Vietnam by Rail, Part 1: North Vietnam
Arriving in Hanoi can be exciting and disorienting at the same time. Street traffic feels chaotic, the city has both eastern and western influences, and prices are so cheap that you’ll doubt your mental currency conversions. At an affordable hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, hanging on the wall is a map of Vietnam with an unmistakable train track running from north to south. The predictability of train routes is too good to pass up, and this loosely-planned trip from north to south becomes an excursion by rail.
The overnight train ride from Hanoi Railway Station north to Lao Cai, a city near Vietnam’s border with China, is about $36 for the sleeper car. A small transport van drives an hour to get to Sa Pa. It’s a bit remote, so it’s surprising to see a highly developed city, especially considering the population is only about 9,000 residents. The city is a mix of influences from the Vietnamese and the local Hmong, as well as from the French colonialists and the neighboring Chinese.
Immediately outside of Sa Pa are the Hmong rice paddies. Walking only ten minutes southwest of the central Sa Pa plaza, one reaches a dirt path down a hill through a small forest, and eventually to the terraced rice paddies. Hiking between the farms and the surrounding hills, one can wander freely, but it’s important to return before sundown as the paths are difficult to navigate in the dark. After returning from a day in the rice paddies, the cable car ride up to Fansipan mountain is an attractive option. Surprisingly, it’s very expensive at 840,000 Vietnamese Dong ($36) for a round trip up the mountain that will last just over an hour. Adding the cost of the car ride to the station, the total bill is about one million Dong ($43). The view from the top is somewhat disappointing, it’s often too foggy to see anything from the mountaintop. Thankfully there were some nice views on the way up, but this Swiss-engineered cable car ride, while safe, is not worth the price.
Back to Hanoi on the sleeper car, the train station looks different on arrival. It turns out to be a different station, on the other side of the Red River, Gia Lâm Railway Station. No bother, using Grab, the southeast Asian equivalent of Uber, it’s a quick ride to Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
The Hanoi traffic still feel chaotic the second time around. Visitors from abroad will quickly realize that Hanoi’s concept of public street space is different from that of any western city. Many of the sidewalks are impassable due to parked motorbikes, which pushes pedestrians into the street alongside the small vehicle traffic with horns blaring. Right of way is more focused on avoiding others than continuing your vector, and everyone works together to prevent collisions (although on occasion a motorbike will spill over to the concrete due to an unanticipated pedestrian or vehicle).
Amongst the important landmarks to visit in Hanoi is the POW prison that Americans call “The Hanoi Hilton”, where John McCain spent five years. It has two other names: “Maison Centrale” and “Hỏa Lò.” Originally built by French colonists in the late 1880s, it was a prison for anti-colonial Vietnamese dissidents, it even has a guillotine. The history of the prison is telling about Vietnam’s past, and also helpful for understanding Vietnamese sentiment towards foreign military presence.
A Vietnamese woman asks me to help her practice English at a local coffee shop near the opera house (ironically next door to Hanoi’s real Hilton Hotel). We decide to walk to the National Museum of Vietnamese History and enter the building that displays the modern era, from French colonization (mid-1800s) through the reunification of north and south Vietnam. Walking through the museum, there is a lot of context that I have seldom heard about; specifically the French colonial exploitation of the feudalistic system in the 19th century, and the organized Vietnamese resistance. Continuing chronologically, the early 1950s portion of the exhibit shows photos of the French nearing a decision to leave. Richard Nixon makes an appearance to help motivate the French troops as the US vice president, the US military arrives soon after. Following the museum exhibit through the end, my Vietnamese friend and I talk about our countries’ roles in the conflict, about what we had learned about the war growing up, and how we feel about it today. It’s exactly the type of discussion I was hoping for in Vietnam.
Looking for something a bit less intense, near Hanoi are two iconic Vietnamese landscapes, Ninh Binh to the south and Halong Bay to the east. Each trip can be done in a day. Both locations are a bit touristy, but well organized for visitors. The views are great, and so are the tour guides, we even debate with one of them about what constitutes a unicorn (no horn = no unicorn). One of the guides even pulls out a wooden flute and gives us a recital on our way back to the city.
Back in Hanoi, an English school manager has been asking me to teach a class or to help tutor. I finally say yes, and she sends me to the home of an insurance company director on a Sunday morning. Anh welcomes me into his condo. He speaks English well enough, but he tells me that he struggles when discussing the industry-specific insurance details. We develop a learning plan that will keep him busy long after our two-hour session. We create a list of American movies relating to insurance (although there are not very many). Next we find some insurance industry tutorials on YouTube, focusing on clearly spoken videos with subtitles (Anh wants to simultaneously read and listen to improve pronunciation). Finally, I find some NPR audio files about insurance, accompanied by transcripts. Anh tells me this is helpful, and he can will look for similar resources on his own. Eating breakfast with Anh’s family, I have to keep my “clean-your-plate” tendencies in check, as Anh quickly serves me another helping of anything that I finish.
After traveling outside of Hanoi to interview a US veteran retiree who returned to Vietnam to found an English school, it’s time to continue south. The sleeper car ticket to Da Nang is a bit expensive, but it’s the only one available on short notice. Coincidentally, two blocks from the train station, there is an international networking event hosted by a French organization, starting two hours before the train departs. Reception kindly holds my backpack during the event, where I run into some familiar faces from my short stay in Hanoi.
Upon arriving at the train station by foot, the conductor sees my ticket and gives an overly welcoming “right this way” gesture to enter the car. The $96 booking, which seemed pricey, turns out to be a high-end private cabin, it’s basically a hotel room on rails.
In the morning the train wraps around a mountain above the steep oceanside cliff, and slowly makes its way to the Da Nang rail station. Da Nang is midway between north and south Vietnam, and the second half of the journey begins.