The train that runs between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi is known as the Reunification Express, but my train went simply under the more prosaic name SE20. Regrettably, I ignored the recommendations of the English website of Vietnam Railways, that advised: With the overnight train, you should take the soft berth to sleep and you will feel more comfortable tomorrow morning. Instead, I opted for the hard berth and bought my train ticket at a local travel agent as Hoi An didn’t have a train station. It saved me thirty dollars from the price quoted on the English language website, that promised to transfer my ticket with free ship to any place in Vietnam…
After boarding the train I found my hard berth and it was surprisingly hard as I had imagined the term to be obsolete, originating from a bygone era where there were actually differences in the hardness of the mattresses rather than the modern use of the term merely reflecting the relative comfort of the respective classes. However, they were still luxurious compared to the days I cycled through Europe and slept many nights on my self-inflating mattress which, after several months, proved to be equally self deflating… The hard sleeper carriage looked antique in a charming way with its wooden panels and narrow corridors. There was a cabinet with the words ‘tool box’ written on it, with which we could repair the train if it broke down or with which we could possibly defend ourselves against an attack of wild elephants. I have a romantic view of train travel. The toilets were clean, although using them was a bit of a steamy affair due to the lack of air conditioning. They were provided with a modern touch, so after finishing your business it sufficed to dismissively wave at it and it would automatically flush. Before we left there was a lengthy instruction on how to behave on board the train in both Vietnamese and quirky English. It was comprehensive and included what to do when suspecting a fellow traveller having rabies. The other upper berth was occupied by a young dentist who travelled to Hue and we had a bit of a conversation after which he bought a duck egg for me from a vendor. It tasted awful, but I thanked the dentist for his kind gesture. Unfortunately, that was the only food that was sold on the train and for the remainder of the journey I survived on peanuts and some cookies I had bought for occasions like these.
In the morning I woke up and looked out of the window. Rice fields to the left and rice fields to the right. I noticed that many people working in the fields wore the typical conical hats and I conducted a small survey which taught me that two out of three rural Vietnamese still wear the popular hat. Despite the fact that this model is about 2500 to 3000 years old, according to Wikipedia, it is evidently very practical and protects against both the glaring sun and the rain.
Later we passed Ninh Minh and surrounding countryside which offered some fine views of the karst scenery of the region.
In Hanoi I visited the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh to finally complete my hat trick of famous dead bodies of communist leaders. Years ago I had seen the embalmed remains of Lenin in Moscow and Mao in Beijing, but when I arrived in Hanoi, later that year, Ho Chi Minh’s body was moved to Moscow for maintenance. Now I had the chance to right this, but before I could enter I was stopped at the security check. The woman showed me the x-ray monitor and I had to admit that my watercolour tubes, stacked neatly in a row, indeed closely resembled a cartridge of bullets. After we had established that I was not going to fire a round of ammunition through the dead body of Uncle Ho, I was allowed inside where, together with many others, I shuffled past the dead helmsman.
From the mausoleum I walked to the Temple of Literature through a narrow street of hardware stores where men were hammering and welding on the pavement. The Temple is dedicated to Confucius..
Confucius wrote: I hear and I forget. I see and I believe. I do and I understand.
The temple garden was beautiful and I sat for a while contemplating the words of Confucius, but I could make head nor tail of it.
Egg coffee tasted much like coffee with an egg thrown in, but the texture was a surprise: the viscosity of the egg with the hot coffee coming through like a gulp of lava was a weird sensation.
Bitter water tea, no surprises here either, tasted very bitter. I decided against trying facial water wu, though, I thought I wouldn’t like it.
Not far from my hotel in the Old Quarter lies a small lake. The Vietnamese name of the lake means something like Lake of the Restored Sword and derives from a legend of Arthurian appeal, involving a golden tortoise and, obviously, a sword. The park is one of the favourite haunts of students who want to practise their English.
– So zealy wook. The girl said.
– Wook? I asked.
– Yes, wook. I obviously showed a lack of understanding. Wook! She repeated.
– Ah, wook…. I said, still in the dark. And how do you feel about er… wook?