19.01.2013 - 20.01.2013 24 °C
Time to turn heading south. The long trip back from Ha Long Bay was exhausting and before embarking on setting off for the train station collected our stored luggage and popped into the good old Italian joint for a little healthy home comfort. The tired weary travellers had in some way envisaged a comfortable first class "Euro Star" type sleeper train journey down south, but obviously that wasn't to be, and with a moderate dose of reality kicking in - I mean what the hell did we think an Asia sleeper train would be like (thanks to Clauds' mantra), we pushed on and made the best of it. Needless to say, it would be tough to describe the experience in words. I would never believe it, but it really felt like there were potholes in the lines, the journey was very bumpy, and when we woke up to a guy cotching his lungs out the window and another guy walking into the cabin with my slops after going to the crapper, all within a never ending pungent smell of broiled anything, must have been duck of something of that nature (from the food trolley), I knew we were pushing the limits of our travel patience.
To add to this, we were woken up around 4:30am by a female hitler type Vietnamese train guard banging on our cabin door, shouting and pointing rudely at us. Unfortunately we didn't understand a word and neither did she, but we somehow 'reached an agreement' when we were next to man handled off the train at our stop - Dong Ho, about 450km south of Hanoi in central Vietnam. In the misty dark we made away across the railway lines to lobby like area where all these big eyed locals looked at us in a very astonished and intriguing way. This is as a communist setting as you would expect, loads of military official looking train staff and guards and police, loads of government posters and a big municipal building littered with official flags.
We had, on the guidance of our travel agent lady in Hanoi booked a ticket to Dong Ho, as this is an offbeat remote territory, completely away from the mainstream tourist route. The attraction or pull to this location was exactly that, and the fact there was a beautiful national park in mountains nearby added that there are very new cave excursions to a recently discovered cave system which is now regarded to be the largest in the world. Unfortunately, we booked this on a wim, were absolutely knackered after all the travelling and because this was so remote and away from tourist route, a bit off beat and probably not the best thing to tackle in our state decided to entertain a change of plan. Added to this we weren't the best prepared in terms of research and gear, so decided to catch the next train onto Hue, about 150km south of Dong Ho, a journey of about 3 hrs. So as nice as the region sounds, it's unfortunately going to have to wait for another time.
The landscape covered on this train journey was particularly interesting as this included the DMZ region (demilitarised zone), the setting for a large proportion of the Vietnam / American war just 40 years ago. The first thing to notice is the terrain. I could not imagine, maybe bar combat in Antarctica, a more challenging environment. It is basically 600km of marshland jungle, littered with beautiful rice paddies and huge mountains, with regular big rivers every 5 to 10 km, rivers well wider than a 100m. All this in extreme humidity and heat and the added malaria threat amongst who knows what. I can see why the Americans favoured an air approach.
After plus 16 hours on a train and in transit from Hanoi, we glad to hop off at Hue. The first thing we did was find a lovely little French bakery and enjoy a delicious baguette to gather our strength to find a bed for the night.