Blinds down: Ocean Cloud Pass

Dep: 12:50
Arr: 15:23

Maninseat61, the train travel blogger without whom I may still be sat in a St. Pancras Station café wishing I was seeing the world:

“The most magical part of the Hanoi to Saigon train journey is the world-class scenic section between Hué and Danang.”

As such, I’ve had my eye on this portion of Vietnam’s Reunification Line since my trip first took shape.

This stretch of track is the civilised alternative to navigating the Hai Van Pass on a scooter à la Top Gear in 2008. The canny marketing teams at hostels all over Hoi An and Hué have turned that ‘Top Gear Experience’ into a backpacker right of passage.

Our experience is a bit of a let down.

Sure, the scenery looks gorgeous but it flashes past on the other side of the carriage and the guard insists on the window blinds being down from the outset. A couple of determined tourists with front seat views defy authority, so we do some strained ogling before Kaili falls asleep. I more than content myself with people-watching.

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Hoi An

After half an hour of peddling alongside trucks and scooters on the main road out of Hoi An’s Old Town we reach Tra Que. Also known as Vegetable Village, Tra Que is bordered by regiments of perfectly sectioned allotments. We cycle through them and past countryside homestays, interspersed with small shops and food stalls lining single-track roads beside the vegetable plots. We mostly hear roosters and the distant traffic of the main road.

I’m starting to imagine us making our own healthy living organic cereal TV advert here when-

BANG.

My front tyre explodes with a visible rush of air.

We give our hostel the name and address of the biggest-looking nearby establishment – a homestay – and make camp outside its gates while we wait for a new bicycle. At length, the homestay’s Vietnamese owner appears. She’s received a call from our hostel’s bike rental people asking for directions to her homestay.

Ann is friendly and unfussed about being dragged into our mobility crisis. As she leads us through her front gates to sit in the more comfortable garden area, we get chatting. I’m struck by her near-native English; it turns out she lived in England for seven years with her British husband, until they decided to swap Hampshire for Hoi An.

A more robust bicycle finally arrives and we continue to a series of mangrove channels leading out to open sea. We are next door  to a resort frequented by Chinese tourists. As our coracle bamboo boat bobs through the narrow crab-infested waters we pass a group clumsily attempting to emulate the fishing net throwing technique of the local fishermen. Booming dance music thunders over the water from another group. SIGH.

Back in the Old Town there are tailors and tourist-ready art galleries and restaurants everywhere, and carefully crafted ‘traditional’ pedestrian walking streets to connect them. But despite the blatant attempts to gather in tourist dollars, a nighttime stroll along the river dotted with lantern lights is atmospheric. The bizarre Old Town entrance ticketing system allows you to enter 5/22 designated historical sites for £4. In our top five is the ornate Chinese temple Quang Cong. There the gatekeeper, upon learning that I speak Chinese and (much more interestingly) Kaili is Singaporean-Chinese, insists on taking us out for dinner.

Over dumplings and noodles served in a market hall nearing the end of the day’s trading, our self-appointed guide and Kaili discuss life in the Chinese diaspora members club. He mixes rather obvious advice about learning Chinese (‘learning traditional characters is harder than simplified characters. Of course, it’s also difficult because there are tones’) with heart-felt stories about his past.

“Most of my family is now in California, but I had to stay here to look after my father.” Sending their kids over to the US or Canada is seen as the best thing many Asian parents can do for them.

I leave Hoi An more aware than ever of the Chinese influence in Vietnam.

Northbound on the Reunification Line

Train dep: 05:10

Arr Danang: 14:30

Bus arr Hoi An: 16:15

Some of the best train window scenery of the whole trip unfolds as we pull out from Nha Trang along the coast.

Sunrise has us running north between Vietnam’s beautiful coastline – available to gawp at from the cabin window – and paddy fields leading to forested mountains to the west, sweeping out from the corridor windows.

We share a cabin with two different Vietnamese couples. The second of these we find dozing when we return from the smoke-filled, overpriced restaurant car to prepare for arrival.

At Danang station we are on full alert since we’ve heard the staff on yellow bus #1 to Hoi An frequently overcharge tourists.

We wind up distrusting a perfectly genuine train ticket vendor at the information desk who approaches us only wanting to help us jump the queue.

“Fine, wait to buy with everyone else then” she says, throwing our passports back at me and gesturing to the main ticket windows, where Kaili is confirming the price. Of course, the price in both places is exactly the same.

The bus to Hoi An takes an hour and, after some persuading, the conductor finally accepts half the price he originally quoted for the fares.

Enter the Russians: Nha Trang

It is a nauseatingly twisty descent from the highlands back down to the coast.
The Russians seem to be the only ones pretending it’s peak season in resort city Nha Trang.
From Nha Trang bus station we shuttle into the city, our plans evolving by the minute after we learn the sleeper train out that evening is full.

Under angry skies and spattering rain, an especially pasty tourist wearing nothing but black swimming shorts floats across a busy junction and back onto the beach.

“Спасибо” say the shopkeepers we buy fruit and water from.

We find a hostel after lunch where backpackers (a pickier sort of tourist) hibernate indoors until it’s pub crawl time. If it’s not beer they’re not getting soaked for it.

As for us, we get drenched on our way back from a streetside dinner stop and promptly get an early night ahead of ‪a 03:45‬ alarm call for the Danang train.

Secret tour

“Can you ask them what they eat?” one of our ten-strong tour group says.
Our guide Mr Rot obliges. There’s a second of silence. Then there’s a barrage of shouting voices from the cluster of observing villagers.

From Dalat we have travelled 70km further into Vietnam’s highlands to understand life among the country’s minority groups. I can’t note details of who and where here because we aren’t on the tourist map. A sinister but exciting sense of privilege stays with me as we walk through Mr Rot’s village and, after some deafening to and fro with one villager, during a house visit.

They tell our guide that Kaili looks like [Vietnam] ‘city people’, and that the British Muslim opposite me is one of them.

A cylindrical bamboo pot is passed round the group and we are invited to try what’s inside. It’s a paste on the end of a thin wooden spoon. Ginger and chili are clearly involved.

“What else is in it?” a Dutch girl asks. 

The house owner reaches for a metal skewer that hangs on the concrete wall to her left. Up and away from its fixing it comes…with the top half of a charred rat through one end!

Our aghast faces immediately provoke another verbal assault from our hosts.

The guide translates:
“They say it’s a country rat, not one of those horrible city rats.”

For the record, it tasted quite good to me.

A Cozy Nook in Dalat

We have previous with colonial hill stations, having been scammed in our attempts to visit Simla in India.
We backed out there but we are fully committed to Dalat as our bus from Saigon hurtles round mountain bends on its way into Vietnam’s highlands. This polar bear author is very excited about the cooler mountain air. Being in Dalat is a temperate relief from the heat of Saigon, and in fact from the heat of everywhere else since New Zealand.

Our next stop was colonised by the French in the 1900s. That influence is still very prevalent: an unnamed postcard of today’s Da Lat could justifiably be confused with a European resort town.

We take a cable car ride up to Truc Lam Pagoda for a new perspective of the coffee plantations and temperate crop farming. We visit the slightly gimmicky Crazy House and the more atmospheric central market.

One night we return to our hostel in a bedraggled and tired state to find a classical music concert in the dining room. Cozy Nook Hostel’s family dinner is also a great way to meet other travellers, including Fiona from a grief-stricken but defiant Manchester.

Return to Saigon

IMG_6815.JPG

Need some wheels?

On this trip it is a rare pleasure to return to a familiar place, and once we’ve readjusted to the frenetic traffic we settle back into Saigon very quickly.

We toy with the idea of a Chinatown mystery tour, but instead head over independently for a dim sum breakfast and a wander round.

That’s it for sightseeing; we get useless kit shipped back to Singapore and, in my case at least, replace it with copies of what I already have.

A night on the Mekong

We move to a guesthouse on Can Tho’s main tourist strip. Plenty of cash has gone into giving Ho Chi Minh’s riverside statue a nice public garden and a night market to oversee here. Before we can enjoy an early evening stroll through it however, we have another Mekong voyage to arrange.


The following day, we board Brassac III, bound for Cái Bè. Cái Bè, we are assured, is (probably) the sleepy orchard on a Mekong meander we’ve been looking for. The main draw of this voyage really is a night spent onboard, anchor sunk into the river below us.

While exploring the huge deck we meet the other tourists: Herman and Arlene, a couple from Melbourne. After a pleasant visit at a village on the riverbank, we spread out on the boat and do our own thing. The four of us occasionally look up from books, work, word searches and beer to wave back at swimming kids, observe dredging cranes and ponder life in the small corrugated iron shacks that line the Mekong.

Rain eventually catches up with the Brassac just after dinner and we head below deck until a beautiful sunrise spreads its way over the river the next morning.

We don’t want to get off but we know that we must. Cái Bè appears as a sleepy fishing town, the dying embers of a floating market all that occupies the water at its back. And tourist boats like ours. 

Time for a motorbike-bus-bus transfer to Saigon and the rest of Vietnam.

Can Tho

A bus from Chau Doc takes us to Can Tho, a place we’d pictured as a sleepy orchard nestled into a Mekong meander.
In fact it’s a throbbing Delta city, brimming with scooters and services.

We wake up just before sunrise to observe a floating market at its busiest.  With youngsters heading for sexier jobs in Saigon,  markets like Cai Rang (the region’s biggest) are rapidly dwindling. The majority of the remaining boats here are wholesalers, and there seems to be an strong bias towards pineapples. 

In return for a sale, one vendor lets us clamber on top of his boat to look over the whole water born market. A few root vegetable sellers barely break up the vista of huge open barges bearing mounds of the spiky fruit. Thankfully, drinks and breakfast vendors paddle over to meet us on the way back to our boat, and the noodle soup/baguette/iced coffee/tea void is quickly filled. 

On with the tour!

Next, we watch rice paper and noodles being made. Then:

“This is a friend of my father’s” Tho our guide says. The sprightly pensioner, who is amazingly active for a ninety year-old, guides us to some chairs in his front garden. We are on the banks of a muddy channel not far from Cai Rang. He shows us a snake he claims he caught in the river, now writhing in an inch of water at the bottom of a bucket. His pet is in a better state than the one fermenting next to a baby chick in a large plastic barrel on his garden wall.

“This is rice wine! The snake is for wisdom. Do you want to drink with him?” Tho has barely finished the question when she is moving to thank our host for having us, assuming that no one would want to try snake chick wine so early in the morn-

“Ok then, why not?”

I fancy I catch Kaili rolling her eyes. Brits!

The old gentleman is delighted. We chink muddy shot glasses and empty them. It tastes like vodka. I am pleased to note shortly after that I have suffered from no after eff-ff-ff-ff-ffffffff-

No, I’m fine: 

On with the tower!…I mean

Anne with the tannoy!

No, it’s: 

On with the-

Hang on, 

Why am I the Chancellor of the Exchequer? You’re all fired! Who turned Kaili into a seahorse? 



Mekong delta adventures: Chau Doc

The French sleazeball from the previous episode now packed off to the next town, the rest of us walk into Chau Doc.

It’s a delightfully bustling town dominated by a market whose tentacles seem to grip every central thoroughfare. Fish in all stages of the farm to table process, dried fruits, spices and vegetables greet us as we inspect the numerous small restaurants dotted around.

Our guide San delivers us into the Mekong Delta countryside the next morning. Through the byways and villages on the edges of the paddy fields we ride, occasionally stopping for San to distribute sweets among the kids or explain the surroundings to us.

We visit Tra Su Forest, a wetland mangrove sanctuary that egrets, herons and wood pigeons enthusiastically identified by our guide call home.

A climb to the sites of Buddhist pilgrimage atop Sam Mountain rewards us with panoramic views stretching deep into Cambodia.

“See that red building there?” San asks, pointing across the border.

We nod, expecting to learn about a Khmer Rouge relic or another temple.

“That’s a casino. The Vietnamese love it.”

Back in town, our guide helps us book a bus ticket onto Can Tho.

Chau Doc: short but rather sweet.