From North to South: The Reunification Express
Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog› entry 9 of 10 › view all entries
For our final trip in Vietnam we caught the reunification express. The thirty hour, two night, one day slog from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. We'd heard some horror stories about the train but it really wasn't that bad. In fact, it wasn't bad at all. We got tickets for the soft sleeper section which involved four people per cabin in bunks with a thin matress and sheet. The sheets probably weren't cleaned that often but they weren't dirty or stained, used the sleeping bag liner though! There was aircon, so it wasn't too hot. The first night we were joined by an anglo-french couple and on the second by a two vietnamese.
We had brought snacks to keep us moderatly fed, but there was also a buffet cart with snacks, and two meals were provided aswell, which were slightly suspect to look at (for the lunch, the burgers and skewer type things looked rather very-reconstituted and dodgy so went with a leg of fried chicken) but actually quite delicious, which I'm sure is the sign of genuine local food. So I'm going to have to call it excellent, though I'll admit I didn't eat all the the parts of the airline style evening meal. And Alex's smoked egg was just strange rather than unpleasant.
For entertainment we had Alex's cards, books, plenty of sleep, some scenery watching, guidebook reading. And on the first morning I headed to the seated carriages and found Home Alone on on the tv screen. Great movie that, I love it, and its about as close to christmassy I've felt. We've been aware that christmas is approcahing, a few of the hostels have trees up, there are decorations in the more upmarket malls, but yet it doesn't feel like christmas.
Slight horror moment during the second evening, when we spotted some kind of roach thing one the vietnamese woman's bed. Tried to kill it but it escaped underneath my bunk and was never seen again. There was a second one which got squished by my shoe neer the door. After that, no more were seen. Is it wrong to suggest that the roaches might have come from the woman's suspect looking bag, rather than from the train, which was reasonably clean to be honest.
Trundling through the green/brown/golden rice paddies of the Vietnamese countryside gave sometime to take a bit of reflection on the country as a whole. The place seems to be doing allright for itself, hurtling towards developed status like, well, how I imagine China was not so many years before. This strange blend of capitalistcommunism seems to work fairly well. However there is always the knowledge that perhaps life outside the tourist trail may not be so rosy. Especially in the south there is a real push to highlight vietnamese cultures and traditions and viewpoint of the war, that I thought would only get stronger as we headed into the more traditionally communist and dare I say it, more historically vietnamese (the vietnamese civilisation has been in north Vietnam for millenia, the south for centuries) areas, but the push got less. As did the push for the same old tourist sights. There tend to be 13 different places for tourists to visit in this country with tours to any of them available anywhere in the country. In the south there seemed to be little else to do apart from these tours. Yet in the North there was far more choice in the tours available. It would have been nice to get away from these 13 sights, and in a way, Ninh Binh is the least visited of the 13 and away from Tam Coc isn't touristy at all, but time never seems to be on your side. In three weeks we saw most of the country, in four weeks you could see all 13 tourist places, but I think it would take 5 or 6, with some outside visits to really get to know the place. The south seems to move to a more lively beat, the north is a little less chaotic.
The view I'm getting is that life in Vietnam could well be worse, life is ok, and is getting better. Apart from the lack of political freedom, people don't seem to resent the government in anyway. I guess its just working.
There's no doubting the vietnamese are friendly and this is certainly a country with fantastic, fantastic cuisine. There's often a bit too much of a drive to rip tourists off, which you can see as understandable (given how much these people earn), but it can often get to the point of just being too hassled, too followed and downright annoying. We found the best tactic was to pretend to be French, even the vietnamese have no defense against the all-purpose dismissive gallic shrug. Away from the peak of the tourist trail we found people more friendly, less demanding of you in monetry terms and more willing to help you out as a nice gesture. All in all I really like this country and would consider coming back to explore the back-roads which seem to hold more promise and more friendliness.
Finally we were back in Ho Chi Minh City at 4:30 in the morning, got ripped off one more time as we headed to the airport and hung around for a while before our flight to Singapore.