01.12.2012 - 04.12.2012
Given our penchant for gruelling long distance railway journeys, the opportunity to travel the entire length of Vietnam (1726 km/36 hours) was not to be missed.
The cabin was small and grubby, even by the standards of a country where everything is small and grubby. The view more than made up for these minor shortcomings, especially the golden beaches and dramatic cliffs along the coast between Hue and Danang.
We stocked up with instant noodles for breakfast lunch and dinner, having learned from the Trans-Siberian experience that food from station platform sellers can have unfortunate consequences, ie ten days of food poisoning for Lesley on that particular occasion. (It also turned out that instant noodles were not entirely hazard-free, as Caroline scalded her hand badly during their preparation when the train jolted suddenly while she was at the water boiler). It was as well we came prepared as station sellers in Vietnam only sell toys, rice wine with snakes in, luminous Buddhas and ornamental plates with Ho Chi Minh on. There were hawkers on the train however; we were woken by furious shouting and banging on our door at 4am which I assumed in my sleepy state must be alerting us to some emergency, but was only someone wanting us to buy boiled eggs.
Arriving in Hanoi before day-break was a good time (in fact the only time) to see the city, clean, traffic-free and atmospheric. We blearily looked for somewhere to have a non-noodle-based breakfast. Ordering fried eggs, baguettes and coffee at a cafe that had these items clearly stated on the menu met with blank looks. A girl went out and stopped an old woman passing by with a bag of baguettes and bought two from her. Enquiring about the eggs, we wondered if she was going to have to go out and find another old woman with a hen.
There's a lot to like about Hanoi but it's difficult to enjoy. It has a famous historical district where each street was run by a guild of artisans and sold only their specialised type of goods. This tradition is still alive today and the fake designer underwear street, the laminating and comb binding machines street, the safe deposit box street, and the buttons street are all thriving. However the art deco architecture is well hidden underneath tacky vinyl shop signs, and the volume of traffic and awful driving makes exploring the streets a stress not a pleasure (we saw one collsion after another). And it's pretty chilly. No wonder then that people use Hanoi as a base to explore the rest of the north of the country - as we did.
Next: we hit the tourist trail. We head for the hills of Sapa, and do a boat trip on Halong Bay - and are reminded why the tourist trail is not for us.