A long time on a train

We left Phu Quoc with me feeling a sense of regret. For three nights, two days, we’d hardly left the resort other than a run and a v short cycle ride. There was good reason for it, in that it rained all the first day and we had beautiful weather for the second that shouted, ‘stay by the pool!’. But as we headed off on Superdong 3, skidding at 30 mph across a pool-table sea, I thought, ‘we really should get out more’ (like we did in Langkawi where we hired a bike for 3 days).

We had put the sunny day to good use. We’d planned our final ten days, which wasn’t without incident, C and I had managed a run on the only running machine (I’d forgotten how much I like running machines … I am kicking along nicely – and my heart is pretty much behaving now that I’ve cut out all caffeine), and we lounged by the pool and dipped in the sea. It was fab, although we both have the odd lobster patch to show for it.

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The ferry left on time, and arrived on time, and we managed the connection to the five-hour bed-coach trip to Ho Chi Minh City. Yes, you read it right … a coach, with beds, no matter that it was during the day. Whilst it was hardly five-star comfort, it did give me chance to reflect on Vietnam.

For a start it’s much more prosperous than Cambodia. We started at the southern, Mekong Delta, bit of the country and some of it is very Western. The roads were mostly good, some of the new-build residential on the coast could be any Mediterranean town, the many canals have Rhine-style ‘cloppiter-cloppiter’ barges plying their trade and there’s plenty of industry kicking about. But there is still a lot of poverty and, in public places, so much rubbish even though we’d seen bin men of sorts.

It’s clearly come a long way in forty years since the US used the place for carpet-bombing and napalm practice. And, of course, Vietnam has, quite literally, been through the wars.

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We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and took a taxi to our hotel (Red Doorz – room for £14) only to find that they’d double-booked us and they were trying to find us an alternative. On interrogation we found that they had basic rooms for £10. We took them and they were lovely – with a glass cubicle ensuite. Supper was a mad-dash out into a city that looked even crazier than Phnom Penh, thousands of mopeds scurrying around like a water-scolded ants nest. I loved it. Crossing the road was an outer-body experience. You have to launch yourself into a tide of two wheelers confident that they will miss you. And, so far, they have.

And then the train: the Reunification Railway. With a strict environmental ‘no fly’ policy, and Rebecca only flying when the were no alternatives as she hates it, we booked the 30-hour sleeper from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Hanoi in the far north (£45 each). Unfortunately, as our itinerary planning was never to book anything until two days before, they were out of a four-berth carriage and we had to take two sets of two top bunks in two separate six-bunk carriages, bunks you need a wealth of mountaineering experience to reach. I take my hat off to C for being such a trooper … in the end we were best positioned, well out of the way of the mass of tactile, culturally different humanity. Because the SE Asians are different. There is no sense of personal space, no part of your body they won’t touch to move you to one side, no niceties, no decibels too loud, no noisy children too, well, noisy … no pleases and thank yous, not away from the service industry at any rate.

But, apart from the odd person with a peaked cap who could be overly officious, they’re default position is loveliness. The children are as cute as crib full of teddy bears and, when you engage the adults, they all smile and laugh, even though they haven’t a clue what you’re saying. And we are amusing. At six-four I am an alien from an altogether different planet. The kids stare at me as though I’ve got three heads … until you wave at them, and then they frantically wave back. The adults couldn’t be more helpful, unless you are in their way and then they’ll manhandle you out of it.

So it wasn’t an unpleasant journey, just a very long one. On the other hand we were able to catch a glimpse of the Vietnamese countryside – from bottom to top. And, wow. Just wow. The south is all Mekong, flat and riddled with rivers: beautiful and calming, like a giant Somerset levels. Interestingly we saw massive solar farms and the odd wind farm. The middle is spectacular. High, pointy hills covered in scrubby jungle, the bits between them alluvial valleys rich in rice – all greener than a green thing. And the railway makes it to the coast, clinging to a shear face at times … think Croatian colours, but with junks rather than gin-palace yachts. Perfect and unspoilt (yet).

The north before Saigon was flat again, and not unattractive, although we have some spectacular vistas to look forward to over the next week. More of which later.