The Reunification Express…
As usual I’ve managed to lose track of time while travelling and forgot to write. Actually that’s a lie straight off – I remembered, just haven’t found time to sit down and I’m finding more and more that nothing affords me such an opportunity as flights so here we are again, we’ve just passed Jakarta on the left and apparently, according to the captain, there’s a large volcano we can see on our right. Naturally, I’m on the left so there goes a potential photo opportunity. Anyway, I’ve now been in both Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Kuala Lumpur and much as it pains me to admit, I’m now down to my last three countries before my return to Germany; Australia, New Zealand and India. If Hanoi was full of hassle and people trying to sell me anything they possibly could, Saigon was definitely more of a city and couldn’t care so much if I wanted new flip flops or marijuana – I could go look for it myself. But before that came the 32-hour non-stop train journey from Hanoi down to Saigon.
Right from the off, I was pretty much alarmed at how small the room was – 4 beds (2 bunks), pretty much jammed in with just enough aisle space for someone of my decreasing girth to fit in the middle. It was going to be a tight fit and my Western ‘privacy-loving’ habits immediately flared up and I made some silent prayers that perhaps, given that the ticket cost was 80 US Dollars, nobody else would show up – surely the cost would put it slightly out of the reach of many Vietnamese? I half-shut the door and waited to see if anyone would turn up. As I went to close it the full way, I felt an amount of resistance roughly equal to the effort I was putting into closing it and sure enough, there was a man, a large leather case that had seen far better days in tow and his wife and young daughter of about 3 years old. Crap! A whole family! Anyway, on the bright side, I considered that that was as bad as it could get and the cabin was now fully occupied. About a minute later, a man opened up and looked in. He looked at the bed numbers and I could see myself from his ticket that he had a bed in this increasingly-packed room. In he came, said his greetings to the family before turning and in perfect English, introducing himself and asking where I was from. Now, I know this sounds rough, but after weeks of being hassled, no matter how hard I try, I’ve found I’ve developed an almost unbreakable barrier of distrust towards anyone and everyone. I had my two books on the bed and he immediately started asking about them and could he have a quick look maybe at them? Having had guys try even to sell books out of cardboard boxes in Hanoi, it didn’t take long for my mind to quickly go into overdrive – was he going to rob the books? Or pretend suddenly not to understand I wanted them back? Perhaps he just got on in Hanoi for a stop or two and robbed the books so he could sell them to unsuspecting foreigners back at the lake a few days later! Oh yes, I knew what he was up to, for sure.
So you can imagine my first and certainly not the last surprise of the journey when he read The Kiterunner long enough for me to expect it to be nicked any minute, before announcing that he was going to catch a nap for a while, here was the books back and it looked good from what he’d read – was it worth buying? I couldn’t believe it – I was sure I had this guy figured. We carried on, passing right through rice fields and workers toiling away in the unbearable heat outside, passing mountains towering above us, passing small towns where shops and forest seemed to collide almost into each other as the midday sun slowly gave way to the afternoon, which slowly gave way to sunset across a huge plain of flat land. It sounds beautiful and make no mistake, it truly was. What wasn’t so beautiful however was the fact that the ‘complimentary meals’ I’d read about hadn’t yet materialised and I was getting beyond hungry. People had passed around with food carts alright, but not a single one with a meal that was being handed out gratis. Due to the serious shortage of ATM’s in Hanoi, I hadn’t really got much cash left either and so I resigned myself to the fact that I was about to involuntarily take on another of my food shortages. Thankfully, I’m not completely stupid so I did have two packs of Pringles and a box of corn flakes I’d bought the day before – an unusual combination to try and stay going for the best part of 40 hours. It’d be safe to say that I wasn’t pleased and while I wasn’t making it totally obvious, I suspect that the family below picked up as the food cart went around once more (for a nominal fee) that something wasn’t quite right. The little girl found the whole thing absolutely hilarious and could hardly even eat her dinner she was laughing so hard at me sitting in my bunk wondering what to do next.
I was hungry – very hungry – so I decided maybe if I went for a stroll up and down the train it might take my mind slightly off the lack of anything to eat. I was gone a good 20 minutes; I reckoned this was long enough to allow the family to eat their dinner and maybe if I was lucky, it’d even have been taken away too before I got back so I wouldn’t have to see the empty plates. So you can imagine my disappointment when I slid open the door to see not only were they clearly finished but they’d also left a fair bit of their meals – I couldn’t believe it, how torturous was it to be so hungry and see that these people were about to throw it away. But I couldn’t walk back out again so I squashed into the tightly-packed space and no sooner had I slid in than the man immediately took the food and presented it to me and absolutely insisted I have it. What was going on? I was beginning to feel like the Grinch on Christmas Day and wasn’t too sure how many more of these pleasant surprises I could last through. Needless to say I wolfed the whole lot down and reckoned if train food in Vietnam was dodgy then I’d take my chances and find out later. I think I was beginning to enter a state of shock from all this mannerly behaviour and generosity so I took it upon myself to get out of the cabin and see the last of the sunset.
I was outside the cabin about two minutes when the first man – the supposed ‘book robber’ – emerged sleepily from the cabin and once again in English that’d make the Queen proud, announced that he was getting off soon and proceeded then to tell me the names of the towns we passed and explain in detail what each one was like and what the people were like in it. He asked how my picture-taking mission was going and if he could see some – I couldn’t get over this and occasionally still felt my nerves flare up, as if I still expected him to try to sell me something at some point or to take my camera and suddenly run for it. But it never happened. Instead what happened was, we finally reached his stop, he said goodbye to the family, took his bag and stopped and wished me a great trip and to enjoy Vietnam as much as I could, shook my hand and that was it. No books gone, no camera missing –just a really decent guy interested in telling me about his country and pointing out things I might be interested in or want a picture of and that was it. Mean as it is, I wondered what going on with the world. Anyway, having spent the afternoon dozing on and off, I reckoned it was finally near enough time to settle into bed properly. I was in bed about 2 seconds when another food vendor passed the door. This time there had to be some relenting; my stomach was bubbling away trying to sleep on an empty stomach so as the family ordered in a round of chicken soup, I asked if they could order me some too. It was without question the most delicious thing I’d tasted in a while, I would gladly have said ‘ever’ owing to how hungry I was but as I ate (well, more likely devoured), I began to notice the spoon spilling over with dark red watery liquid.
Now, if I was learning anything about Vietnam it was to always expect the unexpected and given that there was mildly cooked pieces of chicken in the soup, I put it down to the fact that in all probability, the chicken had probably only been murdered some minutes ago. But as I went on, it got worse and I began to notice that that it was starting to stain the soup. It was blood. And more importantly, when I stopped eating, I realised straight away that it was mine. It turned out the spoon had sharp edges and with every mouthful, I was also slicing the insides of my mouth. Great – once again, it was the unexpected. Either way, as soon as it had been noted by all that something was amiss, their bag was lashed open again as quickly as they could and out came a carton of milk that they insisted I drank. It took some time, but eventually things seemed to be OK and I resumed my devouring of the soup – albeit from the edges of the bowl rather than using the plastic spoon. The family left me quite early the next afternoon (after insisting I eat one of their three bread rolls they brought with them for breakfast) and I sat there, now alone in the cabin and beginning to think that maybe being alone in it wasn’t actually so great after all. The train journeyed right throughout the day and once again, through the sunset and into dusk before finally, some 32 hours after we’d left Hanoi, we pulled into Ho Chi Minh City. It was the longest single journey by far I’ll take on the entire trip and I left with mixed feelings – waiting for Saigon to be a bit of a dump and sad that not everybody I meet on the street could be just like the 4 or so people I’d met in my tiny cabin over the day, night and previous day.
Needless to say things went immediately back to normality as soon as I got into the train station as motorbike drivers, taxi drivers and porters all clamoured for a share of the incoming potential business. I found my way through them and onto my hotel. The hotel, in stark comparison to the one in Hanoi which was average if we were being very generous, was actually very pleasant and even Saigon itself seemed much more normal – much more like a city – than its northern counterpart. There was still people bothering me on the streets, but in significantly less numbers. There seems to be much more of a proper backpacking area there and as a result, there’s much better scope for keeping to yourself and not being hassled if you don’t want to. Similarly, just for the laugh, one night I walked right out of the tourist area and made a break for a normal residential area. Needless to say, it was gloomy at best – shell-like structures somehow supporting entire neighbourhoods, even though most of them looked about ready to fall down any second, meanwhile people cooked on little fires made on the roadside and kids kicked a flat football to each other, apparently paying no notice to the fact that it was flat. It was quite depressing but it was interesting to note that despite venturing right into a proper Vietnamese residential area, nobody bothered me once – the only time I came into contact with anyone was when a woman shouted over to a young boy who promptly ran over and lifted up piles of rubbish bags off the path where I was about to walk through.
That evening the hotel held this hilarious family party, to which I was more or less dragged into on my way past. The ‘family party’ quickly turned into a knees-up that wouldn’t have looked out of place back home – people shouting across the table, lots of laughter and beers being put in front of everyone whether they wanted them or not. The party carried on considerably later than I was expecting and finally when it came time to fly to KL, I found myself drained and running on only half an hour sleep. But definitely pleased to have been here – Vietnam’s a weird place and I still don’t know what to fully make of it, there was so much poverty and yet the normal run-of-the-mill people couldn’t be more generous if they tried in spite of the average salary being only $300 US a year. On the flipside, it seems a certain proportion have figured out that hassling tourists and annoying them works to make at least some money and seem to think that that too is a worthwhile activity and it’s that small sector that’d put me off returning.
Next time around, I’ll have my thoughts on KL – how I spent a whole day trying to avoid a family party-induced hangover, my trip to Pulau Ketam and leaving for Australia!