Saturday, 19 March 2011

11. A train to the Vietnamese seaside

Sai Gon night market

Vietnam Railways air coinditioned 'soft seat' coach

Vietnam Railways restaurant car

Novela Resort pool

Vietnamese lunch in Mui Ne

Shades Apartments, Mui Ne

Adverising boards, Mui Ne

Fishing boats, Phan Thiet

Vietnam Railways stewardess
At first glance, my rail ticket from Sai Gon to Phan Thiet, the coastal resort to the north east of this busy city, seems expensive. But 88,000 Vietnamese Dong is under £3 or about 4 Euros.
I am told that prices here are going up rapidly, but Tim, the boss of Come and Go Vietnam and I enjoy a very adequate meal in the night market washed down with a couple of large Tiger beers each for about eight Euros, which seems pretty good to me.
The train is made up of a real assortment of rolling stock. There is one double deck coach, which looks the most modern of the lot. One is painted yellow and branded ‘Golden Trains’, while the majority are blue and red. The locomotive is green.
I am in a ‘Soft seat A/C’ carriage, which is pretty ancient, but has air conditioning, seats that recline and airline-style tables in the armrest.
The seat next to my allocated one is occupied, so I select two empty seats at one end of the coach. The stewardess, whose sole job seems to be distributing a bottle of water per passenger, sits across the aisle and spends most of the journey sleeping.
My fellow passengers are made up of local people whose motorbikes have been stowed in a luggage van and whose helmets are hanging on the coat hooks and a scattering of tourists, mainly American and Australian.
The loos are of the squat variety, with a pretty powerful jet hose to clean up afterwards. Across the corridor is an area with sinks and soap.
To break up the journey, I venture along to the restaurant car to have a cup of very black coffee which, in Vietnam, is drunk with condensed milk. It costs less than a quarter of what I’d pay in Europe. Later in the journey, a trolley comes round selling, among many other things, freshly cooked hard boiled eggs.
At one of the stops, the friendly stewardess buys some barbecued corn on the cob. She offers me one, which I decline, but she accepts some of my coconut candies. She speaks no English at all.
There are no continuously welded rails, like in the UK, so the train has the ‘diddledy dah’ rhythm I remember from my childhood. It’s most conducive for forty winks.
The line is mainly single track, so the train stops for quite lengthy periods, to allow another train coming in the opposite direction to pass. Consequently, it’s no surprise that we are half an hour late arriving in Phan Thiet.
On arrival, there is a clamour of taxi drivers vying for business. I make sure that I follow Tim’s recommendation and get a vehicle from Mailinh or Vina Sun, which are generally said to be reliable with meters that are checked by the authorities.
The coastal resort of Mui Ne is reached after twenty minutes of weaving in and out of a melee of ox carts, bikes and motorbikes.
I am booked in to the Novela resort (www.novelaresort.vn) which is so close to the ocean, my beach front room has salt-stained windows. It’s very clean, with a well-equipped bedroom, a very nice pool and a nice outdoor restaurant and bar.
Mui Ne is developing fast and, at the moment is largely a strip of development on the beach side of the road with another on the inland side. It might be the time of year, but the clientele seem to be largely young folk from the US and Australia on gap year trips and older couples from Europe.
After a decent lunch, I have a look at the resort, which is somewhat blighted by advertising boards. But it has a nice laid back feel, is very clean, with some nice restaurants and places to stay.
I particularly like Shades apartments (www.shadesmuine.com), which is run by Kiwis Vaughan and Sharon Ellis. With only eight bedrooms, this is my sort of place. Their young Vietnamese receptionist, who tells me his name is Jack, gives me the grand tour and I must say I am impressed. The whole place is immaculate, really peaceful, with a lovely swimming pool and bar and right on the beach. I am impressed that they include the cost of laundry in their prices, which range from 50 US dollars per night per room in low season.
I am surprised how much the US dollar is quoted in Vietnam. It is certainly the currency of choice as far as tourism is concerned. I am also surprised that there seems to be no obvious animosity towards Americans. Considering the atrocious tactics of B52 carpet bombing, from which you can still see enormous craters, people just seem to have envy for the US way of life. They even provide burgers and chips for unadventurous American students.
At no point here have I felt repressed and controlled in the way that I have done in other communist countries such as the former Soviet Union and East Germany. The authorities here appear to be very low key indeed.
The receptionist at the Novela Resort tries every trick in the book when I intimate I need a taxi to get me back to the railway station. From paying almost double the standard fare in advance, to giving him a deposit to ‘guarantee’ the taxi, he is very keen to earn a commission.
He even persists when I am down at the pool chatting to a Tasmanian girl, Gizelle, who works for an NGO in Vietnam and who has come to Mui Ne to escape from the big city for a few days.
At check out, there’s a delay while the room is checked to make sure I have not escaped with the family silver. The Novela has been fine for a short stay but their staff need to learn better English if they are to be able to deal with an international clientele.
I pick up a Mailinh taxi in the street outside, driven by a mad woman who drives on her horn and who has a number of very near misses.
The train back to Sai Gon is very busy, but the same friendly stewardess finds me two empty seats.
Back at the Sofitel, I am again given a regal reception, and I enjoy a quick swim and a very tasty hot snack in the excellent Club Lounge before repairing to my room where there’s Premier League football on the TV and a very nice half bottle of Merlot to enjoy.
Vietnam has been all I had hoped for and more. Lovely people, great value for money and, to make us Brits feel totally at home, they even have British-style three-pin plugs!
Later this morning I am back at the airport en route for Singapore, with the first of two legs of my journey with Singapore Airlines, who will also take me on the overnight journey to Melbourne, where I will be on Thursday.
My technology tells me that there are now 1242 folk all over the world who are reading my blog. The stats tell me that 48% are using Internet Explorer, 34 folk are using an iPad and that I have 27 readers in Denmark.
Big brother is indeed watching.
My Thai and Vietnam photos are now at
For a digest of my best photographs of the trip so far, go to