Last Sunday at 19.00 we boarded the train from Hanoi to Hue. Sounds so easy doesn’t it? If only. After contacting the special ‘tourist train’ office operated by a group called Livitrans and receiving no response we decided that we’d book our train in a Sinh Cafe which is basically a privately operated tourist office. Except we’re in Vietnam and everything is fake!! There are about sixty Sinh Cafes in Hanoi as they have a good reputation and once you’ve a good reputation in Vietnam everybody wants in on that action! We eventually found one which we thought looked genuine and so booked with them. All fine. Got to the train station about two hours early (just in case!) and all was fine until we tried to board the train – only to be waved off in the general direction of the main door. Lovely. Some guy eventually told us that we only had coupons which needed to be changed in a hotel near the train station and we’d have to bored the train via a platform within the hotel. Of course! Up until 18.55 we were the only ones in our ‘lovely’ sleeper cabin, kitted out with four beds and a mini table with bottles of water and toothbrushes. Three Vietnamese men joined us just before we ‘take-off’. God damn it! And cabin for 4 (not 5) I hear you say? Doesn’t matter to these boys!! Think one of them hated Westerners too, you wouldn’t believe the looks I was getting for the entire journey (15 hours) EVEN THOUGH I offered him biscuits. Well.
At 19.20 the train came to an abrupt stop. Turns out we had hit a car at a level crossing. Looked out the window and you could see this car squashed under the front of the train and train personnel pulling bits of the train off and just throwing them to the side. We’re thinking “how much hassle is this going to cause now ?” Answer: 50 minutes + 1 crane and we’re off again. No matter about half the front of the train they just threw around the place. P.S. Nobody was hurt in the making of this paragraph. Except that organ I like to refer to as my heart. Oh and P.P.S. There are cockroaches (and snoring moody men) on Vietnamese trains.
We checked in to our hotel in Hue (central Vietnam) at 9am the next morning (after another altercation about change with a taxi driver). Great! Wandered around Hue’s 200 year old Citadel for a few hours. The entire city of Hue is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some beautiful architecture in the Citadel but that’s about all there was to see in Hue. Except ‘La Carambole’ restaurant, which had the most amazing spring rolls in the entire world. I believe they’re actually a Hue specialty so had to be sampled! As we were walking back to our hotel we bumped into the English couple we had met in Nanning. Sure you can’t go anywhere!! We had a resident gecko in our bathroom. Freaked me out a little I have to say! John christened him Gordon and he seems to be following us everywhere!!
We decided to go all cultural and take a 9 hour tour of the DMZ which we organised from the Stop&Go cafe. We hired a car with guide, driver and 2 other girls, Jenny from Oslo and Jess from Shakespeare-land. The DMZ is basically the area which separated the North Vietnamese territory from the South Vietnamese territory during the war. This was really a John thing which I didn’t think I’d enjoy at all. Wrong. Anh, our 64 year old veteran guide, was a member of the South Vietnamese Army and worked as an interpreter for the Americans. We had an 8am start and we didn’t stop for lunch until after the tour! Oh sweet mother, shouldn’t we really have had breakfast and not gone out the night before?
We went to see a Catholic church (apparently 3% of people in Vietnam are Catholic) where 24 Vietcong (North Vietnamese Army) were held by South Vietnamese Army for 81 days and then shot/blown-up/killed. Take your pick. Then we literally trekked through rubber trees, briars and an old dirt track to see an old American bunker. The 2 girls were freaking out that Anh was bringing us somewhere crazy and wanted to stop. In all fairness though who wants to trek on totally overgrown ground in Vietnam? We survived, all limbs intact. Anh also brought us to the National Cemetery which was actually very poignant. There were many cemeteries along all the route though. It’s pretty awful. We also went to see the Vinh Moc tunnels which were built by North Vietnamese people in order to provide shelter from incoming bombs. They’re 2km in total and have 13 entrances, 6 on top and 7 towards the China Sea. They include many family rooms, weapons storage – even a maternity ward! There were 17 babies born down there!! They were comfortable enough to walk around. John couldn’t stand but us girls were good. The Vinh Moc tunnels also came with one crazy lady wandering around collecting firewood and scaring tourists. Watch out!
Overall: Not sure I’d recommend a long trip to Hue, 2 days is plenty but the DMZ is definitely worth the trip – particularly if you have a veteran guide.