Vietnam (Part 2): Challenging Stereotypes on Trains and in Hoi An

It’s the summer holidays and I’ve returned to South East Asia to continue my explorations. I’m in Vietnam, a country whose shift from one of the poorest in the world to a lower middle-income country has been remarkable over the last thirty years. I teach about Vietnam as part of the Global Migration topic for A level but I admit that my knowledge of the country is limited and, for me, this trip is about equipping myself with a better understanding of this region so I can challenge the stereotypes we come across in the classroom when teaching about it. This is the second of a series blogs about my travels through Vietnam (written and posted as I’m exploring the country).

In the hours before boarding the overnight train from Hanoi to Danang, the anticipation (read anxiety/dread/fear/attempted denial that it was even going to happen) amongst the group of us travelling together was growing. The Trip Advisor reviews had built up a stereotypical picture of the sleeper trains on the Reunification Express as dirty, with unwashed bedding and blocked toilets. The thought of 16 hours on a train with cockroaches wasn’t very appealing and we were starting to wonder what we’d let ourselves in for. But it was all to be part of the experience of exploring Vietnam, or at least that what we told each other!

On boarding the train just after 10pm we were pleasantly surprised. Now I’m not saying it was the best thing ever but the you can sit up in the bunks (something I couldn’t do on the top bunks on the sleeper trains in Eastern Europe or Morocco I’ve been on), there’s mattresses that have a bit of give and fairly clean sheets. With my sleeping bag liner to hand I was set! And the toilets were no worse than the ones in the UK (although liquid intake was still limited to avoid too many visits!). And no cockroaches in sight.

Pulling out of Hanoi station the train passes through some narrow streets, past street vendors washing up for the night, stalls packing up, children out playing and scooters trying to squeeze between the train and the buildings. It was just like I imagined it from early films including trains in Asia and Africa but without the waving welcoming children as the train pulls in. I had the same feeling the following morning (after a bit of an impromptu party on the train and an amazing 10 hours of sleep) as we passed through towns with rows and rows of scooters on the roads waiting for the train to pass. With Vietnam being a major explorer of rice, I expected to see rice fields everywhere but, although there were many, the landscape is incredibly varied and the rice fields were punctuated by other crops, rivers, villages and highly decorated family cemeteries. We passed through the DMZ (de-militarised zone during the Vietnam War) that is still being cleared of land mines and will take many more to completely clear. Approaching Danang the train climbed through the mountains leading to a dramatic period on mountains views on the right and a shear drop to the South China Sea to the left of the track. We arrived in Danang just after lunch on Thursday and transferred by bus to Hoi An.

Hoi An is the Vietnam I’d imagined. The low rise, long houses with wooden carvings and steep roofs, bicycles on the streets, lanterns strung from building to building and rowing boats on the river. It’s the centre of tailoring and there is something special about picking out your design and fabric, being measured and picking your dress up later the same day (or overnight if you go to one of the more upmarket establishments). Even outside of the old town, Hoi An appears to me to be quieter than the bigger cities I’ve seen so far and this time the overwhelming smells as you walk the streets are incense and ash from the shop and housekeepers burning their rubbish in metal drums on the side of the road.

On Friday morning we headed out on a boat to the island of Kim Bong in the estuary. Cycling through the rice fields we visited a number of traditional craft industries. There was the 89 year old bamboo boat maker who takes ten 8 hour days to make a one-person boat (complete with cow dung and plant sap waterproofing coating) and who is only one of two men left in the industry. With his sons choosing to pursue careers in medicine and the tourist industry, this traditional skill and the knowledge with it are likely to effectively die out in the near future. We also visited a traditional rush mat maker with its husband and wife team working to create the most colourful mats used for sleeping on. Our third stop gave us the opportunity to see how rice noodles were made using the traditional methods at each stage and then the new low tech machines they use to reduce labour time at each stage today! These ladies have, with the help of Explore, now bought a fridge and sell cold drinks to local and the tourists that visit them fir extra income. It was clear from these visits that there are still aspects of traditional gender roles in Vietnam with men working the loom and women threading the reeds in mat making and there being no talk of women learning to make bamboo boats. Our last visit was to a traditional wooden house made from mahogany. The carvings and intricate detail on every aspect of the wooden frame from the joists to the ways the windows opened, closed and locked were amazing. The current generation of this wood carving family has entered and been placed at national competitions. The rest of Friday afternoon was spent on dress fittings and taking the opportunity to people and river watch from a roof top bar over a lemonade before heading to the beach for dinner.

On Saturday we drove back to Danang where the skyscrapers and modern glass fronted buildings along the river were a stark contrast to the architecture of Hoi An and the old town of Hanoi. We once again boarded the train just before 2pm and found our sleeper compartment. As our journey was mostly during the day (with the promise of a 5am arrival in Ho Chi Minh City if it remained on time fir the whole journey), this journey gave the opportunity to watch the diverse and changing landscape of Vietnam. We continued through cultivated rice fields but this time there was much more diversity as we entered a region with a climate capable of growing three crops per year. Other crops interspersed the rice included corn and a tree that looks like a palm or coconut tree but isn’t either! We also passed through areas where salt is mined and the famous Ho Chi Minh trails.

With many daytime hours to kill, I explored the train a bit more and it soon became apparent we were definitely in the “first class” section. I passed through the carriages with sleeper cabins for 6 and much narrower corridors. These more resembled the descriptions on Trip Advisor with people sat on stools in the corridors making it difficult, but not impossible, to pass. Again a common stereotype was evident with a lot of people eating pot noodles (there us a boiling water station in very carriage). I also passed through the two different classes of seated carriages with one resembling reclining airplane seating (but more leg room) with TV screens dropped from the ceiling and the other a more typical train seating carriage like we have at home (but with much more space for luggage in the racks above). Spending a bit of time in the dining car I saw the continual stream of food coming from the kitchen and being sent off on trollies to be sold down the train; hard boiled eggs, whole quails, minced meat in banana, noodles with duck, spring rolls, dumplings, corn on the cob, fruit resembling eyeballs when peeled that google translator couldn’t identify and much more.

After a sudden wake up and 10 minute warning we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City just before 6am. And so the adventure continues…

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