Friday, July 22, 2011

The Reunification Express (Saigon to Da Nang) and Hoi An (July 8-11)

Our car attendant
Vietnam is a long and narrow country, making it the perfect place for train service and the “Reunification Express” ties together the country, linking Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon) with Hanoi (or Ha Noi).  It’s not a fast train as much of the line is single tracked and, if you were to do the trip in one leg it would take you two nights and a day.  And, from the viewpoint of those of us in the West, a sleeping birth on an air conditioned train is relatively inexpensive even after recent price increases.  Wanting to see more of the country, I broke my trip into two parts.  I left Saigon at 7:30 PM on my first leg, heading to Da Nang.  Sharing a cabin with me was an American couple from New York (just outside the city) and a Vietnamese woman with her two children—who were six and ten.  The kids and the mother slept together in the same bunk.  The narrow bunks were comfortable for one person, but are not much larger than a cot and I can’t imagine they were comfortable!  There must have been some rule about not having so many on the same bunk, for the car attendant came by and had some heated words with the woman and finally she gave the man a couple 100,000 dong notes (each note is worth about $5).  He stuck them into his pocket and all was well.  I assumed, by letting her slide, he profited well on the trip.
The cabins have electrical outlets, which is a nice.  For a while, I plugged in my laptop and wrote and worked on photographs for my blog.  Then, as everyone in the car was beginning to sleep, I decided to go explore the train.  It was about 9:30 PM.  There was a “dining car” located nine cars ahead of mine and as I started to make my way through the train, I was shocked by the number of people and where they were at.  At the ends of the cars, where one is deafened by the constant clang of the couplings, people were sleeping in folding chairs and on rice mats!  In the coaches, people were sprawled out in the middle of the aisle.  I had to straddle their sprawled body, trying not to step on them, as i made my way through.  Seeing the condition of the coaches, I was ever so glad that I had a berth in a compartment. 
The dining car was another experience.  It was ¾ full of people playing cards and drinking heavily.  The floor was littered with beer cans.  I was greeted warmly by several of the people, although no one seemed to speak fluent English (and, in some of their conditions, I wondered if their Vietnamese was any better).  I got a beer and some chips and sat down and chatted a bit with my fellow travelers and shared photos of my family (I wish I’d brought more photos with me).  Afterwards, as our chat was short as there weren’t a lot to be said, I caught up my journal.  When the beer was gone, I made my way back to my compartment, hopping over those sleeping in the aisle.  My compartment mates were all asleep and I crawled into the bunk and was soon there myself.  Over all it was a good ride, except that the engineer running the train was a little heavy on the brakes and a couple of times it felt as if I might be thrown off the bunk.
The next morning, I was up a little after 5 AM.  As our compartment was on the west side of the train, I went outside the compartment and stood in the hallway that ran on the east side, stretching as I watched the sunrise and viewed the Vietnamese countryside.   At a stop where they serviced the train, I was able to get a cup of coffee and a small loaf of bread for breakfast.   I got to know my neighbors in the bottom bunk.  I’d assumed they were a couple and that she was a few years older than him, but was surprised to learn that she was his mother.  As a teacher, she is traveling a few months in Southeast Asia and he joined her for the second half of her trip.  Like me, they’re planning to get off in Da Nang and going on to Hoi An where they hope to buy clothes (they had measurements for their whole family).   After breakfast (with the other Americans, I have a small French loaf of bread that I brought track-side with the coffee), we share fruit and other food with one another and the family above.  It is at this point that we learn another secret.  They guy in the bunk below had complained even since getting on the train about something that smelled.  The Vietnamese woman, as she was getting food for her to eat, had some of that stinky fruit that you smell here wrapped up in a plastic bag.  When she opened it, it really stunk and soon, the attendant was back in our compartment having harsh words with her (the train is like a lot of hotels in this part of the world, you’re not supposed to bring such fruit inside).  By this point in the trip, I could smell the fruit before I saw it.  But we were gracious and ate some of her fruit (it’s actually not too bad) and her kids enjoyed some of our cookies and other fruit.
The rest of the morning I spend talking with the Americans or reading.  Few of the attendants on this train spoke English and, not having a timetable, we had no idea when we were to get into Da Nang.  Both the guy in the bunk below and I had tried to ask an attendant about our arrival and the attendant pointed to 2 PM on our watches.  Thinking we were going to be late (we were supposed to get in a little after noon), the three of us got food from one of the carts that comes through the cabins from the dining car.  For about 30,000 dong ($1.50), I had rice and chicken and morning glory (a green vegetable that’s popular here).   As soon as we finish eating, we’re told we’re coming into Da Nang.  It’s only a few minutes after noon.  Had I known the train was on time, I would have waited and gotten better food in Hoi An.
Wooden boats at Hoi An

I'd booked myself into the Sunflower Hotel in Hoi An, a place located between the town and the beach (I was less interested in shopping than in going to the beach).  As Hoi An is about an hour south of Da Nang, I had taken up the hotel’s offer (for $14) to send a driver to pick me up.  The couple had a reservation in Hoi An and we, for a bit more, they piled in the car and the driver delivered them to their hotel before taking me to mine.  When I got to my hotel, I was informed there was a power problem in part of the hotel and they asked if I wouldn’t mind being in another hotel for the night, that they would pick me up in the morning.  Although I didn’t like the idea (the pool at the Sunflower was really nice), I also didn’t like the thought of being in a room without a working air conditioner as it was extremely hot.  As it was, I was in an even nicer room for the night (although the pool wasn’t quite as nice).  That afternoon, I walked around town, had some chicken and rice for dinner, and went to bed early only to get up early the next morning and walking around the town again.  I was back and at 8:30, the Sunflower picked me and brought me back to their hotel for breakfast.  Their breakfast buffet was incredible—a single room (you almost always pay double here for a single) cost me $19 a night and included the buffet.  I’ve had buffets in the United States that cost that much and wasn’t nearly as good—with fruit and eggs and omelets cooked to order, seafood noodles, fried rice, pancakes, bread and all the coffee you could drink (the coffee was a real treat cause normally you get just a small cup of very strong coffee).
A friend made at Randy's Bookstore

My first afternoon in town, I walked around to see what was available.   It’s a cute town, with a river that separates it into several halves.  At one time, this was a bristling place and luckily it came out of Vietnam’s long wars pretty much unscathed.  In its early days, there were Chinese and Japanese businesses along with European countries who’d set up shop here.  However, the river silted up early in the 20th Century, which negatively impacted commerce and slowly the city lost out to other ports in Vietnam.   The older part of the town still has the charm of its earlier days with the beautiful Japanese Covered Bridge and the various “Chinese Assembly Halls (each group of Chinese merchants from different cities had their own place to gather for worship and, as in Saigon, the Cantonese hall was the gaudy one).   I enjoyed my walk so much that the next morning I was up at 5 AM, walking around.  I saw the sun rise over the river and went through the market, picking up some bananas, carrots and mangos to have for lunch on the beach.
 There are a lot of tailor shops in Hoi An!  I talked to a few of the tailors (you can get a suit made real cheap here—50 bucks or so—but the cheapest ones also looked it).  I decided to have a suit made by a guy named Bu who manages a tailor shop known as “Chic Couture.”  (I assure you, their suits were classier than their name).  Even there, I went with an “upgraded fabric” and ended up with two suits, one Italian cashmere and the other a heavier wool.  Bu took my measurements and got the coat right on the first try, but had to adjust the pants.  I hate tight fitting clothes and because of my thighs, pants are hard to fit.  After loosening the legs twice, Hu said they better be okay because he was making me a suit and not cargo pants…  My time in Hoi An included a daily stop at the tailors and on the evening before I left the town, I had my suits and two shirts he’d made shipped to a friend in Scotland to hold for me till August when I will pick them up before setting out across the Atlantic on a ship.   Including shipping by airmail, the two suits cost me approximately $280.

sunrise over the river

 My other plan for Hoi An was to rest from my travels and to write as I soaked up the sun on a beach.  Hoi An is blessed to have Cua Dai Beach, a nice strip of unspoiled sand just 5 km away.  The beaches through Central Vietnam are all lovely, with palm trees, white sand and no steep drop offs.  From the Sunflower Hotel, I rented a bike for a buck a day and rode it to the beach numerous times.  The sun was hot in midday, but after lathering on sun screen, it felt good to lay there and listen to the surf and to swim in the warm water.  In the afternoons, it would cloud up and cool off (and occasionally rain, but I was back from the beach by then.  On my second morning in Hoi An, I rode out to the beach for sunrise.   I got to the beach just after the sun came up (I did catch it rising on the river behind the beach) and was surprised to find the whole town there.  The afternoon before there had only been a few Vietnamese on the beach.  On this Sunday morning, the place was crowded.  People were sitting watching the water and the sunrise behind the distant islands while others played soccer and badmiton and a few younger boys threw mud.  The latter didn’t last long, just enough to shower me and a hoard of other sun worshippers with grit.  Their parents immediately sprung into action and, by the tone of their voice, threatened to lock them into tiger cages on Con Dao Island!
Heading back to the hotel from the beach, I stopped to photograph the river when a non-Asian gentleman ran over to me from across the road waving his hands and mumbling something.  “What?” I asked and I caught the word “playa.”  For a moment I was stunned and then realized that he was asking me if he was on the right road for the beach and I responded, “Si, playa.”  He smiled and I went on to repeat, “Yes, beach.”   He grinned as if he just realized the English word for beach and said, “Ah, yes, the beach,” and continued on his way.    A little further, I had to pull off and watch a farmer unload his hogs.  These pigs, about the right size for a spit, were in the back of a trunk bed that was nearly a meter above the road.  Pigs aren’t known for their jumping ability and this guy was pulling them off and they were bouncing on the pavement and getting up and snorting angrily.   In America, I’m sure the local chapter of the SPCA would have been on this guy’s case, but in Vietnam, it was just cheap entertainment.  I wasn’t the only one to stop and watch!  There were about a dozen pigs in the back of a mini-truck and none of them wanted to “go to market.”  The farmer had a heck of a time getting them down the alley where he was directing them.
Dressed up for first communion
As it was the Lord’s Day, I came back from the beach, showered and enjoyed the hotel’s buffet and then road my bike to church.  As far as I could tell, Hoi An has no Protestant Churches so I went to the local Catholic Church for a festive worship.  It was “first communion” for a number of children who were all decked out in their finest clothes and who took part in the service by reading scriptures, serving as the choir and collecting the offering.  Although I couldn’t understand much, the priest did say a bit about first communion for the three of us (that I saw) who were obviously not Vietnamese. 
Hoi An is also known for its food.  It’s cheap and good.  At least once a day, I ate my lunches at the numerous “chicken and rice” stalls around town (for a little over a buck, you can get a plate of chicken and rice with vegetables).   For the other meal, I generally went upscale (and spent two bucks or maybe four).  The four buck meal was in a restaurant with a table on the porch overlooking the river and included a sampling of Hoi An cuisine (Cao pork, white rose, wanton fried vegetables, garlic grilled fish, the all-present rice and a dessert custard).  Another evening, I had spring rolls, crab cakes and rice, and a wonderful pineapple pancake for dessert.  Although one can still drink Saigon beer here (and the ubiquitous Heinken is the only international beer available), regional beers reign in Vietnam and in Hoi An, it is Bere Larue which (according to the bottle) has been brewed in Da Nang since 1909 (they must have made a fortune when the American military was there).   
On the morning of July 11, I left Hoi An on the back of a motorcycle, heading west toward the Laos border and for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but that’ll be the subject of another post.


  1. Imagine if the train breaking had made you fall on the bunk with the woman and the children and all that fruit.
    amazing how cheap labor is in developing countries to be able to have a suit made for $50 or less

  2. Quite an experience, man. Not something I've experienced myself.

  3. Another great installment, thanks. Your train attendant reminded me of the Pullman porters who used to look after the first-class passengers on American trains 100 years ago.

  4. I have only been on trains twice, but I have always wanted to take a trip that would allow me to sleep in a berth. I'm trying not to envy your trip!

  5. It's weird reading about all the plays I heard about on the Evening News from Walter Cronkite in the late 60's and early 70's.

    BTW, P.J. O'Rourke wrote that Vietnam was the only place between Beirut and San Fransisco where you can get decent bread and the only place between Peshawar and French Polynesia where you can get good coffee. The French may be gone, but they left the cookbook, thank God.


  6. Randall, they do have good bread and bakeries abound!

  7. Golly - rice at every meal sounds like. And I feel bad for the pigs.

    The train trip sounds like quite an adventure - I'm so glad you are journaling this in detail.

  8. Great post Jeff! Unfortunately, the few times I saw Hoi An, it wasn't under desirable conditions. It sure looks like a place I'd like to see now!

  9. I've been through Hoi An several times during the war and found it to be a beautiful and fairly serene place, even then. It looks and sounds really nice now. I'm really enjoying your adventure. Thanks so much for finding my blog!