard local phrase of ‘awesome’ originated here from the guests?

If you are going to hit China Beach, the place to stay is Hoas’ and he can be contacted at hoasplace@hotmail.com . Decent guy, with many of the backpackers from Hanoi passing through thanks to recommendations from the boys at Hanoi Backpackers Hostel.

China Beach, like Da Nang is a bit hard to explain, as they are both about ready to explode from sleepy backwaters to ultra-modern tourist and industrial centers. Growth and infrastructure development are everywhere the eye can see but what is spectacularly different in this case (from similar cases like Thailand), is that the infrastructure is being put in place first, including the needed roads as well as power generation and transmission facilities. If one uses the roads that have been built as a gauge, someone is expecting a renaissance of development from massive airbases to beach resorts. Maybe the folks at Goldman Sachs are on to something?

In the first morning’s light I was out on the beach but was not alone, as many locals seem to come to the beach and go for a swim as well. They however are fully clothed as dark is not beautiful in Asia. Just ask the Thais.

As you watch this spectacle of morning bathers, overhead Mig 21 jet fighters roar parallel the coast obviously doing a downwind leg for landing approaches for an as yet unseen airfield inland. They are joined at times with various forms of Soviet era helicopters making their thumping noises as they enter and exit the same installation. It all seems surreal at times.

I rented a motorbike for a few days ($3 a day) and started to cruise the roads of the area, making my way as far south to the booming resort town of Hoi An where I hear multi-million dollar villas can be found.

Although Hoi An has turned into a very beautiful resort, I noticed many empty buildings with ‘for rent’ signs everywhere.

Hotels and restaurants have of course popped up along the main streets, with prices appearing to be reasonable and in line with other places along the coast. I however suspect many guests will be caught off guard when they go there and find it takes $6 to get to the beach as the town is a long way from it, with prices ‘fixed’ by the local transportation ‘association’.

As I ride my bike along the coast I once again discover there are no such things as helmets in this part of Vietnam or any part for that matter! Rear view mirrors also seem to be something that motorcycle manufactures and customers here view as ‘optional’ equipment with mine having only a left hand mirror, with most motorbikes I observed having none. Guess the mirrors sort of ‘reflect’ the thinking of the country and its youth; ‘no looking back’.

I next drove the back roads inland from the beach not sure where I was going, but keeping the mountains to my left as I headed north. It wasn’t long before I was hitting intersections telling me the road I was on was headed for Hanoi, 776 kilometers away, which put Saigon roughly 1,000 kilometers to my south.

Continuing north towards Ha Noi, I eventually crossed into Da Nang according to the signs and was soon crossing some pretty impressive bridges where it was easy to see the sprawl of the ‘new’ Da Nang. Entering the city into what I guess would be classified the downtown area, construction was evident everywhere and not simple Chinese shop houses either.

It appeared to me that an orgy of construction was underway on some very impressive structures including shopping complexes, office buildings and other very modern and beautifully designed structures that I have no idea what they are going to be used for (auditoriums or educational facilities?). It even appeared that another huge bridge was under construction crossing the same river only a few kilometers from the one that was obviously new and spectacular in its own right. Combined with the intense traffic of the area; somebody, somewhere is flooding this municipality with tons of new money.

Later I made my way into the mountains following winding roads in which other streams and navigable waterways were frequently encountered. It impressed me that one could find such beauty only an hour from this modern day urban sprawl. After stripping to my shorts and taking a dive into a cool mountain stream, feeling refreshed and new, I headed back towards the coast and an evening beer. All in all, I spent nearly 300 kilometers on a motorbike exploring the region around Da Nang.

May 25, 2007 – Friday –Da Nang Train Station, Vietnam

8:55 AM – We depart the station at Da Nang and head south to Saigon. 24 hours and nearly 1,000 kilometers lies ahead of me.

The morning started early with me checking out of my guest house on China beach before 6AM. Caught a motorcycle taxi for 50,000 Dong to the train station after settling my bill and saying my goodbyes to Hoa.

End of Da Nang Segment

11 AM – Ga Tam Ky, Vietnam

The train continues to speed down the coast with frequent stops on side rails to let north bound trains pass. This stop however happens to be our first major stop, the city of ‘Tam Ky’, two hours south of Da Nang.

As mostly locals board the train, I do notice 2 young Aussie lasses board my coach and park themselves towards the middle of the car. Somehow they seem a bit out of place in what is obviously a non-tourist train.

Shortly after we start to pull from the station, I notice a food cart enter the cabin and start to distribute meals to the passengers. What a surprise I thought, as there has been none served on the previous journey for which I had paid considerably more.

As they made their way down the aisle, I noticed the young ladies turned their noses up at the offered meal but as it got to me, I politely accepted and started to peek into the 4 separate cartons. Guess we have different taste for what passes as food.

It wasn’t quite steak but I wasn’t expecting it either. It did however turn out to be quite filling and consisted of a large rice portion with 3 separate toppings including chicken and vegetables. They also handed me a bottle of water to round out this noon meal.

An older lady also joined our seating compartment and she seemed determined to wander back and forth in the aisle, stopping to stare at the two foreign girls. Shortly after this however, she goes back to her previous seat further up the coach and brings her bags and puts them in the seat directly in front of me, whereupon she turns backwards in the seat and now starts to watch me as I am writing, looking away as I glance up at her. I guess I now know how a lion in the zoo feels.

This little game goes on for awhile and then she starts to pull the curtain back from my window so she can see out my window. I reach up to assist here and take the tie for the curtain and bind it back so she can now see out the window. With her hair bound up in a bun, it occurs to me that once long ago she was probably a very beautiful woman and even with her age, you could sense her regalness. I would have loved to know her story...

11:45 – “Ga Nui Thanh”

We stop again and the older lady departs and as I watch her from the window, a man of about 30 or so meets her and carries her bag to his motorbike where she takes a bit of an effort to get on the back of it.

The stop is a short one and as we pass out of town, coastal dunes and sand appear while off in the distance, I briefly catch a glimpse of a large, apparently abandoned airfield with a long row of hardened aircraft shelters from a war long ago.

I am beginning to realize that my eyes hurt from the previous couple of days of motorbiking around Da Nang even though I was wearing sunglasses and had a hat on to shade my face from the intense heat, light and dust from the area.

(A glimpse out the window and thought......) Wow…that’s interesting…..a farmer walking through a rice paddy near the road with a metal detector. Hard to believe landmines are still a threat so close to the highway in what is obviously a well cultivated paddy.

At noon we pass over a river that is obviously far lower than its banks allow and at 12:30 we stop again at a place where I can’t find a station name and many more board. At 12:45 we cross another river and at 13:30 we arrive at ‘Ga Dac Pho’. A half hour later the train passes through an area which is the nearest it has gotten to the coast on this segment of the trip south since we left Da Nang.

As I look at the amazing landscape unfolding before me, I am struck with just how much effort is being made here to utilize every square meter of land for growing food and crops. Even the numerous tombs have crops growing at the edge of the concrete they are on and where one crop like rice won’t grow, another such as corn has been planted. Nothing is going to waste anywhere.

15:50 – ‘Ga Deu Tri’

Although I can’t find this place on my map, I have a rough idea where it should be as I chart our course down the coast. The landscape has changed radically and it appears that there is a huge water shortage as the rice paddies are brown and dry as is the surroundings of the town. With two long horns and immediately after the 3rd and short horn from the engineer, we once again start our trek south.

17:00 – ‘Ga La Hai’

La Hai is a pretty poor looking area as well compared to what I observed before we reached the area surrounding Deu Tri. There are even ox carts at the station but just outside town in the valley (which appears to be suffering a drought), a huge complex of some form overshadows the surrounding homes and town. It has got to be government or military.

To ease us into the long evening and night ahead of us, once again the dinner cart boys ease their way down the aisle handing out our evening meal. Once again, a tray with a large rice offering as well as 3 separate containers with fish and vegetables. Filling but that is about all I can say for it. Once again the white girls turn down their evening meal.

I also opt to splurge on a can of ‘333’ beer at 9,000 Dong a can. As the sun sets to my right and west, a massive shrimp/fish enterprise appears in the large lake to the east. Having just finished my meal, I thought an ice cream would taste pretty damn good about now.

18:00 – ‘Ga Tuy Hoa”

As the train makes a hard, lurching stop at the station, a woman walking down the aisle with boxes from the evening meal falls backward and lands hard on her backside. The young man behind her, making no effort to help her, watches as she gathers her things and pulls herself up. I am beginning to see and understand that chivalry left when the French did.

Just after we leave Tuy Hoa, we pass over a long but low bridge passing over a rather large river delta. A bit further south, another airbase slides past, this time with even longer rows of hardened aircraft shelters which once again, appear to be empty and remnants of the ‘American War”.

As the sun quickly slides over the western mountains, I can’t help but reflect on what this country was not so long ago and where it appears to be headed.

It seems the older folks who keep staring at me are trying to tell me something with their eyes and expressions, because without exception, when I look at them, they break into broad grins and you can just tell they have some secret they want you to know. Maybe it is about their brother or sister who made it to California or Virginia?

The younger ones however, as with the ‘gentleman’ who watched the girl fall in front of him, seem extremely rude and selfish. Even when a young girl in my car ran out of water and was sucking her bottle dry, after I offered and her mother accepted my water, there was no form of thanks in any manner, verbal or facial. Maybe no one trusts the ‘foreign devil’ but actually I sense a culture which has slid backwards in its march towards ‘civilization’, however one defines that term.

The noise of this train is constant but I have adjusted although I am glad I am not further forward as I can hear the constant, and I do mean CONSTANT, wail of the horn from the engineer as he passes from country to city and back again. I guess this is where the expression, “he really likes to tute his horn” comes from….

Night comes and goes…………

May 26, 2007 – Saturday – Nearing Saigon

6AM – Somewhere 21 hours south of Da Nang

The sun is up and the train passengers are starting to come alive. I wouldn’t call it the best sleep I have ever had but sleep it was.

Once again, I boarded the train with no expectations or trip times in mind and after 21 hours, this looks like it might rival my single longest trip ever; which was a murderous, 24 hour bus trip back across Turkey some years ago.

One of the things I really enjoy about these types of trips is that I am able to observe the people through their ‘cycles’ of living; interesting to watch the older man and his beautiful younger wife who is obviously not happy about the arrangement; the amazingly loving mother who adores her charming and vivacious daughter and the young intellectual with her studious looking glasses buying newspapers from the station touts who is constantly studying the countryside as the train slides south to Saigon. People are different colors and races but at the end of the day, we are all the same.

My laptop's battery went dead long ago on this leg of the journey and now I have even reached the last few pages of my journal that I carry with me. Guess it is time to refresh and replenish in Saigon although, once again, I have no idea where I am going to stay. As usual, “we will cross that bridge when we get to it” as my dear ole Mom would say….

07:25 – A side rail near Saigon

We have been waiting here a bit over 30 minutes and the 2nd of 2 trains has now passed us. I guess this is the difference between ‘express’ and ‘non express’ as express don't have to wait. An interesting definition in that it does not mean the train goes any faster on the track, just who waits and who doesn't.

The 'express' classification also seems to get lost in the rates I have been charged for my various tickets. There are obviously huge price difference between the 277,000 Dong I paid and the 330,000 Dong I was offered for ‘express’ as with the 530,000 Dong I was charged for the 15 hour ride in a sleeper between Hanoi and Da Nang. It seems the rates are rather ‘flexible’ with an odd availability of 'foreign tickets' under the counter at a far higher price.

The natives however, as myself, are starting to get restless but I do notice that the lady that has acted as our cabin steward has removed the sign from the outside of the train indicating our car and destination, ‘Saigon’. A musical rendition of a ‘Summer Night’s Dream’ is now playing over the train's speaker system. How nice.

This makes me reflect on some of what I have read and heard about the political correctness and the use of ‘Ho Chi Minh’ instead of Saigon in the north but here we are on a train leaving the north carrying a sign telling passengers we are headed for ‘Saigon’. I also open my wallet and confirm that my ticket uses the same word for my destination. I guess someone forgot to tell the bosses with the train department that someone changed the name of the southern capital in 1975. I also notice the further south we go, the less Vietnamese flags I see……hmmmm

08:30

It seems we are finally entering the train station that serves ‘Saigon’ although you would never know it from the lack of signage or station signs. I guess they can’t make up their minds what to call it or the locals can’t quite come to terms with ‘Ho Chi Minh City’. Honestly, the only thing that lets you know that you might be in Saigon is that after stopping, everyone is getting up and leaving the train. Even once you are on the station’s platform you have to look high in the sky at the top of the terminal to notice words that say ‘Saigon’.

As the sun is rising in the eastern sky and the heat of the city hits me as I climb from my Car 6, I can’t help but smile a sad smile and think…

Good morning Vietnam!

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