The MT diary: The best way to travel

Howard Davies likes high speed rail, but wouldn't recommend taking the train from Paris to Munich.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 05 Dec 2011

In Manchester, whenever two or three are gathered together, the talk turns to the new High Speed Train to London. From the perspective of Albert Square, it seems to be threatened by a sinister coalition of soft southern nimbies trying to protect their gladioli and their inflated house prices.

I am instinctively pro-train, except when it is owned by Richard Branson, when I fear my fare will disappear into a complex web of offshore companies located in what the French rightly call 'fiscal paradises'. But £17bn (the cost of the first section to Birmingham) does seem quite a high price for shaving 25 minutes off my journey to watch Man City games. Perhaps it would be easier to cut 25 minutes off the playing time, which would help United, as it would then be quite hard for us to beat them by more than four goals.

But my belief in letting the train take the strain was shaken last month. I decided that a neat way of getting from Paris to Munich was by train. I could lighten my carbon footprint in the comfort of a TGV, marking essays word-processed by my French students, while munching on a baguette jambon/fromage. From Paris to Strasbourg all was well, then the train's ordinateur went en panne.

I'm not clear what a train needs with a computer and I hoped that as long as the chaps with the shovels were still in shape we could carry on regardless. No such luck. It turns out that without its IT, a TGV is quite lost. It no longer knows in which direction Germany may be found.

So we meandered around the flatlands looking for the Siegfried Line, and turned up in Stuttgart more than an hour late. My connection had gone. There was another efficient Bundesbahn zug along quite soon, but without a relevant reservation I was relegated to the corridor. By the time I reached Munich I was ready to mount a putsch against the patrons of SNCF. With this kind of performance, I'm not surprised there is talk of a French debt downgrade.

I didn't go all the way to Hong Kong by train, but I did take the superfast link to Kowloon. It's so quick that you barely have time to digest the complicated ads from HSBC on the seatbacks, which try to interest passengers in a quick flutter on an Exchange Traded Fund. Let's hope they have their Asian traders under better control than UBS did in London.

The train takes you right into the bowels of the new Commercial Centre, so you can check into a hotel, go to all your meetings, have a decent dinner and get back to the airport without venturing outside. Normally, that's quite an advantage, as the Hong Kong air when the wind is blowing down the Pearl River across the factories of the delta is as healthy as Manchester's in the 1950s. But this time, for once, the air was clear and the sun shining.

That was not quite the case in Hanoi, which, as ever, was shrouded in a slightly menacing mist. There are a few trains in Vietnam - you can go north to the Chinese border and on to Guangdong, a journey I plan to make one day. But the airport is not yet blessed with a rail link.

The city does, however, have my favourite transportation system of all the cities I know. So far, Vietnam has resisted the mass acquisition of cars and by far the dominant mode of transport is the motor scooter. There are a few traffic lights, though following their advice would seem to be optional for scooters. So at junctions, four complex flows of motorbikes interleave with each other and, miraculously, all emerge at the other side unscathed. The secret is that they move at around 10 to 15 miles an hour, which gives enough time for evasive action.

So where does this leave the tourist? The best answer for travelling any distance is to join the throng and jump on the back of a passing Honda whenever place A needs to give way to place B. If you shut your eyes tight, you will be fine.

Crossing the road is a different matter. Here, you have two choices. Option a) is to wait for a gap in the traffic. There are German tourists adopting this method who have been standing on the pavement in Hanoi for several years.

Option b) involves stepping out into the river of mopeds and walking determinedly. You must not make eye contact with any rider or he will see weakness and fear in your eyes and cut you up. And never stop or you become a kind of traffic island, with streams of scooters ellipsing around you.

If you follow these simple rules, Hanoi is a piece of moon cake to navigate. And it is worth exploring. The hotel food is, well, hotel food. But I was taken by a former LSE student, who now trades Vietnamese equities (another activity that is not for the fainthearted), to an ethnic restaurant where we drank Rose Apple wine and ate snail and banana soup and some meaty thing that may well not have been dog.

OK, perhaps I am not doing the best selling job here. The Vietnamese tourist authority certainly emphasises other culinary delights in its UK marketing, though the potage d'escargots aux bananes may well feature on the posters it puts up in France.

Sadly, though, Hanoi was not complete. Ho Chi Minh was not on display. His mausoleum is closed for refurbishment. Whether it is the buildings or the remains of Uncle Ho himself that need a makeover I do not know. But in the meantime, Vietnam has embraced capitalism red in tooth and claw, and there is good money to be made - unless you are too chicken to cross the road.

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