Vietnam: The Reunification Express

A groan came from the bunk above, followed by the sound of a pillow being punched, then furious muttering. I don’t speak Danish but I recognise foul language when I hear it. Mandolin music had begun to whine from a speaker outside our compartment accompanied by a woman’s voice so shrill that only dogs should have heard it. As it swelled and flooded the carriage it was now my turn to let loose a few expletives. At 6am this was not conducive to a relaxing journey.

I had departed Hanoi at around 9pm the previous night on board what is commonly known as The Reunification Express – though no single train in Vietnam bears the name. Completed by French colonists in 1936, the line running from Hanoi to Saigon was severed in 1954 when Vietnam was divided into north and south. The railway then suffered from American bombing throughout the Vietnam War, but resumed its regular service in 1976. Now it’s a run-down, shabby service that has lost custom to budget airlines, but it is still the only way to witness the country in all its glory.

During peak season an extra service numbered SE17, the Limited Express, is put on to cope with the demand and, to my delight, was limited in more ways than one. Paint peeled off the walls like dead skin and the air conditioner’s grill was secured by four pieces of sellotape – two of which were flapping off. The berths creaked, squeaked and clanked and the gold polyester curtain contained more dust than the inside of a Dyson. But the magic of this journey lay outside the carriages.

For the first hour the train ran parallel to the highway with little more than a single wooden fence separating us from couples on scooters and trucks flitting past in the opposite direction. Racing neck and neck with lorry drivers chewing cigarettes and casting sideways glances into our compartment, the train then broke away from the road, swerving into the guts of the city and disappearing into the darkness of run-down houses lit by hurricane lamps and strung with children’s laundry. But the city soon fell away and the train thundered on through the night.

By morning tiny tufts of cloud hovered around the sun as it rolled its way alongside the train. Thick waxy leaves flapped at the sides of the carriage parting to show stacks of green bananas like fists of fat fingers. Palm trees stood to attention and buffalo wallowed in lotus-filled water, tiny white birds perched on their backs. Children clattered from one end of the carriage to the other, peering into compartments then running away while parents in vests gazed out of the windows or played cards. Patriotic classical hits were cranked up high and a metal cart of deep-fried chicken legs, cabbage and rice was wheeled up and down around noon.

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Between Hué and Danang the jungle crept up the hill and wrapped itself around the train, rising up like a green fortress. This section is renowned for its scenery and as the train slipped in and out of tunnels, and curled around cliffs, the ocean appeared below. Strips of creamy yellow sand trimmed the edges of the water at Lang Co Bay and continued all the way to Danang where I had decided to break up my journey for a few days and grudgingly disembarked. From Danang to Saigon I could only book a ticket sitting upright overnight surrounded by Vietnamese families eating tinned luncheon meat in baguettes, but that’s another story…

vietnam-railway.com is a sales agency which will book your tickets and have them promptly delivered to your hotel in Vietnam.

The Godfather of Trains: The Trans-Siberian

Oxana set down my green tea and a fork and patted me on the head. The dining car’s waitress had taken to mothering me since I boarded four days previously and seeing as she was the one who held court – and the keys to the fridge – I was more than happy to let her. At the next table a man in a singlet and slippers, scowled at my pot of instant mash and waved his hands, before tearing in half his buckwheat pancake filled with cottage cheese and tossing it across with a nod and a smile. Having watched him put away three cans of Stella since 9.30am, I obliged, and they were sweet and delicious.

The Trans-Siberian is the godfather of trains. Strictly speaking not a train but a route, it features on the bucket list of most rail enthusiasts, stretching more than 5,500 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok. But to mix things up I had chosen the more varied Trans‑Mongolian route (which veers away from Russia, dipping down through Mongolia into China), and broken up the journey by hopping off to ride the Circum-Baikal railway above Lake Baikal, and watch Swan Lake at the opera in Ulan Bator, before arriving in Beijing 11 days after setting off from Moscow.

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For the first two days I took up residence by the window watching leafless trees flash past until the scenery induced a meditative lull. Every few hours farmhouses and scarecrows in potato patches would breathe life into the greyness. But the real entertainment took place in the train’s corridors where passengers gathered to brew tea at the samovar or exchange stories – and during long-awaited stops where elderly women sold punnets of strawberries and young women in neon shorts hawked dried omul fish speared through the eye. At one such stop I rifled through the trolley of a lady who was picking her teeth while chatting to a friend, and offered her 90 roubles (85p) for a pack of playing cards. Even her son smirked and shook his head in disbelief that anyone would offer more than a cursory glance for what turned out to be a pack of 36 cards.

More than anything the train provided a geographical perspective that no aeroplane or car could ever match. Having picked up our location on Google maps in Moscow, I followed the blue sphere for five days as it moved across the globe, floating across territory that contained no cities, no lakes. But outside the window that territory was very much alive. At dusk on the eve of arrival at Ulan Bator rust-coloured sand dunes rose in the distance and rivers began to bend by the tracks. The sun threw stripes of red and orange across the sky, wholly unlike the mists that had hung across Siberia only days before.

Sunset over Mongolia

Sunset over Mongolia

Waking on the fifth morning, I pulled back the curtains to find Smurf‑blue sky and cliffs rising all around the train as it snaked into tunnels and burst out onto bridges over green water, at the edges of which squatted fishermen in wide trousers and bamboo hats. Stepping onto the platform at Beijing, I couldn’t quite believe how far I had come, but also how far there was to go…

Rail bookers (www.railbookers.com 020 3780 2256) offers holidays on the Trans-Siberian railway from £919 per person. As tailor-made rail-holiday experts they will create a unique trip for you, including stops along the way, hand-picked hotels and a range of excursions.

The World’s First Robot Hotel, Huis Ten Bosch, Japan

Yesterday I stayed at the Henn Na Hotel in Huis Ten Bosch in Japan, otherwise widely known now as the world’s first robot hotel and here’s what happened…

At 2.55pm everyone’s asleep. Behind reception a motionless girl is wearing a cream jacket and a smirk, her hair folded into a chignon. To her left is a velociraptor sporting a bow tie and a bellhop’s hat at a jaunty angle. With the exception of a foot-high robot that orders taxis, there is no one else around. The girl has a sign saying “only Japanese”, so I approach the velociraptor and say hello. Nothing. I wave and he stares past, his limp wrists poised.

“I’d like to check in please,” I shout, wondering if the robots are voice-activated. A door opens to the right and a man in a black T-shirt appears. “Check-in is 3pm” he says and goes back into the room. And with that the magic has gone.

Since Japan’s now infamous robot hotel opened on 16th July, reports of dinosaurs, chattering bedside buddies and robotic porters have flooded the internet, most based on little more than press releases and PR-driven tours pushing a disingenuous line. This is not the hotel’s fault but a result of overzealous misreporting. Henn Na, which is part of the Huis Ten Bosch amusement park in Nagasaki prefecture – a Dutch Disneyland built to resemble the Netherlands – is used largely by Japanese families visiting the park with very young children and is no more than an extension of the magical kingdom, a 1hr 45-minute train journey from both Hakata and Nagasaki.

At 3pm the velociraptor jerks to life, and in an American accent says “Welcome to the Henn Na hotel. If you want to check in, press one.” Excited that everything is now up and running I start tapping my name on a screen when the man in black appears again and asks for my passport, while the dinosaur falls into a state of inertia. It feels like Keith Harris has just taken his hand out of Orville and slapped me with it.

Dejected by the human involvement and that there’s no robot to transport my luggage – this service is only available for residents staying in the A wing and is provided by two chargeable trolleys that stay plugged in for most of the day – I went to my room.

But I wasn’t alone.

On the bedside table sat Chu-ri-chan a cute little creature with a tulip-shaped head. Much like an in-room concierge or a Teddy Ruxspin in a pink dress, Chu-ri-chan switches on the lights, offers weather forecasts and provides a wake-up call. She’ll also perk up after being silent for an hour and scare the crap out of you. However, she doesn’t speak English yet. And there’s no reason why she should – this is a Japanese hotel after all.

The hotel itself is a beautifully designed modernist property with thoughtful additions such as an air-conditioning system that adjusts after detecting body temperatures, facial-recognition to avoid misplaced room keycards, and vending machines with games for children. It also offers breakfast at Aura, an organic restaurant that grows its own produce and serves the best scrambled eggs in Japan. But curious tourists who come to Henn Na expecting to be served green tea by Johnny Five and his crew will, I fear, leave underwhelmed.

The Power of Language

Constant train travel requires constant entertainment. Reading and gazing out of the window only last so long until boredom-eating and napping become the norm. During a four-day journey across Russia, I took advantage of a half-hour stop at Ilanskaya in Siberia, wove my way around the babushkas selling dried fish and wild strawberries on the platform, and bought a pack of playing cards—only to discover back on board that they contained 36 cards, reducing the range of games available to snap and memory.

However, my favourite pastime is pretending to sleep while eavesdropping on conversations—as long as I understand the language. Over the last eight weeks, my deepest sorrows have centred on my linguistic abilities, or lack thereof. Owing to my two-year stint in Chennai as a child, I can still read and write Hindi and Sanskrit, I read French at university, and have a basic understanding of Spanish and German, which extends to refusing sauerkraut with pork, asking for a pet rabbit for Christmas, and a few verses of The Beatles’ Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand. But in Portugal, Latvia, Russia and China, I struggled to the point of tears. A recent study by Washington’s Pew Research Center shows that European children are required to learn two foreign languages, while in the UK we begin at secondary school, and it’s not compulsory beyond the age of 15. This goes some way to explaining why I’ve often been reduced to little more than a gesturing mute illustrating my needs with photos, pointing and the kind of body language more suited to a toddler.

Alone. Mute. Confused.

Alone. Mute. Confused.

Nothing separates us like language. Stories become lost, needs are misunderstood, relationships stunted. Language is power. As you might expect, this has given rise to a few disasters, one of which took place at a laundrette in Florence. Living out of a rucksack, my daily choice of wardrobe is fairly simple: is it clean? I don’t remember the last time I saw, let alone used, an iron, so when I sauntered past a laundrette near my hotel, I seized the opportunity to offload the whole rotten bag. My Italian is awful, but the jolly-looking owner with a big smile and glasses hanging around her neck seemed to understand me. Esmeralda pointed to her washing machine and I nodded. She gave me a thumbs-up. She then put on her glasses, tipped out the bag that contained six balled-up T-shirts, two pairs of sweat-drenched cargo pants, eight pairs of underwear, one pair of socks and a cardigan missing several buttons. I pointed again at the washing machine to confirm that this was all one load and she laughed and high-fived me. I climbed onto a chair to point to 8 o’clock on her wall-clock and she gave me another thumbs-up. Thrilled that we were on the same page, I left.

Just before 8pm, I pushed open her door and the bell tinkled. All my laundry was on the table top, ironed and slotted into a clear plastic packet. Esmeralda put on her glasses and began to tap into a calculator as I fingered the freshness with glee. Then she took off her glasses and turned around the calculator that read 109. The entire surface of my skin prickled with fear and she laughed and shook her head. Silly Esmeralda! She’d forgotten the decimal point. Only she hadn’t. She had forgotten to add an additional €9 and the total came to €118. You may recall that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Cameron sees the mileage on his dad’s Ferrari and goes into shock. It was like that, only more dramatic with a lot of pacing and flinging of hands. I could have bought new clothes for that amount. I could have flown home to London for that amount. Esmeralda’s smile had morphed into a smirk now, and I suspected that her English was a lot better than she had let on. She spoke into her phone’s Google Translate app and held it out to me where it read: “What do you want to do?” I wanted to reply: “Torch your shop.” But refrained and took her phone from her, enunciating “I. Am. Not. Paying”, before handing back her phone. It was the most passive aggressive argument I have ever had. In the end, I pushed her down to around €70, but it taught me a damn fine lesson and I made a mental note to learn Italian at the next opportunity.

On the other hand, there have been moments in my favour. After eight weeks of trudging around in flip-flops, my feet had come to resemble those of an elephant. So a few days ago, I stopped off at a Bangkok beauty parlour to have a pedicure. A French girl was sitting to my left waiting for her magenta toenails to dry, sipping at fresh coconut water and updating her friend behind the curtain with vigour on the extent of her stomach problems. Much to her horror, my therapist soon brought out a blade for my heels—something that is as normal in Asia as it is alien in the West. She watched open-mouthed, lowered her voice, and quickly became engaged in a furious discussion with her friend, who, judging by the ripping sounds, was having her entire body waxed. I listened with bemusement to her revulsion which was littered with “disgusting”, “foul” and “I want to be sick”. Eventually she told her friend, “She should be embarrassed.” At this last comment, I turned to the girl and asked her in French why I should be embarrassed. After all, I wasn’t the one who had just described how I had had diarrhoea for the last two days and couldn’t keep down solids. As she turned the colour of her toenails, I told her to try lassi and swanned off on my lovely smooth feet. Language really is power.

We’re all just a bit selfie-obsessed

Just for a moment, close your eyes and think back to the good old days before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Remember how, when you went on holiday, you would take a day trip to a historical site, climb to the top and take off all your clothes? Or perhaps when you went out for a romantic dinner, photographed your tiger prawns, then drove over to your best friend’s house to show them? No? Nor do I.

Earlier this month, four tourists were arrested for stripping naked at the summit of Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu and now face up to three months in jail. When I read the story over breakfast in a Rome hotel, I was more depressed than shocked. For the last six weeks that I’ve been train-hopping around Europe, my faith in the future of mankind has dwindled so far as to make me wince at the sight of tourists. Where once travel was a passive activity, it has now morphed into an aggressive, competitive sport. It’s no longer enough to slip into a city at night, stroll the streets by day, and leave as quietly as you came. Now you have to make your mark by scratching your name into a wall, airing your genitalia on a holy mountain or banging a padlock onto a bridge. It’s the travelling equivalent of taking a long drawn-out piss all over your neighbour’s front porch.

I first felt revulsion for the trend while walking hand in hand on the Pont des Arts last October. Paris’s bridges form the backbone of the city and are synonymous with romance, popping up in most art and literature. Yet, in 2008, couples began attaching metal padlocks to the Pont des Arts and throwing the keys into the water to symbolize their unbreakable love. Never mind that the keys are probably covered in sludge and littering the riverbed, the thousands of locks conceal the bridge’s original beauty and Parisian authorities have had to remove 45 tonnes of the dirty metal to prevent the bridge from collapsing. Padlocking these historical pieces of art is nothing short of vandalism. And if your relationship needs a padlock to signify its security, then you probably need to reconsider that relationship.

But the madness doesn’t stop there. Last week, I visited Juliet’s balcony at the Casa di Giulietta in Verona. There is no evidence that the Capulet family ever lived there, yet the city dines out on the tale of the star-crossed lovers and the walls in the courtyard below the balcony are covered in handwritten letters to “Juliet” from tourists who use chewing gum to attach their notes. Even Verona’s clock tower has succumbed to the abuse. With a panoramic view of the city’s terracotta rooftops and the river running along the periphery, it’s a spot of peace high above the main piazza. After climbing more than 300 steps, I reached the bell tower, only to find the walls and the grand old bell itself covered in graffiti. Did Olga and Georg really need to scratch their names into its rim? Was Glenda so oblivious to his affections that Marco was compelled to tell her on 8 December 2014 that he “hearted” her and deface the brickwork of the artist who built the façade? Would Fabio declare his love for Betta across a painting in the Louvre? Maybe clip a padlock onto The Thinker’s little finger? If the answer is no, then maybe he should think about why he did it here. As I crossed the Castel Vecchio bridge at night, I climbed onto the brick ledge and shuffled along to gaze at the river bubbling below. It tumbled in the glow of the streetlamps and I had an overwhelming sense of calm as I stroked the clean surfaces and admired the loveliness of the structure. But there it was. Like architecture’s answer to herpes, one nasty little padlock had appeared and it was bound to spread its disease. Verona’s mayor has responded by issuing fines, but it begs the question: where does this compulsion come from?

I fear it is part of the growing desperation to be a part of the story, to be seen and heard having a good time, all the time. It’s not enough to stand before the remnants of the Berlin Wall and absorb the enormity of all it represents; the experience is apparently enhanced by taking a photograph of yourself in front of it to tweet, post on Facebook or hashtag on Instagram. Heaven forbid anyone think you weren’t ever there. The greatest irony is that these people feel their experience is heightened, the immersion greater, when the truth is that the magic of travel eludes them.

A Korean couple sat at a table next to me in Florence filming each other eat. She held her camera under his fork, as he ate his penne rigata and veal ragu, and giggled. He filmed her poised with a forkful of rare steak. For more than one hour, the two of them photographed each other’s tiramisu, napkins and wine glasses, and exchanged no fewer than seven or eight words. I looked around at the restaurant and wondered, would they be able to describe the vintage wine cases lining the walls, faded at the edges? Would they remember the warm smell of fresh rosemary in vases, the murmur of voices and the sound of the first glug from a newly opened bottle of wine? Had they even noticed their table was an old barrel bottom? I’ve always erred on the side of the flâneur, strolling around observing the city. I’m pretty awful at taking photographs and hate carrying a camera, but I sometimes wonder whether my mind’s eye draws in more than any camera ever could. Balzac described flânerie as a science or “gastronomy of the eye”, but I fear that tastes have changed and if we are now a society that has to take naked photos at a historical site to enjoy the experience, then we are all the worse off for it.

Madrid’s Grand Budapest Hotel

Hopping around Europe over the last month has been enormous fun and we are currently at the Palazzo Victoria in Verona digesting a late lunch of lobster, mashed potato and herring eggs – who knew eh? It does work in case you wondered.

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It might seem like the stuff of dreams, leap-frogging from one hotel to the next, but over a stretch of nine months, it’s normal to miss creature comforts: PG Tips from your favourite mug in the morning; BBC breakfast news; ironed clothes (rather than what’s least smelly). But what makes it easier is when staff go that extra mile to make an effort for guests and to make sure they feel more at home. And so far the place we found that was at The Urso in Madrid (click the link to read about it).