Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Day 3 & Day 7: Riding the Reunification Express Train to Hanoi and Back

When we booked our tickets for Vietnam, traveling north to Hanoi wasn’t part of the plan. Otherwise, we should have just booked a flight to Hanoi, traveled down to Saigon, and crossed the border to Cambodia (now that’s an idea!). But after tons of research, I really, truly, madly wanted to go to Halong Bay. So what the heck, we built our entire itinerary in consideration of the 30-hour travel time to Hanoi and another 30 hours going back to Saigon.

Truth be told, I actually looked forward to the train ride. It lends credibility and authenticity to being backpackers – traveling like the locals would, listening to their conversations, seeing them conduct their daily activities, and watching their movies even if I didn’t understand a single word. But if there’s the good, there’s also the bad.

There are different sections of the train: the hard berth, the soft berth, and the sleeper portion, from the cheapest to the most expensive respectively. We chose the soft berth for our trip to Hanoi and spent roughly $60 each. Apparently, train isn’t cheap in Vietnam.

The soft berth section
Shortly after we boarded the train, I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy ride. Adults were talking to one another with thin, high-pitched voices. Kids were screaming and running around. When people slept, they put their feet up on the seats even up to your head. I must have given a fellow passenger THE LOOK until he backed off. The bathrooms were ill-kept. Each hour, a food cart would roll along the aisle and the seller would bark loudly for the entire world to hear. It also didn’t help that they have very little regard for health and sanitation. My neck, back, and spine ached from all that sitting and dodging all those unidentified flying liquids and solids. The train takes multiple stops in between and the passengers would leave all their trash behind – to the horror of the next passengers (but they didn’t seem to mind). I felt like time stood still. The soft berth was rarely empty all throughout the trip and my travel buddy and I – were the constants. That whole experience was death by train. And a painfully slow-moving one at that.

The sleeper section
Coming back from Hanoi, we knew better. Even if it was more costly (around $90 each), we chose the sleeper section. It is more private and comfortable and can accommodate 6 people with 3 beds on each side per room. They didn’t change the bed sheets though, so if new passengers boarded in one of the stopovers, they’d have to use the sheets of the passengers before them. There are multiple compartments in the sleeper section but the bathrooms were well-maintained. If you don’t like to hear the screaming vendor with the rolling cart, you can just close the door and lock it. It wasn’t exactly the cleanest but it was so much better than the soft berth. And this time, I got to appreciate the simple pleasures of a slow ride.

So what do you do on a 30-hour train ride?

To fight the boredom of a long train ride, I bought a book – Into the Wild by Jon Karakauer. I finished reading the book, updated my travel journal, listened to music, slept, ate (we brought our own food), and just marveled at the sights we passed by. There was one portion of the train ride where it seemed like we were teetering on the edge of a mountain and on the other side, we can see the vast blue ocean. Breathtaking. We also saw plenty of lush green rice fields, which is not surprising since Vietnam is one of the largest exporters of rice.    

Will I ride the train in Vietnam again? For long distances, no. But a couple of hours can be tolerable, I guess. There were a couple of stops that were worth hopping off on, such as Da Nang or Nha Trang. I would definitely want to come back and explore what those places can offer. 

Next: Day 4: Exploring the Old Quarter Streets and Watching the Water Puppet Show

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