Vietnam: The sleeper train, and a day in Hue

Following our Ha Long Bay cruise, we headed back to Hanoi to catch the overnight sleeper train to Huế. With a few hours to kill, we hung out opposite the station at iBiero Craft Beer Station, which has beer, food, WiFi and plug sockets – everything you need. Do grab dinner before you get on the train, and change into comfortable and warm clothes as the air con can feel quite chilly – definitely more so if you've got the top bunk.

Before our trip we pre-booked two first class sleeper tickets for the 20.10 train, which arrived at Hue at 9.26 the next morning. This ticket cost 900,000 dong each (so just under £60, in total), and I booked with Baolau (no issues with them; you get issued an e-ticket which you can print or show on your phone). For comparison, you can fly down to Hue or Da Nang for the same sort of price, but we figured taking the train overnight wouldn't "lose" us any sightseeing time as we'd be sleeping... we hoped! Plus it would be more of an adventure.

First things first, when you book a first class ticket, it just means you share a carriage with three others and you get a soft bed. There are still cockroaches and overflowing toilets (both Western and the squat variety), and the train is old, rickety and very loud as it trundles along the track – also loud in an extra manner if one of your carriage companions snores. One of ours did. I'll confess, I spent the night hugging my little bag which contained our money, cards and passports, though in the end we didn't use the bicycle lock we'd brought with us to secure our suitcases to the bottom bunk's frame. You don't need to be cavalier, but do be cautious.

Our companions got off the train around 6am – the guard, handily, will come and tell you when you're nearing your stop so there's no need to worry about sleeping through – which gave us a few hours to watch the Vietnamese countryside roll by and read our Kindles. Our first stop off when we got off at Hue was to see Mr Pho as we needed somewhere to leave our suitcases. If you're in the same predicament, Mr Pho is your man. Located opposite the station, he looked after our suitcases all day for a mere 30,000 dong (£1), offered us a hot shower, and we had a quick and tasty breakfast in his cafe before we set off to spend the day in Hue.

So, let me tell you about Hue. Hue is known as the Imperial City. If you remember from my Hanoi post, the court moved from Hanoi to Hue in the early 1800s. It remained as the location of the court and the capital city of Vietnam until 1945 when Hanoi became the capital of North Vietnam and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) became the capital of South Vietnam.

Walk along the Perfume River, down Le Loi road and past Le Loi Park, then cross over the Perfume River. Twenty minutes after leaving the train station you'll arrive at the citadel. Entry costs 150,000 dong each (about £5) if you just want to visit the Imperial City; you can pay more to add on entry to some of the Royal Tombs – though these are located in different areas of Hue.

Also known as the Forbidden Purple City, a lot of the Imperial City was destroyed in the Vietnam War – as was the majority of Hue. The Battle of Hue was one of the longest and most destructive battles in the entire conflict. (Since we got home we've been watching The Vietnam War on Netflix by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which is an excellent way to learn more about the war.) It's still worth visiting though.

We stayed about 2.5 hours, and probably could have spent longer there, but lunch was calling: Hue's speciality dish, Bún bò Huế, which just so happens to be my favourite Vietnamese dish. (I'm blogging about food in a separate blog post, so more on this later and where we headed for dinner.) Hue isn't like Hanoi – you can tick off the main sites in one day – and next on our list was to take a boat down the Perfume River to Chùa Thiên Mụ (Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, as it is known in English).

It must have been a really slow day in Hue because we managed to negotiate a boat to take us there, wait, then bring us back for a mere 30,000 dong. Yes, that's one whole British pound. (And made the quote of 100,000 dong in Hoi An, a few days later, to take a lantern boat for 20 minutes seem especially outrageous!) The pagoda itself is seven stories tall – each level represents the different incarnations of Buddha – and it is free to visit. As always, cover up your shoulders and knees.

After exploring – we didn't spy any of the monks who live there – we were taken back down the Perfume River and dropped off at Dong Ba Market. This, in part, is more of a local market so it's worth having a poke around at the fruit, vegetables, meats and spices that are very different to what we get back home. We ended our day in Hue with dinner, then it was time to head to the train station to pick up our luggage and catch the train to Da Nang. I'll tell you all about that next time!

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