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Updates From the Road – Singapore to Hanoi by Rail, Part Three

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Xin chào from Hanoi! I have finally reached the very last stop – if you’ve made it this far, thank you for following my adventure to the end. In the last month I’ve taken 10 trains, 3 buses, and 8 boats – as well as a bunch of rickshaws, taxis, and mopeds – to travel over 4,500km from Singapore to Hanoi. This has truly been one of the best trips of my whole travelling career, although it’s hard to put my finger on why, exactly.

I think it’s the fact that I’ve had – for the first time in a while – almost unlimited freedom to do what I wanted, post what I wanted, and write what I wanted. It’s been years since I wrote so much and with such abandon! I’ve filled an entire notebook with scribblings that will most likely never see the light of day, but it felt so good just to simply write it all down.

The other thing that I’ve loved about the trip was having a clear goal and a purpose. My last few solo, non-work-related backpacking trips have been a bit on the… vague side. I’d simply book some flights, show up, and “bum around” – drifting from one spot to the next based on where people I knew were going to be, or what struck my fancy at the time. That was always fun, but also surprisingly limiting. I’d get stuck in places because I could never make a decision about what my next move should be. Or I’d do something crazy; like fly to New York spontaneously from Mexico in the middle of winter without a single item of warm clothing.

Having a purpose and a rough idea of an itinerary was, in a lot of ways, more freeing. Knowing the direction I was going in freed me to focus on other things, and to relax more about what I did everyday. As long as I was on the right track, nothing much else mattered.

HCMC to Hoi An

When I left off the last update, I was in Ho Chi Minh City. From there, I hopped straight on an overnight train to Da Nang.

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From Da Nang, it was another hour by taxi to Hoi An. By the time I arrived at my Hoi An hotel, I’d been travelling for a full thirty-one hours. Despite being tired to the point I couldn’t properly function, I still went straight out to the old town in search of my favourite sandwich in the world – banh mi! Specifically, the one from Banh Mi Phuong. I am not exaggerating when I say that this trip was partly inspired by, and structured around, getting my hands on that sandwich again! Hoi An was a pretty big detour on my Vietnam itinerary but I included it because of Banh Mi Phuong, and I’m very happy I did! 

It rained the whole time I was in Hoi An. And when I say it rained – I mean IT RAINED. The streets were flooded, and I constantly had to paddle in ankle-deep water to get to places. So what else was there to do but spend all my time indoors eating?

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Banh Mi Phuong!

Hoi an to Hue

The next part of the journey was, in theory, pretty quick and easy. A taxi back to Da Nang, a 2.5 hour train to Hue… and I’d be there with half a day to spare. Unfortunately, the rain and flooding dragged the whole thing out into nearly nine hours. I arrived into Hue exhausted, grumpy, and starving – not the best start!

My one full day in Hue was mostly spent eating, drinking, and wandering around feeling nostalgic. Four years ago this month I was in Vietnam with my ex, on a six week adventure. It was a really bittersweet feeling to be back, seeing how things have changed, and realising how much I’ve changed since then. Revisiting a country you love can be a dangerous game, because you can never repeat exactly the same circumstances. But I’m happy to report that I love Vietnam just as much as before, if not more.

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Random Adventures in Hue

My sister has been trying to find a small-scale charity to get her kids into the idea of giving to others at Christmas time, so she asked me to check out a local orphanage while I was in Hue. My friend Lien, who I met last time I was in Hue, told me they wouldn’t mind if I just showed up for a visit, so off I went.

The orphanage is about 20 minutes drive from the city centre, and next to the tomb of King Thieu Tri. Which I stupidly decided to visit first. After all the rain, the almost-non-existant path to the deserted tomb was essentially a bog. By the time I’d been there and back my legs were covered almost to the knees in mud.

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At the tomb – with very muddy feet!

So I rocked up at the orphanage, looking like the beast that crawled out of the swamp, and realised that no one there spoke English. The ladies on duty tried to invite me in, so I pointed to my feet – and one of them took my by the arm and walked me around the back to a garden hose.

Through mimes, we managed to establish a couple of things, but conversation was pretty limited. Most of the kids were at school, and the smaller ones were having their afternoon nap. I sat awkwardly on a stool feeling like an idiot on a fool’s errand, and was just trying to make my excuses and leave when a fifteen year old girl, named Mui, showed up. She translated a few of the lady’s questions (the usual things like “where is your husband” and “why don’t you have a husband”) and then asked if I could help her with something she was stuck on.

And so I found myself, at two o’clock in the afternoon on a random Tuesday, helping a Vietnamese teenager with her English homework!

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Statue a the Tomb of King Thieu Tri

Hue to Hanoi

The final leg of the journey was also one of the most beautiful. Opting for the 14 hour day train, so that I wouldn’t miss a second of the landscape, I was up at 4am to head out into the rain-streaked night. The train left at 5am and creaked out into the countryside. This time, there was no epic sunrise – just a gradual dissolving from dark to light grey. As we travelled I got a real sense of how bad the floods in Central Vietnam are at the moment.

Whole fields were underwater – and although that’s normal for this time of year, some vast expanses had actually become lakes. Farmers were wading, and even swimming, across their fields to maintain the crops. People were fishing from the sides of roads. Some brave souls were out on mopeds, tented by enormous plastic ponchos, hunkered down against the insane downpour.

As we moved north it got less soggy, but also cooler. We passed misty mountains, lush green forests, and muddy fields dotted with wallowing water buffalo. This was the Vietnam I remembered and loved.

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Returning to Hanoi felt triumphant. I had finally made it! More than that, I felt jubilant to be back in the place I first fell in love with Vietnam. For two days I’ve wandered around the city, not really sightseeing – because I’ve seen most things before – but just looking. Exploring. Living and breathing the spirit of a city that I, for some impossible to define reason, adore.

I’ve done a food tour, been to a spa, and drank coffee in dozens of cafes (including the famous Hanoi egg coffee, which is my new favourite thing). It’s so nice to explore a city without feeling like I “should” be doing certain things or ticking off certain sights.

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Egg coffee – so decadent, SO good!

What’s Next

Tonight, I fly home to the UK. I plan to write a massive blog post all about how I did this trip, with all the logistics and things I think you need to know if you want to travel SE Asia overland on a similar trip.

So – if you have a question for me that you think I need to cover in the post, PLEASE get in touch. Scroll down to leave a comment, or shoot me an email. I love hearing from you, and it would be so helpful to hear the things you want to see covered!

Once again – thanks for following me this far! Hope you’ve enjoyed the journey!
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