For once, I caught a break with my flights and was actually able to get an earlier connection out of Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). So, instead of arriving at 8:00pm, I landed at 6:00pm, which was good since I needed to buy a train ticket to Hanoi for the next day.
When I landed at the airport in Saigon, I had to spend about 30 minutes at the visa window while they processed my pre-approved visa application. The process was actually much simpler than I feared it might be and I was on my way into town within the hour.
I have to admit, I didn’t have high expectations for Vietnam. Actually, I guess I didn’t know what to expect, but I’d set the bar pretty low.
As I got closer to the hotel in my cab I was mesmerized by the thousands of motor-scooters rushing by on all sides of the cab and by the dazzling light displays all around the city celebrating the Tet New Year (which was technically Feb 6-10 but is apparently celebrated all month).
This was certainly not what I had expected, the city was beautiful at night. It was reminding me a lot of Shanghai, all glitz and glamour, bright lights and fancy stores. I had actually planned to take it easy on my first night and start the next day early with sightseeing but now I couldn’t wait to drop my stuff at the hotel and head out into this vibrant city to start exploring.
I was excited to discover that my hotel, the Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers, was conveniently located in the heart of all the action downtown. After checking in, I headed right back out to explore.
I spent the rest of the evening wandering the streets near the hotel, doing a little shopping and taking a lot of pictures. The first thing I learned about Vietnam is that motor-scooters outnumber cars about 50 to 1, the second thing I learned is that there is no such thing as a crosswalk.
When you need to cross the street, you basically just have to walk out into traffic and hope for the best (ok, there’s a bit of an art to it but that’s the bottom line).
Crossing the Street in Vietnam
Vietnam is apparently famous for this and my guide book had mentioned that crossing streets would be a challenge. Their advice was that motor-scooters and bicycles will swerve around you, cars will not.
So, the idea is to wait until there are no cars coming and then cross the street at a quick, steady pace so that the scooters and bikes will know where you’re going and be able to avoid you. If you try to avoid them yourself, this is where you will get into trouble.
Now, I admit, this approach to street crossing takes a bit of guts (and a large amount of blind faith). It’s not easy to just keep walking across a busy intersection with dozens of motor-scooters coming toward you and just hope that they are all agile enough to not plow into you.
But miraculously, this approach does work. I crossed a number of streets and I was not mowed down by oncoming traffic even once.
On my evening stroll around town, I passed by the Rex Hotel which was once a favorite with US officers. The hotel was the scene of the daily press-briefing sessions during the Vietnam War that came to be known as the “Five O’Clock Follies.” Next door to the Rex is the beautiful People’s Committee Hall, formerly the Hotel de Ville. In the gardens out front stands the statue of “Bac Ho” (Uncle Ho Chi Minh).
The next morning I got up early to see the sun rise over the Saigon River from my room and start exploring the city a little more. My first stop was Saigon’s oldest and largest market, the Ben Thanh Market. It was interesting but a lot like all the other markets I’ve seen on this trip so I didn’t linger.
The next stop was the 130-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral. The building’s distinctive red bricks were imported from Marseille and its twin bell towers dominated the Saigon skyline until well into the 60’s. The stained glass windows were also carefully shipped in from France.
From the cathedral, I walked down the street to the Reunification Palace. The site was a center of power in Vietnam for more than a century, most recently as the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace. That ended when North Vietnamese troops overran the Palace in 1975. The President and his cabinet were arrested here shortly after. Rather than moving into the building, the new government opted to keep it frozen in time at the moment when a Soviet-built T-54 tank crashed through its gates.
The same battered tank remains on display outside. The basement command center is filled with 1960’s vintage communications gear, rows of rotary-dial telephones and maps of a nation that no longer exists.
The Train from Saigon to Hanoi
So after a morning of touring Saigon, it was time to check out of the hotel and head to the train station for my 32-hour ride north to Hanoi.
Now, I know what you’re thinking…what on earth made me think that a train ride that long (in Vietnam for God’s sake) was a good idea. Truth be told, I’m not sure. But I have to say that I did research it as thoroughly as I could have ahead of time, both online and in my guide book. All reports were that this was a lovely way to see the countryside including a lot of parts of Vietnam that don’t really have tourist facilities and so are difficult to visit.
I booked the most expensive ticket available (which was $54) for a 1st class, air-conditioned, 4-berth sleeper car. I figured I’d be sharing my cabin with 3 others but I thought that might be part of the fun (I don’t know why I think these things).
Now, I know for a fact that there are some really nice trains around the world with very comfortable sleeping cars. I also now know for a fact, that these trains are not located in Vietnam.
When I arrived at the station, I easily found my car and was shown to the correct berth (or so I thought) by a porter. I was the first one in the cabin and he had shown me to one of the two lower berths (which I was hoping for) so I thought maybe this might be OK after all.
The train was quite dingy and there was definitely nothing fancy about it but there was a pillow, sheet and comforter folded on the bed so you could make it up when you were ready to sleep. I thought at least it will be more comfortable to sleep than on an airplane since I have an actual bed.
Unfortunately, the porter had apparently shown me to the wrong cabin and a gruff woman who seemed to be in charge of my coach (and spoke no English) came to get me and ushered me to a different cabin and a TOP bunk.
Now, this I was not happy about but it wasn’t like I could argue with her, she had no idea what I was saying. The worst part about the top bunk (besides the drama of getting in and out of it) was the fact that I couldn’t really see out the window from up there…and the whole point of the train ride, for me, was to enjoy the views along the way.
So, I was a little frustrated and once we started moving, I got down out of my bunk and stood outside the cabin in the hallway where I could see out the windows. The train attendant woman was kind enough to bring me a chair to sit on so I tried my best to dislike her a little less.
While I was sitting there, a little old Vietnamese woman from the next cabin came over to me and started speaking to me in French, asking if I was ok and if there was a problem with my cabin. I said no, I was fine, and I tried to explain that I was just hoping for a lower bunk so that I could see the view along the way.
She was so sweet and insisted that I come into the cabin with her family (her son and grand daughter), they had one open bunk. It was an upper bunk but she made her son trade with me so I could have the lower. I was horrified that she was going to so much trouble but she was so sweet and wouldn’t take no for an answer so I gratefully took her up on her offer and joined her family for the rest of the trip (or at least until the next morning but more on that later).
The best part was that they were traveling with a cute little poodle named Domino who took an instant liking to me and hung out with me on my bunk for much of the afternoon. At this point, I was enjoying the ride a little more.
My new Vietnamese adopted grandmother had (like any good grandmother would) packed a whole suitcase filled with snacks and goodies for the long ride. About every hour she would pull something else out of that bag of hers and insist that I join them. We had grapefruit, a mango, some crackers and a few other goodies.
She was adorable and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to speak French again, I guess she doesn’t get to do that too often anymore. In Vietnam, I‘ve found that the older generation speak French (a holdover from the French colonial days), the very young speak English (they have only recently started teaching it in the schools) and those in between speak only Vietnamese.
That is, unless you’re at a hotel or tourist facility, then it’s safe to assume someone will speak English.
We had boarded the train at 1:00pm and by the time it got dark around 6:30pm, everyone was settling in for some sleep. I stood outside my cabin for a while chatting with an Australian woman who was traveling with her husband and 14-year old daughter. Since we were the only ones aboard the train who spoke English, we started talking.
She and her family had just started a year-long around the world trip and they were keeping a blog as well. I thought that was great so we exchanged website info so we could visit each other’s sites. We talked for a while before they got off the train about 8:00pm in Nha Trang.
After that, there wasn’t much to do on the train and my new Vietnamese family was clearly preparing for bed so I decided I’d go to bed too. I actually did sleep pretty well thanks to the rocking motion of the train – it puts you right out.
When I awoke the next morning at 6:00am, the gruff train woman was back and carrying on about something to the grandmother but pointing at me. Oh good grief, what does she want now? It turns out that someone else had that bunk from the next stop on to Hanoi (we were approaching the stop in Da Nang) and I would have to move back to my original bunk. Well, great.
So I said goodbye to my new Vietnamese friends (and Domino) and moved next door back to my original upper bunk. Fortunately, since the day before, I had new roommates in that cabin that also got on the train in Da Nang. A nice young couple from Sweden named Sophie and Richard…yay, more English speakers.
We hit it off right away and it was just the three of us in the cabin so I was able to move down to the lower bunk on my side so I could see out the window again. The best scenery on the whole ride turned out to be during those early morning hours so I was happy that I was able to enjoy that from a good seat with people I could actually talk to.
It was just the three of us for most of the day until we stopped in Vinh at about 5:00pm and a whole lot more people boarded the train. This included a new occupant in our cabin, a Vietnamese man who had apparently eaten an entire clove of garlic and a pack of cigarettes for lunch because that was all we could smell when he came in, ugh.
So, Richard and I went back to our top bunks and I just read my book for the next 4 hours until we finally, blessedly arrived in Hanoi.