Our stay in Hué was probably a bit too long, and really a few days would have been enough. There isn’t a great deal to do there and once you’ve explored the Citadel and tombs, the town doesn’t have enough to keep you busy like the other cities we’ve visited do. So, boarding our night train to Hanoi was a good thing.
So, a couple of things to cover straight away: Our night train tickets were much cheaper than the Vietnam Railways website claims. Or even any other guide we read about the ticket pricing. For a one-way trip from Hué to Hanoi, adult price was 1,000,000VND (£30) and the kids ticket price was half that. So why was there such a difference in price? We actually went to the station and bought the tickets ourselves! It’s so easy – you could do it too.
The day we hired bicycles was about 5 days before we planned to leave, so we rode across Hué to the train station and bought our tickets from the ticket office. We were sold the more expensive ‘Soft Sleeper’ (Westerner!) carriage, which was fine as it is a cabin with four berths, unlike the hard sleeper which has six. This meant we could relax a little more as it was only us in the cabin and we weren’t taking the risk of sharing with a chain-smoking 60 year old grumpy old man, or a pair of 18-year old prostitutes (yes, a friend did tell us this true story!).
The second thing to say, is that no matter how cautious we’ve been with timings for getting to a station or airport, it never seems enough. Our train was due to leave at 21:30 and it was a 10 minute taxi ride to station from our home stay accommodation. Upon arranging a taxi I initially thought, 9pm, that will be just fine. Then I thought, better to give a little more time, let’s make it 8:45pm,. Then I thought, we might need even more time in case a natural disaster problem occurs. We eventually settle on the taxi collecting us at 8:30pm. That gives us a whole hour to get to the station, walkable if it really mattered in that time.
On the day itself, we’re all packed and the taxi arrives. At this moment, Rosie has a bit of a tummy ache and needs the toilet. There’s no poo movement after 5 minutes of sitting, and by this stage the taxi is blocking road and needs to move. Rosie gives up and we go and get in taxi. Phew!
The route to the station is straight forward and consists of driving down one very long road that crosses Hué city. The station is literally at the end of it. We however drive 150 yards to end of our side road and there’s a new “no left turn” sign. This means the taxi has to drive 1 mile in the opposite direction to the station (note: he couldn’t just do a U-turn like everybody else in Vietnam – this driver is no rule breaker!!). After much clock watching, we’re finally heading in the right direction, towards the station. Hmm, why are so many people lining the roads? Thousands of people line the streets- to see us off and wish us well… or they could have been waiting for a huge Buddha birthday celebration, which only takes place once a year. They are about to close the roads for a procession!
We pretty much made it out of the centre of Hué with minutes to spare before the main routes were closed off. But hooray, we made it to the station. I gave the driver a decent tip because he drove like a crazy man to get us there. Phew, we must now be home safe? Well actually, not quite…
We sat on the last, only available benches in the station (the ones without fans). Rubes went off and bought some more water for the journey and we waited for the train to arrive. Once the call came to get out on the platform, we loaded up with our backpacks, and like a train of mules, stomped through the sweltering station ou into the darkness, and walked to the far, far end of the platform, where our carriage was supposed to stop. We knew that within minutes the train would be here and we could all lie down and chill out. Ahhh! But what we hadn’t counted upon was the not-so-small matter of Rosie’s urgent need to use the toilet again.
Rosie: Uh oh! I need the toilet!
Me: Can you hold it? We’ll be on the train in a few minutes?
Rosie: Nope! I really need to ….(started running back through the darkness to the toilets) goooo!
Oh bloody hell. I decamp my half tonne of bags and chase after Rosie. I catch up to her half way down the platform and we jog together. I’m trying to maintain a classic western-style jogging form and pretend to be fit; whereas Rosie has adopted the clap-whacking dragging of flip-flops, echoing in the night to the bemusement of the Vietnamese sat around waiting for their train. We make it to ladies toilet. Rosie ducks in and opens the first stall. Somebody reaches out and the plastic door slams shut: the first squat toilet is already in use. She tries the next stall, this time door slams shut and we even get a little yelp. Brilliant. It’s around 35°c, the warm toilet smells are melting my nostrils, and the only toilets around are full. The second a stall is free Rosie flies in and shouts out, “It’s a Squat toilet Dad! It’s ok though, I’ll be alright“. Such a trouper! At this point I tip-toe through the puddles around the ladies toilet entrance and run back though the station waiting room to look out for the train. It is literally minutes away, it’s 21:24. As I stretch and crane I can see April and Ruben looking stressed at the far end of the platform.
After making it back towards the toilets with a calm and unfazed demeanour, I sternly (with a hint of worry and compassion) call to Rosie to check ‘it’ is happening, and can she please get a bloody move on as the train is here! Result. The squat toilet was a success. Hands washed, we had no time for grace now, we just bloody ran. Within seconds of getting back to April and Rubes, the 3 bright yellowy lights on the front of the train came out of the darkness and the scramble to haul the backpacks onto our persons again began.
The station platform isn’t level with the train floor like in the UK. It’s at ground level to the carriage. Which means with a 20kg pack on your back, a 5kg rucksack on your front, and pulling Rosie’s 10kg bag, getting into the train isn’t that easy. However, after the hour I’d just had, nothing was going to stop me now.
Our carriage this time appeared much older than the night train we took from Nha Trang to Da Nang. The beds seemed sort-of clean and the cabin was tidy-ish. However, once we stowed our luggage, climbed into bed and settled down, it felt like the best place ever. As we all drifted off to sleep with the gentle rocking of the train, I thought this really is a fantastic way to travel. Every now and then, you’d hear a bell ringing from a level crossing we’d be racing through; or the train horn – shooing things out the way probably! From time to time during the journey, you pull the curtains back to check what’s going on, and see paddy fields, limestone rock monoliths, tiny village stations and farms. There are no tourist buses or backpacker hostels around here, it’s just real Vietnam.
And it’s at this point that it seems that whoever built the railway just gave up and decided not to make it flat or straight any more. So for the last 4 hours (the journey was almost 15hrs in total), the train just lurched and bumped. I kept banging my head at one end, and feet at the other. Clearly, being 6ft tall is a problem. I felt like the ball inside a spray paint can. I managed to find another pillow to protect my head and got another 30 minutes kip, until I woke again. We’d stopped at a station. I couldn’t see where, but some people were getting off. I grabbed the phone and pulled up the maps. Current location…..HANOI! What the ****! “Everyone up!! We’re here!! Sh*t!
Shorts and shirt on, I slide the slightly sticky and broken door across and pinball my way along the wooden corridor looking for a station name outside. Nothing. I rush back to the cabin and Rosie is sitting up and has a bird nest hairdo going on, her eyes crossed, still not quite awake. Ruben is doing well and is dressed. April is bleary-eyed and trying to grab all the crap we’ve spread out around the cabin and squash it into our already too full bags… This can’t be right, this CAN’T be right! I have seconds to decide whether we start throwing children and bags out the window or stay on the train. Come on bloody phone, UPDATE!!!
At this rather unplanned dramatic point in our morning routine, the phone finally updated it’s position: False alarm! We have about 150miles to go. Oh crap. I wish I was a fly on the wall in the cabin next door, listening to the muffled shouts and thuds of the Western family, waking up in a panic that they’d missed their stop. It’s also worth adding in at this point, that the only time any announcement was made in English was as the train actually arrived into Hanoi. A pre-recorded message plays through the speaker system, complete with local folk music then rings out, telling us of the history of Hanoi. During the rest of the journey, the guard just yells out stuff in Vietnamese as he walks around.
So anyway, we have another hour or so to go before we reach our destination….
On reaching our destination, you would think that getting off the train is simply a matter of leave cabin, walk to exit and step off train. This is what everybody except my family did. My family, all packed and ready to go, are standing in a tiny cabin with bags already on and it’s at this point, I won’t say who, (but a clue is that it was another member of the parenting team), decided that, like in UK, we should go and wait by the exit doors.
Now, our bags are so big and the carriage corridors are so small, you can’t actually turn around. You have to reverse into a doorway and turn. So, we get to the end of the carriage and wait. A guard then comes along and crossly gesticulates we are at the wrong door and we must to go to the other end of the carriage. No problem! We just all shuffled and bumped and took turns turning in the toilet doorway, before heading back down the corridor. At this point, another guard says, “No! Not wait here! You must go back to the other door”. “Err, no, your colleague just say we must come here“. “No“, he replies and points us to go back. Again, we all reverse back down the train towards an open door, where again, we have to take turns turning around. Once back at the original door again, the somewhat rogue first train guard tells us to return to the other end again. At the point I almost lost it. “No! Your boss says to come to this exit! So we stay here. This bag is bloody heavy“. But then I relented, because he wasn’t happy either and we didn’t want to be shot at dawn, so we duly turned around in the toilet door (thank god it wasn’t in use!) and again got told off by the other guard, in what was appearing to be a game of tourist-train-tennis. I insisted this time that the guard follow us back to the scene of my attempted sit-in. This time he told the other chap we definitely had to use this door. On reflection, I can’t help feeling if we just stayed in the cabin… But anyway, we’d arrived in Hanoi!
Just the final obstacle to take care of: Taxis.
When you exit any station or port in Asia, you are spoiled for choice with taxi services. As was the case for us. The most persistent chap offering his services quoted us 200,000VND (£6.50) to go from the station to the old quarter backpacker area, where our hotel was located. It’s about 1 mile or so. Being the seasoned travellers that we now are (having fallen for this scam once already!), we laughed at his price and walked away. It’s ok, I said, We’d rather walk. This turned out to be the right decision. We crossed the carpark and politely refused all other drivers. Instead, we walked 10 yards up the road away from the station and hailed a cab.
Now, in my defence, from where I was standing the cab looked bigger. When it pulled up, it was actually the smallest car in Hanoi, a Hyundai i10. When the driver opened the boot/trunk we got April’s backpack and a rucksack inside. That was it! There was no further room. Ruben jumped in the front and had his backpack and another rucksack on his lap. In the back seat, April had Rosie’s bag on her lap; then I got in and had my huge backpack on my lap too. I didn’t think we’d all fit, but we did – just! As we pull away and turn left, the car is so weighed down, it’s bottoming out and rubbing on the wheel arches. In silence, only broken by the wheel rubbing, April and I glance at each other and think the same thing: “Oh god!” Our driver was great however, and took it easy. He was super happy and reassured the kids. In the end it was only 40,000VND (£1.20) so you can see why we laughed at the guy at the station with his quote of nearly five times that price. I gave the driver a great tip – my perhaps naive thinking was that if taxi drivers are treated well by western tourists, then maybe there will be less scams and more trust. It was worth a shot.
So we have arrived in Hanoi! Probably not as smooth as we were hoping, but when travelling with kids you need to be prepared for anything. Dodgy tummies and toilet emergencies can’t really be planned for, so you just have to hope for the best. I think for Ruben, next year getting the bus across Exeter to his new secondary school will be a walk in the park compared to some of our airport/ferry/coach/train journeys.
Mind you, at least he won’t have the rest of his calamity family in tow!