Trains of thought on Vietnam’s Road of Steel

How 3 train rides for 32 hours along 1,700 kilometers of Vietnamese railway feel like for this family of 5

Saigon to Hanoi by Rail

Like a nocturnal beast prepping itself for the long night ahead, the locomotive crawled on the Đường Sắt Bắc–Nam — Vietnam’s North–South Railway — in the suburbs of Saigon, its dozen or so carriages groaning at the joints.

Train SE4 slowly gathered speed for the overnight trip to Da Nang, our first time to sleep on a train. I booked online tickets for this sleeper train weeks in advance, as well as for another overnight trip. The family will take three train rides in all from Saigon to Hanoi along the Đường Sắt Bắc–Nam, which foreigners simply called Duong Sat and translated, whether by mistake or on purpose, to “Road of Steel.” We will have two long stops: Da Nang and Ninh Binh.

A cozy sleeping compartment of Coach 9 on Train SE4

For the first leg, I got the five of us an airconditioned soft-berth cabin for four and a bed in another compartment. The new cabins on Coach 9 look neat and tidy. The four “floating” bunk beds have soft-enough mattresses with fresh beddings, each with a reading lamp and USB outlets to charge phones. The cabin has a modish keg-shaped woven lamp and flower vase on the table by the window, which is adorned with Christmas reindeer and sleigh stickers. In the vestibules on both ends of the carriage are clean wash rooms and toilets.

Each compartment is adorned with this lovely woven lamp, a flower vase, and Christmas-themed stickers on the window.

Before retreating to our beds, the family gathered at the hallway just outside our cabin to watch through the glass window the city of Ho Chi Minh pass us by. Half of Saigon was just coming to life, while the other half is getting ready for the next day. Many of those living along the railroad track left the windows of their homes wide open, unmindful of peering eyes from passing trains. One homemaker clears the table, while the neighbor next door sits slouched in front of the TV (asleep?). A tiny silhouette runs past one of the window frames. At a crossing, dozens of motorcycles with headlights ablaze gather in front of metal road blocks that will be removed by hand as soon as the road is clear of this passing train. Every kilometer or so of the rail corridor, a Vietnamese guard keeps watch for both train and the outside world. (“The train windows stay closed because some children throw stones at trains,” the Vietnam Railways website explained.)

First time to sleep on a train

Train SE4 left the Saigon Railway Station on the dot at 7:45 and is expected to arrive in Da Nang shortly past lunch, with a number of quick stops in between. The kids are thrilled to ride the sleeper train, and Bretha is happiest the kids are thrilled.

Amber’s sleeping quarters.

With all this anticipation, Cyan, our nine year old, says it’s pretty cool sleeping in a train. Arwen, our teenage resident artist, is also enamored with the idea, loving the ever changing views outside her window. Amber, our young adult, agrees. “And it’s even nicer waking up to a beautiful scenery.” Being the eldest, Amber offered to stay in the separate cabin, which she shared with a good-natured elderly Vietnamese woman. Perhaps it’s a rehearsal of sorts for the possibility that she’d be living elsewhere when she goes to college a few months from now.

With this series of travels by rail, I feel that the kids, too, now share my fascination with trains, because, among other reasons, they can take a journey not just to places on the map but in the mind as well.

And yet this fascination carries with it a tinge of longing that goes all the way back home. For how could one not yearn knowing that trains used to run up and down the length of the island of Cebu, our hometown, intersecting with the quotidian lives of the Cebuanos of old?

Blue skies in Quảng Ngãi Province in Vietnam’s tropical south.

Where the trains back then always on time? That didn’t matter, as long as they arrived, not just with people and goods like abaca, sugarcane, and cacao, but with news and even newer ideas as well.

I once had a discussion with a friend, the poet Adonis, about Cebu’s long-forgotten trains that ran along close to a hundred kilometers of railway stretching from the towns of Danao to Argao. “Can you imagine how it must have felt for the townsfolk every time they would hear a train arriving from the distance?” Adonis said. Consider that these were quieter times when everything was remote and often shrouded in mystery.

Rice paddies in post-harvest season in Phú Yên Province

I tried to imagine children running first to the station at the sound of a faint whistle, if not wait on the side of the track, then seeing a tiny puff of steam from a dot where the two lengths of rails vanished in the distance, they scream with excitement. “Naabot na ang train!” Adonis’s voice mimicking that of an excited child shrills in my head. The train has arrived, even if it hasn’t really.

Arwen’s sketches of Vietnamese folk

Slowly the same dot dilates like a pupil in the whiteness of steam that’s billowing more proudly, until this beast with an iron snout comes barreling down inches past their noses, and they give chase, begging playfully for a free ride, hands flailing as if to grab one of the bars. But the train is too fast even if it is slowing down.

I imagine cheers and applause and excitement drowning the protracted squeaking and creaking of metal against metal. And then the locomotive and everything behind it grinds to a halt. Perhaps in an hour or so, the engineer will sound the bell to announce yet another departure.

Museum stickers on Arwen’s sketches of tube houses and a colonial building.

Did the trains of Cebu arrive every day, every week, at every station? And left just as often? Whatever the frequency, time in this part of the world would be measured with arrivals and departures, such that the people’s meaningful existence relied on these intervals. Nothing could be more reassuring to the locals than the certainty of the leavings and goings from the train stations of Argao, Carcar, Sibonga, Cebu City, and Danao.

Then one day, the trains stopped coming. They said it was the war, some blaming the guerillas for the sabotage of the tracks. But why the railway was never restored remains a mystery. Perhaps the bus moguls and auto traders know.

Cemetery in Da Nang

Over time, the tracks disappeared, rail by rail, bolt by tiny bolt, and all that is left are faint traces of dust-layered trackbed over which the tracks had been fastened.

Where trains used to pass and rattled its environs, cars and buses now jostle for the same space and its expansions. The train bells and air whistles, too, had to give way to electric horns coming from all directions.

Train steward manning the corridor

The story of Cebu’s trains reminds me of Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer,” an end-of-days film set inside a perpetually moving train where the last of humanity’s survivors are confined. “We take the engine and we control the world,” says the protagonist who longs for change. In Cebu, the survivors of World War II managed to take the engine and the entire train along with it, but they also took everything apart, so now there’s no more train to control. In its place is a transport system that puts most dystopian plots to shame.

In Vietnam, it appears the right people still control the engine.

Passing by a intersection in Saigon

I retreat to the cabin and climb up the top bunk and plop on the covered mattress. I find Arwen in the bunk across studying her drawings of Saigon’s colonial buildings and Vietnamese folk in traditional clothes. She keeps the sketch book moments later and pulls the covers. Cyan is curled beside his mommy.

In the other cabin, Amber is probably striking a conversation with her elderly roommate. Many Vietnamese, especially the younger ones, in the bigger cities like Saigon and Hanoi speak English, but those in the interior areas don’t. So far, though, communicating with the locals, especially the train staff, has not been a problem as simple “sign language” a la charades seemed to suffice.

At the break of dawn at the coast of Vung Ro south of Da Nang

I think about telling the kids of Cebu’s once-upon-a-time trains. Maybe tomorrow. Moments later, I hear someone jump into the empty bed and a tiny voice asks me to turn off the lights. I oblige. One gets used to the noise from the running train. It now follows a cadence, a certain beat that puts one at ease. In my head, in the darkness, Death Cab for Cutie’s train song plays alongside this beat:

The coast disappeared when the sea drowned the sun
I knew no words to share it with anyone
The boundaries of language I quietly cursed
And all the different names for the same thing

Fishing boats returning to the coast of Vung Ro Bay at sunrise

I wake up early the following morning. It must be 5 a.m. My children are still asleep, and so is Bretha. The electric signboard at one end of the train corridor says we are now nearing the railway station in Hảo Sơn Village. Outside where everything is a blue blur, the sun has yet to rise over fishing grounds, rice paddies, concrete houses with brick roofs, and cemeteries.

Next station: Ga Hảo Sơn in Đông Hòa, Phú Yên

We are halfway through the day’s destination of Da Nang. The signboard says the train is cruising at 70 kilometers per hour. I look outside the window — to the train’s right — and a cargo truck cruising on the highway is left behind. Like projector slides, the scenery shifts from coast to lake sides to rows of pine trees to foggy hills to farmland and farmers’ dwellings with their bales of hay shaped like huts that tower over farm houses.

A motorized trike zooms past pine trees in Đồng Xuân, Phú Yên

I lose my thoughts in the drone of steel wheels grinding at speed on railtracks with its measured peals and clangs. It’s not the most sophisticated, most advanced train, yet I have peace of mind in its comforts. And along with the entire Vietnamese fleet of trains, SE4 seems to serve a higher purpose.

A lakeside area in Tuy An, Phú Yên

All at once, I am envious of Vietnam and its people because it has a railway network of 2,600 kilometers, at the end of which, or at every station, someone, a waiting child perhaps, would exclaim, “Tàu đã đến!” The train has arrived!

A village blanketed in fog in Đồng Xuân, Phú Yên

Truth is, I envy any place with a functioning railway system, like Indonesia, where our family took a seamless five-hour train ride from Surabaya to Yogyakarta in Java. Indonesia’s railway system spans more than 5,000 kilometers and continues to expand along with the country’s ambitions.

I envy Malaysia, too, where we hopped on a train for a two-hour ride from the quiet coffee town of Kluang to Johor Bahru, a route which is just a fraction of the country’s close to 2,000 kilometers of track.

A village of concrete houses with brick roofs in Đông Hòa, Phú Yên

And I envy Myanmar even more even just for its 46-kilometer Yangon Circular Railway because it offers its citizens cheap mass transport around the capital’s immediate peripheries, never mind that the trains move at a snail’s pace, as what my wife and I discovered when we hopped on one of the carriages five years ago. But don’t be fooled: Myanmar’s railway network boasts of more than 11,000 kilometers in total, never mind if there a few bone-rattling segments as the late great Anthony Bourdain once attested to on a slow “kidney-softening travel by rail” to Bagan. But let those numbers sink in like railway sleepers pressed relentlessly into the track ballast.

Bales of hay shaped like huts tower above farm houses in Quảng Ngãi

In contrast, the Philippines only has 212 kilometers of railway, mostly in the island of Luzon. And yet, even that I envy as a Cebuano, as I dream that one day all five of us in the family would be taking a train from Manila aboard the Bicol Express once revived, or maybe the line to nearby Bulacan when it is finished, perhaps to whichever among the ongoing and planned line expansions in the country’s biggest island materializes first, or to any of the Philippine National Railway’s existing lines that are slowly getting much needed improvement after decades of neglect. But we will hop on that train when that time comes and admire Luzon from the train’s corridors.

Passing Hảo Sơn Railway Station in Đông Hòa, Phú Yên

May I point out, though, that train rides have two corridors: the one inside the carriages along the compartments, and the other, that strip of land where the rail tracks are laid, where pedestrians often traipse and hang out, and from time to time where saboteurs and pilferers pull off their plans.

I step out the cabin and see a vast cemetery come into view. Several upright grave stones are marked with sauwastikas, ancient symbols of divinity and spirituality. I am reminded how fleeting life is. The train moves on at its own pace.

Cemetery in Tuy An District in Phú Yên Province

There is no room for the restless on trains. In a way, I pity the contemporary traveler who can think only of getting off at the next stop at the quickest possible time while his mind chronically seeks to connect with the superhighways of cyberspace. On trains like the SE4, one learns to let go of urgencies.

Hunger, this most urgent of longings, is an exception. And I am grateful the railway management included free meals — breakfast and lunch — in our train tickets. But breakfast is still two hours away and I’m starting to get famished. To our luck, the train stops at Ga Hảo Sơn .

Passing by a village of concrete houses with brick roofs near Ga Hảo Sơn

The kids are still asleep but Bretha is up. A vendor appears outside the door near the rear gangway and sells us food. I buy two meat-filled rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. The rice cakes have a name: Banh U. I know only two words of Vietnamese and she doesn’t speak our language. As though I had a glass in hand, I gesture whether they sold drinks.

Banh U from Hòa Đa Railway Station

“Coco.” she says.
“Yes, coco!” I nod, extending two fingers. Bretha and I could really use some hot Vietnamese chocolate right now, perfect for this beautiful airconditioned morning in the middle of a rural commune.
The vendor hands me two plastic bottles through the door.
“Ah, Coco. Coke. Coca Cola.” All the different names for the same thing, and why not? Bretha is speechless.

The vendor nods and grins as I hand her 50,000 dong. I reach out for my change. If there’s a language we all understand, it’s that of money.
“Cảm ơn!” I say, thanking her.
“Cảm ơn!” she says and looks for other customers.

Noodles topped with beef for lunch

But the rice cakes are really good, and I wish I bought more. Breakfast finally came and the staff with a trolley of food gives us our packed meals with sealed cups of water. Everyone is now awake, and gorge on the dry noodles topped with beef strips. Cyan, chopsticks in one hand, gives the dish a thumbs up with the other.

Amber came by to say hi. “Sleeping in a train is fun!” she exclaims, although she admitted that dozing off was hard at first because of the noise the train makes. But eventually the same monotonous rhythm of the rolling train would lull her to sleep.

Woman with a trolley at Quảng Ngãi Railway Station

“Grandma is really nice,” Amber says, referring to her Vietnamese roommate. “She offered me food and kept me company. We even ate together last night. She also taught me how stuff on the train works, like the toilet.”

“The toilet is scary,” Cyan butts in. It’s true. The water inside the bowl continuously swishes and swirls because of the train’s forward movement.

“Grandma asked me where we were heading. To Da Nang, then Hanoi, I said. She said she was going home to her family in Hanoi.”

Container freight trains in Binh Dinh Province

Now one might think that railways are the Vietnamese’s transport of choice for passengers and cargo. The opposite is true. Although the figures are increasing, few goods are transferred by rail and only one out of 20 Vietnamese uses the trains, the likes of grandma included.

Vietnam is a motorcycle country after all, and with more people able to buy cars and in the advent of budget air fares, railway use is facing stiff competition.

Motorists, bicycle riders and pedestrians wait for the train to pass at a crossing in Quảng Ngãi

And yet the Vietnamese government is pursuing serious rehabilitation of its underutilized railways, as well as expansion into the borders of Laos and Cambodia. That’s because the vital role that railways play especially in a more interconnected future cannot be ignored.

While waiting for lunch, we pass the time playing Uno. In between one of the games, I tell the kids that the cabin reminded me of the ones I slept in on passenger ships from Cebu to and from Manila during school break.

Fishing boats in Da Nang

There was a rebirth of the shipping industry then, and a couple of the main players were trying to outdo each other to lure passengers with low fare, refurbished ships, clean accommodations, and “stuff to do” like karaoke during the 24-hour voyage.

Also at that time, budget airlines did not exist, so one must either be wealthy or desperate to pay for airfare that’s 10 times the cost of a boat ticket. Choosing which boat to take often boiled down to who offered the better food, which meant the SuperFerry ships, hands down. (Fun fact: while officially called the Reunification Express, the SE on Vietnam’s trains supposedly stand for Super Express. SuperFerry. Super Express. What super similarities.)

Lunch time in Quảng Ngãi

Anyway, lunch time came rather quick, and the food server brought our free meals, this time, on a tray: pork barbecue, vegetable salad, soup, rice, and water. Trust the Vietnamese to make train food delicious.

At Da Nang Railway Station in Quang Nam Province
Does this woven cylinder at the Hoi An Night Market look familiar?

A few rice paddies and another cemetery later, we arrive at Da Nang Railway Station. We took a Grab seven-seater for a 30-minute ride to Hoi An where we would stay near unspoilt An Bang Beach with its four-kilometer stretch of uninterrupted sand for four days and three nights, then spend another three days and two nights — including Christmas Eve — just outside Unesco Heritage Site Hoi An Ancient Town.

Round boat at An Bang Beach in Hoi An

There are plenty of things that struck me about Hoi An, but I’ll leave you with two: first, the cuisine is divine, the best we’ve tasted in Vietnam, and second, they play Jose Mari Chan Christmas songs here. But let’s leave that for another story.

Christmas Eve at Hoi An Parish Church

On Christmas Day, it was time to board another sleeper train in Da Nang, this time for Ninh Binh. The second leg of the family’s 16-day trip in Vietnam was a choice between the ancient city of Hue, the cave systems of Phong Nha Ke Bang, and the karst mountains and rivers of Ninh Binh.

Passing through Da Nang from Hoi An

We settled on Ninh Binh after a fellow Filipino traveler, who was also referred by my friend Ley who worked for a couple of years near Hanoi, suggested the place.

“Ninh Binh was the former capital of Vietnam,” Janice said. “It has scenic rivers there like in Tam Coc as well as a location site for Kong: Skull Island in Trang An.” She got me at Skull Island, because kids. Janice then referred me to her Vietnamese guide whom she said was really helpful. The guide’s name? Cinnamon Que.

Now for the second leg: overnight train from Da Nang to Ninh Binh

I looked Cinnamon Que up on the messaging app Zalo — her Facebook and Instagram handles vary (different names, same person) — and asked her if she’s in Ninh Binh. “I am living in Hanoi, but my hometown is Ninh Binh and my parents are living there.” That’s great, I said, and told her I wanted to see Tam Coc and Trang An. Cinnamon said I should just pick one. “You shouldn’t choose both because they are similar.” Makes perfect sense. I asked her if she’d like to be our guide in Hanoi. She agreed, adding she couldn’t wait to meet the family, especially the kids. “I hope you have a meaningful time in Vietnam,” she said. I thank her for all the help. The meeting didn’t push through, though, as she had to return to Ninh Binh for the New Year.

Time for some note taking

The family could have flown from Da Nang to Hanoi, the capital, and from there just take a van to Ninh Binh. But that would mean we’d miss out on a ride through Hai Van Pass, a popular side trip for Da Nang visitors. And right now, at 3:30 in the afternoon, we’re on board Train SE2 (Super Express 2!).

Near a fishing village in Da Nang

The train started moving and, as the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima would write, “shook with a deep sound like that of heavy chains gnashing against each other.” In less than an hour, it would make its way through the 21-kilometer stretch of the Hai Van Pass mountains.

The unspoilt coast of Da Nang Bay
Railway guard in Da Nang

From the window at the hallway of Coach 12, the coastline facing the East Vietnam Sea begins to reveal itself as the train makes its way to Hai Van Pass. The Annamese Mountains or Dãy Trường Sơn takes shape up ahead: a mountain range that extends into the borders of Laos and even Cambodia.

SE2 making its way through the Hai Van Pass
To remind us of where we are

Super Express 2 groans as it begins its slow climb through the mountains, snaking carefully along cliff sides, part of which drop straight into the sea. Several grunts, squeaks and clangs later, the electronic signboard reads: Hai Van Pass. The scenery outside is lovely. A soft mist has covered the slopes in the horizon.

View aboard the train from Thừa Thiên Huế Province

And then the train groans again, now with more clanking like the clatter of pots and pans, as it begins its traverse on a metal bridge along the cliffs some 500 meters above the sea. “Awesome,” Cyan says with bated breath. Hai Van Pass stretches on end. A stream emerges. Far down below, the waves crash against the shore. The sight disappears as the train enters a tunnel.

A stream in Thừa Thiên Huế

I can now imagine why two ancient kingdoms — the Dai Viet from the north and Champa from the south — chose Hai Van Pass as their boundary. I can also imagine why a number of older trains fell off this route. Of, course I didn’t tell the wife and children that, although now I understand why the Vietnamese named this new line of trains the Super Express.

Passing by a supply depot at Hai Van Pass

But travel through the erstwhile perilous Hai Van Pass has gotten safer through the years, and that makes riding a determined train through the Vietnamese mountains an even more compelling trip (not to mention all that railway metal soundtrack to heighten one’s journey). After another good meal, we all slept soundly that night.

Journey in the northern part of Vietnam continues in Phú Lộc, Thừa Thiên Huế Province

Thirteen hours later, at 4:15 a.m., we say goodbye to Super Express 2 at the Ninh Binh Station. Except for one attendant at the door, we were the only souls at this spacious modern structure built just three years ago. There was no need to hail a cab as our hotel was at the block across the station. We stepped out of the station into the cold. We are in the north of Vietnam after all. In contrast, the tropical south was warm, and I am reminded that the Hai Van Pass, among its many roles, does serve as the boundary of Vietnam’s two climates.

Early morning arrival at Ninh Binh Railway Station

We put on our jackets and walked for roughly five minutes. Since our check in time was still at 12 noon, the plan was to just leave our stuff at the counter, then proceed with a morning tour. When we reached our hotel it was closed. I look at Bretha. She looks at me. Confusion is written on her face, near panic on mine.

View from Ninh Binh Railway Station

I remember her talking on the phone yesterday, asking whether they accepted credit cards for payment (my online booking through Agoda said I would pay at the hotel upon check-in). The man on the other line, presumably the hotel owner, said yes. Bretha confirmed our booking, so I’m pretty sure they knew we were arriving. So why the hell was the hotel closed? I look around. Not a soul stirred on the wide tree-lined sidewalks, the mist hanging in the cold air.

And the hotel is still closed

I tell Bretha and the kids, who were now sitting on the concrete steps at the entrance, that I’ll look for another hotel just in case. I go down the block, then turn right along the Sông Vân River. I saw one outdoor sign glowing in the distance and walk towards it. A funeral parlor, no way. I go faster and follow a neon hotel sign down a narrow road. The counter was pitch dark. Tough luck. Everyone here was still asleep. I return as the bearer of bad news.

Ninh Xuân commune in Hoa Lư, Ninh Binh
Vietnamese drip coffee after a not-so-long wait

When I get back, the metal shutters were pulled open. Bretha had texted the owner while I was away, and he and his wife had just woken up. While pulling out chairs and tables, the couple, still in their pajamas, explained they didn’t expect us this early. My bad. I completely forgot to tell them the expected time of the train’s arrival. “Coffee?” the wife asks. “Three coffees and two milk teas, please.”

Emerging from one of the caves of Trang An during a boat ride

Having Vietnamese drip coffee on the empty sidewalks of laid back Ninh Binh at 5:30 in the morning was surreal in a quaint way. “What coffee do you use?” I ask the wife. “Trung Nguyen, Number 9,” she says. “It’s the best.” I take a sip and a mental note.

After 500 steps climbing Ngoa Long Mountain
A list of Ninh Binh’s attractions from a nearby travel agency

So Bretha, to make sure, asks the husband again about paying by credit card.
“Oh, you go at 7 a.m. first to Mua Cave, then Trang An, then Hua Lu, then Bai Dinh Pagoda,” he says, while making a sketch on paper.
“How about credit card, do you accept credit card?”
“Car will be here 6:30 a.m. You leave 7 a.m.”
“Oh, the car.” Not card, but car. Different names, same thing. Different things, same names. I give up.
“You want breakfast?”

So much for the credit card then. And that means it’s time for some serious (re)calculation.

Breakfast before the early tour

Anyway, I’m glad we took the couple’s advice to book an SUV through them, leave early, and visit the sights they suggested. It saved us money. Ninh Binh is breathtaking and we wanted to stay longer (we had great bread-and-breakfast hosts).

At the location of Kong: Skull Island

We checked out at noon the next day. For the overnight stay at the hotel, whole-day car rental, and lunch and dinner with all that habit-forming strawberry milk tea and excellent drip coffee, we only paid 2.145 million dong. Cash.

Waiting for our ride to Hanoi

The five of us walked back to Ninh Binh Station, our hearts and stomachs full, and bought tickets for the train to Hanoi. Our Vietnam journey by rail was about to end. The train left shortly before 2 p.m. and we’re in Hanoi exactly two hours later. “Tàu đã đến!” The train has arrived!

And here it is…

In all, we spent roughly 32 hours for three days and two nights on three separate trains along 1,714 kilometers of railroad to visit three major cities, see their numerous natural and man-made heritage sites, and experience a unique but vibrant culture. And although we had shared experiences, the kids, with their gaps in age, saw the train rides through different lenses.

Final leg: a two-hour trip from Ninh Binh to Hanoi

Arwen sums it up with one image that struck her the most: the sea of motorists and their motorcyles waiting at the crossing. “We normally see the world from outside, but when viewed from another perspective like inside the train, it is so different,” she muses. “When I saw, even for a fleeting moment, all those people at the crossing and the light shone on each one of them all the way to the farthest end of the road, I thought the sight was amazing.”

Train snacks

And if you come to think of it, these motorists are interconnected with everyone else in a vast network of roads, waterways and tracks that are ultimately linked to the emerging country’s underutilized spine. And yet the significance of the railway that connects Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi goes beyond the economic.

Train journey coming to an end

I am yet again reminded of another movie with the train as a storytelling device. Though a zombie apocalypse movie, “Train to Busan” isn’t just a one-track, one-dimensional flick. Like “Snowpiercer,” Yeon Sang-ho’s “Train to Busan” utilizes the train as a metaphor for social class divisions. But Busan has a more poignant layer it touched on: the division between North and South Korea that still cuts deep to this day.

Hanoi Railway Terminal

In the film, a zombie outbreak further “divides” South Korea into north (an infected Seoul) and south (a secured Busan). In one telling scene, elderly family members are forcibly separated into different carriages, a subtle reference to the division of Korea after World War II. To this day, the reunification of North and South offer both dream and nightmare scenarios, a divisive theme that “Train to Busan” carried deftly to a broader audience.

After three train rides and 1,700 kilometers of Vietnamese railway, we are delighted to say, “Hello, Hanoi!”

Vietnam could easily have gone down Korea’s way. It actually did for 11 years from 1954 to 1965 when the country was divided into two, with the boundary on the 17th parallel just above the Hai Van Pass. But history favored a unified Vietnam that is now opening itself up to the world. And there we went, family of five, on these (Super) Reunification Express trains along the Đường Sắt Bắc–Nam that connects all of Vietnam, catching glimpses of an undivided, iron-willed country that’s moving with purpose on the right track.

That’s right, just a backpack each for this gang. Why Vietnam for us? Click here

Indescribable El Nido

So who deserves to see Heaven on Earth?

Time Travel in Palawan

“EIGHT hours?!”

That’s what I get every time I tell someone how long it takes to travel from Puerto Princesa to El Nido. Of course, I fail to mention that’s by bus, which takes a hundred of stops picking up and dropping off passengers along the way.

But there’s a faster way, I assure them — by van. Only five hours.

“Five hours?!”

More driftwood at 7 Commando Beach

At this point of the conversation, I am tempted to drop the thing entirely, but decide against it, and instead nudge the aspiring El Nido tourist into action.

“Yes, five hours,” I’d say, citing the recent trip we made. “But that’s ‘Heaven on Earth’ we’re talking about. And we did it with children.”

Arwen, 8, Amber, 12, Cyan, 3

I’d then talk about how smooth the trip along the concrete highway to paradise was, except for the last 45 minutes or so of unpaved road, and omitting that part when one of the kids puked twice during the stretch where the highway snaked through the rainforest.

There would be no need to tell the aspiring El Nido tourist how priceless a reward of reaching this popular destination would be, because everyone already knows that, but I felt that travelers have an obligation to persuade others to take a vacation from their comfort zones.

Playing near driftwood at Secret Lagoon
Lunch at the beach is almost ready

“Make that trip happen,” I’d challenge the reluctant tourist more. “We’re not getting any younger.”

Nothing like the last statement prompts a soul filled with wanderlust into action. On the other hand, nothing could be as false as the exclusivist idea that the best kind of travel is restricted to a particular demographic, the way paradise, in its archaic sense, is reserved for a few.

El Nido, for all its remoteness, can be enjoyed and admired by anyone who bothers to go there, regardless of age. Like our group, for example — my wife and I, our three kids, and my mother-in-law.

El Nido, for all its remoteness, can be enjoyed and admired by anyone who bothers to go there, regardless of age.

Behind that boat are two crevices leading to Secret Beach

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The key to good travel is preparation that falls within the “Goldilocks Zone” (not too much, not too little).

Yet I felt that the kids should be prepared to endure the length of time they’ll be spending on the road. So, a couple of months before the trip to El Nido, we took a road trip along with another family and drove all the way from Cebu to Sagada in the Mountain Province, and back. A total of 72 hours spent on the road would be more than enough to prepare the children for that five-hour trip to El Nido. My wife and Momyla, my mother-in-law who’d be joining us, thought so as well.

Let’s do this!

So on the day of the trip to Palawan last June, we were confident the kids would do just fine, behave and sit still. But five hours is five hours, so we didn’t take any chances and hoarded lots of chewable candy (for dizziness) and a dozen barf bags we stashed from the flight from Cebu. We also needed to take a full meal for the long trip ahead.

After booking a van ride for El Nido at a “terminal” just outside the Puerto Princesa airport, we headed straight to our favorite noodle place in the country, Bona’s Chaolong, a hole-in-the-wall on Manalo St. just a couple of minutes away.

A legacy of Vietnamese who took refuge in Palawan decaddes ago, chaolong is pho with a Filipino twist. This satisfying noodle dish with a savory broth has started to become ubiquitous in the city, but Bona’s arguably are the locals’ favorite.

Ever since I found out about Bona’s Chaolong last year, I realized my trip to Palawan would never be complete without a lovely serving of beef stew or pork bone noodles garnished with fresh mung bean sprouts and even fresher mint leaves, paired with honest-to-goodness garlic French bread.

And I thought, what better way to start a trip to El Nido than with chaolong.

Five hours, 200 kilometers

We had arranged for the van driver to pick us up at the chaolong house at 1 p.m., and in no time we were cruising along the national highway. The van made two 15-minute stops — one in Roxas town after two hours, then in Taytay an hour later. Wonderful scenery greeted us along the way.

After close to five hours and more than 200 kilometers on the road, we knew El Nido was near, as the jagged limestone karsts began to peek from the horizon. We arrived a bit ahead on time, shortly before 6 p.m. The sun was still up.

Upon stepping out of the van at the terminal, massive limestone karst cliffs called “taraw” loomed before us. At its feet was the new market, where we would buy cheap lapulapu, squid and prawns for dinner days later. Hidden behind the cliffs was the reason El Nido has been called “Heaven on Earth” – clusters of astonishing geological formations scattered across Bacuit Bay. We couldn’t wait to see what “paradise” looked like.

We took a short tricycle ride through town to the edge of Rizal St., at the beach front where our lodgings were. Our room on the second floor of the inn was spartan, but it accommodated all six of us and offered a fantastic view of the bay and nearby Cadlao Island, which rose 600 meters above the sea, twice taller than the country’s tallest building. Dozens of outrigger boats anchored near the shore floated still.

Down below the inn, the streets were still abuzz with life, even as nighttime fell.

After having dinner at a carenderia run by a Filipino chef, we went straight home and slept. The tiny airconditioner groaned, but we hardly noticed. It will eventually give up before our three-day stay in El Nido is over.

Tours A and C, if there’s time

Every day, electricity in paradise goes out at exactly 6 a.m. and returns at 2 p.m. I began to suspect that this was scheduled that way to force travelers to leave their rooms and take any of the four tour packages on offer, if not head to the town’s other attractions.

But the power shortage sounds legit — since El Nido is quite remote, electricity here must be pretty expensive, just like most basic commodities, with the exception of seafood.

View from our room…

Now taking the tours is a must. First timers in El Nido are advised to take Tour A or C, or if they have the time, both. There’s an option for a combined Tour A and C, since the each cluster of islands are just nearby. The tour starts at 9 a.m. and ends shortly past mid-afternoon.

We took Tour A first, then Tour C the following day. Both tours included lunch.

The tour begins: first stop, Helicopter Island
Will it rain?

Tour A centered on the lagoons: after a dip off Seven Commando Island, we headed to Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon, had lunch at a beach beside Secret Lagoon, and then ended the day after snorkeling off Shimizu Island.

Tour C was mostly a trip in and around Matinloc Island, a long stretch of rock that holds pockets of beaches and many other secrets. We visited Secret Beach, had lunch at Talisay Beach, explored Matinloc Shrine, and spent the rest of the afternoon at Hidden Beach during low tide. We were glad we did both tours separately.

The sights probably meant little to the boatmen, but we, their passengers, were in awe. Each destination was just incredibly beautiful and each spot was uniquely breathtaking. One of the lagoons even inspired some writer to write a book, only it wasn’t about the place. (What’s the name of that book, again?) But still.

And it wasn’t just the scenery — it was the experience of discovering for oneself what other wondrous sights were hidden behind a clump of towering islands or walls of rough-hewn cliffs, for instance, swimming through a crevice to find the clear blue waters of a lagoon surrounded by even taller limestone karst cliffs lush with bizarre greenery.

7 Commando Beach

Each time we passed through shallower waters that revealed rich coral cover, the islands hunched on both sides — many taller than highrise buildings — appeared to be in constant motion, ceaselessly shifting sideways, as though these were the terrifying gates of some colossal kingdom in the middle of the sea.

Each time we passed through shallower waters that revealed rich coral cover, the islands… appeared to be in constant motion, ceaselessly shifting sideways, as though these were the terrifying gates of some colossal kingdom in the middle of the sea.

Hidden Beach

Elsewhere, boulders jutted from the water, their serrated edges cutting the surface of the sea at odd angles, like rigid waves. One could imagine meteors falling from the sky millions of years ago. Farther still, clumps of rock lined the horizon, blurred, suggesting only depth and distance. Somehow, we managed to get there, and closer.

By the end of the first tour, I realized that no words can describe this place. In the middle of Tour C, I was resigned to the idea that no photograph or video can capture the essence of Bacuit Bay and its geological wonders.

Swimming in the Small Lagoon
What a view from Matinloc Island!

For example, to stand on the shores of Talisay Beach on Matinloc Island can be disorienting, because everywhere one turns, he is surrounded by exceptional natural beauty he can immerse himself in. This holds true to just about every spot in Bacuit Bay.

We expected to see something beautiful and amazing in El Nido, but not this many in only a few clusters of islands, not 360 degrees of breathtaking awesomeness at any random spot.

Here in El Nido, before each wondrous sight, one runs out of breath and superlatives. Heaven on Earth — that’s the best we can come up with?

(A version of this article was published on SunStar Travel in July 2013)

Hidden Beach up close. Until next time, El Nido…

Time Travel in Palawan (Part 2): Finding Bliss and Bioluminescence

Fisherman in Sabang, Puerto Princesa

IN mid-October last year, two girls and a boy — ages three, seven and 11 — rode an airplane for the first time. They were going to this place said to be one of the most amazing in the world.

Their parents — my wife and I, that is — begged for clear skies. We got more than what we asked for: near-perfect weather and a smooth, turbulence-free plane ride to the island of Palawan.  

It had been six years since Bretha and I last set foot in Puerto Princesa. Now with three kids in tow, we had a feeling that this experience, though familiar, would even be more special. It was.

Island hopping on Honda Bay under clear blue skies

First, we were there less as a couple and more as parents, taking the kids to recommended tours in Honda Bay and the city, making them pose with a baby croc and a bearcat at the Crocodile Farm, letting them loose on quirky but fun Baker’s Hill, and taking them to Palawan’s famous “prison facility,” the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm, where benign inmates stayed out of jail cells and hawked handicraft to willing tourists like us.

And then there’s Puerto Princesa’s emerging food culture. We couldn’t pass up on the chance to eat some tamilok, that translucent elongated mollusk that feeds on mangrove driftwood, in Sabang.

Also, acting on the hotel guard’s tip, we found this hole-in-the-wall called Bona’s Chaolong, which served the best Vietnamese-style noodles in town.

Also, acting on the hotel guard’s tip, we found this hole-in-the-wall called Bona’s Chaolong, which served the best Vietnamese-style noodles in town.

The beef or pork bone stew with rice noodles — garnished with mung bean sprouts and min — is a culinary tradition left behind by Vietnamese refugees who settled in Palawan more than two decades ago. Paired with freshly baked French bread sandwiches, chaolong can be habit-forming.

But what made that journey really special was having experienced, as a family, Puerto Princesa’s best-kept open secrets: the underground river tour and firefly watching. We could miss the other city tours but not these two.

No Cyan, it’s not ice candy

Urban sprawl and the ‘peak season’

There was only one downside to the entire Palawan trip: we noticed that the city center, especially along the main thoroughfares, had lost some of its charm. This became apparent shortly after our arrival, as we rode through the city streets on board a tricycle, whose driver sidelined as our tour guide.

It can be disorienting to find what six years of development can do to a city that only dozens of kilometers away hides a natural wonder 20 million years in the making.

The urban sprawl that greeted us in Puerto Princesa was impressive and jarring at the same time. Tricycles and automobiles choked the main thoroughfares now lined with multi-story, some uninspired, concrete structures on lots where majestic trees once stood. In short, Puerto Princesa had become a typical progressive Philippine city, no different from the one we had tried to escape momentarily from.

Despite all these, much of Puerto Princesa’s 2,381 square kilometers remained very much “livable” and didn’t seem crowded.

As our tricycle shuttled through the highway, I spotted a number of backpackers milling outside vans at a “terminal.” Meters away, another group of tourists emerged from a convenience store. Wasn’t it the wet season?

“When’s the peak season, Manong?” I asked the tricycle driver in Tagalog.

It took him a moment to answer.

“All the time. It’s now peak season here all the time,” said our driver, whom we later learned left the capital in the 80s and stayed for good in Puerto Princesa, at a time when the only travelers who wound up there were those who wanted to get lost.

‘No Permit, No entry’ policy

Our driver, though, had no complaints now that Palawan is a full-blown tourist destination, mainly due to the inclusion of the Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR) as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature earlier last year, setting off huge waves of publicity that reached distant shores.

As a result, local and foreign tourists were now arriving by the planeloads. The government and community were caught by surprise. So were travelers like us.

In 2006, going to the underground river was such a breeze, if you didn’t mind the poor condition of the dirt roads. Now, tourists who hadn’t made reservations had to take their chances at the Underground River Booking Office in the city proper and wait for hours.

Waves of tourist started arriving on Palawan’s shores

“We didn’t expect the tourists to come in droves,” a government employee at the booking office told us. They had to implement a “No Permit, No Entry” policy to control access to the underground river to 900 visitors a day. This was to protect the fragile ecosystem of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.

We were lucky to get slots for the next day’s trip.

That night, to make the most of our stay, we took a nearby ecological tour that was offered only in 2010 yet: firefly watching in the Iwahig River. That nighttime ride on a paddleboat turned out to be an transformative 45-minutes of unforgettable beauty.

Statue at Puerto Princesa Baywalk, but the text on the corroded plaque was unreadable

Lasting impression

As expected, the Underground River tour left a lasting impression on our children, lighting the pristine caverns inside their heads with wonder.

The road trip to PPUR the next day aboard a spacious van was comfortable – our kids hardly complained. The entire 76-kilometer road leading to Sabang was paved, cutting travel time to a smooth two hours. (In 2006, it was three hours of rough road). The outrigger boat ride from Sabang to the PPUR entrance was just as smooth, considering the weather was unpredictable that time of year.

As for our boatman, he went on with his routine of identifying each stunning rock formation, many named after vegetables (e.g. The Mushroom), animals (e.g. The Crocodile), and religious references (e.g. the Holy Trinity). There were some Rated R material to be named but he held back (kids, were on board, he figured).

The boatman that took us to the Underground River entry point gave the kids these origami made from palm fronds
5 of the 900 lucky travelers who are allowed access to the Underground River that day
Arwen in her element at the entry point of the Underground River

Yet the perfunctory way the boatman conducted the PPUR tour was in stark contrast to how his Iwahig River counterpart does his. Both go about their task in the darkness, paddling through even darker waters, but their methods of touring guests are different.

While an underground river boatman is content to draw laughs by assigning quotidian, often half-comical, names to otherwise spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations millions of years old, a boatman in the Iwahig River tour strives to educate his passengers, both young and old, on the importance of Puerto Princesa’s eco-tourism projects.

And whoever runs the Iwahig tour gets it: visits to Palawan aren’t justfor sightseeing — they can be about gaining a deeper insight of how vibrant yet fleeting life is. One only has to see the fireflies and mangroves along the river banks to understand.

…visits to Palawan aren’t just for sightseeing — they can be about gaining a deeper insight of how vibrant yet fleeting life is. One only has to see the fireflies and mangroves along the river banks to understand.

Where to next, little feet, big feet?

Watching fireflies

In the Iwahig tour the night before, we jumped into two paddleboats, each with its own boatman. The smaller kids — Arwen and Cyan — stayed with Bretha, while Amber, our eldest, was with me.

Our boatman carefully paddled away from the faintly lit wooden dock by the river bank and into the darkness, trailing the other boat slightly ahead. He talked about the firefly, its short lifespan (from a few days to a couple of months), how it produces light (bioluminescence, enzymes and all), and why it glows (to select mates).

“Fireflies thrive in mangrove forests, like those lining the river banks,” our boatman said in a mix of English and Tagalog, as he points his laser pen at a cluster of mangroves, their contours visible in the darkness.

An unforgettable 45 minutes in the darkness up and down the Iwahig River
Crocodile handicraft

As the boatmen talked, all five of us children listened attentively. From time to time, both of them would keep silent, almost motionless.

“Are there crocodiles in the river?” I heard a little girl’s voice ask from the other boat. The boatman assured there was none in the Iwahig River, which flows toward the penal colony.

In the distance, a clump of mangroves slowly flickered with thousands of tiny lights. I could hear the five of us holding our breath in awe.

Mangrove seedlings at one of the uninhabited islands of Honda Bay

As we drifted farther into the river, more and more mangroves along the banks lit up.

“Fireflies thrive where the air is clean,” our boatman said. “So you can see that there’s no pollution here.”

There was only the fresh air and the clear sky, through which the brightest moon and the brightest stars shone.

“Fireflies thrive where the air is clean,” our boatman said. “So you can see that there’s no pollution here.”

The boatman pointed his laser pen at a star then traced the Big Dipper, then the Small Dipper, then Cassiopeia. My wife, my children and the child in me were transfixed.

My thoughts began to drift. I thought about the light that traveled all the way from those constellations and the number of light years it took to get to this part of Palawan.

I wondered about the light that burns inside every firefly. Bioluminescence: what a big word for such a small thing.

Bretha back in the Underground River, this time with the kids


(A version of this article was published on SunStar Travel in July 2013)