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Asia Trip 2011: Day 5 – Halong Bay and the Overnight Train

I didn’t wake up for the sunrise at 5am, but finally dragged myself out of bed at 6:30 for a tai chi session on the deck. It ended up being just the Indonesia couple, Jeff and Kathy, and myself. We had a lot of fun, and we could see in the distance that several other boats were conducting morning stretches as well with their passengers. Breakfast was at 7:30am sharp, and everyone gathered for the usual eggs and toast. But shortly after that, we all had to pack and empty our rooms by 9am. We said our quick good byes to a lot of the passengers as they were going off to the town for an overnight sleep as part of the 3 day – 2 night tour. Jeff and Kathy, as well as two other couples stayed behind and we basically sat around on the deck for almost an hour with nothing to do since the guides left with the other passengers on the small boat to drop them off. It was a bit confusing, since everyone was gone and we were left on the almost-deserted boat with no schedule as to what was going to happen next.

We took some silly photos (of course there had to be a Titanic shot, how could there not?) and Jeff and Kathy took a short video for their trip, and we lay in the sun until finally we saw our guide boat in the distance. After they got back and settled in, we had a spring roll making session. It was a bit of a cheat, since all the vegetables were cut up for us already (which is the hardest part), and all we had to do was roll them up, but it was still fun. They ended up being in our lunch menu, so I’m glad we put some effort into them! The boat slowly made its way back to the bay and when we docked, we ate our midday meal amongst a gazillion other junk boats in the polluted harbour with exhaust fumes rolling in from the window. The plumbing water was either turned off by then or something, because the communal toilet stopped flushing and the water stopped running. I guess it was alright, since it also ran out of toilet paper. We stood around for another half an hour until we were shuffled to the smaller boat and brought to shore.

After a bit of confusion, we finally made our way to a bus that we shared with another group of tourists coming back from their Halong Bay tour. As we were getting dropped off in the city, we arranged with Jeff & Kathy to meet up at the train station in hopes of bunking together for the overnighter to Hue. A and I ran some quick errands in the city – I went and bought myself several banh mi to last the train ride and ordered one last bun cha while we gathered our info for the next leg of our trip.

Confusion: when you purchase train tickets through your hotel, you are given a postcard-like piece of paper with a picture of Hanoi on it, and a little slip of paper stapled to it saying you need to redeem it at the station for your train ticket. People who don’t pay attention immediately think this is their train ticket, and then get really confused when they try to board. People who do pay attention arrive at the station at the designated time on the paper, only to be equally confused when no one there speaks English and no one knows what this paper is. Imagine our panic when we tried to get someone to look at our receipt, only to be sent in different directions each time. Even more strange, once the train arrived and all the locals started boarding, it became apparent that only the tourists were left standing in the station wondering what to do with this paper.

Half an hour later, a girl rolls in with a stack of tickets and starts reading confirmation numbers out. We traded our receipt in for a ticket, and found out that all the tourists are bunking in the same carriage, which is comforting to know. Jeff and Kathy asked their roommates very sweetly to swap with us so we could hang out together for the night, and they were so kind to agree.

The train car held about 6 cabins, each cabin holding 4 beds. There were also extra small cabins at either end of our car (about a third of the size of ours at the most) that crammed in three local riders. I felt as though the quality of the bedding and the cleanliness of our cabins, though still nowhere close to our comfort levels, were probably at the tops in comparison to every local resident riding the train. We ate our dinners and slowly settled into our beds for the night.

The train ride was fairly uneventful except for two incidents. One, the train pulled into a small town in the middle of the night and came to a stop for a half hour. The braking movement jolted me awake, and in my sleepy state, I decided to try and use the washrooms. Apparently, trains lock their bathrooms automatically when they stop in the station. I suspect it’s to ensure no one sneaks into the bathrooms to ride the train (or more specifically, no one sneaks into the tourist car to use our bathrooms?). So I flagged down a conductor and explained I needed to use the washroom. After making it pretty clear I couldn’t wait much longer, he took me to a different car (rammed to the brim with locals) and let me use the washrooms there. Which were pretty gross in comparison to our tourist one. Preeeetty gross.

The second incident happened somewhere in the middle of the night while we were moving across the countryside. I woke to a frantic but quiet scream as Kathy said she felt something crawling across her arm in the bed. We turned on all the lights but couldn’t find anything. She ended up staying with Jeff in his bed for the rest of the night as I had a restless sleep worrying about unknown critters myself. A slept through it entirely. :P

We arrived in Hue the next morning and sadly said good bye to Jeff & Kathy as they continued on their journey to Da Nang. A and scrambled off the train and trekked our way to the hotel (a lot further than I had thought when I booked it). Hello Hue!!

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