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David Sovka: Ninh Binh — come for the temples, stay for the train travel

Despite some icky bugs and cramped quarters, the Reunification Express is a fun experience, and well worth doing

Wheel Adventures Part Three: Vietnam: In which the author cycles the inland version of Ha Long Bay, tires of temples, and discovers KFC is doing it wrong.

January is wintertime in Vietnam, just like it is in Canada. Of course, when I say, “just like it is in Canada,” what I mean is, “not at all like it is in Canada.” In  Vietnam, winter is the warm, dry season where technically speaking, warm means “hot” and dry means “wet.” Even at two in the morning the temperature never dips below 22C, and the humidity is 97%. What I’m saying is sopping underwear 24/7 should be considered part of the season’s charm.

Today we are cycling back roads towards Ninh Binh, a picturesque and goat-rich province, if that’s the phrase I want, about 100 km south of Hanoi. Everyone we meet describes — as “just like Ha Long Bay,” the stupidly-photogenic UNESCO World Heritage Site on the nearby coast, known for its towering limestone islands capped with ultra-green tropical rainforest.

I suppose Ninh Binh is like Ha Long Bay in the way Canadian winter is like Vietnamese winter. For one thing, Ninh Binh is a good distance inland. Yes, it has similar limestone karst monoliths, also topped with jungle green, but the sea kayaking and scuba diving are very limited. And unlike Ha Long Bay, Ninh Binh is chockablock with goats, as I may have mentioned. You see them prancing and cavorting on the roads, in the fields, on the limestone towers, and on the menu. It turns out that goats are both cute tricksters and delicious mains.

10th Century Capital

Powered by a meal of delicious goat (our guide assures us that lunch was not from one of the local dog meat restaurants, which is actually, truly, really a thing) we cycle through Hoa Lu, the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries. It was founded by local warlord Đinh Bộ Lĩnh (posthumously known as Đinh Tiên Hoàng, or “First Dinh Emperor”) in 968 AD, following years of civil war and a violent secessionist movement against China’s Southern Han Dynasty.

Not much of the original citadel remains, but there are still plenty of temples built in honour of successive emperors. We borrow ankle-length grey skirts to cover our immodest Western cyclist knees, and explore the defensive earthen walls, palaces, temples and shrines that make up Hoa Lu. Wearing skirts on top of our cycling clothes has the added benefit of raising our immodest Western core temperatures to roughly that of the planet Mercury.

Perhaps it is the one-two punch of heat and humidity, or perhaps it is just normal human ennui, but eventually one tires of touring temples. They are all very nice and very interesting, but… Well, the same thing happens to you in Europe. No matter what architectural marvel of historic significance you’re looking at, eventually it becomes just another great big, bloody castle.

Fortunately, there is ice cream. Today the temple vendors are all out of goat ice cream, so we make do with chocolate.

Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh (pronounced “ning bung”) is slowly growing into a tourist town, but today it is still in that awkward teenager stage of not fully exploiting its natural environment for short term profit. For example, there is plenty of affordable accommodation. Also, the streets are relatively clean and quiet, lined with shops that cater to normal people doing normal things, rather than idiot tourists drinking too much and singing karaoke and spreading syphilis.

In point of fact, the only idiot tourists we see are us, and the local people seem happy to leave us alone instead of trying to sell us cheap crap made in China to look Vietnamese, as is the case in more touristy places. No, they are not quite doing it right, but I want to give them points for trying.

For example, Ninh Binh has a KFC franchise. After a week of rice and goat, my wife suggests that the Colonel is just the thing for supper tonight. She is being quite clever. If you know my sweet wife, you know that she is a mad fiend for KFC, and this is just a slick chance for her to load up on more hot grease and 11 herbs and spices. Only it isn’t: Ninh Binh KFC is more like what your mom made at home in the 1970s, a sort of chicken-in-cornflakes disaster that was finger lickin’ terrible.

Plain trains and audiophiles

We are about to shave 600 kilometres off the cycling distance between Hanoi and Saigon by taking the overnight train from Ninh Binh to Hue.

After a week in the bike saddle, my legs and bum think this is a spectacularly good idea. All my other bits are waiting to see a) just how crappy/dangerous/full of snakes the train is; and b) have any Extinction Rebellion loonies blockaded the tracks on behalf of things they don’t understand?

I’m pretty keen on rail travel. When it works, it is cheap, efficient and romantic. But does it work?

Vietnam does have a rail… a railway… uh, I’m trying to find the right word. No, don’t help me. I want to say “system” but that seems like overkill. Okay, let’s go with it for now: Vietnam has a railway system, with trains and tracks and stations selling cigarettes and weird junk food.

Construction of the 1,726 km-long Hanoi–Saigon railway, the Transindochinois, began in 1899 and was completed in 1936. In the late 1930s, the trip from Hanoi to Saigon took 40 hours and 20 minutes at an average speed of 43km/h. Today the Reunification Express chugs along only slightly faster, at an average speed of 55km/h. Chronic under-investment in the rail system means that it’s still mainly a single-track line.

There are four options for the 12-hour overnight train ride to Hue: hard seat ($28), soft seat ($33), hard berth ($41) and soft berth ($43). With so many options, your pretty little head is probably spinning! If you don’t pick the right one, it will be; this is not a slick, smooth, high-speed bullet train.

I’m here to help. The hard seat option is quite hard, both in the adjective sense of “firm,” and the adverb sense of “with a great deal of effort.” Imagine unvarnished wooden slats exactly the wrong distance apart for your big, North American bum.

The soft seat option refers to the lap of one of the passengers who chose the hard seat option, so it depends on the… uh, “lap conditions” of the passengers who got there before you. What I’m saying is you sit on them, so choose wisely: choose fatty.

The hard berth option means you spend the night on a hard bench with five other strangers who may or may not spend the entire train trip staring at you in the dark.

The soft berth option is for the ooh-la-la crowd. It sleeps just four people, each of whom gets his very own soft (meaning “extra firm”) bench seat approximately two-and-a-half inches shorter than your height, no matter what that is.

I’m not sure which is the best option to recommend. If you’re really concerned about the price difference between options, maybe stay at home. Also, if you were actually happy with the Air Canada seat you rode in across the Pacific Ocean, you obviously have very low standards and/or no functioning nerves in your legs and backside, so what does it matter?

Happily, included in all options is a sometimes-functioning toilet at the end of the train corridor, complete with an inch-and-a-half of water sloshing around the floor.

A dining car is also included, which may suggest romantic images of Hercule Poirot catching criminals aboard the Orient Express. This is absolutely nothing like that. It is not so much a dining car as it is an unairconditioned smoking car with extra hard benches. And no food.

We are assigned two strangers with whom to sleep in a soft berth cabin. This is also not a romantic Orient Express moment. Fortunately, they (Anne and Graeme) are a lovely couple our age (old) from Melbourne (Australia) who neither snore nor anything else you really don’t want to happen when you share a tiny cabin with strangers.

“Oh! My goodness, we have guests,” is the first thing we hear on entering the cabin. Anne is not talking about us. She shakes the cabin’s tiny decorative flowerpot and out crawl a half-dozen cockroaches. They look angry to be roused like this, earlier than usual and when we are awake rather when they can safely crawl through our luggage and into our ears while we sleep.

The railway has taken a lot of punishment over the years, and not just from cockroaches. During the Second World War, the Japanese made extensive use of the rail system, resulting in Viet Minh sabotage on the ground and U.S. bombing from the air. During the Franco–Viet Minh War (1946–54), the Viet Minh made off with rails to create a 300 km network of tracks in an area under their control. The French responded with their own sabotage. Between 1961 and 1964, 795 Viet Cong attacks were launched on the rail system, forcing the abandonment of large sections of track. During the U.S. air war against Vietnam, the northern rail network was repeatedly bombed. Today, bomb craters can still be seen around every rail bridge and train station in the north.

Despite the icky bugs and the cramped quarters, the Reunification Express is a fun experience, and well worth doing. It works: the train is cheap and romantic, even if it’s not particularly efficient. I liked getting drowsy in the darkness, gently tossed in my berth. It has been fifty years since I last fell asleep to the sound of an engine rumbling along, my father and mother chatting in the green glow of dashboard light, as our big 1969 Chrysler ploughed through the night on family trips. Remember the poem about Santa and his belly shaking like a bowl full of jelly? That’s how I spend the night on the train, damn my eyes for not losing any weight before this trip.

Okay, no more goat for me.

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