Vietnam's answer to the Forbidden City impresses, while its trains don't...
06/28/2014 - 06/28/2014 89 °F
A stone dragon decorates the entrance to a palace in Hue
By and large, I enjoy trains. They are almost the perfect conveyance. They tend to get you to your destination faster than a car could. They are slower than airplanes, of course. Their advantage over airplanes, though, lies in the fact you can get up and move about easier on a train. You also can enjoy the scenery sliding easily by your window -- something you usually can't do in a plane on account of cloud cover. There are exceptions, of course. I took a train in Egypt once which was like riding inside a paint agitator. On another one in Georgia, the air conditioning kicked on only well after it was underway. It cut off at every station...pity that I was on a route with frequent stops!
The Imperial Citadel's long brick walls enclosing Hue's answer to Beijing' Forbidden City
To those less than comfortable trains, I have to add Vietnam's. I was hopping on the "Reunification Express" for a day trip north to the old capital of Hue. Pretty much all of Vietnam's trains run between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Some make more, some fewer stops. So, as the train pulled into Da Nang, I assumed it'd be a quick stop -- just long enough to offload passengers and take on new ones. All of their trains claim to be air conditioned. However, the conductors decided to save a few Vietnamese Dong and shut it off as it pulled into Da Nang. Thirty sweltering minutes later we finally were underway, more than a half hour late, at this point. This was crucial to me as the train was due in at Hue at 2:43 pm. Since most attractions close at 5 pm, I had a small sightseeing window.
It was getting on towards evening when I began my sightseeing in the imperial city
Part of the sightseeing, though, would be the train ride itself. One impartial website claims the section I'd be riding was the most scenic in the world. After about a half hour, we pulled alongside the coast. It was indeed beautiful. Blue bays sparkled by our windows, attractively sprinkled with tiny boats bobbing on the ocean swell. We caught glimpses of gorgeous stretches of deserted and pristine beach. Green hillsides closed in and would snatch away our view for a few moments, then part their curtain and open the panorama, again. Much as I wanted to, though, taking pictures wasn't an option. The windows were heavily polarized, and quite dirty. Which leads me to the other reason Vietnam's trains fall short of the perfect mark. My return train was positively filthy. Every seat I saw was stained and looked like it'd been through one too many college frat party.
Ear buds and music are mandatory, too, as a Vietnamese train is every bit as loud as my fight from Hanoi to Da Nang had been. Kids are allowed to scream at the top of their lungs with no parental correction, or bounce in their seats, hammering on the seat back in front of them. I am beginning to think the description my guidebook had of Taiwanese parenting ("indulge children to the point it is developmentally harmful") might apply wider in Asia. I cranked the Genesis and Thomas Dolby and tuned them out, though. When the scenery switched from hillside and seascapes to rural Vietnamese villages, I soaked that up eagerly, too. I saw water buffalo wading neck deep in canals, neon green rice paddies, banana palms, and ramshackle villages. On my way back, I had the day's photos of Hue to pore over, select, and edit. So, I kept myself occupied for the three hours or so of each leg of the journey.
Rooftop decorations in Hue
When we pulled in to Hue, I exited the station and made a beeline for one of the metered taxis. In less than 10 minutes, I was standing in front of the imperial Citadel. This massive, walled complex is Hue's answer to Beijing's Forbidden City. It is huge and sprawling. You can duck away from the plentiful tour groups fairly easily and find a quite patch to wander away from the crowds. Some parts of the Citadel have been fully restored and sparkle with red and gold paint. Others are in a semi-ruined state, and have a romantic, crumbling feel to them. This was enhanced by the late afternoon sun's rosy tint. The tour groups stuck pretty much to the main pagodas and temples -- the highlights -- leaving large portions for the independent traveler to explore. I particularly liked the Royal Library where the Emperor would retreat from the bustle of his court to read or study. There were gardens, ponds, and winding pathways where you could lose everyone else and imagine the peaceful quiet of a royal reading session. Many of the pond surfaces were covered with water lilies. Fish surfaced and frogs splashed into the water, spooked by up your tread. A brief rain shower passed through the Citadel's grounds. As if in apology, a rainbow glittered as it receded into the distance. I wasn't the only one who overstayed the 5 pm closing time. It was nearly 6 pm before I finally made my way to the exit.
The Royal Library, where the ruler would retreat to for peace and quiet
I took a few more pictures of the walls, gates, and defensive tower. Families used the wide open spaces to fly kites, and a group of teenagers had set up a baseball game. Hue's citizens and guests used the gardens that encircle the walls for a sunset stroll. I evaded the frequent offers of a pedicab, motorbike rides, and taxis. I still had an hour and a half before my return train. So, I hunted through the shops clustering near the Citadel for a restaurant that looked acceptable. Nothing really stood out, so I took a chance on one that I hope my stomach won't have cause to regret tomorrow.
Rainbow over the imperial city
My train ended up being an hour late, so I had even more time on my hands. There really wasn't much to do but sit in a cafe and swelter in the heat. Eventually, the train showed up, and I picked my way through the fleabag of a conveyance to find my seat. Vietnamese trains use a relatively random numbering system, so it is not as easy as it sounds. True to my usual luck, my seat was next to a bizarre elderly passenger. It had been a semi-crazed woman on the flight from Hanoi to Da Nang, who muttered to herself the whole time. This seat mate pressed his bare feet into my seat area, and took up the random muttering where the airline woman had let off. He also decided that pounding his calves, thighs, and anywhere else on his legs that wanted a good beating was a good idea. I just hope he doesn't decide to extend his Thugee-style massage services to me! But hey! I said I enjoy riding trains, didn't I?