I didn't try to buy our Vietnamese railway tickets from home. I'd read that they would be easy to secure just a few days in advance, so when we checked into our hotel in Hanoi, I told Ms. Julia in the lobby that we wanted berths on the sleeper from Hanoi to Hue, seats on the 3-hour morning train from Hue to Danang (the portal to Hoi An), and seats on the 7-hour train from Danang to Saigon. The first two were no problem; $55 a person for the sleeper and $15 for the second train ride. But I had misunderstood the mechanics of rail travel between Danang to Saigon. Instead of taking part of a day, we learned, it would require a much longer amount of time, leaving Danang in a sleeping car about 10 p.m. Friday and not arriving until late Saturday afternoon.
I think that would have cost around $80 per person. In contrast, Ms. Julia informed us we could get seats on the one-hour-long Vietnam Air flight leaving Danang at 11:05 a.m. Saturday for $115 per person. We agonized a bit over the decision. We've come to loathe the time and tedium involved in modern air transport, and we had looked forward to seeing the scenery en route. In the end, however,the thought of giving up our prepaid room in Hoi An to rattle through yet another night made us come to our senses and buy the plane seats.
Thank god! The Vietnamese train system doesn't offer first-class sleepers, so instead of having our own cozy space from Hanoi to Hue, we shared our 4-berth compartment with 2 other Americans (a likable young couple from Washington DC). We all had working electrical outlets, which was nice (I could charge up my phone and iPad!), but in other ways, it seemed inferior to the Thai sleeper we took from Bangkok to the Laotian border — no dining car, for one thing. And Steve saw a cockroach and spiders lurking in the recesses near his upper berth, though he kindly kept that news from me until after we had arrived.
The morning train ride from Hue to Danang was pretty mesmerizing. We had two seats In a standard day coach on which we appeared to be the only foreigners. The train was probably 60 years old and exceedingly slow, but it hugged a mountainous coastline with jaw-droppingly spectacular views. The action inside our coach was almost as diverting. Across the aisle and two rows up from us, a woman slept on the floor at her husband's feet. I'm not sure how, with car attendants periodically rolling carts up and down the aisle (at one point dishing up some kind of hot food). Someone's very naughty two-year-old was on the rampage. And from the ceiling, screens displayed “Rail TV,” which among other things aired a Vietnamese (officially franchised) version of The Amazing Race.
All pretty entertaining, but more than sufficient to satisfy the craving we'd had for rail time. Moreover, both of the short Vietnam Airlines flights we took (Luang Prabang to Hanoi and Danang to Saigon) felt like going back to a time when air travel was easy. All three airports were clean and uncrowded; the huge and gleaming one In Danang was only 2 years old. Hassles were minimal — no taking off of shoes nor long security lines. In fact, no one seemed to be paying much attention to what was rolling through the X-ray screeners. On board, the flight attendants didn't patrol to check for seatbelt scofflaws, and no one seemed to care when I turned on my electronic devices.
Now we're in Saigon for two full days. I'll probably wait until our Tuesday morning bus ride to the Mekong delta to write again. Between now and then, our schedule is pretty packed.