Our next destinations were more historical and cultural than beachy (although you’re never far from a beach in Vietnam) – the old imperial capital Hué, and the artistic, culinary and cultural hotspot, Hoi An. The way to get there, we quickly settled, would be by train; Vietnam Airlines has a monopoly on internal flights and little reason to offer discounts, and did we not come, cash-poor and time-rich, to see the country? Sleeper buses do run all over Vietnam, but they receive, shall we say, tepid reviews – and even reputable bus services are constantly stopping to take on cargo and hop-on-hop-off Vietnamese passengers, with a side of constant honking. Night trains, though, offer decent comfort and speed, the chance to save on accommodation, and the prospect of a reasonable, if not deep, night’s sleep. The ‘Reunification Express’ trains run all the way North to South, from Hanoi to Saigon, celebrating Vietnam’s existence as a single country once more.
Our companions from Hanoi to Hué were Peter and Elizabeth, a Sydney couple, pilot and nurse, nervous about their first night train journey., but experienced overland travellers in India and the Middle East. It was fun, by now, to be the experienced ones, explaining the ropes and putting their minds at rest. The sleeper compartments of Vietnam Railways are almost identical to those we rode across Russia and China – in fact, the trains are old Russian stock, albeit slightly dingier from constant use. We’d gambled on cheap, tasty food on the train, and we weren’t wrong, but all of it contained meat, so on reaching our Hué hotel at 11am dinnerless and breakfastless, we quickly abandoned ship to have an unusual breakfast of salad and spring rolls in a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant. Then we booked a half-day motorbike tour of the city, and scrambled on.
Unfortunately, we hadn’t fully accounted for one thing: the weather. Central Vietnam has its own microclimate and its own monsoon season, which runs through November and December. We reached the grand site of the Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, perched on a hill beside the river, without problems, but as we explored his guard of stone horses, elephants, and mandarins, the rain began, and quickly turned the staircases into miniature waterfalls. We splashed down and re-mounted the bikes for the trip to the red-painted Tomb of Ming Man, but the rain intensified until we were wet to the skin despite the plastic rain-shrouds kindly loaned by our xe om drivers. Sloshing through the ankle-deep river that was once the path to the tomb, we both gave in and got the giggles. The enormous Citadel of the emperors is fascinating and complex, but large amounts are still in a ruined or partially-reconstructed state, in a way unimaginable to the West, due partly to neglect and partly to heavy bombing by the US during the Vietnam War.
We stayed the night in Hué, but were eager to carry on to Hoi An the next day. Here we made a further mistake; allowing our hotel to book us onto the tourist ‘open bus’ to Hoi An that circulates between the hotels. When this arrived, nearly an hour late, it was already so crowded that many people had to sit in the aisle. Nearly four hot and cramped hours later, we disembarked in Hoi An, which was once a cosmopolitan port on the Thu Bon river until it silted up in the late 19th century. However, its gorgeous Old Town, full of temples, pagodas, and Japanese merchant houses, have been preserved, and it is famous for arts and tailoring. We did little our first day except find an ambient and relaxed cocktail bar in the Old Town and people-watch, but the second day we took the opportunity to visit My Son, a former city of Champa, the Hindu kingdom that occupied Central Vietnam from 200 AD until 1300. The temples and statues that remain are phenomenally old – many a thousand years or more – but have suffered badly; the US bombed the site severely, and old B-52 shells and craters litter the site between stone cows and Shivas. The building technique which allowed the Chams to build brick structures without cement which are fantastically resilient to time and damp have still not been rediscovered. The Vietnamese attempted to reconstruct many of the buildings with modern bricks and cement in the 1970s, but these additions are already crumbling and mossy, while the Cham originals remain pristine. The site has suffered from French attention, too; before their colonial presence collapsed, French archaeologists chipped off the heads of most of the statues and carvings, and these remain in the Louvre. I felt like Indiana Jones as we toured these half-overgrown and long-lost structures.
We’ve left out one other major complication to this part of the trip; the typhoon. We first began to hear, “Big storm coming,” on Cat Ba, although it wasn’t until Hoi An that the path and sheer scale of Haiyan became clear. Loudspeaker announcements about the storm in Vietnamese began our first night there, and by the second day, the large trees in Hoi An were having many of their branches sheared. We had already booked a night train south from Danang, 30km from Hoi An, on the night of the 9th; unfortunately, the path of the typhoon indicated that it would come ashore precisely at Danang only a few hours after our train was due to leave. After monitoring the weather carefully, the storm began to slow and shift north slightly, giving greater leeway for us to get out of the path before its arrival. Still, we had no choice but to travel to Danang in the early evening in the hopes the trains were still running, and find it all but closed down, eerily quiet for an Asian city at 7pm. We ended up eating in the only open restaurant we could find – a tiny street food place operated by a whole family where we gestured at what the teenagers next to us were having, and were served bowls of noodle soup and breadsticks. The windows of the train station were covered with blue Xes which it took me an embarrassingly long time to recognise as tape meant to prevent shattering. Still, the Vietnamese were sanguine about the prospects of the storm, preparing themselves to minimise damage and hunker down as needed. As time ticked on, the station filled up with tourists and locals anxious to get out of town, and announcements in Vietnamese indicated delays, I worried. But just before 11:30pm, a little over an hour late, our train finally arrived and began to rumble south ahead of the typhoon towards Mui Ne.