A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam

End of the Line (again!)

sunny 35 °C

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04:38, Tuesday 25th February and train SE3 arrives into Saigon (tickets, timetables, station signage all use the old name) station bang on time and the Reunification Line comes to an abrupt(ish) end. This was the original end point when I started planning the trip and would have been the end of an epic 8,000approx mile train journey, had it not been for the virus (I won't mention it again I promise!) So I was thinking I would have a nice photo of some buffers to show the end of the line. But it appears I have found the only terminus station in the world without any buffers, so this fuzzy photo of the tracks disappearing into the darkness will have to do.

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We were relieved to find the small hotel we were booked in at had someone on duty 24hrs a day and, after initially looking like he wanted to murder us he did remarkably well at hiding his annoyance at being woken up before 5am! A couple of hours in bed, then breakfast.

We started at The War Remnants Museum, previously called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. While we didn't expect it to be easy, we weren't prepared for large amount of extremely graphic reports and photos on display. There is even a room on the horrific effects of agent orange including 2 still born babies preserved in a tank at low level I assume to look like a grave, I didn't even read the text. Like a big exhibit in the Maison Centrale in Hanoi, they are keen to show their determination for forgiveness, friendship and peace, especially with America. On the ground floor the first thing visitors see is a large exhibit about the anti-war protests all over the world, particularly in the US itself and among the US forces, followed by a big piece about the work done more recently to build bridges with America. Yoko Ono's Imagine plays on a continuous loop. That took some getting over but in the afternoon we visited a few temples and even a fully in tact Notre Dame Cathedral, built during colonial times and quite a bit smaller than the more famous one. Finally we visited the impressive central post office! Yesterday we were all templed out and the constant cacophony of noise from the scooter horns that HCMC is so famous for was started to grate! So we just had a day round the pool at a much more expensive hotel than our own and paid a very small amount for the priveledge! At 35C today, it's a ridiculous 57C warmer than Ulaanbaatar was a couple of weeks ago!

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Today we set off for the Cambodian border. I normally hate using tour agencies and prefer to do things myself if possible, but we had been warned about the soul destroying bus journey from HCMC to Phnom Penh so I was pleased to find a tour company that offered a two day one night tour by bus and boat along the Mekong. This morning we used their bus from HCMC to Cái Bé, about 3 hours West. We were treated to a boat tour of a floating market and local factory, some fantastic food and some local music. Then unfortunately the boat that we were due to use on the journey North suffered a "technical problem" which I suspect had more to do with the lack of uptake on the tour that day rather than anything to do with a boat! We were ushered into a car and driven about 100km to Châu Dôc near the border. This was sad and if I had known this would happen we would much rather have got the bus ourselves and paid a tenth of the price! We are promised a boat in the morning howevernso hopefully they can redeem themselves. I'm writing this from our hotel room (provided by them) which looks like it has come straight out of the 70s with free entertainment of a couple of little lizards running round on the wall! I'm sticking with myf not using tour companies policy in the future!

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Got a bit of bad news yesterday. The trickiest bit of planning this trip was getting to and from Australia without flying as there are absolutely no scheduled ferry services. I thought I had struck gold last year when I booked myself onto the container ship CMA CGM MOZART from Port Kelang near Kuala Lumpur to Freemantle. Unfortunately however, as you may know I got an email from them in November to tell me there had been a change in vessel and the replacement will not accept a passenger. They left the door tantalisingly ajar though by saying that these things change regularly and they would let me know nearer the time. Sadly nothing has changed. Frustratingly they can offer me an arrival in Freemantle just a day after our train to Sydney. The next train is a week later, and it's fully booked. That's the next one they can offer me so even missing out Singapore and going earlier isn't an option. So baring a miracle I will have to take another short flight to get me to Western Australia in time to meet Emma. The fun will be finding the shortest flying route though so I'm on with that now. I'm not giving up on the cargo ship. There are about 10 journeys a week between SE Asia and Freemantle. I have been trying to get hold of other companies for months without much success but I will keep trying! If you are interested in travelling on a cargo ship, I was booked with French company CMA CGM who actually have a dedicated member of staff to arrange these bookings. Journeys cost from around $110 a day including all meals and a high standard of accommodation. You eat with the crew and, within reason have the run of the ship. You have to complete a load of medical forms before you can book and, as I have found out, good travel insurance and being able to be flexible is useful! There's more info here.

Posted by around129 09:02 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

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 Comments (2)

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