I caught the 11pm train from Ga Ha Noi to Hue. These trains, I don’t think, are as backpacker friendly as the night trains you get in Thailand. I remember walking up and down the carriages, meeting and chatting to people randomly, it was an open affair and easy to do so. The Reunification Express is similar in that it has a class system with seats, and sleepers, but you’re very much contained within a 4-person berth. Unless you know the people you’re travelling with, it can be a bit trying because there’s nowhere else to go, nowhere to sit. And the corridors are pretty narrow so not ideal for wandering around to meet other travellers.
A local got into my cabin. He smelt strongly of booze and climbed on the top bunk opposite my bunk (I had one on the bottom). Oh god, I thought, I’ve got some alky who’s going to end up being dodge. But instead he greeted me and explained he’d been at work and had drunk too much with his friends and was going to sleep and with that he ducked under his duvet and passed out. Cool. Then 2 other Vietnamese guys got in my cabin, old guys. This was not going to be a backpacker party experience. The guy who had the bunk above mine was pretty old and for a moment I considered offering him my bunk. Hey, lets not go too far, it was just a moment. I needn’t have worried. Throughout the night he was leaping up and down between the bunk and the floor, going off for a natter with other locals and god knows what else. He was a proper little grand-dad monkey. I pretty much passed out for the entire journey, waking up only when the two old guys were laughing about something and grand-dad monkey was jumping about. The bunks were comfortable and clean.
I could hear a western girl next door being questioned by locals about what she was up to. Couldnt make out her accent. I felt fairly safe though, didnt for a second worry about horror stories of old where entire backpacks apparently used to get nicked off trains.
The drunky got off the train about 4am.
When I woke up in the morning, about 7 or so, it was light but overcast. Just having no luck finding that sunshine again. The scenery was amazing. Green all the way and the train went through several tunnels dug out of the limestone pillars so prevalent in the north. Several cemeteries also lined the track. I fell asleep again about an hour before arriving in Hue but before doing so, the Brazilian couple who’d been on the return bit of the Halong Bay tour popped their heads round the door! They said they’s noticed me whilst I was asleep and had come back to see if I was OK. When we arrived in Hue around 11am, we got a taxi together into town. They told me they were worried about me sharing a cabin with the locals and said they’d come across a girl who’d also shared a cabin with 3 other men but she’d been so freaked out by it she’d stayed up all night reading. She should have stuffed her valuables down her pants and just gone to sleep!
Hue had no sunshine either. Which is a real shame because everything would have looked amazing and really pretty if it had. Hue has a nice-looking river, the Perfume River. Parks line the riverbanks. And as a former Imperial capital, the Citadel and Forbidden City should have looked amazing. They were interesting but held little fascination for me. I was almost scammed for 90,000 VND when I was given 10,000 instead of 100,000 in change upon entry (you gotta wake up earlier than me, love) and on my own it just wasnt what it could have been I suppose. But they did have an elephant! So that was OK.
Despite being almost short-changed, I felt people in Hue were definitely more chilled out. I felt able to ask locals what they were cooking and to have a bit of a stop-and-stare and ask questions about things. I didnt feel forced into giving my money to anyone, so that was cool. I ended up at a cafe run by deaf people. I had a laugh signing to them (the most useful actions were pinned up on a board) and wandering around the backpacker district around Pham Ngu Lao but glad I was staying in a less in-your-face area a couple of blocks away (think Sukhumvit Road to Bangkok’s Khao San Rd) cos it was a lot like Spain with loads of older fat blokes sitting in all the bars. Mmn.
By the end of the day I felt that one day in Hue was enough and I wasnt really interested in visiting the demilitiarised zone or any tombs.
I ate loads for dinner and on my way back was simply offered drugs by someone. No pretext, no lead up, just a sinister-sounding, “marijuaaaaana?” coming out of the dark.
I met a couple of nice lads from York back at the hotel. The staff had decided they weren’t going to do any work and were going to lie out on a mattress in reception and watch football. Jordan and Brad were watching too but we started chatting anyway. I was heading south and they were going north so we swapped advice. They were very open and had already been around India and were going to try and find work in Australia. I enjoyed talking to them. They were excited by everything and enjoying everything they experienced. They really reminded me of when I first went travelling and I went to sleep inspired and looking forward to the next stop.
The next day I got breakfast for 60p and said goodbye to Jordan. He’d got up to chat to someone on the net. I’ve seen so many people skyping and so on on this trip. I havent spoken to anyone and it feels like only yesterday I left. I think having a mobile phone with internet has changed what it feels like to get away from it all. 7 years ago, finding high-speed internet was an effort. Phoning home was also an effort so when you went to check your emails, you phoned home too. Now, with the technology at your fingertips whenever you want, it doesnt feel like its a big deal to call home. You can check facebook to see how people are and its so easy to walk into a cafe, restaurant or hotel with wifi, so your emails ping up all the time. Home doesnt feel so far away.
I gave Jordan a hearty handshake and we wished each other luck. The crazy staff at the hotel also gave me a fond farewell and then I was off!
The bus to Hoi An was a sleeper coming from Hanoi. It was full of grumpy people, people who had little patience for the Vietnamese chaos and style of doing things and of not letting us know what they were doing or why. I wanted to whack the stupid woman in front of me who was just huffing and puffing her way into trying to get a seat with her friend (she wont die if you cant hold her hand) and the 3 girls at the service stop who couldnt understand why they couldnt get the food they wanted. Maybe the tiredness of the people who were having a long journey was just feeding into everyone. Maybe the lack of sunshine was making people a bit narky. I dont know, I just put my ipod on and enjoyed the view as we drove along the coast and up and down hills. We drove through this tunnel that was really long. I listened to 3 songs before we came out the other end.
We passed through Danang. I had decided I wasnt interested in staying there but thought I could do a little trip there as it was only 45 minutes from Hoi An. It was very modern and a calmer version of Saigon. I saw all I needed to in all respects and fell asleep.
Arrival in Hoi An was chaotic, premature and not nice. We were shouted at to get off the bus with no explanation of where to go and no taxis to pick us up. For the first time on this entire trip I just felt… lost! I was just harrassed by guys offering motorbike rides. I kept saying no over and over and they said no taxis would come. I had hastily booked into a homestay just outside Hoi An as a quick look at hotels the night before revealed a huge number of them to be full! An Israeli girl looked over at me, concerned. She was going to a hotel that a tout had offered with 2 other people. She told me to get in the tout’s taxi with her so I did. I had the mispleasure of sitting next to her companion though who just grunted at me and kept elbowing me like I was invisible, resentment for taking his space. Whatever, dickhead. But I was too fed up to elbow back. We got to the hotel, which was actually about 3 or 4 blocks north of town, and I later found out, big blocks at that. The girl got out of the taxi and smiled at me. She didnt speak much English but I sensed that she felt she’d tried to help me and I was grateful. Otherwise Id still be standing at that bloody bus stop getting annoyed with the motorbike men. I got the hotel to call me a cab and off I went to the homestay.
I was greeted by a friendly Vietnamese family and their houseguest, Matt. Matt was very young and teaching English. I was surprised to find that I wasnt staying with them and was taken round the corner to a family who spoke no English at all. They seemed very nice and had 2 young children, one still a baby. And very cute. I was imagining that the homestay would be like staying in someones house but like a hotel; not a fully integrated way into their home. I was given my own room at the front of the house downstairs but had to share their bathroom. I was also expected to be home by 10pm and have breakfast at 7.30am. Yikes. I took this in my stride though and told myself I wouldnt need to be out late. Would I? I was given a bike to use and set off to explore. It was a pleasant bike ride and was only about 10 minutes into the old town. I wasnt worried by the traffic and anytime I hesitated at a junction I just stopped and behaved as a pedestrian would.
The Old Town of Hoi An was very pretty and very busy. I stopped for a late lunch and encountered my only bad meal in Vietnam so far: chicken and rice. The rice was burnt and the chicken cooked in a sweet tomato sauce. Pointless. I then cycled round and round taking in all the sights such as the Japanese Bridge – full of tourists! I cycled over to the An Hoi Pensisula and promised the local street resaturant traders that id be back later. It was all charming but I wasnt in the mood to fully appreciate it all. Bad journey, bad people, wrong choices and burnt rice.
As darkness fell and lanterns lit up Hoi An, I worried about getting back to my homestay at a reasonable hour and wondered how I would enjoy the town and find time to meet Cam Ha and Radenko from the Halong Bay trip and who were due here tomorrow. I ate some cake.
I later went back to the local street restaurant on An Hoi for my dinner. I was served up some yummy noodles but with some suspect crispy topping. I threw this to the dog. The dog wasnt interested either.
I have little understanding of Vietnamese. I have learnt to say a few words but I can’t decipher anything when I listen. This did not stop me enjoying the banter between the chef, Mr Ba, and his wife. He was clearly upset by something and was having a good moan about it for ages. His wife and another man just kept laughing behind his back. They tried to explain what was going on to me in their language. It didnt matter. Language was no barrier in understanding the sentiments.
Just as town was getting into the swing of things, I got on my bike and rode home.
The next day I decided to leave the homestay and check into a hotel on An Hoi. I had however, spent the morning “talking” to Phoang, the mum. In the space of a couple of hours we had struck up a bizarre friendship, using dictionaries to communicate. It turned out she was just a year older than me and we tried to compare and explain our lives. She was giving Hu, her 10 month old baby a graphic novella for a much older child to keep him entertained. Though they had a nice house, I noticed they were lacking in basic things. I said I would get back to England and send Hu a colourful picture book or 2. I said Id go back to visit again before I left Hoi An, and I did.
Back in the old town, I checked in. I felt a bit bad about the sitauation Id created. I think a homestay can be a wonderful experience, but perhaps better suited to someone who’s working and trying to learn the language. For a backpacker who’s spending a few days in the area and wants to see lots of things and meets lots of people, maybe not.
I was sitting having a coffee by the river when Cam Ha and Radenko showed up! We spent the whole day together eating, drinking and catching up and ended up going to a tailor Aurore had recommended to make us some clothes! I ended up getting 2 dresses that fit perfectly and the other 2 spent about $250 on a variety of shirts and dresses for them both. It was a great experience and I recommend everyone visiting Hoi An get something made – it’s great fun picking out something you like the look of (I just pointed at dresses off the Get Cutie and Emily & Fin websites!) and picking the material and finally getting it just so so that there are no baggy bits where your back curves or tightness where your hips pull out under your tiny waist. Fab.
It was really nice spending time with some friends. Unfortunately Id just missed my cousin’s friends somewhere between Hoi An and Hue but they recommended I pop in on a mutual friend’s friend who runs the Before and Now bar so we spent a lot of time in there together people -watching, trying different coffees, enjoying happy hour and practising our languages!
One night we had dinner on the riverside and had fresh beer for 4000 vnd. Thats just 12 pence. 12 PENCE for a mug of beer. I dont drink beer but I tasted it and it was pretty good! We sat there with beer and watched a rat as big as a cat being chased by a dog. I had chicken and rice. The rice was burnt. I decided not to have rice again in Hoi An.
Outside of the old town, I cycled to the beach (gorgeous beach but still no sun!), and made a visit to My Son, an ancient temple civilisation like Angkor Wat, created by the Cham people . Can you imagine some French dude back in the day going for a wander in the jungle (maybe with his dog?) when he comes across all these temples. How bloody exciting would that have been?? Thats how My Son was rediscovered. I enjoyed the walk through the jungle and back but feel it was overrun with a bunch of National Trust-worshipping old folk who should keep their English ways at home and get their bloody selves OUT of my pictures! I ended up talking to a lovely Canadian girl called Bri and we made plans to go out that evening.
I could have spent days just relaxing in Hoi An. The cake and the coffee is great. Cycling is a joy. Had the sun bothered to come out, the beach would have been the cherry on top.