Five minutes from China….Northern Vietnam

Tales of Transportation

***WARNING: This post is mostly two Americans complaining about the transportation issues we encountered.  At some point it became rather comical to see what would happen next.  Pictures will be in the next post, as will our trekking adventure in Sapa. So if you’re not a reader, come back later***

We spent Friday bumming around Hanoi until our evening train to the north.  We stopped by the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but he is in Russia for three months getting cleaned.  I suppose they have experience keeping Lenin looking fresh so that’s the best place for his “vacation,” as our receptionist put it.  October 10th is Hanoi’s 60th anniversary of getting rid of the French, so the whole city is geared up with flags and red banners.  We asked a shopkeeper what will happen that day and she didn’t seem too excited.  Just some speeches and parades maybe.  Everybody still works.  We were hoping for fireworks or something, but we’ll see.  We arrived at the Water Puppet Theater too late to get tickets for the immediate show but were given tickets to the next one.  In the meantime, we went back to our favorite spot for a couple of young beers and peanuts.  The water puppets were great.  They apparently tour the world.  They had elaborate costumes and while it was all in Vietnamese, we could follow the story lines.  Then we returned to our hotel to retrieve our bags and walked over to the train station.

And this is where plane karma becomes train karma.  Our 9:10 pm train left right on time and we settled into our hard sleeper cabin with some teachers from China and a Vietnamese guy.  We dozed off despite the incredible chill from the a/c and were quite glad we had brought our sleep sacks, as the cleanliness of the bedding was questionable.  We only saw two roaches though and they were tiny compared to the Palmetto bugs in New Orleans.  The train was pretty jerky and loud, but for a few hours all was quiet and I was able to sleep.  I woke up at 5:00 thinking I should probably start getting packed as we were due to arrive at 5:30.  Well 5:30 rolls around and were still going and most people are still asleep.  7:30 rolls around and were still going, albeit very slowly.  The Vietnamese guy gets up, goes out for a bit and when he returns, he gets back in his bunk and goes back to sleep.  Not a good sign.  The rest of us in the car, including some Spaniards, Americans and Germans have no idea what’s going on and no one to ask who speaks any English.  9:30 rolls around and someone figures out that we are going to arrive at 11:00.  But then the attendant comes around and gives everyone a free ramen noodle bowl (there is boiling water at one end of the car).  Not a good sign.  They wouldn’t feed us if we were arriving soon.  Then the Vietnamese guy in our cabin gets his stuff and leaves, presumably off the train because we never see him again (my theory is he caught a bus at one of the stations).  So over the next few hours we glean from the attendant that it will be another hour, and then another 30 minutes, and then another hour.  He had no idea.  To make a long story short, we arrived 8 hours late on a trip that should have only taken about 8 hours.  Later, we learned from a Dutch couple that we received a new engine in the middle of the night.  Riki’s take on this was that if we had arrived at 5:30 we would not have seen the beautiful sights along the way.  And beautiful they were.  I was less enthusiastic about the whole thing.

In order to be able to travel so long, we are on a budget (obviously).  This is no specific dollar amount, but involves taking the cheaper option most of the time.  One thing we will not be taking any more in Northern Vietnam are the public buses.  We have taken three buses in the last two days and have had enough, despite the cheap fare.  We picked up the public bus in Lao Cai, where the train let us off.  Our plan was to do some trekking in a neighboring town that afternoon and catch the big market the next morning, but by the time we arrived it was just about to get dark.  So we found a cheap hotel and some decent grub and called it a night.   Oh, and we tried the local corn whiskey, which was awful. Riki joked that he wanted to bring it back to the hotel to sanitize his toothbrush (which had hit the wall in the train toilet- our first squat toilets by the way – not pleasant, especially when moving).  He may not have been joking.

Let me touch on the public buses for a moment (or two). Our first bus, to Bac Ha, supposed to be an hour an half, took two and a half because we spent 40 minutes cruising around trying to fill up the bus.  And I’m not talking about with just people.  We had the seats full leaving the station, about 20 passengers, an engine of some sort, long poles and a puppy tied into a basket, while listening to an Asian version of Phantom of the Opera.  By the time we got on the main road, we had added 5 more people, countless boxes to the top and large, lumpy bags filled with who knows what.  Along the way, we added more people, more stuff to the top and stopped so a passenger could buy a roasted duck and the driver could take a quick smoke break.  And that was just the first bus, it gets better.  On our second bus, on the return trip, I sat in a row with 4 other people (only 4 seats) and Riki sat on a huge bag of yarn at my feet.  At one point we pulled over and the ticket taker pulled a small puppy out from under a seat and passed him out the door to somebody.  And then we continued on like that, adding people and stuff without people.  When we got off, Riki informed me that under my seat was a box of live chicks.  I had no idea.  Our most recent experience was the transfer from Lao Cai to Sapa, which should have been no more than an hour.  It took two.  We did the same obligatory jaunt around town picking up more people and stuff – 4 mattresses, bedding, two giant water purifiers, 15 large bags of flour and a sack of coconuts.  Needless to say, we were pretty weighed down.  And every time we stopped, the driver would splash water on the tire below where Riki was sitting.  Didn’t seem like a good thing, especially considering the burning rubber smell.  So we eventually crept up the mountain, and came very close to China.  And we still added people.  We got passed by everyone, except a truck full of bricks (and the people walking).  The best part: when the driver pops in the Korean lingerie DVD, complete with loud music and the older local ladies in their traditional outfits front and center of the screen.

We opted for the tourist bus on the way back down, which was almost the same price, didn’t stop to pick up any live animals and made it in less than an hour.  Settling into our train compartment, we hoped the train karma would be good.  In fact, it was worse on the way back.  Two families traveling with toddlers squeezed into our 6-person cabin.  After a bit of fussing the toddlers passed out and we dozed off.  About an hour later, one of the men starts snoring like nothing I’ve ever heard before.  He sounded like he was choking on his own tongue.  Despite our earplugs there was no way to sleep through this.  And his wife was apparently immune to the noise.  So we didn’t sleep that night.  But we weren’t delayed and made it back to Hanoi on time.

We dropped off our bags and wandered down to Lenin Park to wait for our room to be ready.  There are a bunch of lakes in Hanoi and this one is fenced off with a small entrance fee.  It is really peaceful compared to the hustle of the streets.

We napped that afternoon and planned our trip to Ninh Binh and Tam Coc.

One thought on “Five minutes from China….Northern Vietnam”

  1. Sounds like quite an experience – was going to say a great experience, but then thought better of it. Does make for good reading, though. While we had a driver, our train arrived on time, and at 6am, the mountainous roads were foggy and scary, so the train delay had some benefit. And I do envy you the views from the train. Looking forward to your trekking stories.


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