The road back to Bangkok, pt. 2
The light is softer in Hanoi’s early morning; the streets less busy, if only just. I wander them with my camera in these fleeting hours. I need to capture some of the strange sights that I’ve grown used to in these twisted, dark streets before moving south: away from Hanoi, never to return. Soon, I’d be carried away from this city in the guts of an iconic train. But I had some time here yet.
Some of the local shops have begun to open, and already there’s a line for an old, dusty photocopier squeezed into the narrow space between a cleaners and a restaurant. And then I see him. My target: an elderly man, bent mystified over the copier, either straining to see in the weak light or trying to comprehend the machine’s bizarre commands. A young woman behind him taps her foot impatiently, as though the man and his reluctance are all that’s wrong with her morning, her Vietnam.
The shot is blurry. I’ve misread the light, the slight motion, and gotten it all wrong. Over my shoulder I hear, “Is it nice?” and the helmeted head of a motorbike taxi driver leans in to check the photo. I shrug and give my verdict: “Meh.” He laughs, slaps me on the back, and moves on, but his curiosity and friendliness (and the sting from his slap) have warmed me on what is a surprisingly chilly Christmas Eve morning.
Back in the hotel, I wake up my wife so that we’ll be ready in time to meet the minibus picking us up at 8:30. We drive 170km east to Ha Long Bay, home to magnificent, soaring limestone karst islands and hundreds of boats full of tourists nudging to see something ancient. The drive is slow at first – Hanoi’s traffic chokes its streets. Once on the highway, our young and enthusiastic guide apologizes for his English a dozen times before he begins his history/geology lesson about the region. But he’s hard to listen to, both for his truly unintelligible speaking and for the fact that the countryside is haunting.
Squat palm trees dot the rice fields in clumps, stretching into the low hills. And in every inch of unfarmed space: graves. Pale grey tombstones shooting up like a mouth full of crooked teeth, thin walls separating the plots vaguely. Some graves have flowers sprinkled across them, some have rotted away. If these were the remains of the Vietnam War, they lacked something of the pomp of the UN cemeteries of Korea, or the fields upon fields of white crosses burned into the brains of all young Canadians from years of Remembrance Day slideshows. No, these were simply piles of dead. The guide didn’t mention the graves.
Over the couple of weeks that we were in Vietnam, the war sprang up along the tourist trail from time to time, but didn’t dominate the industry as I’d expected. Instead, Vietnam flaunted its natural beauty, its architecture, its religions. The war was a whisper behind it all, but only that.
Limestone giants and floating cities
From the shore, Ha Long Bay is thoroughly dull. There’s a lot of milling around waiting for our boat, one of hundreds of “authentic” junk boats moored at a tiny marina that has two convenience stores and a tourist centre. The droves of tourists gathered here munch Pringles and sip from cans of Bia 333 to ward off the boredom and gathering heat. But the wait, aided by the cold beer, is short, and before long we’re aboard our own authentic boat being led into the South China Sea by a pilot ship, and the limestone cliffs begin to rise on the horizon.
The standard package – in this case, a day trip out of Hanoi – serves up all of the quaintest and, admittedly, easiest aspects of Ha Long. Our tour took us to the most famous karst formations, to a spectacular cave, and to a tiny floating village that seemed to exist only thanks to the ships mooring for side-tours through the nearby grottos.
These floating towns exist throughout Ha Long Bay, and – though partially reliant on tourist dollars raised from tiny oceanside fruit and vegetable stands – are remarkably resilient. Life here can’t be easy, and signs of poverty are abundant in the nearly-sinking boats being lashed to our junk in the afternoon sun. As we embark on the quick side-trip to a secluded bay in a (barely) motorized boat overloaded with foreigners and understocked with life vests, a group of prepubescent pirates catch a free ride home by joining their boat with ours. Some buildings dip into the sea as their owners rush out the front doors to shout the prices of fruit. Despite the palpable poverty, there’s something idyllic about the fishing village: the way laundry is hung on short lines in front of the tiny, wooden homes, the way people drift among passing traffic. The way people here seem happy, how they smile. That a dog lives here.
The nameless village is Hanoi’s counterpoint, and its quaintness lingers long. The afternoon of drifting along through the magnificent islands and a fresh seafood lunch has taken away some of Hanoi’s sting. My overall perception of Vietnam is changing. Here, outside of the city, as outside of any major city, life slows down a bit. Even the barking women hawking fruit at the sterns of their boats were less aggressive than their city counterparts. It was quieter. It was slower. But we couldn’t stay here.
Some travellers, maybe most, continue north from Ha Long along the tourist trail to Sapa, a remote mountain town full of craftspeople, rice fields, and hiking trails – the supposed soul of Vietnam. Our loose itinerary sent us south, though, first back to Hanoi for Christmas, then on to Hoi An and Saigon. I was getting excited: the trains were coming.
Riding the Reunification Express
Having lived in South Korea for the better part of two years, my wife and I had come to expect little for Christmas. Even with its nearly 50 per cent Christian population and the increasing popularity of Western films, television series, and music, Koreans didn’t quite latch on to the spirit of Christmas. Vietnam, by stark contrast, went wild for it. Downtown Hanoi came alive with tinsel and lights, with restaurants catering to foreign tourists advertising Christmas Day roasts. Tiny women crowded street corners dressed as Santa Claus and the noise and traffic intensified. The Old Quarter became a constant Christmas party; the shouting and drinking and singing went long into the night.
It was against this backdrop that we made arrangements to leave Hanoi. The path back to Bangkok, without flights, necessitated one or two – at least – long-haul train trips. These were not the high-speed rail lines of Korea, Japan, or China. No, these were the rusty carriages of Vietnam, the blue and red cars of the Reunification Express. The name triggered what much of the real Vietnam failed to, that turbulent era of not-so-long ago. But the appeal of the ride was greater than its name. The romance of train travel is much alive in me, as it is in many others. To be carried across vast distances, along the ground – there’s nothing of that in flight, where you sit in the dark, or simulated dark, only to arrive in another part of the world by magic or engineering. By rail, you’re pulled every inch of the way. You sit. You see it. You feel it.
We bought our tickets from the front desk at our hotel, politely and naively refusing to be upsold to the VIP car and opting for the standard sleeper. These four-person berths looked – on the brochure, at least – spacious enough, and a major upgrade from our last overnight sleeper train – a 72-person public berth car from Varanasi to Delhi, India. At Hanoi’s central train station, something else waited.
The sleeper car is an icon for tourism in Vietnam. All 10 or so berths had been sold to confused-looking and irritable travellers, each of us standing aboard a train and suddenly lacking a ticket. Upon arriving at the station, a woman in plain clothes identified us – and everyone else – as tourists and led us to a berth not matching the number on our voucher. She then disappeared for a few moments, reappearing only briefly with new travellers and leading them into the first available room. Time passed; too much time. It was after the scheduled departure of the train and she hadn’t come back. The air in the train car was thick with profanity and sweat, the compiled frustration of dozens of weary foreigners nearing a breaking point. Suddenly the woman appeared, tickets in hand, and ordered everyone into their rooms. She closed the doors one at a time and yelled something to the effect of “You no come out!”
With that, she disappeared again as the train rolled into the noise of downtown Hanoi, out of the station and into the night.
Across from us, two guys from Northern Ireland sat looking forlorn. One held a familiar-looking brochure in his hand and glanced around the room, perplexed. “It’s not quite the same, is it?” He laughed. He was defeated. He held out a hand for us to shake, but never said his name. Together, the four of us spent the first hour of the screeching ride snacking on a package of Oreo cookies and drinking cans of warm beer, listing the times we’d been scammed, comparing battle scars. While we chatted, Hanoi closed in around the train, which crawled past railway crossings where leaden-faced locals stared at the giant metal beast with disgust. Inside, we swatted at mice and cockroaches with the brochure and our shoes, then stowed all of our bags high off the ground to keep them out of reach of the pests. We waited for the meal service, which never came. Eventually, the train, and us, escaped Hanoi, and the combination of the beer and the gentle swaying of the berth saw the four of us drift off into an uneasy sleep.
But by morning, we’d been carried into a different Vietnam. Gone were the belching motorbikes and angry faces of Hanoi. Daylight revealed a postcard landscape, the sea hanging to the east and mountains rising to the immediate west. The train carves a line between the two, skipping through thick jungle and past rice paddies, hanging impossibly onto the steep slope between green ocean and green jungle. A sliver of blue in endless green.
The tiny hall outside of the sleeper berth is packed with tired-looking travellers. We’ve worked the windows down and are craning our head outside of the glass to try to breathe in the sea air. Gone is the collective bitterness of the night before. It’s been replaced with contagious optimism, with laughter and smiles. The train moves slowly now, winding up steep hills, and from where I am in the rear car I can see the Reunification Express in its fullness and its glory.
I’m starting to understand where I am a little more. Just as there is no one idea of Canada that I could present to someone who asked – should anyone ever ask – there is no singular thought of Vietnam. There’s what I see from the train this morning – the natural beauty and aged machinery in its ungodly harmony – but also what I saw from the train last night, the millions of motorbikes crisscrossing cracked streets and viciousness and deceit. There’s no grand harmony in the country, no balance overall. That is, the beauty doesn’t cancel out the viciousness; both simply exist at different times, in different places.
Relieved, I take a deep breath of the morning air, hanging out of the train window to take a few pictures. Whatever awaits in Danang, where this train will eventually stop, won’t be Hanoi. I breathe in the sea air eagerly, ready to start over.
Did you miss part one? Don’t be ashamed! Read it now.