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Let the Train Take the Strain

I think it's about time I updated you, so here's the account of my travels from Nha Trang to Hanoi.

I spent only two nights in Nha Trang in the end, and spent my one full day there getting wet. First I went on a couple of dives with Rainbow Divers, who were really professional, and had the highest ratio of staff to punters that I've ever seen; the diving itself was nothing to write home about, although it was nice to be underwater again. In the afternoon I visited a nearby spa, where I spent some time soaking in a pool of mineral mud, immersed myself in roasting hot spring water, and stood under a man-made waterfall of the stuff - it was a relaxing way to pass a couple of hours.

The next morning I first went to the train station to book a ticket for the following night. In front of the booking window was a small group of people tightly pressed against the glass, each fighting to get served. I was reluctant to join in, so stood behind at a polite distance. After two people had pushed past me, I decided to introduce the Vietnamese to a great British institution: the queue. I admonished anyone else who tried to push in, and sent them to the back of the line - much to the amusement of those waiting on the sidelines. Once it was my turn to be served, I was standing at the front of a nice orderly queue - so much better than all that nasty pushing and shoving.

I had a mangled attempt at pronouncing the relevant Vietnamese words - which was met with a bemused look - before abandoning my phrase book and asking in English for a soft sleeper on the train north the following evening. There are several classes, ranging from non-AC hard seats to air-conditioned soft sleepers, and I had decided to treat myself to a non-AC soft sleeper for the ten-hour journey, as I know how much trouble I have getting off to sleep. It was a nice idea, but the train was totally full - not even a hard seat to be found. This posed a problem, as I really was loathe to resort to a tourist bus again. On the off chance I asked whether anything was available for the train that evening; there was a soft seat, so I settled for that.

I amended my plans for the rest of the day, and arranged for a late check out on my room, and at 2010 I was sat on a relatively comfortable seat on the train to Danang, the station nearest Hoi An, which was my next destination. My pack was wedged somewhat precariously above my head, with more of it sticking out from the luggage rack than perched on it. The man behind me laughed as he pointed out (through use of sign language) that it was blocking the air vents above me, but I was more concerned about it landing on me in the night. I'd burnt a CD with some relaxation music on it, but I had to switch it off as it was annoying me - especially the one with what sounded like parrots screeching throughout. Instead I turned to my phrase book, and gave it my full attention, and I'm now happy to say that I've got the numbers off pat.

The seat reclined almost fully, so the journey was not too uncomfortable, and I managed to get just over two hours sleep, which was something. From the station in Danang I got a minibus the 30 km south to Hoi An, and found myself a central hotel at a cheapish price ($7, but I did have a fridge and cable TV...which was to prove handy). As often happens when I am overtired, I felt quite hyper when I arrived, and set off to explore the enchanting town. Women regularly accosted me, saying, "Hi, how are you? Where you from? Excuse me, but would you like to visit my shop?" The town was a shoppers' paradise, the specialities being tailors (over 200 in the town) and hand-made shoe shops, as well as all manner of arty souvenirs. It was difficult not to succumb, and within a few hours I'd bought scarves, silk cards, and a bag; had a massage; and arranged for a suit, three shirts, and a pair of shoes to be made.

By lunchtime I was I was starting to feel the effects of my lack of sleep, so ate lunch and returned to my hotel to crash. I awoke in the early evening feeling decidedly unwell - nauseous, feverish and achy; I anxiously looked up the symptoms of malaria, and decided that I could well have it (what a drama queen!). I did feel somewhat improved by the morning, but still far from 100%, so to put my mind at rest I decided to get tested. My mind, I have decided, is like a disobedient puppy, always worrying away at something. Sometimes it's better to give it a slipper to tear apart - a relatively insignificant thing to stress over - than to let it destroy the furniture. I saw a sign in Bangkok that meant to say "mind your head", but what it actually said was "beware your head"; good advice, I think.

At the hospital I could find no one who spoke English, so took out my phrase book - which, I was annoyed to discover, did not have the word malaria in it. They phoned someone English-speaking, and I was able to get my point across. $20 later I was safe in the knowledge that I did not have malaria. I returned to my room, intending just to pop in and out again, and switched the TV on to BBC World. News was just breaking of an explosion in London, which they said was due to a power surge in the Tube. I thought this sounded unlikely, so stayed and watched as the news broke of the terrorist bombs; I remained glued to the television well into the night, my thoughts with those affected.

I enjoyed the quaint culture of Hoi An for another day before reluctantly leaving, and travelling just 20 kilometres up the coast to China Beach. After checking in to a small guesthouse, I lay sunning myself on the wide strip of sand for an hour or so, enjoying the fact that it was free from both sandflies and beach-sellers. The sea was cool and refreshing, and specked with tiny golden sparkles. Suddenly a man with a whistle planted a sign declaring that there were strong currents, and it was dangerous to swim, and cleared the water. Curiously he also cleared the beach, and all I, and the handful of other foreigners around, could gather was that there was "a big wave coming". I later found out that there was a typhoon forecast, although in the event it didn't hit.

The beach being out of bounds, I walked the short distance to the Marble Mountains, climbed the steps, and explored the various temples, pagodas and caves that were up there. It was an interesting place, with many nooks and crannies to discover, and I enjoyed it a lot. The next day I got a taxi to Danang train station, and asked for a seat to Hue, a few hours up the line. Ironically, there were no seats available so I had to pay extra for a soft sleeper! I was determined to get a soft sleeper for my next journey, so as soon as I arrived at Hue, I headed for the busy booking office to secure my place on the night-train three days later. The usual bundle obscured the window, and this time I just joined in; it was a bit like trying to get served in a pub, at half-past ten on a Friday night. Despite my early booking, all the soft sleepers were gone, and the best I could do was a middle-tier hard sleeper (there are six hard sleepers to a compartment).

I was rather apprehensive when the time came to board the night-train, but was pleasantly surprised to find a thin but firm mattress covering my bunk. Fortunately there was room underneath the bottom bunk to stow my pack, as it would have taken up half the bed otherwise. There wasn't enough room to sit up, but I counted my blessings that I wasn't in the top bunk, which had the dimensions of a coffin. I turned my nose up at the free food provided, and tucked into the cheese rolls and biscuits I had brought with me, before settling down to a reasonable night's sleep. My destination was Ninh Binh, a couple of hours south of Hanoi, where I arrived around five. I booked into a hotel just yards from the station, and arranged a tour for a couple of hours time, relieved that I'd managed to sleep okay on the train.

Ninh Binh is set in idyllic countryside, surrounded by photogenic paddy fields worked by industrious folk sporting cone hats, or what look like green army helmets - they seem popular in the North. It is also close to a couple of National Parks, and I had time to visit just one of them: Tam Coc. I was transported there by motorbike, and joined with a nice woman from New Zealand for a ride in a rowboat through stunning scenery. We were propelled along the tranquil waterways, past karst formations shooting up from either side. We were the only farang around at that time of the morning, the many other boats carrying Vietnamese tourists; due to the proximity of the capital, many people visit the area on a day-trip from Hanoi, and I could imagine how crowded the place would be a few hours later.

After our boat ride, we visited a small temple, where an elderly gentleman with a Ho Chi Minh-style beard showed us around; those are also plentiful in North Vietnam. Afterwards he bade us to join him in some tea, and we persuaded him to give us a tune on a monochord that stood nearby. This remarkable instrument has just one string, attached to a horizontal piece of wood or bamboo. One end is connected to a vertical stick, and by plucking the string and wobbling the stick the most evocative sounds are produced. I've made a recording of it on my camera, and once I've figured out the technology, I hope to post it one my website so you can have a listen.

After the tour was over, I returned to town and headed for the station, to book my final train journey the following day. I decided to go for the full set, and successfully secured a hard seat for a paltry sum. At a quarter past five the next morning I was headed for the capital, Hanoi. I had hoped to spend a few days here, and see how the place compared to Ho Chi Minh City, which I had enjoyed so much, but time was rapidly running out for me. I'd spent much longer in the south than the north. I reflected on the differences I had noticed between the two: the south definitely seemed more relaxed to me; I felt that the people there had more fun; life seems a little more serious up here, and the authorities stricter. Here the police wear fetching peach ensembles, rather than the bright green of the south, and there appears to be more of them, handing out traffic fines and the like.

It was time for me to start thinking about making an exit from Vietnam, in the direction of the Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos. One option that I was determined to avoid was the tourist bus from Hanoi to Vientiane. This would be the cheapest way to get to Laos, costing anything from $14 upwards, but would involve 26-36 hours of hell. I quite fancied travelling independently towards the nearest border, entering near the Lao town of Sam Neue (which my Lonely Planet informed me was the rat capital of Laos). Despite comprehensive searching on the Internet, I was unable to find a report of anyone successfully travelling via this route; I did find a few horror stories from people going the other way, who were variously stranded, spat at and forced to spend $120 to hire a car and driver.

One thing I was determined to do before leaving the country was to take a boat trip though Halong Bay. This is something else that I'd been researching, and I had decided to splurge, and go with Handspan, the top-of-the-range company; Vietnam is a country where you definitely get what you pay for. I'd intended on splashing out $70 (rather than the $14 I could have got away with) for a two day trip, with a small group, sleeping on a rather luxurious looking boat. The Vietnamese are good salesmen though, and in the office I was talked into going on a $120 three-day trip, which included one night on the boat, and another in basic huts on a private beach. The trip also entailed a day of kayaking, and I'm not quite sure how I was persuaded to do this, as I've been kayaking once before, and found it a bit too much like hard work!

At 0830 on 16th July, twelve of us boarded a roomy air-conditioned minibus outside Handspan's office, and we began the three-and-a-half hour journey to the coast. On the journey I noticed numerous signs for restaurants serving Thit Cho - dog meat, and also the first I'd seen for Thit Meo - cat meat. The bus took us to the wharf at Halong City, which was packed with boats awaiting their passengers. We clambered over two to get to ours. Halong Bay was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994, and since then tourism has exploded upon the area; there are now almost 1000 boats touring the islands, predominantly in the design of Chinese Junks. Once we were aboard we each received a refreshing ice-cold towel and a glass of orange. Shortly after we set sail, lunch was served, and by the time we had finished eating we were cruising through some of the 3000 islands that sprout up from the green water. The sea was pretty calm anyway, but once we were out of the main channel, sheltered by the islands, it was almost flat. The sky was a deep blue, with just a few picturesque clouds scudding along, and the sun beat down making us glad of the shaded area at the back of the boat.

We were allocated our cabins; I was sharing with the only other lone traveller, a nice Swiss girl named Brigitte, and we excitedly examined our flash, wood-lined berth, particularly impressed with the sparklingly clean bathroom. I returned to the deck, and felt a feeling of peace settle over me as we slipped between the craggy rocks, which were covered in tropical vegetation. We shared the waters not only with a multitude of similar vessels, but also with local fishermen, casting their nets into the sea. A number of fish farms float upon the emerald waters, in sheltered spots that remain untroubled by the monsoon storms.

We visited Amazing Cave, a huge cavern accessed via a hot climb up some stairs. Once in the cool confines of the cave, we followed the concrete path - and a hundred other visitors - through the extensive system, looking at the stalactites and stalagmites lit up by coloured lights. We had snaked through the cave, and back to the opening, looking down upon the collection of boats in the natural harbour below. We rejoined our ship and began to make our way to the spot where we would spend the night. All the boats are required to stay in the same vicinity, but it was a large area, so it didn't seem too crowded; anyway, we would have all the seclusion we required the following night, when we would stay at the base camp, on the island Handspan have leased from the authorities.

Once we had anchored up, it was time for a welcomed dip in the ocean. I followed the lead of another guest, who had the bright idea of donning a life vest, and floating effortlessly in the warm water. While we splashed around a number of floating shops approached us in an attempt to sell their wares - anything from pineapples and coconuts to sweets, chocolates and soft drinks. The vendors were women wearing long gloves, jackets, hats and scarves tied bandit-fashion around their faces, leaving only their eyes exposed in their attempts to avoid the sun, and they rowed between us, and from boat to boat plying their trade. As the light improved, I climbed out of the water and rejoined my camera in preparation for sunset.

A little later dinner was served. There were many different dishes - meat and seafood, mostly, but there were also some options for me and the other vegetarian on the trip. In Vietnam, anybody who chooses to be "an chay" - on a vegetarian diet - does so for religious reasons, and I think Vietnamese attempt to ease this sacrifice by creating dishes that look like meat or seafood, and have a similar taste and texture; that's all very well if you are missing meaty morsels, but I found it most disconcerting, and was unable to eat it. Most noteworthy was the "vegetarian squid" - soya that had been shaped to resemble baby squid, the attention to detail extending to giving them eyes. I tried one, but the fishy taste and rubbery texture was more than I could stomach.

That night was my first in air-con of the trip, and I have to admit that it was most pleasant to sleep in a cool room. I had meant to get up for the sunrise, but it was of no great surprise to me that I didn't quite make it. I did make breakfast though, and ate as much as I could, knowing I would need the energy for the kayaking that was to follow. We sailed along for an hour or so, until we met with a small launch that was to take us to the base camp: our own private island. The accommodation here was basic - small wooden huts with two thin mattresses on the floor, mosquito nets and a electric fan, which would be powered by a generator which would run for a few hours from nightfall until the early hours. We eagerly ran into the shallow bay, and splashed around for a while until we were called back to camp for our kayaking lesson.

We were shown how to don the fetching safety equipment, and how to paddle and steer the two-man kayaks, and then set off. About ten (maybe even five) minutes into it, my arms were aching and I felt that I had had enough - lazy moo that I am. My technique must have improved though, as I did manage to survive longer. We paddled for half an hour or so before pulling ashore at a white-sand beach for a rest and a cool off in the water. A little further on we passed beneath a low opening in the rock-face to emerge in a hidden lagoon with just the one entrance. After this it was time for lunch, and more swimming and lounging around, before returning to the kayaks and paddling around the largest floating village, being barked at from all angles by the Vietnamese guard dogs which curiously resembled huskies.

We were under the impression that we would be stopping at another secluded beach on our return journey to the base camp, but discovered that this was not the case. Our guide sped off into the distance, and the group became spread out, with over a kilometre between us. Brigitte and I became quite annoyed at this, as well as hot and bothered by the constant paddling to try and keep him in sight. Then Brigitte recognised a tree on a hill in front of us (I was most impressed), and we worked out that we were very close to the base camp. We saw a beach to the right of us, bathed in the late afternoon sun, and decided to rebel. We broke away from the rest, and paddled towards it, catching sight of the beach where our bungalows stood just a kilometre or so across the bay, and already in the shade. Giggling like naughty schoolgirls we beached the kayak, threw off our safety gear, and plunged into the refreshing water, congratulating ourselves on our executive decision. We stayed for an hour or so before rejoining the group, some of who were most jealous.

After dinner we sat in deckchairs on the beach, listening to the loud insects, and looking at the silhouetted islands surrounding us, and the bright moon overhead. It was a pleasure to awake the next morning amidst such secluded beauty, and to have a dip in the shallow waters of the bay before breakfast. The tide was low, so we were kayaked out to the craft which would return us reluctantly to the bigger boat, for our journey back to the mainland. It had been a wonderfully relaxing few days, and was certainly money well spent. On the bus ride back to Hanoi I decided to abandon my ambitious plans for overlanding independently to Laos. Instead I decided to fly to Vientiane, the capital of Laos - it's a bit of a cop-out, but I don't care - it's my birthday, and I'd rather have a stress free one on a plane.

I spent my last full day in Vietnam seeing some of the sights of Hanoi. First I paid my respects to Uncle Ho, as he is affectionately known here; he was in remarkably good shape for someone who has been dead for over thirty years. I tried and failed to find the Ho Chi Minh Museum, but did get to see the Museum of Fine Art and the Temple of Literature, and had an enjoyable walk through the busy streets, soaking up everyday Vietnamese life for the last time.

Tomorrow sees me flying to Laos, a country I visited briefly six years ago; this means that I am ahead of the game in that I already know how to say hello (sounds like zebedee), thank-you (cup chai), and count to ten (exactly the same as in Thai). I've enjoyed my time in Vietnam immensely, and could easily have spent twice as long here; I definitely hope to come back one day.

Another day, another year older, another country. I'll be in touch from Laos.

PS - I bought some DVDs whilst in Nha Trang - I figured for 60p a throw I couldn't go far wrong - and I would like to share with you the description on the back of one. The film is called Boogeyman, and the blurb reads thus: The film details derive from to take place in the second cantonal in method in guest legend, the evil-foreboding dream of a young man childhood years linger around to do not go to, being many years empress comeback home, musting overcome the biggest fearing, facing the nightmare of the childhood years possibility true. The quality of the film reflected that of the cover - someone had taken a camcorder into the cinema and aimed it at the screen.


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