It is virtually impossible to know if you have reached your station on the trains in Northern Vietnam. There is very little signage at each place.
I think this might have been playing on my mind, along with heavy sleep deprivation, as our train rolled through the darkness. I was awoken by the sight of a Vietnamese man entering our sleeper cabin at around 4am and begin to tap Kate on the shoulder, as she slept.
As I saw this, I was paralyzed, unable to move. I shook my face, like a cartoon character would after being hit over the head. When I re-opened my eyes again he was gone – only a hallucination due to lack of sleep and stress.
It was silly to worry, as I was fairly sure Hanoi was the end of the line but what disorientated me was the combination that we were running late – by how much I don’t know – and that there was an hour time difference between China and Vietnam.
The trains that run these routes are dirty bits of machinery. Sure we had clean sheets for our bunks but years of smoke and grime were forged into the aged panels and floor. The toilets were grimey and even a 4 birth ‘soft’ cabin, although comfortable enough, had no better quality of cleanliness than the rest of the old train.
We rolled past rice fields as the sun rose above great pitons of limestone, then past shacks full of the poorer folk. Great beauty one moment, then tragedy the next – like a beautiful yet sad song.
I wonder if this country has recovered from the war? The ‘American war’ you’d call it if you were Vietnamese, or the ‘Vietnam war’ if you are western but the ‘Indochina war’ is probably the most appropriate name with hindsight.
Imagine the lasting effects of a country being locked into a 20 year war. Over 2 million working age people were killed, which must have had a lasting effect on Vietnam’s prosperity – not that we are very well educated about this side of things in the west.
There are many films we can watch that were inspired by the two decade long fighting, and many of them are worth watching, but I am struck by how little of the Vietnamese experience is contained within them. We all know about the damage done to American soldiers, the madness and savagery inspired by the war, but do any of us understand how much more deeply effected the people who’s towns and villages became a warzone, were?
Thankfully, Hanoi is indeed the end of the line and in the early hours of the morning, we drag our heavy bags out onto the street, into the already oppressive heat and try and find the energy required to negotiate a taxi, without falling for any scams you read about in guidebooks. It was surprisingly easy, as it turns out and we pay just $3 to travel 5km into the Hanoi’s old town. The driver is warm and friendly – this is our first taste of Vietnamese hospitality.
It is way too early to check in to our hostel at this time but they will store our bags. We just need to find someway to spend 4 or 5 hours and opt to seek some cultural understanding, so we head of to the mausoleum of the former Vietnamese leader; winner of the war, deliverer of independence and unification to Vietnam; the ‘bringer of light’, Ho Chi Minh.
I actually don’t think I’ve ever seen a dead body before. Not fresh or in a preserved state. And he looks just as his pictures do, in his later years.
I should add that not everyone thinks everything Ho Chi Minh did was great. His land reform policy was overly brutal – he later apologised and took steps to make amends – but he certainly achieved a lot of things that Vietnamese people value and is thought of as a national hero.
He too was a traveller and a mysterious one at that. Using pseudonyms as he went, he left Vietnam for France at a young age – then the colonial rulers of his country. Whilst in France, he reached out to the American’s to ask for their assistance in delivering independence to Vietnam but they ignored him. That pivotal moment could have prevented 20 years of war. And so he travelled to Russia and China, to seek their assistance and became pragmatically alighted with them.
A long day in Hanoi is capped of nicely with a ‘bia hoi’ on the street. Homebrewed, fresh beer, with no additives or preservatives. It’s sold on the sly from about 7pm by street vendors for as little as 15p a glass. You can get drunk for a pound, which must make it the cheapest beer in the world. And no hangover because no nasty e-numbers and you sweat out any remaining toxins, in the balmy evening heat.
The temperatures drive us to the coast and we find several little oasis’s of sun, sea and tranquility. A beach bar full of tiny crabs, just outside Hue with a bungalow to rest in at night. A calm homestay with our new friend, Vy at Seaside Bungalows, just outside of Hoi An. Then there was Life’s A Beach backpackers, with it’s own private beach 10km to the south of Quy Nhon.
Life’s A Beach is 5 days of hammocks and 4 nights of fairly wild party. I love these types of hostels, that are founded and ran, as if they are still chasing Alex Garland’s dream of ‘The Beach’. It’s a special place, no doubt about it – social, fun, wild at the right times and peaceful when needed.
At each of these places again, that famous Vietnamese hospitality is ever-present with the staff and locals. I guess the recent, tough history of Vietnam is motivation for such a warm and friendly attitude – as if going through collective trauma has brought what is really important, into focus to the Vietnamese.
An American woman I met in Quy Nhon – who sometimes pretends to be a Canadian, to avoid the reputation that Americans brash, uncultured creatures – tells me that she is shocked that the Vietnamese people don’t harbour any grudges against her when she admits her nationality. More than 2 million people were killed but the Vietnamese want to let bygones to be bygones.
We visit the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh city and see the documented evidence of such a hateful war. Some claim the war crimes are exaggerated or are propaganda to some extent but I can’t accept this. I’ve watched all the American movies but this is the first time I’ve seen the war from a Vietnamese perspective – they suffered more but also have the better perspective of life in the wake of what happened, whilst the USA never learns and seems permanently to be fiddling around in foreign affairs, sponsoring all kinds of international atrocities and brutal coups.
I meet an old friend, in a Ho Chi Minh Secret Garden café to finish of my Vietnamese journey. Someone I first met in Melbourne, who was very kind to me when I knew no one and was fresh in town. It is wonderful to stay in touch with those who are worth staying in touch with. After an 8 years gap, it is great to see my friend again. She is Australian but was born in Vietnam and now having seen the place with my own eyes, I understand a little more where the incredible kindness and hospitality I experienced back in Melbourne 8 years ago, came from. It came with her on the treacherous boat journey, she made as a child, migrating across the South China Sea and Torres straight.