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Back on Track!

semi-overcast 26 °C

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Good afternoon from Hội An, Vietnam's "most atmospheric and delightful" town according to the guidebook. The photo above shows train SE1 snaking round the coast on the Reunification Line. Shortly after the USA finally caved in to International outrage at their campaign in Vietnam, leaving the South to fight alone, thousands of ARVN soldiers pushed to Saigon without much resistance. The following year in 1976, trains once again began running from Hanoi to Saigon (renamed Hi Chi Minh City) for the first time in over 20 years, unifying the country. Haven't actually seen any reference of this name at any station though.

After an uneventful flight from Busan I had an hour to wait for Passepartout Emma. We had booked a tour of Halong Bay for the following day so rather than have an early start we got a bus from the airport to Hanoi then straight onto another one for the journey to Hạ Long City. This should have taken 2.5-5 hours according to the guidebook. As is often the case in places like this we went into the bus station and were faced with about 30 counters of different bus operators, about half of which advertised services to Hạ Long. We went for one in the middle and paid an extra ₫20,000 (about 70p) for a "V.I.P Express" bus. This took around 6 hours and stopped to pick up anyone that waved vaguely at the driver, even on a 4 lane road that looked like a motorway! We also picked up over 5,000 eggs (in the unlikely event my quick counting and maths was correct) amongst other cargo. We took the bus because the train only runs once a day and goes at 04:55. On the way back however.... despite our Halong Bay tour guide practically begging us not to use it, we took the train!...

Train 51502 - The ONLY train that links one of the 7 natural wonders of the world with the nation's capital departs daily at 13:45. How it came to have such a number when there are only about 20 trains in the entire country I have absolutely no idea. Anyway, given that this is one of the most well trodden routes in Vietnam, it's surprising that this train NEVER carries tourists! This might be because at 7 hours, it takes more than double the time of the fastest bus and has the most uncomfortable seats on the planet! The journey starts at the rather grand, modern and completely deserted station building that was meant to be the terminus of a new multi million dollar route from Hanoi, before the project ran out of money. The train was formed of three very elderly carriages, only one of which has seats and a 20 year old Chinese built diesel locomotive that looked capable of pulling a train about a hundred times bigger! Fares are calculated by the weight and type of luggage (see photo), although despite having big rucksacks we were charged the passenger only fare of ₫80,000 (about £2:70) each. Not sure if she was a member of staff or just a regular, but we got treated to a couple of hours of Kareoke on the trains tannoy system from one lady, and another kept us fed and watered. The two or three passengers that remained on board for more than the first hour all slept in hammocks rather than using the seats!! The train barely went above 20mph for the first 5 hours and when it finally joined the main line at Kép and picked up speed, we were the only passengers for the final leg of the journey to Hanoi.

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Oh and the overnight boat tour of Halong Bay itself? That was great but this is meant to be about trains! The bay contains over 2,000 little islands and islets (although official Vietnamese figures state 1,969 to mark the year of Ho Chi Minh's death) and no photo can really do the scale and beauty of the place justice. We were on a tour with 14 others including some Spanish, Canadian, Australian and French tourists. We spent the night on the boat and got the chance to go kayaking and swimming in the bay.

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We only had one day in our tight schedule to explore Hanoi so after a few hours in bed to allow our spines to recover a bit we got up early and started by visiting Hi Chi Minh's mausoleum where his embalmed body lies in state for anyone to walk past, which was very strange. Then on to the "Maison Centrale" former prison, built and used by the French during colonial times, hence the name but later used to house POW's during the 60's and 70s. It was humbling to learn about the amazing treatment and hospitality given to the American forces despite the appalling atrocities that were happening at the time. They were even given a choice of souvenirs after the ceasefire in 1973. After that we tried our first coconut coffee then onto a market. A quick look round a couple of temples then up one of the skyscrapers for what would have given a great bird's eye view and sunset if hadn't been for the smog! Dinner at an all you can eat veggie buffet (just ₫80,000 each) was excellent then just time to have a couple of beers at a bar on the corner of "Train Street" where you're so close you could touch passing trains which trundle down one of the famous narrow backstreets while dogs snooze unconcerned just a few inches from the track. Back to the hotel to collect the bags for the 22:20 train South.

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The 27 hour journey to Đà Nẵng on train SE1 was fairly uneventful until the last 2 hours when the train slowed right down and pottered round the coast on rickety looking bridges with big waves crashing underneath. I wasted most of the good views trying and failing to get a decent photo! There was a lot of conflicting information online about buses but Google maps showed a bus running every 20 minutes from a bit of a walk away so we gave that a go and one turned up within a short while. The journey to Hội An took about 90 mins. It's one of those places that comes with a warning in guidebooks that, although beautiful it can be ruined by the hordes of tourists. Thankfully for us, the place is absolutely deserted. I read the other day that tourist numbers across SE Asia as a whole are down by around 50% and it really shows here. We are staying about 4 miles out of the main centre and all the restaurants are tiny family run places and we have been feeling really sorry for them. Last night we counted 4 in a row without a single customer at what would be the busiest time of the evening. Anyway, it's nice for us. Hội An is like the Keralan backwaters, Venice and the Far East all rolled into one with a nice beach thrown in.

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After 4 nights here with bit of touring round and a bit of beach time, tomorrow morning we are back on the Reunification Line to Ho Chi Minh City where, unfortunately the tracks run out! From there we start heading properly North for the first time since Belarus - on to Cambodia, hopefully using a boat on the Mekong rather than a bus the whole way, fingers crossed!

Posted by around129 02:07 Archived in Vietnam

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Comments

Wow - more fantastic pictures and information. Your reports are more interesting than any TV series. All the best.

by RayEliz

Best wishes from Gerald, Richard, Big Ken, Even Bigger Ken and Ray …. from The Boot And Shoe.

by RayEliz

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