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For the past few days I have played the role of tourist almost to perfection. If it is the tourist's role to be taken in by the myth of the "truly authentic" tourist experience and to improve the lot of the local by the application of cash, then I have the role down to a T.
The overnight train ride - Vietnam is a very long thin country from North to South, and much of is traversed by "The Reunification Express" running from Saigon to Hanoi. Railways are favourite targets for the military ,and given that Vietnam was for a long while fighting the French and the Americans, this railway had to be rebuilt in the 1970s. Unfortunately , it was rebuilt to the standards of the 1930s and still runs at 1930s speeds, so the journey from Saigon to Hue (roughly the mid point of the country, north to south), about 1000km, takes about 20 hours. The tourist is led to believe that this journey is an unmissable experience, so we tried it.
The train is really quite grubby. The floor is sticky and the mattresses were once red under what is now grey. The trains are packed at present because of Tet and we only got top bunks in a shared compartment of four. The train pulled out of the station at 7pm and by twenty past both the lower bunks were snoring. And continued to do so until about 7am when they woke up and got off. I on the other hand, struggled to sleep at all, but I did achieve my highest score so far on Word Welder, my latest computer game obsession.
Daytime brought the experience bit, with the view out of the window being everything you'd expect from this part of the world. Corrugated tin roofs, flocks of duck, water buffalo, herons, paddy fields, the highway (generally moving more slowly than the train, which is surprising as road travel takes less time than the train!) and quite a lot of fly tipping.
On the edge of town, the relationship with the neighbours is really quite intimate as the train passes almost through many living rooms, and very, very close indeed to beautifully tended allotments.
The 'experience'' reaches its peak with the stretch along the coast where the train takes a cutting and the old road follows then Hai Van pass. The track twists and turns so that you can see it behind and in front, sinuous and python like. This is the stretch that is pretty well documented in video megabytage on the internet, and everyone in my carriage now has more to add. Certainly the beaches, the sea and the view into the distance were spectacularly grey and misty on this particular day.
Even more of an experience was a part of the return journey from Da Nang to Nha Trang (10pm - 7am) - this time in a 6 berth cabin - the bunk below mine housing two ladies and a baby. Cramped, crowded and a bit bemusing. I slept like a log.
Guided tour - I'm not normally much of a one for guided tours. In National Trust buildings I'm content to know that the building is old and historic, that people used to live in it, that the paintings are significant and that the furniture is by someone famous. I'm certainly not going to remember any of the detail. So I was slightly surpised to find myself signing up for the $8 deal with a bus , a guide and a boat trip. But it went really well. Dob , our guide, was amusing, clearly a great admirer of Minh Mang, the 2nd emperor of the Nguyen (gwing) dynasty, and a stickler for making us meet really quite short deadlines to get back on the bus. I can still remember that Bo Dai the last emperor handed over power to Ho Chi Minh in 1945 and thne retired to France for another 50 years (nice one, Bo). And the tetchy Finnish headmaster, the disappearing Frenchman and the 80 year old travelling with her great grandson, all added colour.
Motor bike trip - this myth goes that there is no better way to see Vietnam than on a Motor bike. Australians from all over the wrold have set up hire companies and guiding operations to help th etourist gain this benefit. We hired our bikes from a local company, who arranged to have our luggage delivered to our hotel in Hoi An and our bikes collected from us. The first half of the journeywas OK but we reallyshould have bought one of the huge plastic bags the locals use to keep the rain out. But we did not, so thatby the time we reached Lang Co we were soaked and really quite cold. As we paused by the roadside wondering what to do about it, oneof the local bead sellers pulled up alongside us and just completely took charge. She led us in to a nearby hotel and ordered tea. She stripped us of the outer layers of sopping clothes and made off with them promising to be back in 5 minutes and having lent us her coat. When she returned she had two of the plastic bags with her and said our clothes would be an hour. She introduced us to the hoteliers in whose yard we were sitting (they hadnoEnglish) and ordered us the best and cheapest lunch we have had. After lunch our clothes were returned, dry and warm. We bought some beads and some tiger balm and she suggested we give 500,000 dong. Can you imagine what a pleasure it is to be able to hand over half a million anything and feel completely relaxed about it. And then the sun came out. The two of us then proceeded via the spectacular HaiVan pass and the expanding beach resorts of DaNang to Hoi An.
Our saviour is 32,her name is Madame Hue, she is recently widowed and has two young sons. If there are any single ment who would like to meet such a person I have her address and telephone number, and she has indicated her willingness.
More tourist treats still to come.
Old town lunar festival
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