I’d read that train travel in Vietnam was comfortable and cheap, and the best way to see the countryside if you didn’t have a lot of time. I found it somewhat comfortable and well priced, and a good way to see the countryside. It was also a chance to talk with other travelers.
I traveled from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang on a nine-hour journey. I purposely chose a daytime trip, so that I could see the landscape as it rushed by. When I boarded the train, it looked like most of the Vietnamese weren’t really paying attention to their assigned seats, and they just sat wherever suited them best. The tourists, on the other hand, stuck with the number on their paper, so it was a funny mix of me stubbornly searching for the seat that matched my ticket while everyone around me negotiated with one another for favorite spots.
There were a few other tourists in the same car, and that’s how I met Laura, a lovely woman from London. She was traveling with a friend, Kate, whose seat was somehow several rows behind ours. Laura and I chatted most of the trip, and I hung out with her and Kate in Nha Trang, and later in Hue, when our paths crossed again. I probably should have just offered my seat to Kate so they could sit together, but I liked my window seat and didn’t want to break the rules. If I hadn’t stayed in my spot, I never would have met them and hit it off so well, so the moral of the story is that sometimes being uptight pays off!
The train had a couple TVs on it, playing flashy ads and soap operas. Nearly all the coat hooks were being used to hold people’s bags of food. A cart came around a couple times, selling treats and drinks. At one point the train stopped longer than usual at a station, and Laura nudged me, pointing out the possible reason: a couple of men in official looking uniforms, arguing with a middle-aged woman in a seat six or seven rows in front of us. A couple stations later, the uniformed men led her off the train, carrying what looked like a toy machine gun. We’re guessing the toy was hers and it wasn’t allowed? We really hope it was just a toy. It remains a mystery.
I took a train from Danang to Hue, and that was the prettiest train ride of my trip. The tracks followed the coast, and even though it was an overcast day, I saw plenty of lush tropical forest tumbling down the hills and into the ocean. This train was empty, so we all just picked which seats we liked best, which was good because the seat I was assigned seemed to have some springs poking out of it. This train was not as nice as the first one, but with scenery like that, who cares.
The last train I took in Vietnam was an overnighter from Hue to Hanoi. I was determined to be picky about my seat, since I’d paid extra for a bottom bunk in a six-bunk cabin. Imagine my surprise when I arrived in the cabin and found the pillow and blanket tossed to the side, and a man sitting on my bunk. Once I showed him my ticket proving it was my spot, he gave it up and sat on the other bunk with his friend and the woman whose bunk it was. I only meant he couldn’t sleep there, not that he couldn’t sit while we chatted, but that was just the first of a series of small misunderstandings. I fit my bags in around the five-gallon jar of homemade whiskey the guys were transporting, and then we faced each other and tried to talk. I had bought a small bag of sticky rice at the station and ate that while we talked, which the three of them found hilarious (I am not very good at chopsticks).
The two men had very limited English, and I only knew how to say “please” and “thank you” in Vietnamese, so it was a real struggle to talk. The most astonishing sunset was taking place outside the hall window, but every time I tried to peek out there, the guys pulled me back and tried to talk some more. There’s a lot to be said for cross-cultural communication, but when the language barrier is this huge, there’s really only so much that can be said. They would ask a question, and I would respond, and they’d smile, uncomprehending. Then I would ask a question, and they would respond, and I’d smile, uncomprehending. Any attempts to clarify what was said were met with more smiles and shrugged shoulders. I learned that their names were Tien Troung and Van Hien (they wrote their names for me in my notebook), and they were engineers on a work trip to Hue, returning home to Hanoi. They brought the homemade whiskey with them and were eager to return to their wives and children. Tien Truong showed me a photo of his six-month-old. That, at least, is universal. I congratulated him, and he grinned proudly.
Sleeping on that train was nearly impossible, since the guys played music on their phones and two other passengers climbed in the middle bunks midway through the night, and I had to use the bathroom twice, and tried to forget the experience each time because it was so disgusting that if I remembered how nasty it was, I’d never be able to go again.
We arrived in the capital around 6am on Gio to Hung Vuong Day, a celebration of the Hung Kings, who founded Vietnam. I said farewell to my cabinmates, scooted my bags away from the whiskey jar, and left the train behind.
Hue was once the site of Chinese authority, the outside force with the most influence on the cultural development of Vietnam. Starting from the 16th century, the Nguyen family of Vietnam reigned here, and in 1802 they became the imperial family of the country, with Hue as the official capital. The Nguyens were backed by the French, then ruled by the French when Vietnam was a protectorate, then ousted in 1945 during the French Indochina War.
The capital of the country moved to Saigon and later to Hanoi, and Hue’s been of secondary importance for decades, at least politically. Culturally, it’s been seen by many Vietnamese as the seat of learning, religion, art, and cuisine. Part of the struggle over the city during the Tet Offensive of 1968 was its geographic position at almost the exact center of the country, just miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), but part of it was a symbolic struggle for the heart of Vietnam.
The imperial city, behind the walls of the citadel, is about 2.5 kilometers along the perimeter. It used to house the main palace, in the Forbidden Purple City, but that was destroyed by the French in 1947. Apparently, the American and South Vietnamese forces were instructed not to touch the historically important citadel during the Vietnamese-American War, but as the Battle of Hue in 1968 dragged on, the restrictions were eased, and eventually many buildings were damaged or destroyed. Bullet holes can still be seen on many of the remaining structures.
In 1996, the communist government of Vietnam, which had not previously prioritized rebuilding a symbol of imperialism, realized the tourist dollars a reconstructed city could bring in, and it committed to a 15-year plan to rebuild it. When I was there, I saw the project in action, as craftsmen sawed and carved wooden doors to hang along the long halls of the interior palace. (Also, it’s not just foreigners who bring in the money here–only a little under half of the tourists in Hue are from out of the country.)
The flag tower of the citadel looms on the north side of the Perfume River. Beyond the citadel are the walls of the palace grounds, and once you buy your ticket, you pass through the gates and find the Hall of Supreme Harmony, fronted by a broad tiled pavilion and two fish ponds. You can’t take photos inside the hall, but it was gorgeous in there. A crab shell-style roof covered a long, empty hall; the pillars were carved with dreamy cloud and dragon combinations, and the beams of the ceiling displayed poems written in Chinese characters. In the back, a video played on loop, using digital reconstructions to show what the whole palace complex looked like in its glory days.
Behind the hall, I posed with a giant golden dragon, like you do, and then walked down one of the side halls of what remained of the interior palace. The side halls started out in magnificent style, double rows of red pillars, long lines of tall doors opening out onto the side gardens, but as I walked closer and closer to what used to be the center of the palace, the doors disappeared, the columns were unpainted, scaffolding appeared. What was once land so rarefied only the emperor could walk on it, was now flat stone foundations and trimmed green grass, barely the memory of a palace.
I then walked to the Dien Tho Residence, where the queen mother lived in the later years of the palace’s use. This had its own three-arched gateway, a couple lotus ponds, and long, low buildings (which I couldn’t take photos in).
Finally, I visited the Hien Lam Pavilion, which has the The Mieu Temple on one end, and nine dynastic urns on the other. The temple is richly decorated, showcasing portraits of emperors and queens. The urns are lined up outside, giant bronze castings carved with scenes of natural beauty, each urn named after an emperor of the Nguyen dynasty.
Walking away as the palace closed for the day, I left the swirls of clouds and curves of trees on the urns, passed the rows of flowers along the path and the sun setting behind the citadel walls, and strolled back into the city.
I know a lot of people who love to bike everywhere. I’m freaked out by the many distracted drivers out there–both in the city and in the suburbs–so I don’t really like to bike unless I’m on a path made for that purpose. But I admire the cyclists I know, especially the ones who use their bikes as their cars, carrying things in panniers hanging off the sides, or in adorable baskets on the front. But I gotta say, after seeing the massive loads teetering on the backs of bikes in Vietnam, maybe US cyclists need to step up their game!
Since everyone enjoyed my Singapore foods post so much, I thought I’d give you another update on the tasty things I’ve been eating in Southeast Asia. I still have another week in Vietnam, but I’ve already eaten so many delicious foods that they deserve their own post. I’ve copied the names from Wikipedia when I can (to get the accents right–there are a lot of accents in written Vietnamese), and if I can’t remember the name or find it online, I just describe it. Grab a napkin to catch your drool, and enjoy!
I’m getting slightly better at chopsticks, and it’s worth it to try, when there are foods like pho to shovel in my mouth.
Delicious and creamy.
Pork and veggies in an egg pancake.
We ate one of these sweet snacks, went to a pho place for dinner, and then on the walk back to the hotel, my friend had another.
This was a refreshing cold dish for lunch. Cold noodles, lots of fresh veggies and herbs underneath, and warm fried spring rolls on top.
We ate the candy warm from the machine and freshly cut, as part of our tour of a small village in the Mekong Delta.
I met up with a friend of a friend in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) who wanted to introduce me to the foods of Mon Hue Restaurant, which focuses on the regional specialties of Hue (which is in the middle of the country). She ordered way too much food, which we thoroughly enjoyed.
A substantial dessert drink.
A tasty breakfast that my friend found on his walks around the alleyways near our hostel.
A small amount of shrimp in a dumpling, topped with fried onions. The woman who served me said she could give me pork white rose because shrimp generally makes me ill. I’m not convinced what I ate was pork, but I didn’t get sick, so it doesn’t matter.
I celebrated my birthday with friends from the Elephant Nature Park. We went to Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant, which is fancier than its name implies. This pork belly was rubbed in five spices and lighly layered in a caramel sauce. The sticky rice was mixed with shredded coconut. I’m even learning to appreciate cabbage over here, since it often arrives mixed up with carrot but not turned into coleslaw.
Apparently the noodles (which you can barely see in this picture, sorry) are only made by one family in Hoi An, so you can only get authentic cao lau here. The noodles are thick and chewy, and you mix it up with greens and pork.
Rounding up guidebook and Internet advice, here are some places to visit and things to see and do while I’m in Vietnam. Part 1 because I know commenters will have suggestions!
See a show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi, or some other water puppetry venue. Apparently this art form developed as a way of appeasing spirits and entertaining fellow workers in flooded rice fields. Today, puppeteers stand offstage and manipulate the puppets via bamboo poles and string, and the puppets appear to walk on water. The shows are usually comedic. Sounds like fun!
Eat a lot. Here are some foods I’ve been encouraged to sample: phở bò, bánh xèo, bún thịt nướng, cơm tấm, bánh mì, banh bao vac, lau, and French-influenced foods like croissants and duck. I think every single person who learns I’m going to Vietnam says a variation on “oh the food!” This is a promising start.
Visit war memorials and museums. I have a longtime fascination with what we Americans call the Vietnam War, and I’m interested to see it presented from the other side. The Hanoi Hilton, the Ho Chi Minh Museum and his mausoleum, and the National Museum of Vietnamese History are all in Hanoi and should give a pretty comprehensive view of the struggle, and there’s also the Vietnam History Museum and War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Take a boat to Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue. It’s one of the oldest structures in Hue (a town midway between the two major cities of Vietnam, on the coast), and it’s still a working temple populated by monks.