(Continued from Vietnam by rail II: Sa Pa)
Day 5: Day train Hanoi – Danang. Oh, and New Year’s Eve, too
It wasn’t even 5am when I got back to Hanoi the next morning. My train to Danang was leaving at 10am, and I had some time to explore Hanoi once more.
In the middle of my steaming pho bo breakfast (at a rare hole-in-the-wall outlet open at that unsocial hour), the few street lights suddenly died and the entire neighbourhood vanished into dark non-existence. I figured it was 6am – still another half an hour before sunrise but already “morning” in the eyes of the public lighting authorities.
The pitch darkness was admittedly not the best time for wandering around. I eventually walked across a thick wire stretched across a street. Who could ever have thought it’d be there? An interesting blue mark still crosses both of my thighs in a straight line; the fellow swimmers in my London pool are much entertained.
The pain was sharp. I needed a good coffee to cheer me up. For a welcome change from Vietnamese coffee – thick, black, with a dollop of sweet condensed milk – I headed towards the local “Starbucks”. For some reason called “Highlands Coffee”, it reportedly served more of a Western-style coffee brew. The closest branch on Dien Bien Phu was not intending to open before 7am though, so I spent some time watching the locals exercise in the nearby Lenin Park – crowned by the real Lenin statue! It was like going back in time.
Suddenly loud music sounded to the west of the park. It could only be coming from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, but who would be playing so early? I almost ran towards the Great Leader’s tomb, tripping over omnipresent badminton nets and bumping into local joggers.
My first guess was correct – there was a short parade going on right in front of the Mausoleum. Marching guards in white were cheered by Asian looking tourists (I assumed they were Chinese) and the ceaselessly exercising locals.
As soon as the soldiers had passed, tourist groups dispersed uncontrollably across the vast area that I saw so reverently guarded from trespassers just days ago. My appearance was met with almost ecstatic cheer, as the Chinese forgot all about Ho Chi Minh and started having their pictures taken with me instead. It was a true moment of fame! I can only imagine the kind of pictures those people will be taking home.
My train to Danang was leaving from Hanoi’s main train station. I first checked at the counter if my unglamorous hard seat ticket could be exchanged for soft seat. The answer was simple – the train I was taking ONLY had hard seats. Now that was going to be an interesting 19-hour experience. So much for New Year’s Eve, too!
Let us backtrack here. There are basically two types of trains in Vietnam – the newer, air-conditioned SE trains and the retro type, slower TN ones. My original plan was to tackle the 3-leg journey between Hanoi and Saigon using SE trains only. Days before my journey, however, the SE7 train was discontinued by the Vietnamese authorities – which meant that the only way I could make it to Danang at around the originally planned time was to take a TN train. Sleeper seats were no longer available. Hence I ended up with a hard seat ticket to Danang. For a journey 19 hours long. On New Year’s Eve and running into the New Year. Simple.
Was there no other transport besides trains though, I hear you ask. I need to back-up here; there was. Of course I could take a bus from Hanoi to Danang. Naturally, I could also take a domestic flight. You are forgetting however that the purpose of my visit to Vietnam was exploring its lengthy RAILWAY network. Skipping a major 791 km leg between Hanoi and Danang would have made a case for large-scale cheating. Hence I had to take the train, a retro one, on New Year’s Eve. The changing of the year is overrated, anyway. And yes, I can be terribly stubborn sometimes.
The biggest problem with the TN train was that it was departing a few hours later than SE7 – and moved along much slower. So, instead of arriving at Danang in time to welcome 2011 like a human being, I was now scheduled to be sitting on the train in the very night – at a falling apart, filthy train at that. Oh well.
The hard seat car I entered confirmed my fears. People and luggage occupied every free surface. The windows looked more like narrow crannies of light – and even that much was covered by a cage-like steel frame, apparently to protect the train from stones. And the hard seats were, well, HARD. The journey was going to be a fun experience. 19 hours of fun experience, too!
After about two hours of such entertainment, a train conductor came up to me and asked, through a girl sitting nearby (she spoke some English) if I would like to have a berth. For 25 USD. That was more than doubling the cost of my journey, but I felt I’d collapse without being able to lie down every now and then for 19 hours. I nodded and followed the conductor.
Curious pairs of Vietnamese passengers saw us off as we walked across the train. The final car turned out to have sleeping berths instead of seats. Windows were not caged (relief!). Each compartment had six berths in it. The conductor pointed at one of the top ones; it was clearly meant to be for me. I duly loaded my backpack there and blinked innocently at my Vietnamese neighbours. For some reason there were more people in the compartment than there were berths, but I decided not to dwell on that.
I wish I could say that my longest ever train journey was a fabulous, fun experience. But heck, it wasn’t. Albeit not entirely void of entertainment and positive moments, that train ride was instead the roughest travel experience I ever had. And I have taken quite a few old trains and overnight buses in my life.
During my travels in Mexico, I could not help noticing how clean Mexicans were. Their clothes smelt clean, their hair were always well washed and their faces shaved. Well, the Vietnamese were the exact opposite. They seemed to be living in the dirt. Rubbish was disposed of directly into the nearest water canal or simply on the floor. In my case, this was the floor of a moving train – never mind that this was the compartment the same people were intending to sleep in. The floor of ours was soon covered in greasy paper, food remains and broken toothpicks. I will stop here in case some of you are reading this over lunch.
Personal hygiene was also of secondary importance. Washing hands seemed to be unheard of; every surface of that train looked sickeningly filthy. My sheets definitely made an impression like someone had used them at least once before. The top of my pillow had some stains on it; having turned it over, I discovered that the reverse was even worse. I decided to be open-minded and play cool.
The worst aspect though was respect for private property. Was there even such concept in Vietnam? As soon as I walked out of the compartment, a stranger woman fell asleep in my bed, next to my neatly parked backpack. Just because I did not happen to be there at the time? When, shocked at my discovery, I tossed her out, she settled on one of the lower berths together with a woman I was sure she only met that morning. It was only then that I noticed some berths in our compartment had more than one person in it. It looked scary, folks. Positively scary.
I stood in the passage of the car for as long as I could, listening to music, taking pictures and glancing through the occasionally open window that the conductors otherwise kept shut. The scenery outside was monotonously flat but still very interesting. Rice field after rice field, group of workers after another, a parallel highway heading the same way, busy motorbikes and bicycles – in front of me was passing Vietnam.
Finally the darkness fell outside, and I figured it would be best to sleep a bit ahead of my 4:30am arrival to Danang. My bed was so close to the ceiling that one could never sit in it. The only option was to stretch out and freeze in one position. Every attempt to turn over would literally hit the ceiling. Need I even mention that the ceiling, too, was dirty?
And, just in case the above wasn’t enough, every time the train would call in a station (which means every decently sized village along the way), the speakers next to my head would burst out in abundant Vietnamese announcement. One continued for over 10 minutes, driving me nearly insane and making me want to jump out of the train that same moment. I still struggle to understand what one could possibly have been banging on about, so frequently and for so long. Whoever it was, he must have been terribly bored. Or struck by logorrhoea.
I slept in short intervals – waking up briefly just to check the time and register how much longer I would have to be travelling. Every minute was torture. I was praying for the time to pass faster, but it just seemed to have stopped.
In the meantime, my BlackBerry switched to 2011. Happy New Year? No fireworks, no salads, no “Ирония судьбы“? Crouched under the ceiling of an old train amid dirty sheets? Fully dressed in clothes I had not changed in 48 hours – not having taken a shower for just as long? It was certainly the most low-key New Year celebration in my life. But then again, it was interesting.
Finally I woke up for the last time, at 4am, quickly pulled my stuff down and stood in the passage for the final 30 minutes. A conductor tapped the shoulder of the girl sleeping on the floor (What? Someone has in the meantime occupied the floor?) and pointed at my (newly available) bed – into which she duly climbed and covered herself with my sheets. But I did not care. I simply could not look anymore.
Thankfully, the lights of Danang were already dashing outside. Almost every door of the low, basic buildings we passed had neon images of Christian saints and Christmas messages – most unexpected for Vietnam.
And then the train stopped. My feet finally touched the ground and I hurried away from my prison of the past 19 hours. At some point during the journey I was close to believing it would never end; that I’d always be staying on that train, crouched in one position. And I was infinitely grateful the painful journey was finally over. And I even saw some nice scenery along the way.
Happy New Year! Mine certainly began in an interesting way.
Day 6: New Year’s Day in Hoi An
Festive matters aside though, I tried to hitch a ride to my next destination – Hoi An about 30 km south. The taxi fare of 15 USD seemed overwhelming, and, after some hesitation, I accepted a motorbike ride for half the price.
My elderly driver, Duan, got me scared a few times – his eyes would frequently wander off the road and towards me behind his back as he told me endless stories from the Vietnam War and the everyday Vietnam. Thankfully though, the Danang – Hoi An road was mercifully clear that early Saturday morning – the first day of the New Year.
After not having seen a single foreigner for nearly a day, I finally caught the glimpse of retreating party animals early in Hoi An. Things around me were looking more and more like civilisation – even more so when we had reached my hotel. Here, kids, I was going to splash out for Vinh Hung Riverside Resort – a grande swimming pool experience and all. Just this once, just for the New Year – and still more than affordable. It was Vietnam, after all.
As the first water drops of the shower touched my travelled skin, I suddenly felt privileged. Privileged for having a shower. Privileged for being clean. Privileged for spending some time alone. Privileged for having a lavish buffet breakfast soon.
I closed my eyes and remembered my train neighbours. Most of them were heading to Saigon, which meant that they’d still have another 17 hours on the train. 17 hours of crouching on dirty berths, smelling each other’s feet, filling up on greasy train food and breathing in the cigarette smoke invariably leaking in from the passageway. And those were the fortunate ones; the rest were travelling on hard seats.
I was privileged. Very privileged indeed.
(Continued in Vietnam by rail IV: Hoi An)