Train to Hue, Vietnam Peddling and Paddling to Bich Dong

It’s been ages since I’ve posted and I’m feeling guilty. It’s the bootleg DVDs, I tell you. They cost $1 and they fill every lazy hour I have.

Also, Brad is here now, so I don’t have quite as much time alone in a room to babble into my laptop. I’m not very disciplined and easily distracted.

I’m writing from onboard the Reunification Express. The beloved and ballyhooed train that symbolically bridges North Vietnam with those misguided capitalists down south. We’re on our way from Ninh Binh to Hue.

As is my policy on trains, I took a walk from one end to the other to get the lay of the land. It was an encapsulated tour of the social classes of Vietnam in descending order.

Brad and I are all the way in the back of the train, car number 10. It’s the soft sleeper car, which is as deluxe as it gets; four beds to a room with thick mattresses and plenty of space to stow luggage. It’s the lap of luxury.

The next car down is still a soft sleeper, but with six beds to a room instead of four. They’re stacked three high on either side, which is a little intimate for me, but still tolerable.

After that is the hard sleeper, my favorite car. It must date back to around the ’30s. It’s made of wood, with ornate, curling metal patterns on the doors in place of screens. The beds have bamboo sheets instead of mattresses, which probably takes some getting used to. With the same six beds to a room, the overall effect is a bit like a chicken coop.

That’s it for the sleepers. Car number 7 is the deluxe seats. They’re thick, cushiony, reclining, and spread far apart. I’d definitely take a deluxe seat over a hard sleeper.

The next three cars have regular soft seats. They look reasonably comfortable to sit on, but not so much fun to sleep on, which is what everyone in those cars is trying to do right now.

The last three cars are the hard seats. These are nothing more than wooden planks. There’s no AC, no fans, and each car is jammed full of people, many of whom have opted sensibly to sleep on the floor. I had to carefully tip-toe over their heads to get to the front of the train, where I had to wake up the staff to buy some bottled water.

All in all, a thrilling and fruitful journey.

I’m just going to cover the last two days here. I’m working on the two weeks prior in a separate entry, but it’s been ages since I’ve posted and I wanted to talk about something recent.

We stopped in Ninh Binh because Alex, a friend and former co-worker, recommended it. They call it "Halong Bay in the rice paddies," which only means something if you already know what Halong Bay is.

What it is is lots of beautiful, giant limestone rock formations jutting vertically out of the ground.

We took the two hour backpacker bus ride down here from Hanoi, which was enough to swear me off backpacker buses for a while. They’re air conditioned, which is nice, but they pack them in on those things, so it’s uncomfortable. Also, buses are just lame. And being surrounded by backpackers is no fun either.

The first thing we did in Ninh Binh was try to book train tickets for that evening. We quickly discovered how incredibly backwards and inefficient the train booking system is. It’s run by the government using ancient technology, so buying a ticket in a small town is complicated by the fact that they have no idea how many seats will be available when the train leaves Hanoi. I won’t rant about it for too long, cause I realize all this train talk is getting kind of boring, but suffice it to say, we had to stay in Ninh Binh an extra day if we were going to get out by train. A backpacker bus would’ve been no problem, but it’s a 16 hour drive to Hue, and I wasn’t going to suffer through a sleepless night on a bus to waste the next day in Hue.

Spending an extra day in Ninh Binh turned out to be a great experience. Once you get out of town and into the small villages and rice paddy fields, it’s beautiful. Hard to believe Nixon napalmed this place into oblivion just 30 years ago.

We rented bikes and wandered our way down to the Tam Coc caves.

This is my submission for the cover of the next Lonely Planet Vietnam update.


I didn’t get any good pictures of what the villages looked like. This will have to do.


The main activity in these villages is collecting and piling up incredibly large amounts of hay along the roads. This made the already narrow paths, which were too tight for anything bigger than a scooter, even narrower.

About every five seconds, some kid would spot us and giddily shout "Hello!" over and over again. We had to say "Hello!" a lot. Eventually I just started repeating it on a constant loop. I don’t think they get a lot of foreigners meandering through there, so we were the talk of the town. It doesn’t get any more exciting than having two enormous, pasty, bespectacled weirdoes ride by looking lost and confused.

At a few points, I stopped and took pictures of the kids. The great thing about having a digital camera is that I can show them the pictures immediately after and watch them go nuts.


The pattern was always the same. I take one or two pictures of a particularly interesting kid. He screams with joy and more kids come over to see what’s going on. Pretty soon they’re crawling out of the woodwork and I’ve got a group of them climbing over each other to get their pictures taken.

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Then I start taking videos and they go completely bonkers. I have one clip, which I’ll post up here at some point, that is pure happiness in a bottle. For the rest of my days I’ll be able to look at this thing and instantly be in a good mood.


This kid was a little shit. Every time I turned around he’d open up my bag and go fishing for my wallet. His mother kept smacking him on the head and telling him to stop. I caught him in the act here, but a few seconds later he was at it again.


Speaking of getting caught in the act, dig the kid on the left with his hand down his pants.


This guy insisted that I come over and take a picture of him smoking his bong.


This kid was my favorite. Those glasses are awesome.

Digital cameras are fantastic. What Canon needs to do, though, is put out a mini-printer that you can attach to the camera so you can hand out pictures a la Polaroid, but without having to pay $1 per picture. That would be the greatest, most cost effective kid-happy-making device in the universe…next to bubbles.

On the road to Tam Coc, we hit a dead end at a river. It looked like we were going to have to turn back until an enterprising boy rowed over and offered to take us across in his boat for 5000 dong each.


It was somewhat precarious, but it got the job done.

The tour through Tam Coc was a long ride on another small row boat. It got kind of tedious. It was beautiful and all, but I have an irrational need to see stuff at my own pace and in my own way.

We saw some ducks.


And a lot of people rowing their boats with their feet, which is an impressive skill, and really practical when you think about how much stronger our leg muscles are.


We saw a lot of water buffalo hanging out in the river to keep cool.


And that about sums up that excursion.

The next day we wanted to track down a Buddhist temple we saw on a mountain top during the boat ride. It was inaccessible from where we were – we would’ve had to wade through a couple rice paddies to get there – but I was sure there was a road somewhere that would take us to it.

Eventually we found it. It’s called Bich Dong and it was indeed worth finding.


The base of the staircase was sort of like a Buddhist version of a run-down old amusement park from Scooby-Doo. It was lots of giant ceramic figures, presumably enacting various old Buddhist fables around a man-made lake. I always enjoy run-down amusement parks, so that was a treat.


After taking in the kitsch, we began the climb up all 459 steps to the top. It was pretty spectacular. We both took dozens of pictures and left with a sense of pride and achievement.

Then I got back to the hotel and accidentally deleted all my pictures.

I was heartbroken. There were some really great pictures in there – several candidates for new desktop wallpaper. It was very upsetting.

I looked at the time and realized I still had four hours before our train departed and a good hour of sunlight left. I ran outside, hopped on my bike, and high-tailed it through the rice paddies back out to Bich Dong. It took about forty minutes to get there. I then had to sprint back up all 459 steps to frantically reproduce the images before the sun went down. It was getting dark, but through the magic of Photoshop, they still look pretty good.

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Here’s me covered in sweat and looking like an exhausted idiot. I took it by balancing the camera on a rock and using the 10 second timer delay. It’s a  bad picture, I know.


And here’s one of the few pictures from the earlier excursion that didn’t get deleted. As you can imagine, Brad wasn’t all that interested in riding out with me for the second trip.


I rode back into town after dark on a bike that was falling apart. The handlebar was coming loose from the wheelbase, so I couldn’t make small corrections. I could only overcompensate and fishtail uncontrollably across the path while motorbikes whizzed by on either side, blinding me with their headlights. I couldn’t see the ground in front of me. It was scary and stupid and exactly the kind of situation I get myself into ALL THE TIME.

But I made it back okay. And I got the pictures. And I had a great time. And I’ve hit my word limit. And the battery on my laptop is about to run out. And I’m going to sleep now.