Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Riding The Reunification Express--a few lessons learned

To Da Nang and back to Ha Noi in three days total, by Vietnamese Train.  Written from Hanoi, March 23, 2016.
The Reunification Express is a train, sort of like Arlo Guthrie's "City of New Orleans" or the "Coast Starlight" at home.  It runs, with a few stops along the way, 1,726 km from Ha Noi to Ho Chi Minh City.    

I've ridden very few trains in my life.  I've been from Anchorage to Fairbanks on the Alaska RR, but that was. . .er. . .54 years ago, so it's probably not current information.  And I've ridden from the ferry landing at Pembroke in Wales to Heathrow (with a push bike!), but that was. . .26 years ago.  And once I rode a train from Portland to Seattle and back over a weekend. . .that's been a while as well.

So there you have it.  When the need arose to make a very short visit to Da Nang from Ha Noi last week after I'd just arrived back in Ha Noi all tired from several thousand kilometers on the road,  I went straight to a travel agent and bought tickets for the train to Da Nang and back again.  Though I'd never been on one, I've seen a lot of the Vietnamese trains over the years, while the bike and I waited at grade crossings behind the barricades, and when they passed us by out in open country and I've read some very instructive reports, so I thought I knew what I was up to.

If you watch the train roll by while you wait at the grade crossing, you'll notice the locomotive of course, it's the one with the loud horn, and it's almost always in front.  Then there will be one freight car, definitely out of place behind the sleek locomotive.  Then will follow a series of "passenger" cars, roughly in this order:  A passenger car with a crowd of people visible inside, sitting fairly close together.  Their windows will be open, but there will be perforated mesh or solid plate steel covers waiting to be slid down to protect the glass from thrown rocks (or so the story goes).  Next will be a similar car, but with glass windows. . .people not sitting quite so close together, and you'll see that they are sitting in nice reclining seats, with upholstery no less.  Those would be the "hard seat" and the "soft seat" classes.  Hard seat is usually somewhere between crowded and full.  Soft seat. . .not quite so much, and a lot of people in "soft seat" recline their seats and catch a nap.  Not too bad!  Farther along depending on which side of the tracks you're waiting on, you'll have a view into what are obviously individual little bunk rooms ("cabins") with either 6 people or 4 people per cabin.  The people in six-person cabins are traveling "hard sleeper" class. . .no AC, and a pretty thin mattress, but really, depending on whom you share the cabin with, it might be a good way to go.

The prices in any event were within my budget, so I didn't even look at the low end of the scale, but bought tickets for "soft sleeper, Air Con" the best on offer.  Four "berths" to a cabin, a full 2.5 inches of mattress on the bunk, air conditioning (that's a variable) and a bottle of water on the table, all for $84 for the 1200 mile (2000 km)  round trip.  Not bad at all.

The train schedule was (according to my hapless travel agent) to depart at 2010 from Ga Ha Noi (Vietnamese for "Ha Noi Railway Station") and arrive in Da Nang ten or eleven hours later.  So there's the first lesson to learn.  Don't believe everything your travel agent says, and check his arithmetic if nothing else.  Oh, he got the prices right and my tickets showed up only a few hours late the day before the trip (I had time, so that was fine), but boy did he blow the time table!  If I'd bothered to take a minute to do the arithmetic I'd have realized he was proposing that the trains (which don't go very fast) were magically going to cover just about 1000 km in just about 10 hours, which would average just about 100 km per hour, which was absolutely never even a distant possibility.  The correct number is SEVENTEEN hours!  That produces an average of 58 kmh, which is much more believable.  I, however, brimming over with confidence in the bright young pair who were preparing my tickets, blithely accepted his schedule (written down even) and made my appointments in Da Nang accordingly.  That didn't work too well, but more about that later.

The instructions with my tickets were to turn up at the station half an hour before departure.  I'd never walked to the train station before, so I started a little early and got there quite early and had time to kill.  I'm not sure that's a lesson, but it worked well.  Not knowing what to expect particularly, I bought a bottle of water and a tube of Oreo cookies (I'm starting to like them again, after 50 years or so without).  Since most of the trip was supposed to be asleep, that seemed like a reasonable ration.  Refer to the actual times involved and you'll see that it was actually rather a meager menu for the ride.  Fortunately, there is a "restaurant car" on the train.  That's the good news.  The bad news. . .it's a restaurant car on a Vietnamese train.  One way or another it'll be on the south end each direction I think. . .apparently they don't bother turning the whole train around, they just shuffle the locomotive from one end to the other for a return trip.  But don't hold me to the "south end". . .it was just that way on the two trips I made.  Even more fortunately, there are railroad employees (stewards?) who push drinks and food carts back and forth through the length of the train periodically and actually sell for just a little more than street prices. . .not trying for local accent here, you'll hear something like. . ."beer cold, hot coffee, tea, Coca, nuoc quang (bottled water)" so the drinks cart is straightforward.  IF there is a food cart (not northbound on the return trip this time) the announcements will be in Vietnamese and fast.  Just ask to see what's on offer.  Steamed buns (banh bao) were just fine for supper and breakfast as it worked out.  The Oreos survived to fight another day.  The bad news about the restaurant car (if you can't do business with one of the carts) is that it's a fairly long hike from the luxury cabins, and that hike has some interesting problems.  The doors between the end of the car, the toilet room, and finally the connection space between individual cars are not particularly secure.  You're not going to fall off the train, that's plenty secure.  You could, I think, put a foot wrong and get it  squished in the cover plates above the actual coupler. . .some of them come and go a little too much for complete confidence, but it would either be really bad luck or you had to work at it.  However, the larger issue is that the hasp for the lock (for when the car is parked on a siding) can fall over the staple on the other half of the door as things bang around, and leave you locked out of the other half of the train.  You can bang and curse and so forth, but until someone comes through from the other end. . .you wait.  A while.

And I suppose I should note that arriving in the restaurant car isn't always very appetizing.  If the train has been under way a while, there've been a lot of beers consumed and a lot of cigarettes smoked there, so. . .well. . .you could have bought something more than a tube of Oreo's before you left.

The toilets are great fun, and oddly enough, the ones available in the lower class cars actually seemed to be a little nicer (a little less awful?) than the ones in the luxury class coaches.  I might have just been (un)lucky. . .suffice it to say that they're small, really small, tight (hard for a big white guy to get in and out of), and work on a tank system (not like the old USA train toilets that just dumped out on the tracks) and that tank can be pretty stinky.  And the water plumbing can leak on the floor.  And. . .oh, never mind.  They served, but you won't spend any unnecessary time there!  Enquiring minds have asked ". . .how do Vietnamese women use such toilets" and I think the answer is that anyone who can,  will actually climb up on top and use the whole thing like a standard Vietnamese squatting toilet.  There were believable foot prints in the appropriate spots and the crash bars securing the window would make a good hand grip if needed.   It would sure beat sitting down.  Wish I could do it.

Sleeping on the train. . .the whole point behind riding the night train and buying tickets to the "soft sleeper" class, after all must be to sleep away the long hours on board.  I've always hated that notion.  I didn't come here to sleep my way through the scenery, I want to see every inch of it.  However, these were the tickets that would do the job, so that's how we went.  On the ride down to Da Nang I had an upper bunk in a full cabin (a sweet young Dutch couple in the lowers and a tired young lady from North Carolina in the other upper).  The young couple closed the drapes and watched movies on their Apple laptop (big headphones) much of the night, while the tired young lady put her head down and tried to sleep.  I went out in the hall (corridor? whatever) and watched the world slide by outside.  The tracks follow old QL1 for almost the entire length of the country, usually quite close, so I knew the departure from Ha Noi completely by heart from all the times I've come and gone up and down the highway. . .but what a different perspective!  What was usually my southbound lane on the motorbike was almost immediately outside the train window and I could easily watch other bike riders concentrating on the road as we slowly caught up to them and passed.  The huge difference in the early darkness was that instead of focusing intently on the highway ahead (a very good idea when riding) I was at my leisure to watch whatever caught my eye, and from a very different perspective.  Instead of looking straight ahead, I was looking straight across the roadway and both lanes of traffic directly into shop fronts and homes along the way.  At our speed (just a little faster than a motorbike really) the glimpses inside were just fractions of a second, but it was a fascinating ride for miles out into the countryside, late night shoppers in tiny shops, diligent people still at work, families seated around their dinners or watching the evening TV, the small crowds at gas stations and the lingering people at coffee or noodle shops, all the rich variety of life along the road out of the city.  I stood in the corridor and watched until past ten, and then went in to swelter on my bare sheets.

So where was all this AC I want to know?? As it turns out, it seems the train was saving it for me for the return trip. . .on that run I would have frozen without the thick railway blanket to hide under.  Oh well.  The average was about perfect for the round trip. . .can't complain about perfect.  The matter of actually sleeping while being thrown from side to side or bounced up and down is something else to consider.  I've been at sea in small boats (and larger for that matter) and thought the motion might be similar.  And it was. The amplitude is smaller on the train though, I was never actually thrown off the bunk (that happened more than once at sea on the way home from Puerto Vallarta, but that's an upwind passage and not generally kind to small boats).  The vigor and enthusiasm of the train was otherwise very similar though, and there was the added excitement of the squealing and clacking and myriad of odd (and very loud) noises the train managed as we rumbled through the night.  Earplugs.  Good ones.  That's all you need to know about that.

Daylight came and we were nowhere near Da Nang yet.  We rolled along through the morning, past Dong Hoi early, then Dong Ha and Hue by 10:00 or so and finally on to Da Nang a little after noon.  I called ahead and warned everyone I was going to be WAY late, and they tried to re-group as best they could without me.  It wasn't a total disaster, but I added some stress to the Producer's life.  No gray hairs though.  By the time we arrived the film crew had already been out in the country getting some background shots in the can and they were sitting drinking iced tea and coffee when I walked up.

In the last hour and a half of the journey came the pay off for the uncomfortable night. This was the passage, not OVER Hai Van pass, but rather up and along and around the flank of the mountains the pass crosses over.  The locomotive would never have climbed clear to the crest as the highway does even with its dozens of switchbacks.  Rather, the engineers built the rail alignment at a fairly steep climb and descent on the far side (as railroads go), but clung tightly, lower down on the mountainside than the road.  It's a narrow gauge railway, so the road bed is very narrow indeed. . .not even wide enough to be comfortable for a motorbike. . .which of course is the advantage of such trains. Thus, though I've been over the pass on motorbikes in sunshine and fog and rain, many many times over the years (once just a day or two after a typhoon knocked over every tree on the route) nonetheless, I'd never seen this bit of world this way.  I took up a position on the east side of the train (the corridor) facing the sea, opened the window (the closed car was pretty stuffy overnight) and watched the wonderful world go by.  Rocky shorelines that are completely hidden below the mountainside from the roadway are frequently in plain sight from the train.  The vista to the north past Lang Co's beach is just as splendid as it is from higher up, but the change in perspective is wonderful.  There are tunnels that suddenly turn the world to night and as suddenly return you to sunshine (YES!)  and blue skies (to the south. . .haze and clouds persisted north of the Pass, as they almost always do).  And then, creeping and crawling downhill over what look like really old arched stone bridges across canyons, we finally came to the sea again at the north end of Da Nang and ran at speed through the northern suburbs and into the city.  That ride across Hai Van was worth the price of the ticket, all by itself.

All of this was in honor of an invitation to be interviewed by Viet Nam TV.  Friends who've found me through the website and this blog. . .people who are working toward a Vietnamese Maritime Museum, had convinced the producer of "Talk Viet Nam" a regular TV show, to interview me and use the interview to promote their museum project.  These are good friends and it's a good idea, so it was easy to say yes, even if it meant leaving the bike and riding the train.

That day, having arrived so late, turned into a marathon. There were interviews on two different sites, including visits with old acquaintances from previous trips, duly recorded on tape. . .and finally, late in the evening, quick farewells as the film unit rushed off into the night for another project in the morning, 100 km away.  People who were complete strangers in the morning (the two camera men and the "presenter", Mike, who interviewed me, I already knew and liked the producer!). . .became friends before bed time.  It was a very busy day, but just delightful.  I'll be most curious to see the product.  Between various slips of the tongue and an ungraceful departure on a small round basket boat into a small surf. . .there is plenty of opportunity for humor.  We shall see how it's edited.  If all goes as planned it will be archived on You Tube after it's aired. Watch this space!

And the return trip?  I had the whole day the 21st until 6:00 pm to myself, wandering Hoi An (where we'd finished the evening before) and back in Da Nang.  Da Nang is a black mark in the history of my visits to Viet Nam.  The highway signage used to be quite confusing. . .or rather, absent, and in consequence, I got lost nearly every time I tried to pass through.  And in consequence of that, I have hardly ever visited the place until last year.  Now I know what I've been missing (for one thing, I was missing a smart phone with a mapping app!!!) but the fact is now that Da Nang could easily be my favorite city in the country. I understand it was managed for a decade by a single individual with, clearly, a great staff and a wonderful vision for his city as well as the horsepower to make it happen.  The place is clean.  It's almost scary, with no garbage in the streets, no plastic bags blowing around, immaculate garbage trucks picking up modern garbage containers without spilling anything. The bridges over the city's waterways are glorious. . .each one different and more exciting than the previous.  One is even a dragon that breathes fire every night (well, would you believe fireworks?).  The downtown is exciting and the buses run everywhere.  The train station is convenient, the food is great. . .I should find a house to buy and try to lure my lady love to live in it!  But this was a quick visit by plan and need, and at 1840 I was on board the train and on the way north.

There were differences between the two trips. . .no real lessons to learn though except that I was too pessimistic about the night time scenery.  I'd thought it would be a total loss, leaving town in full dark and passing through all that scenery without seeing a thing.  It didn't turn out that way.  Leaving Da Nang the train runs at high speed through 20 km of suburbs along the bay and you're very close to life in the city, though it's flying past very quickly.  Then you arrive at the start of the climb over the mountains and that whole 20 km of city you've just left spreads itself out across its bay and bids you farewell.  Realizing what was coming, I turned off all the lights in the cabin and closed the door to the corridor.  Dark, very dark inside, and outside, wonderful things to see! For a long while the train winds in and out of the folds in the mountain, sometimes passing through tunnels, and each time the city disappears, it soon shows up again, brightly lit still, but further away, until finally it's really gone.  Out on the sparkling water are fish boats working, each with its lights spread out on the sea.  One in particular must have had a monstrous flood light or perhaps a whole bank of them. . .it lit up the sea far ahead of itself and charged through the night at speed, cutting across the bay to stay in sight a long time, passing many others with less dramatic displays.

It was a full moon night.  The moon lit the long crests of the ocean waves marching in to break on the rocks and beaches.  The broad leaf vegetation along the right of way rippled in the wind off the sea, white and black as the leaves twisted and turned.  Small trees bent and swayed in the monochrome night and the black curves of the railroad's telegraph wires, hanging right at our window level, ran up and down in smooth arcs right in front of me.  The cabins ahead and behind me had their lights on, missing the show, but they lit up the tunnels for me as we went through, so what had been utter darkness in the daytime was now revealed, though it flickered by too fast to see in detail.

We came down off the mountain and followed the track around behind the lagoon at Lang Co.  I'd known the train went that way, but hadn't realized there was a narrow but paved road all around the lagoon, tight up against the mountainside, I'll have to ride that road someday, it looks lovely from the train.  From there, the train ran through the dark past fields and farms and small villages, until it came to the shores of the inland sea behind my island below Hue. . .my favorite bit of the coast anywhere, and thus into Hue.  Even in the dark I knew where I was all the time, so often have I ridden the route on motorbikes.  This is not an unknown or terrifying land now, more like another home, where I nod to friends and old acquaintances at every turn. . .this restaurant, that shop selling statues, a special bridge here, then a particularly abrupt hillside. . .I know them now, even in the moonlight.

I had a cabin to myself except when the neighbor's bright eyed 7 year old (I'm guessing) came to visit.  He was very forward, not to say spoiled, but sweet and alert and would have liked to be good friends.  When he realized I was having trouble hearing him he grabbed my head, put his face right up to my left ear (it will recover) and bellowed his question at the top of his lungs.  Goodness.  I convinced him that was a little excessive.  In the morning, I actually got his dad and kid brother too.   Just guessing again, but I think Mom threw all three of the men out of the cabin so she could try to get some sleep.  They were quiet and did NOT wander back into their own cabin at all for several morning hours.  Once the kid reached over to take my copy of "The Da Vinci Code" to examine. I started to object, then thought a) the kid is being sweet and friendly. . don't discourage that  and  b) never discourage a kid from looking at a book.  As it turned out, he doesn't read English yet, but after I looked over his shoulder and noted my place out loud (page 138 or "mot-ba-tam") he proceeded to read me every page number up to 160-something before he got tired of it.  Fun.  They left the train at Thanh Hoa and the last few hours on board were perhaps a little too quiet.
Hanoi Rail Station. . ."Ga Ha Noi" at night, and an hour before train time!

Next morning, coming into Dong Hoi (2 days riding by motorbike, accomplished in my sleep!)

A highway bridge is a photographer's friend, it lets you stop and shoot up river and down.  a RR bridge, not so much!  The diagonal braces flash past in a blur and you can't do a thing.  Darn.

Just past Lang Co, starting up the mountainside.  We'll cross the highway in a few minutes.  It will continue steeply up the mountain, we'll stay lower down on her flanks.

A last look at Lang Co

Climbing steadily now, up and over Hai Van, but far below the old highway (though well above the new highway's tunnel!)

Where the tracks cross a water course or there was no room for them on the mountainside the rails run on top of old arched masonry bridges that cling tightly to the mountainside.

You'll never see these little rocks and beaches from the highway.  Take the train, or perhaps better yet, a boat!

I'd love to see just how they built the falsework to support those arches.  Hard work without doubt!

We weren't a long train. . .nine cars I think, plus the restaurant and the the freight car, and of course the locomotive.  This is the view aft from car number 4.

Numerous tunnels, some of them quite short.

This is new, perhaps the largest Quan Am I've seen, and certainly the tallest pagoda tower.  I'll have to come back to the north end of Da Nang and see it in person.

Not as fancy as Ga Ha Noi, Ga Da Nang is a simple hike around the end of a train and up onto the platform.

An acquaintance from a couple of years back, dragooned into helping with the filming.  He took me for a short ride in the round basket (his Dad did the duty last time) and the cameras rolled.  I was less than glamorous I fear.

But at least I wasn't the only one with a camera shoved in his face.

My orders were ". . .walk down the beach and stop to take photos."  Yes.  What else, exactly, do I ever do??

This shot, in the evening near Hoi An, is actually quite a nice illustration of fishing with "trammel nets", Mr. fish swims in the downstream end, through a few funnels and finds himself in the parlor at the far end, waiting for supper.  

And here's a pair of brand new sand dredgers, just like the old wooden ones, but half again as big, and all made of steel.  Interesting. . .their bellies are still built of "armadillo plates" just like the old wood and steel composites.  

Typical small tourist boat is really a typical small fishing boat, with an attitude, or at least a big cabin top.

This is one of the real little ferry boats out to Kim Bong Island, but with the lightest load of people or bikes I've ever seen.  They can haul enough to scare you. . ."ferry boat capsizes in Bangladesh, hundreds missing".  we'll never get hundreds on board one of these. . .but not far short of one hundred.  There are usually a dozen life jackets more or less.

Another old acquaintance drafted by the film crew.  He owns a boat yard and builds beautifully.  One of his 25' sized small double ended motor boats would make a lovely Puget Sound cruiser.   He uses wooden "nails" to fasten the planking and dowels each plank to the one below it.  Genuine old fashioned craftsmanship, and splendid fits.
Boat builder, old fashioned sailing rudder, and camera man.
Sorry, couldn't help myself. . .wandering around in Hoi An, found these in the rafters of a beautiful 250-year old house.

Just another fishing boat...Da Nang

A glimpse of Da Nang. . .the cable stay portion of the bridge is a swing section. . .opens to pass larger boats upstream.  It's all lights and color at night!

Da Nang. . .that's an odd building, not sure if I like it or not.  At least it's not just another square glass box.

And here you have luxury!  Soft Sleeper, with AC!
The kid next door.  He can count!

The restaurant car.  Don't look too closely, or inhale too sharply.

We didn't stop at the smaller stations, but a number of medium sized towns. . .yes.

Shooting through less than spotless windows (2 layers of glass for quiet) and a mizzly rain. . .looking directly across old QL1

Ga Ha Noi by daylight. . .just past noon and pretty tired actually.


  1. I'm here Ken, following you on every post. A nice thing about riding the train there is that you can buy one ticket to a destination but get off and back on to another train as many times and in as many places as you want on the way. I'm looking forward to seeing the interview on YouTube.


    1. Hi Rob, I wondered if you were along this trip. . .good to hear your voice. Hope all is well. . .I'll be home in a few days, see you there? kp

  2. I left VN 36 year ago and I am just back in Virginia from a vacation in VN in June. My family also took the train from Nha Trang to Da Nang so your train pictures reminds me of the trip. My question is how did you know there is a restaurant car on the train? the ticket agent didn't mention it and we only found out about it after it ran out out food. Nice blog, thanks.