Saturday, March 23rd, 2013 – Hue and the train to Hanoi

Note – This is for illustrative purposes only. Google maps does not show the railway route.

The day started with what can only be described as a damn good breakfast. Everything you can imagine was on offer and we ate most of it ! Then I packed up our bags, cleared our room and sat at a computer in the foyer to handle some emails while we waited for our driver to arrive,

When our driver (who was also a Lonely Planet recommendation) arrived, we discovered that he was called Minh …… The paradox of exchanging one Minh for another Minh led David to compose a celebratory poem, the wording and content of which I (fortunately) no longer remember. I do remember that my background was somehow involved in the words but that it was not entirely complimentary in that respect !

That reminded me that David almost bought some poems from a cyclist who just stopped us in the street and asked us if we would like to buy them. I think my kind David was almost offended that I, such a lover of poetry, did not want to buy them. I had to explain to him my reasons, the most striking of which was that I could not even read “Good morning” correctly in Vietnamese, so I would not appreciate even the finest poetry written in that language.

And now to Minh the driver and the tombs. It is a little sad when the emperor has no better use for his subjects than to work them as slaves to build a magnificent tomb. This is even worse when he was not buried in it anyway. The penultimate Vietnamese Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty was such a person. He married at least twelve wives before finding out that he was probably infertile. Then he bedded an unspecified amount of concubines, but it seems that he also shared his bed with a few guys. Whether his only son (and the last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty) was actually his child is questioned.

In many places, a design that is the reverse of the dreaded swastika had been carved, we had already seen it in the Delta. This actually has no right wing connotations as it is, apparently, a Buddhist symbol of peace and goodwill.

In the end, fearful that his wives and concubines would loot his possessions, the emperor abandoned his elaborate tomb and he was buried in an unknown place. It is said that about 200 people had the dubious honour of attending his funeral, which was the penultimate event they attended alive. The last event was their immediate execution by beheading. This supposedly happened in 1883, the end of the nineteenth century, to make it clear. Our guide swore this was true, but I am not certain, the guides sometimes made up terrible stories.

The last emperor, at least, is probably in the tomb where he is supposed to be. In the twentieth century, he was probably no longer afraid of grave robbers, but his plans were thwarted by the changes to the regime. His family was supposed to take care of his tomb, but this duty was taken over by the State, together with the collection of the entrance fee. The family no longer has to worry about anything and they continue to live in Saigon. I expect they are pleased about that.

In addition to the tombs of the last Nguyen dynasty, we also stopped in a beautiful pagoda, where it was unusually peaceful. The people of Asia seem to understand the spiritual side of life well and it was truly a tranquil interlude before we started our train journey to the North.

The Vietnamese love incense sticks and there were thousands burning within the pagoda complex. It was possible, for a few Dong, to make your own – so, of course, I had a try. My sticks received approval and did burn nicely, but the arrangement is not my handiwork !

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped and ate a last meal before the train journey. David is always so suspicious when he is not totally sure what it is that he is eating !

Outside our hotel, in its peaceful back street, was a rather unusual pair of shoes ……

The “train departure” was not quite the dramatic episode that I anticipated. Everything went, rather surprisingly, according to the plan. Loaded with our luggage and a bag of food, we climbed into the correct carriage although, of course, we had no idea which places in it were ours. David was still congratulating himself on how well he had done when buying us tickets. He had got a carriage with air conditioning and an upper and middle bed, for the whole half a million Dong ! David tried to find our seats, but what was written on the ticket did not make any sense. The only understandable word was “FOREIGNER” in capital letters. This was probably in case someone accidentally failed to notice that at first glance.      

I suggested that we should sit down and wait for a porter to arrive and we did not have to wait long. An official appeared, who looked more like a military officer than a railway employee and he actually saluted us ! We were quickly escorted to the correct compartment, where we were shown the middle and upper bed. Even the officer looked touch surprised by the relationship between the camel and the eye of the needle. It seemed we were to share the compartment with a Vietnamese family with several small children and a lot of luggage. That was not the problem though. The beds were a little unevenly distributed. You could sit on the bottom one, but if you were a tall westerner, your head had to be slightly bowed to avoid the bottom of the middle bunk. But we did not have the bottom one. You could lie down on the middle bunk, which we had together with the upper one. I suggested climbing into the middle bunk and waiting in a semi-prone position. This was going to make for a very uncomfortable fourteen hours of travelling. The upper bed was, without discussion, only for a backpack, a dwarf or a Vietnamese child. It was tiny and definitely not for me, I am claustrophobic. You could only lie on it with your arms along your body and with your nose touching the ceiling. I could not even imagine how I would climb in there. There were no steps available and I could not see how I would slide in there, even if I somehow made the ascent. David would have had to slide me in horizontally, like putting me in a drawer and I know, from years of marriage, that he does not have much talent for stacking.

Ever the English gentleman, David offered to go to the top bunk, but I could not imagine that working at all. Even if he managed to get in it, if he stiffened up, I would never be able to get him out again in Hanoi. I told him to sit down and think what to do. I already felt that we would still be thinking in fourteen hours, but I tried to give the impression that we would definitely come up with something.

Finally, I gave up and started to climb to the top bunk, only briefly trampling on the heads of two of the little Vietnamese girls, who were looking at us as amused as their mother and father. They would have fitted into the top bunks, but the Vietnamese are a small race and they would never have got up there. A monkey would have had a struggle. David, who was climbing behind me, somehow squirmed with his upper body into the middle bunk, Sadly, his bottom hung down and, if he moved a millimetre, he hit the top drawer with his head. The Vietnamese are a well mannered people, but this finally made the Vietnamese father laugh and we could not help but join in.

Just at that moment another, even more senior, officer arrived. He had probably (and correctly) decided that we now fully understood our predicament and it was time for a bribe. David, who completely agreed, could unfortunately only communicate with him through his backside because he could not move. It took the officer and the Vietnamese father some minutes to pull him safely out of the bunk. I think that even the Vietnamese family, of whom there were at least five for the remaining four beds, was relieved that the solution was on the right track.

David and the officer walked away down the train and it took them a long time to return. But they had an agreed deal. For another six hundred thousand Dong we got, by comparison, almost luxury accommodation in what was almost a newlywed suite. It even had its own roll of toilet paper. It was a small, single compartment, originally intended for the railway officers, but the floor area was large enough to fit both of us. The middle bed was missing. David offered, in his gentlemanly way, to climb into the top bunk, but I told him that we could both fit at the bottom of the cupboard. We took all the seat cushions and lay them side by side on the floor. Then we lay on them. The train was moving by then, but at such a low speed that mopeds were whizzing by and even pedestrians were practically overtaking it. We slowly ate our food and we were glad we had taken it. An elderly western couple who stopped by our door on their way back from the dining car told us that the food there was cold and not worth eating.

It was a long night and very dark outside, no lights to be seen at all. We had a small light, but it was not really bright enough to read by. I discovered that, almost unbelievably, David did not know how to play “Battleships“, so I taught him and given that we only had one pen, this took us an hour and a half. Then we put out the light, curled up on the cushions and fell to sleep accompanied by the soft but relentless clatter of the worn rails.