Since we would be traveling during the day, we decided to book a soft seat on the train instead of a sleeper car to get from Hue to Ninh Binh (~ 10 hours). BIG MISTAKE. The train was a nightmare in every way. Following is an excerpt from John's diary on the topic:
"10 hours "soft seating it". Facing backwards, seat reclining on it's own schedule, grown men laughing hysterically at Tom & Jerry cartoons blasting from TV, then shrieking, monotonous musical soap opera monologues. Breakfast/lunch, trash, plates, food wrappers, fruit peels thrown in aisle to be swept up and out moving train to defenseless countryside by uniformed Vietnam Railways employee. Always a hint of cigarette smoke in the jam-packed, non-smoking carriage regardless of the presence of the multitude of babies and toddlers. Babies' diapers changed mid-aisle, older sibling possessing the coordination, standing on seat in front of me peeing into empty soda bottle rather than brave the toilets as train rocks and sways, a two year old's coordination, skill and aim, and a half millimeter of plastic is all that is between me and a warm shower (remember which one is your pee bottle and which is your lemon soda - pee will stay warm only so long...) The toilets, one squatter, one western - two sprayed with some liquid floor-to-ceiling, tidal pools shifting with each curve of the rails."
Eventually arrived to Ninh Binh (a mid-size city of ~50 thousand people) to find a decent room for the night at the bargain rate of $9 -yes, for two! Very friendly town that's a bit off the tourist route so no touts, just nice, helpful people.
Rented a scooter to see the sights on our own! This decision led to our best day yet in Vietnam. Visited the nearby area of Tam Coc by scooter and arrived to have the place virtually to ourselves. The area is famous for huge rock formations surrounded by rivers, streams and rice paddies. Very beautiful. We took a two hour boat ride through some of the caves with an amazing lady rowing the boat with her feet. Incredible coordination! Also rode our scooter around the country side for the day and visited the Bich Dong temples which were built into caves. Excellent driving by John led to our safe return after a great day out, although we did accidentally end up in 'rush-hour' traffic which led to some disagreement about the amount of space we needed to give an oncoming truck and the ditch on the side of the road.