Trip: Hanoi to Hue

It should be easy to go from Hanoi to Hue. They're in the same country, they both start with "H". In fact, all the major Vietnamese cities all start with "H" – Ha Noi, Hai Phong, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh – so it's kind of hard to get lost. The trip should be easy, and of course, the operative word here is "should". It all works, in theory.

Everyone told us not to worry, because they could make the arrangements for us. Hanoi is a city of wheeler-dealers, so we had no reason to doubt that. Duyen's cousin said that he could get us a plane ticket. Vu, the smarmy manager of our hotel, offered us a car and driver for the rest of our trip to Saigon. We had to admire his nerve, first after the Chuck Norris driver he got for us in Hanoi, but mainly for the outrageous price he made up. Being a crook is kind of like pregnancy. Either you are or you aren't, so why do things half-way? But since everything is a negotiation, even a bowl of soup, we didn't say no.

The cardinal rule of travelling is that you should always be self-reliant. This "relax, you're on holiday" stuff is for the birds, and it gets you in trouble every time. Because we were having such a nice time at the hotel, and because we were starting to fit into the daily rhythm, we forgot ourselves and didn't think seriously about the trip to Hue until the day before. By this time, we had to tell Vu that his expensive car trip was out of the question, and his next-most-profitable move was to try and keep us at the hotel as long as he could. He told us that he could get us on the plane to Hue, but in 4 days' time, and furthermore, he would throw a duck dinner in our honor, by coincidence, the evening after we would have been gone. (The dinner would cost $5, and the extra night would bring in $40 – quite a nice margin. He's so transparently rotten that you have to admire him.) Vu's proposal was laughable until Duyen's cousin also drew a blank, and that's when we started to get worried.

We remembered at that moment that all we had to do was to do something, so our last day in Hanoi we went around to the Vietnam Airlines office. The reason there were no tickets to Hue, we found out, was because there was no plane to Hue that day. This is the type of misunderstanding you constantly come across when you talk to wheeler-dealers. At least we had an explanation. I asked the Vietnam Airlines people if there were other airlines that went to Hue, but they looked at me like I was from Mars. Coming from the land of choice, I suppose, I'm a bit naive.

Next we went to a travel agent. We met a nice, laid-back fellow there, who made us feel very comfortable because he wasn't in a hurry. He was very helpful, and even insisted that I use their computer to look at my e-mail for free, rather than going down the street and paying. Our options were the bus and the train. He had a photo album with nice pictures of buses we might take. We had never seen this nice type of bus on the road, only some terrifying ones with all the luggage strapped on the top. Thirty percent of these terrifying ones on the road were actually on the side of the road, waiting for help. 

After deliberation, we decided that the train was probably the better option. You could sleep on the train, and if the train turned out to be terrifying, you could take turns sleeping. The travel fellow called up and found out that the 2-bed berth was unavailable on that night's train to Hue. More deliberation. Finally, we ended up booking 2 beds in a 4-bed soft-sleeper berth, hoped for the best, and walked out happy.

We spent the rest of the day touring around Hanoi. We went to the temple in the middle of the lake and talked about how things come through if only you're easy. We were very pleased with the fact that we had sorted everything out on our own, and that the worst was over. The other cardinal rule, by the way, is that you should never congratulate yourself.

When we got back to the hotel, we had a message from the travel bureau. They couldn't book our tickets, and adding insult to injury, they could only refund a part of the money we gave them. Duyen went over to talk to them, and came back furious. Vu said he could get the tickets, and could have them after dinner if we paid him now. After shaking hands with Vu you need to count your fingers, but at that point it was the only option.

The guys from the hotel threw us the dinner, as planned. It was really nice. There were about 10 dishes, and it was great to sit around and eat with people we had begun to consider to be family. No one got up to make a speech, though everyone got up to answer the phone from time to time, since the rhythm of a hotel doesn't stop for dinner. The only thing missing was Vu. This wasn't any kind of loss, since when Vu is around it actually feels like something's missing, since everyone's on edge due to his progressive management style. But I was curious as to where he was, since a day before, he really "felt the need" to throw a dinner in our honor. One of the guys made excuses for him, but the real answer, of course, was that he was off somewhere getting ready to pull a fast one.

After dinner, at the stroke of 9, Vu showed up. He gave the envelope with the tickets to one of the guys, got us a cab, and with a last act of bravado, gave each of us his card. The next time we were in Hanoi we should stay at his hotel again. When we got to the station, of course, we found out what he had done. We paid him for soft-sleeper tickets, he bought hard-sleeper tickets and pocketed the difference. Further, Duyen had a ticket for a Vietnamese, which was even cheaper, and would have got us thrown off the train. 

Vu may be a bastard and a sleeze, but you have to admit he's a thoughtful bastard and a sleeze. His solution was tailor-made for us. But even though he's cackling about having fooled those two idiots from London, what he doesn't know is that his name is on a web page that's accessible from any computer in the world. If anyone wants the exact name of his hotel chain in order to avoid it, click here and I'll give all the details, plus, a full character reference.

When we got to the train, it was dismal. It was a Soviet-style sleeper train, with a greenish interior and florescent lights, and a layer of grime to tone down the stark brightness. The matresses were hard, and the toilet was the squat, or hole-in-the-ground variety, which hadn't been cleaned since World War I. I wasn't thrilled, but not that bothered either. Duyen, on the other hand, was about to explode. First, the indignity of having been cheated when he saw it coming, next, the condition of the train, after that, the realization that the nicer train had just left, and after that, the fact that he felt responsible for me. Again, I wasn't that bothered, especially because there was nothing to be done. I tried to get him to relax and enjoy the ride. And again, the tunnel thing – as your eyes get accustomed, it's not that bad.

A minute before the train pulled out, we were joined by one of our berthmates. He was friendly and nice enough, and that made us feel better. He was surprised to see a foreigner on the train, but asked the Two Questions right away. ("How old are you?" "Are you married?") He was also anxious to try out his English, though it took him time to get the nerve. A few minutes later, another fellow came in, who also looked OK. We began to relax, since our major cause for worry had just dissipated as these nice people walked in.

One thing about the Vietnamese it that they make friends easily, effortlessly. Maybe the lack of effort is the key, but it's something that everyone does well. Until we asked, Duyen and I weren't sure whether these two guys didn't already know each other. It turned out that they didn't. My theory, by the way, is that the whole approach is different. Where in Europe, people keep their distance until they feel it's safe to be friends, in many other cultures, people try you out as a friend. If it doesn't work, just don't ask for their phone number. This is a nice way to do things, especially on a train, since it's more fun to share, and much more interesting to meet new people.

The first of our bunkmates was a railroad inspector, in his mid 20's. He was on his way to look at some engineering work. He was extremely knowledgeable on any number of topics, had studied English on his own, and clearly did a lot of reading. The other bunkmate was a tax man, also on business. He had just been married, and was absolutely crazy about his wife. His suitcase was tiny, but he had a full set of snapshots to show us, and she really was lovely. When his mobile phone rang and he found out who it was, he just melted. The other interesting thing about the tax man is that I have never met anyone who's so limber. Most people have to shift when they change positions, but he sat on the bed the whole time and rearranged his legs with his hands.

Duyen and I joked around that if this is how business travellers got around in Vietnam, we must be sitting in business class. That certainly made us feel better about our choice of transportation. There are two things that were memorable about the trip. The first was the wonderful time we had with our bunkmates – they're great guys. The other was totally unexpected. The train had positively the best Vietnamese coffee that I've ever had, anywhere. Vietnamese coffee is one of the best inventions on the planet. Espresso coffee drips slowly through a small perculator on to a bed of condensed milk. The coffee and condensed milk are then mixed and thrown over ice. It's thick, it's tasty, and you feel like running laps after drinking the stuff. Ca phe sua da, as it's called, is one of the great pleasures on earth. Someone on the train had the knack, the talent, the gift for making coffee. It came in a plastic bag closed with a rubber band around a small straw. We couldn't believe it.

So, here we were, in a great mood, drinking beer, coffee and tea with our new acquaintances. Everything was turning out all right, and we'd be in Hue by noon the next day. We turned in at midnight feeling pretty good. We woke up at 7 the next morning feeling hot and sweaty. The reason was that since we went to sleep, the train hadn't been moving and there was no circulation of air. There had been a derailment up ahead, and everything was stopped. (This is not unlike London, so we felt right at home.) Thoughts turned again to Vu's esophagus, and again I decided, if you're in for a penny you're in for a pound. It doesn't pay to get angry because there's not a whole lot you can do. I read my guidebooks, and we talked a lot with the Tax Man and the Railroad Inspector.

We talked about politics, we talked about history, we talked about culture, and I told them my corny old jokes, which of course, are new in Vietnam. The Railroad Inspector told us that this train had actually been built in the 90's, in Vietnam. The Tax Man had a lot of ideas for streamlining his own work, and both felt very fortunate that they were able to work for the government. They were surprised to find out that I knew about Vietnam from New York, and even more surprised to find out that I love Vietnamese food. They made a game of buying things for me to eat at the station stops, and marvelling at all the stuff that I dared to put in my mouth. We had thought that from a culinary standpoint this trip would be uninteresting, and in fact, after seeing the disgusting bathroom, had though it might be better not to eat. But I have to admit that we really did well.

We got into Hue at 8 the next evening, 23 hours after leaving Hanoi. We took a picture of our bunkmates (below), and switched addresses with them. Vu would never be able to look at himself in the mirror if he found out we actually enjoyed the trip. But we really had a great time. Had we caught a plane, we never would have had this slice of life, and had we walked, the trip would have gone much too quickly.

The Tax Man and The Railroad Inspector - excellent travel companions