We could have taken a series of night busses to get from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, but my friend Debs and I decided to go by train. It would take 33 hours!
Two months previously Gosia and I had entered Vietnam overland at the middle point from Laos and we had headed south in order to find some warm weather. We spent time in Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh city but I still wanted to visit Hanoi in the north. (As you can see there are a lot of letter ‘H’s’ in the Vietnamese language!). We could have flown.
The observant among you will be noticing that Gosia seems to have been replaced by Debs. That happened in Cambodia. After meeting Debs in Siem Reap and spending time clambering around the temples I had to say an emotional goodbye to Gosia who has the rest of her life to get on with – and then on with welcoming my friend Debs who had come over from Spain.
Hi Chi Minh to Hanoi
On the train we had reserved the top bunks in a 4-berth cabin which we were sharing with the sweetest young Vietnamese couple. The lady was nearly nine months pregnant and oh so shy. Her husband spoke very softly too and the pair of them slept for most of the journey while Debs and I kept our eye on the lady with the coffee trolley and the hot water urn in case we had to help with a birth.
I thoroughly recommend taking the train in Vietnam if you have the time as it’s quite an adventure in itself. We were in the better class of carriage – with soft bunks, although goodness knows how any of the smaller Asian people manage to climb up into the top bunks. It was a bit of a scramble for me and Debs and we are both quite tall.
There was a middle class section on the train with reclining seats and the cheap seats with hard, wooden slatted benches. Because our companions slept a lot and we couldn’t really see the scenery from our top bunks, Debs and I spent a lot of time in the middle class carriage where there were plenty of spare seats.
In our middle class carriage we were invited to share food with the other passengers and we were included in whatever they were saying and doing, not that we understood much at all, but it was a lovely community spirit. Passengers boarded the train and left throughout the journey so there was plenty of interesting people-watching to do.
We walked through the lower class carriages where we found people trying to make themselves comfortable on the floor underneath the benches. They were lying on sheets of cardboard and most had wrapped themselves up in fleecy blankets. A food trolley was pushed along the train at regular intervals by two of the grumpiest men ever. Despite their sour faces they did a roaring trade in instant noodles, some grey looking Vietnamese soup and crisps and crackers, although everybody seemed to have brought along their own picnics too.
In contrast, the lady who was in charge of the urn of boiling water for teas and coffees was wonderfully happy and was soon pouring us her super strong coffee shots unasked and watching us until we downed them. That was great until it was time to sleep when it took an awfully long time for the rhythmic clicking, clacking and rocking of the carriage to finally trump our overdose of caffeine.
We passed through some spectacular countryside where rural life carried on unchanged for centuries. Workers in conical hats waded knee deep in paddy fields and buffalo stared at us as we clattered by. Despite the length of the journey from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi and warnings about the rail system we arrived in Hanoi just 3 minutes behind schedule having travelled almost the entire length of Vietnam.
Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam and huge; yet unlike Ho Chi Minh City it really has a nice cosy feel to it. Or at least, it does in the old town where we stayed. Narrow little streets throng with daily life, obviously there are billions of motorbikes and street food stalls, but unlike Ho Chi Minh, the traffic seems to move a little less frantically and you can actually walk on many of the pavements.
By now, we had finally perfected our Vietnamese road crossing skills.
This is an art in itself as rivers of motorbikes flow along. You need to trust to luck and simply step out into the road. Head up and look directly at the riders, put one hand in the air if it is particularly busy and under no circumstances, stop, hesitate or change your pace.
They WILL go around you avoiding each other in the process but the minute you hesitate all can be lost as they in turn hesitate and chaos will ensue.
For those of you who are interested in facts and figures how about these?
- 90 million people in Vietnam
- 8 million people in Hanoi
- 4-5 million motorbikes in Hanoi (39 million in Vietnam)
- Nearly everybody who rides a bike in Vietnam wears a face mask (to protect against the traffic fumes and the rays of the sun)
And while we are considering facts and figures…
- 9% of Vietnamese people are Buddhist – most don’t have a religion but they do believe in Buddhism
- There are 54 different ethnic groups
- Vietnam enforces a 2 child policy. Parents have to pay a fee or a fine for extra children but this depends on the ethnic group
- Over 90% of the population over the age of 15 are literate
After a couple of months in Vietnam it felt great to watch newbies hover on the kerbside for ages wondering how on earth they are going to get to the other side! And then to step out and sail past them (with fingers crossed, buttocks clenched and whispering a mantra for survival.
The weather was quite cool when we were in Hanoi and the skies grey. I got sick again and in the end I spent far too long in my hostel with bronchitis but the one thing that struck me was how varied the countryside and the people, the food and the customs and clothes are in Vietnam.