Ever tried to type on a train that regularly does the rumba? I got a great dance lesson while sitting down to write this.
There’s sometime about trains – it brings out the boy in me – that crazy urge to say “choo-choo!” in an enthusiastic howl of glee. It’s just plain fun no matter what the quality of the train.
You could imagine you’re on the Orient Express trying to figure out who killed Mrs Thu in cabin 11 while drinking a Heineken and going over the clues and munching on camembert cheese and crackers. I did.
Needing to get out of Hoi An and having ridden my motorbike north to Hue before, I thought this might be a good alternative to the kamikaze bus services and nowhere to stretch out without belting someone’s foot, elbow or head.
The national railway snakes its way down the country from north to south and there’s plenty of opportunities to get on and off along the way.
The national ambition to both improve and promote the railways as an enjoyable travel option is marvelous in my opinion and good luck to them. The national train service website was pretty.
Although I didn’t choose the swanky new evening service, recently introduced, which features Western standard luxury and comfort, the regular service was good enough. Probably the only quibble I would have is the weak air-conditioning in the cabin on one of those glitteringly sunny days which I’m sure will make Da Nang the next Hollywood someday.
The first part of the trip is quite slow, crawling out of Da Nang to the foothills of the mountains to the north. Yet for all the time it takes for the journey, it’s well worth it just for the views.
The scenery as the train inches upward gently over the mountain pass also follows the coastline revealing some staggeringly beautiful ocean views. Even better, parts of the heavily vegetated landscape are blooming yellow and white flowers giving the odd appearance of light snow on the hills scarily plunging to the rocky ocean line.
The funniest part is spotting your great photo coming into view but having to try to take the photo in the gaps between the power lines swinging low across your viewfinder! Somehow it doesn’t look like paradise when that rice field is cut in half by the phone line!
It’s a wonderful realization that there are still so many unspoilt, unexplored and unexploited places to see from the train and later to go and visit. Personally I’d love to rent a small speedboat and check out some of the fabulous secluded beach spots just north of Da Nang. Certainly there’s a tourism product there waiting to be created.
Winding its unhurried way through the mountains, the train enters a few tunnels making constant use of a phone a minor problem. There was no Wi-Fi on this train however; given the massive semi-addictive use of phones in Vietnam I’m sure it will become a standard feature on all train trips eventually.
Like so much of Vietnam’s human resources for tourism, English speaking skills are still a little bit random – the ticket sellers spoke quite well however the train guards used a mix of words and pointing which did lead to some confusion. My carriage was the last to be attached to the train so a handful of foreigners had to wait alongside the tracks – not so glamorous, hey?
Probably my only real complaint is the Da Nang train station is in serious need of expansion. In the minutes leading up to the arrival of the train for departure to Hue, the crowd went from a handful to what seemed to me a few hundred in a terminal space that could barely cope with a hundred with the temperature racing to 35 degrees Celsius and everyone drenched in sweat before we even boarded.
Signage and the electronic boards updating travel information such as at airports would definitely help in controlling crowd impatience and the movement of passengers. One really good point was the strictness of controlling taxi and private vehicles – flatly no hanging around or wasting time. I would argue that Ho Chi Minh City’s airport needs to become more ruthless in this regard.
Once the train was over the hills, picking up speed towards on the plains, the views are still worth a few photos. The land becomes agriculturally richer with large tracts of highly organized fields scattered among the coconut palm-surrounded villages with the backdrop of the mountains in the far distance.
Pricing for the trains is reasonably competitive compared to the buses too. If the modernization drive of the national rail service continues, then we’ll have a pleasant and entertaining alternative to the dreaded buses of Vietnam.
All in all, it’s a train ride well worth taking. You might not meet the love of your life while rolling across the countryside but you will fall in love with the country!