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A few days in Hanoi and Ninh Binh

It's 05h30 and we have just boarded the train at Hanoi station. There is no coffee in sight. As we pass along the railway lines on the way out of Hanoi there are places where the buildings come so close to the track that you can touch them on both sides as you pass through. We skirt Reunification Park which is busier today than yesterday, with joggers, walkers and aerobics classes. Then past pavements of badminton players, bonsai art, restaurants, my stomach is grumbling for breakfast.....

Pavements turn to vegetable gardens and eventually farms. The crimson sunrise through the morning haze is quite spectacular. We move through fields of rice and ancestors, past duck ponds full of the happiest looking free range food I have ever seen, and villages of tall skinny houses clustered around meeting halls. A service trolley appears in the aisle. Coffee!! Typical Vietnamese coffee. It is short, black, cold and so strong it puts hair on your teeth; but it is caffeine! The lady adds a dollop of condensed milk to soften the blow, but the punch is hard.

Just outside Ninh Binh our train hits a man at a crossing, causing great consternation and a huge traffic jam. He is still alive, only bleeding from his head and leg, and is bundled into a taxi as we set off again. After Ninh Binh the sculpted limestone karsts begin to appear on the horizon, like dragons' backs snaking across the countryside. The village and farm houses become shorter, with more spaces between, but they maintain their concrete Chinesey decorativeness. The scenes rolling by the window become more and more pastoral. The rice paddies are low and green, ladies in conical hats tending their patches. A water buffalo trundles by, and a man thigh deep in a pond covered in lotus flowers is fishing with a bamboo fishing pole. It's like a dreamscape. The tranquility is palpable. Sadly, its impossible to photograph through the dirty tinted windows as we rock by.

The family in the seats in front of us have made themselves at home. The young couple have reclined their seats right onto our laps and after much wriggling and giggling, have fallen asleep. The old mother has tried every seat in the carriage and is finally back in her own seat which is reclined all the way back even though her head is on the tray table in front of her. The old man has spread out and put his feet up - one onto his tray table and the other on the back of the seat in front of him by the ear of the man in front. They are not a pretty sight, but he is not perturbed as he shouts down his mobile phone. The TV is showing Vietnamese soaps and a speaker at the back of the car is playing music at top volume. It is a cacophony of note. Once again, thank Apple for iPods! Norah Jones drowns out the pandemonium and my attention returns to the world outside the window.

We have just spent two days in Hanoi. Slowly wandering around, with no urgency to see anything in particular. We have been there before, in 2009, for a week so we have done the tourist stuff and this visit is all about noting the changes. And how things have changed!

Hanoi celebrated its millennium in 2010 and much was done to clean it up and give it a face lift for the big event. It certainly is cleaner than I remember it, and the traffic, though still fierce and chaotic, is not as bad as it was back then. There are even some traffic lights and pedestrian crossings in place - though not enforced. The ladies with overloaded bicycles and bamboo pole baskets are fewer, and the motorbikes now compete with electric stretch golf carts carrying tourists around. Cyclo tours are the new trend and tricycle after tricycle loaded with westerners wheels through the old town. New hotels have sprung up everywhere, many with an attempt at character and atmosphere, despite the energy efficient fluorescent lighting. The roadside dog barbecues are being replaced by snake restaurants, and everyone can suddenly speak at least a little English.

But, there are things which have remained, though in much improved forms. The juice shop we frequented 4 years ago, was just a hole in the wall before, but now it has wallpaper, paint, proper tables and chairs, and can turn out more than one drink at a time. The hairdresser across the street has expanded and offers all manner of beauty treatments, besides the standard wash and cut. The pavement restaurant making Vietnamese rice paper wrapped spring rolls remains, but has gained stainless steel tray table tops, and a much expanded menu, now also including shrimp dumplings. It is good to see people doing well, and making the most of the hoards of tourists who have besieged this previously vacationist neglected city.

It is also a little sad, for us, that Hanoi has been truly discovered. Another great city which will become more westernised, more expensive, more aggressive, and loose at least some of its fantastic restrained character.

One thing we did do on this visit, which we missed on our last trip, was visit the Hanoi Hilton or Maison Centrale or Hoa Lo - that notorious political prison which the French built to incarcerate and torture any Vietnamese political dissidents way back in the 1800s. The Americans have adopted it as their own now. Some famous POWs like John McCain spent some time here during the American war, and Americans come to see his flight suit and parachute which are on display; and tell each other some rather interesting and dreadfully biased versions of the stories of Hoa Lo. We had a giggle listening to some young people talking. It's fascinating how history can be distorted so much depending on which side you are on and how much you are willing to question.

There is much muttering about how American POWs could have been treated so badly by the Vietnamese, despite all the conventions in place to protect prisoners. But suddenly Guantanamo springs to mind, and I am afraid I cannot be overly sympathetic.

When John McCain was campaigning as a big war hero, did he mention what he was doing in Vietnam in the first place? Carpet bombing villages of women and children indiscriminately, not to mention the bombing raids on Laos which was a neutral country and turned out to be the most bombed country in the world!!

One of the original French guillotines is also on display, and watching the grimaces of disbelief on faces as they face this beast is heartening. Hopefully this will never happen again? Hmmmm..... Maybe not the guilotine, but how about a little water boarding? Surely that's okay?!

Anyway, back on the train. We are going to take this train all the way to Sai Gon eventually. We are doing it in shifts, preferably day time shifts, so that we can see a bit of countryside. This first leg is supposed to be 10 hours long , but will be 11 due to the accident delay, and will take us to Dong Hoi, the hop off point for the UNESCO recognised cave system which includes Phong Nha Cave, as well as the largest cave so far to be discovered in the world, Son Doong.

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