The last few days I’ve been travelling up the coast of Vietnam by railway. It’s good to have a change from buses, boats and pick-up trucks. I haven’t been on a train since an early, and somewhat bad, experience in Myanmar. It’s 1726km along the iron road from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, the whole journey taking 30 to 40 hours depending on how express the trains you get are.
For me the best thing is that it avoids the backpacker’s cafe tourist-bus trail; a depressing situation where you buy a cheap ticket the whole length of the country with stop-offs where you want. You end up herded from over-touristed area to over-touristed area, on buses shared entirely with other tourists. For all the Vietnamese that you see you mayn’t as well be in Vietnam. As I found in the Mekong Delta, the tourist infrastructure here is often too good.
There are three different classes of seating, and two different classes of sleeper. I’m deliberately travelling by day, and so far have tried the “soft seat” and the “soft sea air conditioned” classes. Because of this, I have been accompanied by reasonably wealthy Vietnamese. The people on the trains, and in Vietnam in general, are very friendly and kind to me. I’d heard bad reports before I got here that the Vietnamese were distant, cold, or even nasty, but I find it hard to see where that idea comes from. Perhaps I’m smiling at them too much ;)
Yesterday I stopped off in Qui Nhon, bypassing the famous beaches of Nha Trang partly because I don’t like beaches, and partly to speed things up so I can get to Hanoi by 18th February. Mainly I chose Qui Nhon so I could visit somewhere by the sea that hasn’t yet been quite so infected with tourism. The mountains, the sea, the bay are beautiful there. It was lovely to see the sea, which I haven’t seen for months. I cycled round the harbour, watching huge tree trunks been unloaded from boats, and ice been crushed and chuted into fishing boats.
It was interesting to observe the tourist infrastructure being built. I stayed at a six month new guesthouse designed for backpackers, which is only just mentioned in my brand new edition of Lonely Planet (a bookseller in Ho Chi Minh City spent some time trying to buy the book off me, so she could copy it and be first with the new edition – she wasn’t prepared to pay more than the cover price though, so evidently wasn’t that desperate.). It was very quiet, the only other guests I saw were a Singaporese civil engineer who was managing the building of a beach resort just along the coast, and his architect. Nevertheless the New Zealand proprietor is expecting such a rush, presumably now she is in The Book, that she’s already building a second hotel “Barbara’s on the Beach”.
So, we tourists all rush to the latest place, incited by Lonely Planet to avoid the crowds. It’s all authentic, local, interesting, cultural, if tough because the moto drivers don’t know where your hotel is, and some of the restauranteurs (shock!) don’t speak English. Of course eventually there are too many of us to want to go there any more, so we head off to remoter places like Cambodia or Laos. “Luckily” there is always somewhere new regenerated to be fresh and raw by civil war, or emerging from the isolation of a totalitarian dictatorship. So we can look forward in about seventeen years time to cultural tours of Iraq, or perhaps bathing on the beaches of Somalia.
After enjoying Qui Nhon, I made my way today to Hoi An. It’s a beautiful town, with surviving, practical, wooden colonial architecture, a rarity in much bombed Vietnam. I just ate the most delicious meal ever, at a place called Cafe des Amis. He cooks different meals as he likes each day, giving you only one choice as to whether you prefer seafood or vegetarian. This was the best demonstration yet of my nascent rule of thumb – the fewer items on the menu, the less choice you have, the better the food!