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Train to Hanoi

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I’ve decided that it’s really easy to be a travel writer because when you travel, it’s inevitable that things happen to you that are worth writing about, like my train ride from Guilin to Hanoi.

I realized that it was going to be interesting when I picked up my ticket at it was entirely in Chinese, Cyrillic and German.

The train was about 1/2 an hour late, nothing too serious. I sat in a smokey Waiting Room No.2. Music was playing, and I recognized the tune, and after about 10 minutes, I realized the same song was still playing. It was somehow skipping, but each skip was around 2 minutes long. If the train was any later, I realize that I might have gone mental.

I was relieved that my ticket actually worked, and I was able to get on the train when it arrived. I found my doily-encrusted first class compartment, and was soon joined by a couple from Ireland, Rory and Jenny, and a computer programmer/skier/climber from Ohio named Brian. Everyone was on long trips around Asia, spanning months, and in fact, Brian was working remotely as he travelled. Not a bad life!

In the hallway, I met a fellow and invited him to join us. Peter is a Swiss railway enthusiast. Enthusiast is putting it mildly. He had a quiet passion for trains. In fact, he was most of the way from Portugal to Ho Chi Minh City, all by train. What was his job? Why, working for the Swiss railways, selling train tickets. I guess that he didn’t believe in getting away from his job. He pointed out that our peculiar train tickets were issued in Swiss Francs. Did it have something to do with Switzerland being a neutral country?

The Irish couple, Brian and I decided to seek something to eat in the “dinning” car, so at around 5pm we wandered over. We sat there for an hour watching the entire crew of the train eat in shifts, then we were allowed to order. When our 2 dishes came, we realized that there wasn’t going to be enough food, so we tried to order more. We were told the kitchen was closed. Not only that, there was no beer to drink, only Pepsi and a bottle of rose wine that served as more of a decoration on the table. Nonetheless, we opened the bottle and found it to be Kool-aid like sweet wine with a rose flavour. Ack. We were to have an hour-long stop in Nanning, so we figured that we could get some more food in the station. Wrong we were.

When we pulled in at around 8pm, they showed us to a fancy new waiting room with huge leather chairs and locked us in. There was a snack bar, so we bought beer and nuts and crackers. The Irish couple decided to use up as much money as they could, so they bought 8 beers and lots of nuts.

We were released from the waiting room after a bit less than an hour, and our polyglot bunch made our way back to the train which was reduced to a mere two cars. Back in our compartment we played cards and I lost in record time, so I decided to go to bed.

At about 2:30am, we were waked up and our passports checked by the Chinese authorities. Before long, we pulled into Dongdang in Vietnam and piled off into the station with all of our bags. We had the place to ourselves, and border staff outnumbered us, I figure. There were several people at one window giving out entry cards, several people changing money and selling snacks, and about 5 checking each passport and taking into a back room for closer scrutiny. The best was the quarantine check, which cost 2000 dong (about 14 cents). The fellow behind the counter stuck the same electronic thermometer in everyone’s ear, pretty well guaranteeing that if one person had some terrible disease, we’d all get it.

After about an hour in the waiting room under Uncle Ho Chi Minh’s portrait, a new two car train pulled up (Vietnam has a different guage) and we got on. I slept until the sun was up, then watched the Vietnamese countryside roll by for the last hour of the journey. It was clear that we were in a different country now. Locals were working the lush fields in conical hats, motorcycles and bicycles rolled by in profusion, and the architecture was no longer tiles and glass like in China, but more ornate, decorative and colourful.

Hanoi is lovely and exciting. The narrow curving streets are jammed with masses of scooters, bicycles and motorbikes, all honking madly. Women with conical hats are selling flowers, fruits and vegetables from their carrying poles, and men drive by wearing those classic green pith helmets. People generally want to sell you something, but are friendly and pleasant. There is no shortage of great things to buy for not many dongs, either, such as paintings, silk, clothes, lacquer ware, and so on. I didn’t find much to buy in China, but here is a different story. Well, off to explore more of the city.

Jeremy Tan arrives tomorrow, then we’ll probably head south, or maybe north into Sapa.

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Written by sockeyed

October 27, 2004 at 23:36

Posted in Photography

Tagged with , , , ,

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