Nihn Bihn and the Night Train

Departing from Hanoi was a bit sad as we really enjoyed exploring the city, visiting with friends and getting a better understanding of a culture that had been completely unknown to us until now. The train was old and shabby, likely a second hand transport from China, but seemed to vibrate with a sound of adventure. That last bit could have been in my head. Very official looking conductors, dressed sharply in imposing uniforms, seemingly from a 1950’s eastern European movie, herded passengers like goats. Nursing mothers dragging sacks of mystery, old men with suitcases the size of small mattresses and a few Chinese tourist all made their way to their assigned carriage. As we boarded our carriage it was slightly concerning to notice a small barefoot man under our carriage, welding the axel. With each flash of the arc, my mind became more confused on what a welder could fix on the axel of a running train…. I tried to sneak a photo but a few of the uniforms directed stern sounds in my direction.




The scenery slowly changed as we headed south. The homes became smaller, the cars were replaced by large thick cows, mopeds seemed to drive slower and drying laundry seemed to become the dominant flower on the trees. Raised concrete graves with offerings of food, paper automobiles and incense would be placed between artificial ponds completely filled with ducks. My understanding is that the ponds are filled with Carp who eat the water plants and the ducks fertilize the plants and eat the organic waste from the nearby family kitchens, providing a never ending flow of protein.


Eventually modern civilization was replaced by a green patchwork of rice patties and thick wild groupings of disheveled bamboo stands. At each stop, women with baskets of fruit and greasy cakes would offer their wares and attempt to keep their small fuzzy headed children off the tracks. While I read a Hunter Thompson book, Tamara hypnotized the local mothers with her knitting skills.


Nihn Bihn is only a few hours south but with over a thousand miles of upcoming train travel, (one end of Vietnam to the other) it pays to break up the trip into manageable legs. We found a two room “B and B” and the family let us rent their mo-ped so we could explore the area. While the town was fairly ugly with wide dirty streets, we dodged the random harried cargo trucks and eventually reached the peace of true countryside.


The draw of this location is a picturesque river that flows through the small farms and between limestone hills. For a few dollars we hired a crusty woman boat driver who spoke only a handful of English with the phrase “It’s number one!” being used as a random noun and punctuation to anything of interest. Our boat headed down the lazy river and entered an area of large limestone towers that seemed to be placed in the middle of the ever present rice patties. It was not until the river started to take us under one of the limestone hills did we turn around and see our driver was using her feet to row the boat as she chatted to a friend on her cell phone. By about the third cave the weather pulled in some fog and chilly drizzle and we started to head back up the river. All the while, our pilot pumped the oars with her feet yelling unknown insults and laughing at the timid local men rowing down the river.


(Click the one below for Video)



With the weather getting so cold and wet, we decided to cut our visit short and head south on a night train to the half way point of Vietnam, Hoi An. To kill time til the train, we hiked up one of the limestone towers we saw the day before from the boat. The view was utterly amazing. Vast flat rice fields dotted with small homes under the shadows of limestone guardians. Had the clouds not been so thick, the photos would have been mounted on our walls at home for life. (Click here to see what it would have looked like if the sun was out)


Train and bus stations are dangerous places in any country. These locations always have one or two predators and this backwater station was no exception. As we walked out of the inky night and approached the small one room train station, I saw two slimy young men standing just outside the florescent lights. Watching like subtle leopards, they analyzed each passenger for weakness or some other unknown variable. The stained lips, red teeth and wide eyes denoted that they were likely chewing beetle nut and wired for sound. Walking up the stairs, it became our turn for their inspection. As soon as I felt their eyes on us I slowed slightly, pointed at directly at them (like Fonzie from Happy Days)  and winked with a knowing smile. Surprised, they both gave me a genuine smile of large red teeth and again became serious as they examined the group of partially drunk French backpackers wandering behind us. I learned that trick from a expat in Honduras and it has served us well.


Hoi An

With our train being only 90 minutes late, we took that as a sign of the night to come. Walking down the grimy narrow hall way of the train, we looked for the room that would be ours for the next 18 hours. We found our room occupied by a nice Chinese traveler couple. Oliver was my age and had retired from his marketing job with ExxonMoble with a small fortune made from investing in Chinese real estate. We had a nice conversation about traveling, nationalism and corruption of the governments of the world. His stories of growing up under the “Party” helped me better understand his dislike of communism. His brother had been detained and abused by the security forces during the protest of Tiananmen Square.

Oliver’s goal was to travel the world for many years, looking for “something” that he said he would know when he saw it. He was confident that what he was looking for was not religious, as “Chinese only worship money” (his words). When he asked about my beliefs, I was surprised that he had heard of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He said he had wondered in the past, why Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned by the “Party”, in China.

The next morning the new found heat of central Vietnam woke us to our train  slowly wobbling its way along a beautiful hilly coast. This area of Vietnam was the front lines of the “American War”, also known as the DMZ, but it was still a surprise to see neglected concrete artillery bunkers and machine gun nests being reclaimed by bamboo stands and laundry lines.


Eventually, we said goodbye to our fellow travelers and arrived at Hoi An.


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