Travel: Dennis Carr in Vietnam, Part 4


By Dennis Carr, Contributing Editor, on an 'excellent adventure'

Vietnam by bicycle, rowboat, ferry, and train (Part 4)

Dennis Carr's final report on his family trip to Vietnam ends with this edition. If you missed previous reports, click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2 and here for Part 3.

Train to Hanoi; back to Canada

Dennis defends an Australian woman

Image: Exterior of the 'Ga Da Nang', the Train Station in Da Nang, Vietnam, featuring a steam locomotive on display. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.

Final thoughts about Vietnam

From American devastation to recovery with pride intact

By Dennis Carr LEED® AP
True North Perspective Contributing Editor

Those who made it to the end of the previous installment of this travelogue will recall some cautionary words from Joe Nguyen, our Vietnamese bike tour guide and cultural advisor regarding train travel in his country.  He was very clear. “Trains in Vietnam are bad,” he said, “very bad”.  

This trepidation was fresh in my mind during the drive from Hoi An to the Da Nang train station. The 45 minute drive retraced the landscape of hotels, villas, gated communities, golf courses and failed development projects represented by skeletons of buildings hiding behind plywood hoarding; all blocking the view of the beaches and ocean. Like other countries, the economic meltdown of 2008 had affected Vietnam but my guess is that it was only a temporary bump on the road to comprehensive commercial exploitation of the beautiful South China Sea coastline.

The Da Nang train station was austere but efficient; we boarded the train on time. It was the ‘Reunification Express’ which chugs between Ho Chi Minh City in the south and Hanoi in the north at an average speed of 50km/h.

Image: Exterior of the 'Reunifaction Express' train, with member of the crew standing outside one of the doors. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.

We had reserved ‘soft berths air conditioned’ which is Vietnam’s version of First Class. The carriage was very spartan. The interior of the cabin was light yellow-brown and the upholstery was faded and thread bare. It was old even by the sad standards of Canada’s Via Rail passenger service and definitely not as comfortable. 

There were four, not very soft, one metre wide berths in each compartment and of course it made me wonder about the comfort levels of the second and third class carriages. At first there were only the three of us in the cabin but later on in the afternoon we were joined by a pleasant well-dressed Vietnamese fellow who took the vacant upper berth.

Image: Detail of berth on the Reunification Express. Dennis Carr is pictured seated on bunk. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.

Along the corridor, single hung windows allowed in a bit of breeze that perhaps was the railway authority’s way of meeting the ‘air conditioning’ promise. Occasionally, we caught a whiff of cigarette smoke wafting in from the corridor. The train washrooms were advertised in the brochures as ‘Western Toilets’ which meant stainless steel sit-down as opposed to the ‘squat and hope’ variety.

Outside of Da Nang, the train slowly coursed through attractive country; jungle on one side, on the other pristine beaches, with little fishing vessels just off shore. It was not luxurious by western standards but it was an agreeable ride through a lovely landscape. Although we had a map, after Hue, which was the first stop, I quickly lost track of where were. It didn’t really matter. The train was going to rumble along for fifteen hours and then we would reach Hanoi.    

It got dark around 6:30 p.m. which was when a food trolley came rattling by. We didn’t recognize the dishes and couldn’t negotiate a transaction but our bunkmate helpfully bought us a meal; a cup of soup, rice and what I thought was fish but could have been tofu. If I had known, I would have asked for the stuff that looked like beef. It was the only dreadful food we had on our trip; however, it was very inexpensive. We offered to reimburse our travel companion, but he politely refused.

Initially, the train was stuffy but as darkness set in and we settled down for the night, cold air blew through the ceiling air vents. A thin blanket was provided for warmth. At some point during the night, the cool air disappeared, the room became stifling hot and I couldn’t sleep. I had just drifted off again when the train slowed to a stop and our Vietnamese comrade leapt from his upper berth, grabbed his bag, smiled at me, shook my hand twice and disappeared.

I wondered who he was. Was he a Tourism Ministry official charged with inspecting trains or creating friendship among diverse cultures? Was he an interior security agent checking to make sure we weren’t fomenting unrest among an aggrieved train-travelling populace? Probably he was just a regular guy and representative of the friendliness and cheerfulness of the Vietnamese people.

The train stopped at two or three more stations through the night. Occasionally, the train would stop at a siding in the middle of nowhere and for no apparent reason. This experience will be familiar to long-suffering Via Rail travellers, but these stops weren’t necessitated by freight train priority. The route seemed to be double tracked and in any event there didn’t seem to be any freight trains competing for space. One in a while an announcement was made, sometimes even in English, but we couldn’t ever quite comprehend what was being said. After a short pause, the train would gently lurch forward and we were on the move again.  After dawn, a trolley came by and I purchased sweetened black coffee in a plastic Vietnamese Railway cup.

Image: Vietname trains pass very close to both homes and businesses. Photo taken from train of houses, provided by Dennis Carr.

Unlike in Canada where the general population is kept well away from trains, on this line, houses, gardens, food stalls, shops and industry were pressed hard against the railway tracks. At one stop, teams of cabbies wearing the same outfit of white shirts, green ties and driving green cabs waited for customers.

The dawn light revealed an endless landscape of rice fields and canals interrupted by the occasional farming village and Buddhist cemetery.  Karst rock formations rose in the distance through the mist.

Image: An industrial area seen from the Reunificatin Express. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.

Later in the morning we passed by industrial areas including one village specializing in rock carvings. Huge chunks of karst rock were being transformed into art and architectural objects. Eventually, the train picked up speed and it was clear sailing (training) through to Hanoi.

Image: Platform at Hanoi. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.

Travelling by train was really interesting and we were glad we did it. But I’m not sure I’d recommend it to a western traveller expecting comfort or lacking a sense of adventure. The train was old, slow, and the service wasn’t great by pampered tourist standards. However, it was a good way to see the countryside and urban backyards and get a taste of how regular people live their lives. And it’s not the worst thing in the world for spoiled travellers to experience local standards.

Interestingly, this was the only occasion in our trip where we witnessed disrespectful behaviour from officials. An Australian woman travelling alone in the berth next to ours, complained the train crew had done a ‘berth invasion’, using her berth as a lounge area, disturbing her sleep and making inappropriate and uncomfortable comments such as “where is your husband”. I made a vaingloriously gallant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to intervene on her behalf. The crew gave me their best dismissive expressions and their English abandoned them.

Arriving in Hanoi

Scam taxis targeting tourists abound in Hanoi. Upon arrival at the train station I made a serious attempt to choose a respectable cab company from the list provided by the Angel Palace hotel. But I got it wrong. The cab had the same sign as the one of the recommended options but it was a different make of car and the wrong colour. Its meter was on hyper drive and the cost of the trip increased at an alarming rate as we crawled toward our hotel. When we arrived at the hotel I refused to pay the full fare and negotiated a better, if slightly above normal, rate.

At the Angel Palace Hotel we were greeted like long-lost family members by the friendly staff.  After settling back in, we went out to the boulevard for coffee and drinks, then to a shop to purchase some socialist American war propaganda posters and then back to Highway 4 Restaurant where we indulged in fried crickets, frog legs, crocodile ribs and a few other delicacies not available in Canada. We also purchased two bottles of rice liqueur and a bottle of apple liqueur.

Our last evening was March 23 and Earth Hour was being celebrated in downtown Hanoi.  A large parade of what seemed to be mostly young people marched down our street shouting cheerful slogans, or maybe they were shouting slogans cheerfully. It was pleasing to witness not only activists marching but also one that promoted environmental conservation in a rapidly developing country.

Leaving Vietnam

When planning our trip I had rejected a three-week option. How could I possibly be away from work for so long, what would they do without me?  I regretted this foolishness a few days into our trip and as our taxi slid though the chaotic Hanoi traffic toward the airport my regret was all the more poignant. Once on the plane we were again enveloped in China Air lavender and treated to decent airplane food, this time with a distinct Japanese culinary bias.

We had an eight hour layover in Taipei and had little option but to hang around the airport. The numerous departure gates were interspaced with endless shopping centre sized malls full of duty free stores, luxury goods concessions, boutiques selling Taiwanese scotch and object d’art, chocolates, cigars, and ever higher-priced luxury goods. The novelty of looking at watches, purses, expensive cohibas and booze soon wore off and we wished we had booked a day trip to Tai Pei. There was price shock as well. After two weeks in inexpensive Vietnam paying $5.00 for a cappuccino and $7.00 for a beer came as a surprise.

Final thoughts about Vietnam

From American devastation to recovery with pride intact

I started this travelogue with a reflection of the importance of the ‘Vietnam War’ to my generation and throughout the trip, the war wasn't far from my mind.

The U.S. devastated Vietnam. Roads, railways, bridges and canals were ruined by bombing and two-thirds of the villages in the south were destroyed. Unexploded shells and landmines littered the countryside and the rice paddies and millions of hectares of forest were ruined by Agent Orange. The new government had to deal with 10 million refugees, 900,000 orphans, 360,000 war invalids and 3 million unemployed. A country full of paddy fields had to import rice.

In the Paris peace talks the U.S. agreed to pay $3.5 billion in reconstruction aid to mend the shattered infrastructure. It never paid a cent. The U.S. also did its best to make sure Vietnam didn’t receive the desperately needed trade and aid that could turn its economy around. As soon as it had lost the war, the U.S. imposed a trade embargo, cutting off exports and imports from itself and other nations, including Canada, that bowed to American pressure. The U.S. also ensured multilateral bodies such as the UNESCO, IMF and the World Bank denied aid.

Cut off by the trade embargos and lacking aid, Vietnam plunged into poverty. It is not clear how any economic model could have survived this hostility. Vietnam’s socialist project collapsed and it adopted a Soviet policy whereby farmers had to hand over their crops in exchange for ration cards. With no incentive to produce, production crashed, inflation climbed and the country once again had to import rice.

In the early 1980s, the leadership was forced to allow the peasants to start selling surplus produce and so capitalism began its ascent. By the late 1980s, the party officially adopted ‘red-capitalism’ — a market economy with socialist orientation. It ended up with the worst of two systems; a one-party state, characterized by a weak legal infrastructure and corruption and unrestrained capitalism.

During the war, an American military officer infamously stated 'It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it'.  Free from war, Vietnam seems well on the way to ruining its beautiful natural areas in the name of economic progress. Badly regulated industrial development and unregulated tourism is causing significant environmental damage, not unlike many other places, including Canada. 

However, Vietnam’s recovery has been extraordinary. No longer devastated by decades of war, Vietnam is now a dynamic, rapidly developing nation. It has transformed itself into a stable, prosperous country. The impact of the American War is visible but the country emerged with its pride intact. They had, after all, defeated a superpower. 

While some areas were poor by western standards, it was never squalid.  We didn’t see any homeless people, an all too common site in Vancouver and although there were numerous hawkers in the tourist areas, we only saw two pan handlers. From what we could discern, the overall standard of living is good and the Vietnamese people seem to have access to decent healthcare and education. The country is wired. Cell phones are everywhere, as are flat screen TVs, even in the rural villages we visited. 

Of course in our two weeks, we only scratched the surface of Vietnam’s numerous cultural and religious influences. The French colonial legacy, the American War, its Chinese heritage, the current communist ideology and capitalist inclinations all result in a dynamic and eclectic cultural mix that makes for an enriching travel experience.

Our family has fabulous memories; the beach, kayaking on Ha Long Bay, biking in Cuc Phuong National Park and along the Ho Chi Minh trail, exploring caves, stilt-house villages, bamboo factories, people yelling ‘hello’ or laughing at us, the laid back lifestyle. Most of all, we were struck by the great food and the friendly, considerate, and social people

Hopefully, someday, we’ll return.

Dennis Carr LEED® AP
Ottawa, Canada

Image: A Vietnamese feast. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.

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