Wednesday, December 9, 2009

North To Hanoi

I board the 7pm train out of Saigon. I have booked a "soft sleeper" ticket, meaning I will be in a berth with three other people.

I find my berth and walk into something completely unexpected. My cabin mates are a family consisting of a husband, a brother in law (I presume)  a very pregnant wife and a cute as a button four or five year old girl. Mercifully she is incredibly well behaved. None of them speak english, and I feel like an uninvited dinner guest.

To make matters worse I have the top bunk. Keep in mind that there is no bar or dining car. My options are to lay on my bunk or stand in the hallway. Thats it. The train pulls out and I feel like a kid who has been sent to his room without any supper. As the train pulls away into the darkness, its endless clacking and gentle rocking soon put me to sleep.

The next morning I wake up at 6am with the sunrise. Shortly thereafter we pull in somewhere and I dash off the train to get a coffee. With all due respect to my Italian friends, the Vietnamese make the best coffee ever, and I am deeply grateful for that.

I hop back on the train to discover that smoking is permitted pretty much everywhere. Things are picking up, I think to myself. We roll on as the sun begins to peek over the mountains. The scenery is an endless montage of ultra green rice paddies and jungle foliage. We pass by villages that appear empty. I soon deduce that this is because everyone is out working in the rice fields.

Eventually the train winds its way to the coast and I let out an audible gasp, overjoyed to see the ocean. And on we go.

I have taken to hanging out in the hallway, smoking with the rest of the bad kids. I strike up a conversation with a few young and very affable Vietnamese guys. At one point I find myself talking hockey with a Russian gentleman. I laugh at the oddity of talking hockey on a train in Northern Vietnam. Indeed, it is a small world after all.

The young girl in my berth and two other young boys have taken a shine to me. We communicate as best we can, which isn't very good at all. At one point a young man acts as interpreter, so I can actually answer a few of their questions.

Eventually we settle on a game where they come running up to me, frantically wave their hands and shout "Hello!". I reply in kind which sends them running down the hall in gales of laughter. This amuses all of us for about 45 minutes. As you can tell, there isn't much to do.

However the scenery rolling by is truly captivating and it climaxes with an ascent into the mountains, just south of Hue. Hundreds of metres below is the rocky coast,desolate with spectacular waves. I quietly thank myself for kicking my own ass onto this locomotive. This is what I came to see and all aggravation, deprivation and discomfort melts away. Simply unforgettable.

As day gives way to dusk I hunker down in my bunk once again. The train stops here and there. People get on, people get off. I wake at 4am with a strange feeling. We are stopped, and there are a lot of people getting off. Suddenly it hits me. My train does not pull into Hanoi at 4pm as I thought, it is pulling in now. I quickly gather my things and disembark.

It is the middle of the night, my hotel reservation is not valid for another nine hours. I'm tired and dazed. I light up a smoke and stare out into the darkness, pondering my next move from the stillness of the train platform. The words of a wise friend pass through my mind, "still here, still alive".

I stamp out my smoke, pick up my bags and move forward into the darkness of the Hanoi night.