Friday, June 29, 2012

Exploring Vietnam - Day 4: The Thirty Hour Day

My sleep was very spotty our first night on the train- I was very restless- full of anticipation, excitement and something strange, overwhelming and difficult to put on paper. I have journal entries recorded at 11:35p, 2:38a and 5:56a. Amidst my tossing, turning, peering out the window into the blue darkness and occasional writing/ sketching, I also ventured out to the restroom. Train bathrooms are sketchy. Train bathrooms in Vietnam are excessively sketchy. Train bathrooms in Vietnam at 5-something-AM are chaos.

Allowing yourself to look like THAT on camera is some serious guerrilla journalism, my friends.

From my journal- 5:56a
"I've been awake since before sunrise by myself, positively tweaking out at how stunning the scenery is. Tress, mountains, plains, rice fields- exquisite. I've discovered that the bathrooms are the only opening windows in the soft sleeper cars and I've been taking photos out of various bathroom windows for the past hour."

Propping myself and my camera precariously between the window ledge and squat toilet handles (the other bathroom had a seated toilet but the window didn't open as far), I took hundreds of shots of the Vietnamese countryside as it awoke that morning. Hot, smelly and uncomfortable, but completely worth it. None of these photos have been edited.

After thoroughly covering myself in every sort of germ known to man, I returned from my bathroom photo shoot to find Joe staring at his laptop, aching to write... something. 

I know the feeling. 

The train stopped briefly in a small town (one of many) and Joe hopped off and grabbed us some ca phe and bahn mi for breakfast.

I could get used to this...

The "air conditioned" cars were... well... not. At least, not always. Sometimes it was cooler to leave your door open, which at least allowed for some ventilation.

This also afforded views of the exquisite countryside on the other side of the tracks. 

Standing in the small corridor outside your bunk- a popular pastime....

And an awesome way to meet new people. The gentleman was one of our bunk mates, and this mother and son were lodged a few bunks down.

You should know that if you leave the train doors open, you will get visitors.

... in your bed....

This little dude and I could not understand a single common word, but we sat together and drew pictures in my notebook for about 30 minutes. Art- the universal language.

I would draw something and tell him the English word, and he would crack up and try to repeat or tell me the Vietnamese word. News spread fast that I was giving impromptu English lessons, and a crowd formed...

We had a paper airplane battle, which was pretty one-sided as he was the only one with a paper airplane...

And then he tuckered out and went back with his mom. Joe and I settled in to kill some more time... 


There's a hot water dispenser on the train, so at another stop Joe grabbed us some ramen noodles and we chowed down...

It began to rain in the late afternoon, and around 3p I fell asleep for.... 13 hours. I was dehydrated and exhausted and it caught up to me!

Tips from Day 4:

-Bring snacks, beverages and cup-o-noodles for the train. There are vendors at most stations but the stops are often quick and unless your Vietnamese is pretty spot on, you'll probably miss most of what the conductor is saying. You DO NOT want to get left at one of the smaller stations while your travelling partner and belongings head off to Hanoi... There are also a few vendors on the train, but their selections are a bit sporadic and if you miss them passing by, you won't see them again for several hours.

-Diversify your on-train entertainment. Seriously. If you're doing the 30 hour haul from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, you will NOT want to look out the window or read or take pictures the ENTIRE TIME. Don't get me wrong, the countryside is gorgeous enough to daydream about for several hours on end, but you have thirty of them. I wrote, sketched, did crosswords, listened to podcasts, read and photographed.

-Be open. In the most broad sense of the term. There is a very tangible feeling of community and interconnected-ness in Vietnam- people are very aware of their surroundings and interact with everyone around them- especially those who seem interesting. And if you're a Western-looking tourist, you WILL seem interesting. On several occasions, people walked right in to our cabin, sat down on our beds and smiled. Use common sense- naturally lock your cabin when you're sleeping and unable to watch your belongings, but trust me,  you'll have some pretty magical interactions if you don't let the Western "get out of my space, stranger!" instinct close you off. 

-If you do the full HCMC-Hanoi ride in one swoop, book the soft sleeper car and request the bottom bunks. Trust me. Just do it.

In case you missed them, check out: