While China was “Trains, Planes and Automobiles”, Vietnam was more “Trains, Boats and Motorcycles” with a few buses. We were able to avoid planes entirely in Vietnam, since the country is not that big. Don’t get me wrong… I like planes. It is just that you don’t get to see much at 30,000 feet.
I really enjoyed the addition of the boats to the itinerary. They don’t get anywhere fast, but they show you a completely different side of the country. This is especially true in the tropics, since many people live, work and play right along the side of the rivers and lakes. There is also something lazy and relaxing about a boat ride. You are kind of forced to accept that everything moves slowly.
We arrived in Vietnam on the bus. I had wanted to arrive by train, but we had missed our connection in Nanning. It was the only time a Chinese train was very late.
On the Vietnamese side the roads were very different. The massive Chinese infrastructure building regime was gone and the roads became winding and bumpy. No more dual carriage ways, just simple two lane roads. Bicycles, motorbikes, car and trucks all shared the narrow roads, so nothing moved very quickly. On the positive side, the scenery was beautiful. You didn’t want to be in a hurry.
I’d heard a lot about the Vietnamese country-side, and it is all true. It is spectacular. Beautiful sublime green rice paddies nestled within rugged rain forested hills with lazy water buffalo strolling through the reeds. it feels like a place where everything moves slowly… that is until you hit Hanoi.
The city is a marked contrast to the countryside. In the city, waves of motorcycles washes through each other. They don’t crash together, but seem to slip through without loosing any momentum. Movement is constant. Noise seems endless. At the same time, the atmosphere is electric. Stepping off the curb seems like a desperate act of blind faith.
We took a number of different boats in Vietnam. The first was in Halong Bay. This was the most civilized. We had two cabins with double beds and full bathroom. The ship itself was quite dated, but it was clean, well-maintained and the food was great. It was just nice to chat with fellow travellers and soak up the ambience of Halong Bay. Even with an amazing number of boats around us, it was peaceful and relaxing.
There are a lot of scams around taking boats to Halong Bay. We heard about them before we got there and also long afterwards. Even through we took a budget tour, we were lucky and it all worked out perfectly. We have to thank the “Royal Palace Hotel 2” in Hanoi for pulling this together for us. They were great.
We also took some different boats in the south. In the Mekong Delta we took a number of different boats; from small canoes in narrow waterways, to large long tail boats through floating markets and fast power boats up the main branch of the Mekong. It was a lot of fun seeing the different areas of the delta and the everyday lives of the locals.
That said, we weren’t able to avoid the scams at this end of the country. The first scam was buying a tour online and having the operator go silent on us. They hadn’t given us a location to meet the tour. We were basically abandoned. They didn’t get back to us until the tour had already started and we had made other arrangement. We were able to get some of the money back by threatening a bad TripAdvisor report, but they kept an “administration fee”.
We booked an alternate tour through the hotel we were staying at in Ho Chi Minh City. This tour was good, albiet a little like a forced march. This was how we got to see most of the Mekong Delta. The accommodation was pretty basic, but then again it was a budget tour.
The scam came up at the end of the tour. We had paid for a fast boat all the way to Phnom Penh. We paid extra for this and has it specifically detailed on our invoice. None of that mattered once we had left Vietnam and were clearing Cambodian customs. First they said that the boat was late, then they said the boat had broken down and finally they said there was no boat. There was a mini-bus into town, but no boat. There wasn’t much we could do at this point, so we had to chalk it up to experience.
While we couldn’t get from China and Vietnam on the train, we did go from Hanoi to Hue and from Danang to a little town near Mui Ne on the train. There were long haul trips, so overnight trains were the the best choice. Unlike China, train travel is often faster than buses in Vietnam. I think this is more to do with having slow roads rather than fast trains. The trains definitely didn’t seem to be going very fast.
The trains in Vietnam are narrow gauge (rails are closer together) and the rolling stock is ancient. This makes for a very bump ride. You bounced around from side to side constantly. It was better to lie down so that you wouldn’t get whiplash. It has us talking nostalgically about Chinese trains.
Still, it was definitely better than taking the bus. We had our own compartment, so we could close the door, gather around our french bakery goods and feast on some of our first western food in weeks. It didn’t really matter that the train always arrived late.
Of course, no trip to Vietnam would be complete without some travel on a motorbike. While I have ridden motorbikes for years, riding in Vietnam was a completely different proposition. Road rules seemed to be largely ignored and street signs were more of a myth than a reality. I had also seen a fair number of accidents already, so I didn’t want to be another statistic. Instead, our friend Rosariet organized a motorbike tour for our two families.
We hooked up with one of the hundreds of “Easy Rider” companies in Vietnam (in fact they all seem to be called “Easy Rider”). Luckily Rosariet did a great job and we had a really good group. The lead rider was a great character and very friendly.
We had four bikes on the tour. Each bike had a rider in the middle, a child in the front and a parent on the back. We drove to the beach, through villages and across the countryside. We even drove through a torrential downpour. By the end of the trip we were soaked, but very happy. It was a lot of fun.