Train Ride to Hanoi
The train ride from Hue to Hanoi was an eye opener to say the very least. We boarded the train at around 5pm and we would arrive in Hanoi at 5:30am, so we were looking at a pretty long time on the train. But we’d booked a soft sleeper, and booked an extra bed so that we could have the full compartment to ourselves. We didn’t want to get stuck with some chain-smoking person for 12 hours! We had debated taking a flight which wouldn’t have been that much more expensive. But, we wanted to see some of the countryside and - hey – it’s the Reunification Express - we’ve GOTTA experience THIS!!
We were told to head out the gate to prepare to board the train. Of course, we’re in car #12, so we have to haul the luggage a mile down the track - or the equivalent of 12 train cars worth! No luggage carts and we also have an extra bag full of souvenirs that we’d bought in Hoi An and haven’t mailed. It’s hot as hell and the track is crowded both with passengers and people trying to sell you things as you elbow your way through the crowd, hands full of bags; trying to keep an eye on your three year old as you make your way through the masses. Needless to say, we’re hot, sweaty and grouchy by the time we finally arrive at platform 12.
Platform #12 isn’t under shelter, so we wait out in the heat for the train to arrive which is, of course, running behind schedule. When the train pulls up, we climb aboard, dragging our mountain of luggage through the narrow hallway while trying to verbally maneuver Jessica along in front of us. It’s like working with a broken remote control because she’s wandering everywhere but where she should be!
When we reach our compartment, I am completely disgusted and instantly dismayed. We are going to have to spend the next 12 or so hours in THIS? As a child, during a game of hide-and-seek, I once made the unfortunate choice of my friend’s older brother’s hockey bag as a hiding place. (I gave myself up within about ten seconds) NOT a smell I will ever forget - nor have I smelled it’s equivalent until I walked into this train compartment. The place was filthy. Not just run down shabby, but completely, unequivocally FILTHY. I honestly didn’t even want to set the BAGS down on the beds, let alone let my child sleep there for a night. The sheets were grey and stained in several places with God-knows what. There was garbage and seed shells someone had spit out all over the floor. The mattress covers had come loose, revealing grey and brown sweat (and God-knows-what-else) stains underneath. Even the small table was dirty. The floor was dirty. The sheets … oh yucky icky yuck icky yuck - did I MENTION the sheets?? The SMELL is revolting, and gagging me. OH MY GOD!!!
I immediately haul out the phrasebook and point out the “this is dirty” phrase to the attendant. He does nothing. (damn, the phrase book doesn’t HAVE the words for what I want to say NOW) We chuck our bags up on the top bunks and haul out the silk sheets and sleeping bag I brought with us. (Yes, Grant THIS is why we’ve been lugging that extra stuff around!) We chuck the filthy smelly pillows and blankets under the beds and I make new pillows for us out of stuff sacks and clothes. Well, at least Jessica now has a clean-ish spot to sit down.
I make my way down to the next train car to see if theres a clean room available. Well, isn’t that interesting? The next car has nothing but clean - if a bit shabby compartments. No garbage, no smelly room, no dirty sheets. I will happily sleep here. The train is moving, so I’m assuming that any empty compartments are up for grabs. I run back and find our attendant. I show him the clean room and show him our room. I point to the THIS IS DIRTY phrase in the book. I wave my arms and using gestures, tell him we want to change rooms. He seems like he’s going to agree until the attendant from car #13 shows up. They have a conversation in Vietnamese and then basically tell me that I cant switch because MY ticket says 12 and THIS is 13. Yes, I understand that, but MY compartment is filthy (much pointing at the phrase book) and I am a paying customer. Can you do something? No. I am FUMING by this point, and stomp back to our room.
They deliver dinner. It’s in sealed packages like on an airplane. It smells very bad and is making the smell in the room worse, which I hadn’t thought possible! We keep the bottled water and Grant takes the unopened trays down the hall to the bathroom to get the smelly food out of our way.
Jessica, of course, has to go to the washroom. The bathroom – wow. The whole room is dirty. Even the walls. All the ones I went in were dirty. Most had a hole in the floor and two places to put your feet on. Typical squat toilet you think, until you realize that, in actual fact, the hole empties directly onto the tracks below. Ugh. There is one bathroom with a western-style toilet. It is beyond filthy. The movement of the train makes the water (and whatever else) from the bowl slosh up over the seat. THIS is why I brought diapers on board. But Jessica wants to use the toilet. So, I take much toilet paper and some wipes and thoroughly wash the entire seat (she hasn’t quite mastered the hover maneuver all you ladies will be familiar with, and the movement of the train means if she tries the squat version we will end up with a very wet pair of shoes) MUCH hand sanitizer later, we’ve accomplished our mission and head back to the room.
En route to our compartment, I run into our attendant who is trying to tell me something. I think - hooray - he’s relented and hes going to let us change rooms! Not so much. He drags me over to the closet where the clean linens and pillows are kept. All right! If we can get those mattresses properly covered I can probably deal with the smell. We have a conversation in made-up sign language where I try to get him to give me some sheets. He wants money for clean sheets. There are DEFINITELY no words in the phrase book for the words I need now. I’m pretty sure he got the gist, though, as I stomped back to our compartment - sans clean sheets which, in hindsight, would probably only have cost me a few bucks.
Jessica, throughout all this, is having the time of her life. She loves the small space of the compartment and is climbing all over the place, giggling. She doesn’t care about the dirt and grime and the smell. I brought the usual assortment of toys and books and crayons and play-dough and she was happy. Grant retreated sulkily into the world of his iPod, so I was left to entertain Jessica. The one GOOD thing about all this was the scenery. Fantastic scenery, and if the room had been clean, it would have been quite a pleasant way to travel.
Luckily, I had been forewarned about both the food and the bathroom situation, so I’d come prepared with snacks and drinks for Jessica. Even though Grant had seen the DVD on Vietnam and actually seen what the trains looked like - somehow he still had some romantic vision in his head about a lovely, comfortable, dining car where he could go for a beer and some dinner. HAHAHA I TOLD him to bring some snacks to eat, and stuff to drink, but did he listen? Nope. So, after a dinner of Pringles and Ritz crackers spread with peanut butter, we retired for the evening. Grant was decidedly grouchy about the food situation, but I was starting to cheer up a bit and make the best of things. After all, we had another ten hours or so to go!
Jessica, of course, has immediately spilled her drink all over one of our clean sheets. This means that were sharing a bed. Well, probably a good idea anyway because shes likely to fall off the bunk when the train pulls into one of the stations along the way. We read a few books and played with play-dough for a while and then went to bed. The compartment was FREEZING, and we couldn’t turn off the air-con, nor did I want to use one of the grimy blankets. I’d given Grant the only sleeping bag so he could go to sleep and stop annoying me, so Jess and I were left with a partially dry silk sheet to cover us. I dressed her in a fleece and we tried to sleep.
Sleeping was interesting. I was seriously paranoid about any part of my body (or, more importantly, Jessica’s) touching any part of the bare mattress beneath me. Had I been sleeping on my own, I would have gingerly placed myself in the very middle of my clean silk sheet and gone to sleep. But with Jessica sharing, it meant I had to sleep on top of the silk sheet - which is, of course, slippery - being silk and all! One wiggly three year old, a narrow bunk, a filthy mattress, and a slidy sheet that kept coming untucked. I spent the whole night rearranging the sheet trying to keep her on top of it and not on the mattress. When I wasn’t arranging the sheet, I was itching. Probably my imagination, but I was CONVINCED we’d catch some sort of body lice or fleas or SOMETHING from those filthy beds. All in all, a long and awful night. Jessica, of course, slept like a baby.
We finally rolled into Hanoi at 5:30am. The train is a bit late and nobody is there to meet us. Our hotel was supposed to have a driver there to pick us up, so, of course, I don’t have the address for the hotel handy. We walk the length of the station carrying a mountain of luggage and a sleepy Jessica. Not seeing our driver, we swiftly realize we are at the mercy of the local taxi drivers - and we have no idea which ones are legitimate. I have heard stories about people getting ripped off on the way to their hotel, or of taxi drivers refusing to take you to the hotel you have booked saying its full, etc. So, Im fully prepared for the worst possible taxi experience. But, we have no choice. It’s dark, were tired, and there’s no other options.
We grab a taxi and the driver doesn’t speak any English and doesn’t know where our hotel is. We ask how much for a ride and he tells us the taxi is metered. Perfect. We’ve lucked into a legitimate cab, it seems. He has a conversation with another nearby driver who tries to help us out. Well, seeing as he doesn’t speak English or know where the hotel is either, were at a bit of a loss. We are starting to get mobbed by taxi drivers so we just jump in our cab, and tell the guy to start driving towards the Old Quarter. I haul out my laptop and look up the hotel phone number and the driver calls the hotel for directions. We then amuse ourselves by watching the taxi meter rack up the bill at lightning speed. It’s obviously fake, and we’re obviously about to get totally screwed by this driver. Ah well, I expected it based on conversations I’d had with other travelers. I could even guess what the bill would be when we got there. At this point, I dont even care; I just want this nightmare journey to be OVER.
We arrive at the hotel and its completely shuttered with rolling metal doors. Uh-oh . THIS doesn’t look too promising. The taxi driver rings the bell and the guy who has been sleeping on the floor in front of the desk - one of them, anyway - wakes up and opens the door part way. We had thought we could drop off our bags and then head for breakfast. We never suspected they’d have a room ready at 6am, and fully expected to wait until noon-ish or so to check in. But this guy tells us that not only are our names nowhere on the books; he has no rooms available for that evening. He is about to send us packing when he notices how tired and pissed off we are and that we have much luggage and a small child and absolutely no idea where to go. He relents, and tells us to come in for a moment; he’ll see what he can do.
Meanwhile, the taxi driver points to the fake meter and asks us to pay a fare roughly three or four times what it should be. I know this and so does Grant. I don’t particularly care as I was fully expecting to get ripped off, and its about $3 worth, so WHATEVER. Grant, on the other hand, is completely incandescent with rage. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him that angry. He is arguing with the taxi driver about the fare, and I’m just worried that we have no place to stay at the moment. I thought he was going to end up punching the guy out, and he’s about twice the size of the driver. So, I figure I’ll just end the problem right now and get the taxi driver out of our sight. I tell Grant to JUST PAY the fare and lets get this hotel situation sorted out. He pays, and I hear about how I let him screw us for the next two weeks. While I agree its a matter of principle (and can understand perfectly given my reluctance to pay for clean sheets on the train!!), at that very frustrating moment in time, I just didn’t care that some two-bit con artist managed to fleece us for a couple of dollars. Grant, on the other hand, just couldn’t let it go and the fact that almost every other driver we had in Hanoi tried similar tactics didn’t help matters any!!
We go into the lobby of our hotel. The Prince II for those of you who want to NEVER go there! The sleepy front desk guy phones a couple hotels to check availability and then sends us down the road to stay one night at a nearby place and then come back to his hotel for the remainder of our stay. Yeah right. We have few choices at this point, though. So, I get directions to this new place which is a few blocks away and we head out with our luggage. On the way out, Grant smacks his head into the rolling metal door that he didn’t see because of his hat. He hits his head hard enough to see stars, and reels out the door into the street carrying about 50 kg of bags.
There are no taxis nearby and it’s pretty unlikely I can talk Grant into one anyway, so we start to walk down the street in search of this new hotel, which is supposed to be two blocks away on a street whose name we can’t pronounce. It is about 6:30am, and most places are still closed. We are tired, sweaty, and completely pissed off. Grants head is killing him and we have nowhere to go. We are worried about getting robbed for our luggage and we are tired of CARRYING our luggage. Each of us has a bag on our backs, and I’m carrying Jessica on my hip, my camera bag on my stomach, and another bag (full of goddamn souvenirs) in my hands. Grant has a heavy bag in each hand and one on his back. People keep coming up and repeatedly shoving things in our face and asking us to buy things, or begging for money. Grant is beyond angry and still seething about the taxi situation, and getting ready to smack the next person who asks him to buy something. I’m not far behind him on the rage-meter! Jessica, bless her, has been an absolute angel throughout this whole scenario. She was cheerful on the train, and absolutely no acting up or whining while we were trying to sort out the taxi or the hotel. Self-preservation, most likely, but MOST appreciated by Mommy and Daddy!
There are small boutique style hotels every ten meters or so, that are just opening up for the day. So, I stop at each one and ask for vacancy. No vacancy. No vacancy. No vacancy. It doesn’t help that were in need of a family sized room in a town that specializes in closet-sized rooms! This guy is following us and trying to shove his hotel brochure into our face, saying stay at my hotel I have rooms! I have air-con! I have hot shower! Finally, after about my sixth or seventh no vacancy and realizing I really don’t know where the hotel were supposedly heading to is located in this rabbit warren of streets, I accept the touts offer of a free taxi to go check out his hotel. If we don’t like the room, we don’t have to stay, says he and the taxi is free either way. He calls us up a taxi and we gratefully drop our luggage into it and climb in.
We get there and I run up two flights of stairs to check out the room. The rate is $20 a night - which is about average for a budget hotel with air-con and hot water and a bathroom. They only have a double available but at this point we don’t care. The room is awful. Well, its a damn sight better than the train but that’s not saying much. It reeks of mildew, and the towels and bedspreads are limp and grungy. The furnishings are cheap and there is no in-room safe, just a rickety old wardrobe with a flimsy lock. Perfect, I say - we’ll take it!! I figure at least we have a place to shower and put our luggage until we find a new room. That is worth $20 easily!!
This is the point in our trip where Grant started smoking again.
Grant is as unimpressed with the room as I am and we vow not to sleep there that evening. Jess is happy there are cartoons on TV though and that keeps her busy while we try to sort out the room situation. There is free internet in the lobby, and we run into a nice Swedish guy that we met on the train! I send a blistering email to the manager of the Prince II telling him to sort out this room situation immediately. I mess around online for awhile trying to find a room and then call a few places in the guidebook, but those online saying they have vacancy actually don’t when we call them. So, I have a much needed hot shower (again, thankful I pack my own travel towels), give Jess a quick bath, and we lock our stuff in the flimsy cupboard and hit the pavement.
After looking at three or four available rooms, we find a triple room with three single beds that has a nice big in-room safe and looks clean and comfortable enough. Grant bargains with the lady at the desk for a bit cheaper rate of $40 a night because were staying for a week. We leave our passports to secure the room, and head off in search of Handspan, the agency we’ve booked our Ha Long Bay tour with. Turns out theyre only a block away from the hotel and have a lovely café with waffles for breakfast. Oh - HAPPY JESSICA! We ended up eating there almost every day just so Jessica could have waffles or French toast.
We wanted to check with Handspan to see if we needed our passports for the tour or if we could go apply for our Chinese visas. I hadn’t had a response from the email I’d sent them earlier so we went over to ask in person. We didn’t want a repeat of our previous overnight tour where wed forgotten our passports! No, the lady says we dont need the passports as long as we have the photocopies stamped by the Chinese embassy. OK so now we have to get to the embassy today instead of just handing stuff to the travel agent, because we need this official stamp. Sigh - gonna be a LONG day, isn’t it? Grr. We go back to the grubby hotel where we’ve left our stuff because they have free printing and I need forms and stuff for the Embassy. Damn they have no Adobe so I cant print a PDF file. So, we move our stuff to the new hotel to check in. The grungy hotel is unimpressed were checking out already, but at that point we just don’t care, we politely pay for one night and leave.
Check into the new place - which we liked primarily because of the big safe in the room – and there’s no safe. I go down to the front desk and she insists there’s a safe in the room. I go back upstairs and a guy shows up looking for the safe - he’s baffled theres no safe. Great - so entire safes go missing. Fantastic. He grabs a safe from the next room and puts it in the bathroom. Even better - they’re PORTABLE! Jesus. Then he can’t open it. Obviously the batteries are dead. The front desk calls and says wait until 2pm and the manager will show us how to use our safe. I head out in search of someplace to print stuff so we can get to the Chinese Embassy before they close for the day.
I FINALLY find a place that can print three blocks away. Get the stuff printed, and head back to the room to fill out the forms. We need to get to the embassy that afternoon or we won’t have enough business days in Hanoi to get the visas. Grant calls the embassy to make sure they’re open and - as luck would have it - they only process visa apps until 11am, and its noon already. AARRGGHH. THEN we find out via email that the person at Handspan that told us we could use a stamped copy of the passports was wrong and we did need the originals. So, we abandoned all thoughts of getting our Chinese visas anytime soon. Truth be told, we were pretty thankful we could relax for the rest of the day instead of trying to deal with the headaches of a visa application.
Meanwhile, the manager of our original hotel Prince II gets back to me about our reservation saying they did send someone to meet us at the train and he didn’t see us there. Like we dont stand out in a crowd of wee little Vietnamese people! AND he said we shouldn’t have expected to check in before noon - which we didn’t - we figured we could drop off bags until our room was ready. He said he had had a room available at 8am, which I’m sure was bull because the guy at the desk had never even heard of us before and had made it quite clear that there was no availability at all until the following evening. The manager offered us one night free and 10% off the room rate to come back to his hotel and I politely told him to PFO.
On the way back to the hotel I pick up some juice for Jess and luck into some milk boxes that we can keep at room temperature - her preferred temp for milk. She will actually drink them hallelujah. Finally can get some calcium into this kid!
At 2pm (yep, its been a LONG LONG day already) the manager - or whoever - shows up to instruct us on how to use the safe in our new room. It’s not working because the batteries are dead - which was pretty obvious from the beginning. He goes and gets a safe from yet another room for us. This one, thankfully, works but I vow to take my laptop with me on our overnight tour. At least the safe is heavy enough that it would be difficult to steal easily. Ten minutes after he leaves, two other guys come in and start poking around at one of the beds and arguing with each other in Vietnamese. They dont speak English and we have no idea what they want. A call to the front desk says they are thinking of switching the bed in the room for another more comfortable one. Weird. We figure that a guest must have left something in the room and they are looking for it. Either way, we never got a different bed, so who knows what they were actually up to!
Thankful we didn’t have to rush off to the Chinese Embassy, and eternally grateful we were in a reasonably comfortable hotel, we headed out to do some shopping for the afternoon. We wandered around exploring the funky Old Quarter, and realized our hotel had two or three other properties that looked very similar and were all named the same – all within a few blocks of each other! This made things a little more difficult to navigate! We ate dinner at an adequate Indian restaurant, where, wonder of wonders, Jess tried some new food. She didn’t like it, of course, but I was impressed that she tried. We ran into an Aussie couple we’d met previously at a restaurant in Hoi An, and swapped Vietnamese travel stories.
I’ll sign off here Jessica wants to watch a movie …