The TRAIN experience of a life time!

Trip Start Dec 12, 2010
Trip End Jan 05, 2012

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Monday, January 31, 2011

We arrived at the Hanoi Train Station at 6am eager to begin our 11 hour trip on the train (seat only) to Lao Cia which is just this side of  the Chinese border. We arrive early and then ask which train and which platform (first joke of the day – there aren't any platforms! ) Its just like on the old movies you have to board the train from the tracks, but which train there is two? and which car ?  suddenly a really lovely local comes up whisks our bags behind him (he’s game with BOTH of them) and he is off and running across the tracks with us trying to keep up with him (Gosh we are trusting I think to myself !  he could be ANYONE taking us ANYWHERE and we just wouldn’t have a clue). We arrive finally at a car and he ushers us into a compartment with a grotty seat each side of a window and a bunk bed over head of both seats. (this is a sleeping compartment???) No no…. you wait he assures us. The officials of the train come along and look at our tickets a couple of times and we are expecting to get moved right out of there but no…. we are left.

So  a lovely little compartment with a little table (bit grotty) but enough room up top for our bags etc. Enter one cute little Vietnamese woman, she looks at us , we look at her. She plonks on the end of the bed/seat and continues talking to us in Vietnamese. Something along the loosely translated lines of…. So!  Ahhhh  we share a room, hummm they never told me that two blonde women would be sharing with me , but hey what the heck lets just get on with it shall we ?  Smiling all the time we met her eyes on more than one occasion as she continued to talk to…… herself.  I thought how I might strike up a conversation with this animated lady (who by now is really cosy sitting cross legged shoes off on the bottom bed/seat opposite us.  I fumble through my bag and get out our WORLD map. I open it up and she looks at me wide eyed and then joins us on our seat as I point to Vietnam first and then point to the ground then each of us ."  Ahhhhh ahhhhh   xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx "  she says . Then pointing to Australia I point to Brissy and point to myself and sign for sleep . Again Ahhhhhh  xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx she says (translated I think she meant  WOW that’s a long way from here luv ! ) then repeating the gesturing we show her New Zealand and point to Pam  Ahhhhhh xxxxxxxxxxxx  she smiles and all the time I was so aware that she may never have even realized there was a WORLD out there beyond her Province. That kind of made me feel uncomfortable .. not for her but should I really be showing her this…. Dilema to be considered later ….

After talking incessantly  for half an hour to herself I began to wonder if there weren’t mental health issues that we just weren’t aware of but those thoughts were quickly put to bed when suddenly two teenage girls arrived in our compartment (there goes our cushy little room where we were going to stretch out and have a sleep later). Then they ALL started talking as if they knew each other. (maybe they did?) Pam and Eve meantime are sitting just watching and getting wearier by the minute hope the noise will cease when we take off soon.  Then the girl with the straw brush arrives to 'clean’ our compartment (people before us left quite a mess and I WON”T be using the pillow OR the blankets left on the top bunk. With each person who has arrived they are accompanied by a Bag of rice (big sack) and other food offerings to share with their families for the Festive season. Ok so lovely one girl sits next to Mrs  Chatty and the other girl sits on our side with the food stuff up on the top bunk. COSY ! ….. until another woman joins us, OK hang on this is a 6 seater compartment (supposed to be) and now we have 6 people. Enough Already ! No….. here comes Mum and 10 year old daughter and our cultural differences begin to show BIG TIME.   Pam and I sit there next to the window indignant that we will not move over to allow ANOTHER bottom on a seat and the others move up ,shove up and generally take up less room so that one more bottom CAN get on the seat. In fact one of the ‘sisters’ jumps up on the top bunk and promptly puts herself to bed with both pillows And blankets (ewwwwww) Ok just breath…. They are ALL talking animatedly and the noise level has gone up a notch or two. Now the daughter  wants to sleep CRIKEY where is she going to go. She curls her legs up tightly and rests her head on her mothers lap. Its then I give up my WESTERN ways and become one of them… I lift the young girls legs up and rest them on my lap I put my coat over them to keep her warm and she smiles as does her mum and she drifts off to sleep …. LUCKY KID !!!!! Wish it were me !!!

The train then takes off and we hear a conversation going on with the ladies in our room and a very disabled young man and his older mother. Again loosely  translated I think it went along these lines.

Can we sit in your cabin please?

No mate no room

Come on really I won’t take up much room

Nah sorry , no room

My legs are sore and tired (he did have crutches and a very pronounced limp)

Sorry I am telling you we have more than enough people in here

With that he plonks his bottom on the tiniest edge of the carriage seat closest to the door. I seriously think  that over here possession is nine tenths of the law because as soon as he did that he was IN LIKE FLYNN and it only took two minutes for his mother to then muscle into the space left void by his crippled legs. 

All this time I am Chief luggage sorter and get the job (due to my height and strength) of putting the various assortments of boxes, bags and cases on the bunk above Pam and I , we now have the two sisters up on the top bunk , Mrs Chatty, the other woman with Mr and Mum on the bottom bunk. Pam and I sit with Mum and Daughter on the bottom and the luggage up top altogether 10 people in a 6 person compartment all sitting cross legged on the bunks except for Pam and I for a lovely 11 hour journey. We all look at each other and I get the gist that they are thinking “where the hell are these two from”? so out comes the World map again. We repeat the earlier game of Charades and pointing much to the delight of all our cabin friends.  I get out of my bag the Australia fridge magnets that I have bought with me and give each person one. That’s it ! We are kin for life now.

The food comes out and is shared with all in the cabin (that’s just the way these lovely people are) food is a social occasion here its shared regardless and it’s a gift of friendship but we feel terrible because in our haste this morning we haven’t bought any food with us. This is not an issue and the mandarins are shared equally with every one, next the ‘nuts’ come out, actually seeds may be a more appropriate description. Very thin little seeds (from where I have no idea but I have seen them since sold in the market places we have visited.)  Mrs Chatty shows us how to open them by sliding them side on into the front teeth area of the mouth crunching down just enough to crack the husk then opening them just enough to remove the soft seed that lay inside.  Easy enough?  Try it one day !!!  Harder than you think we entertained the whole carriage with our ‘seed opening attempts’ for the next hour. We became proficient only after an hour of very careful instruction by each and every member of the gang.  They laughed and we laughed and I remember a saying from a book I have just read. There is no evidence of language  or cultural barriers  when those of various nationalities come together for the sharing of food . Oh how excited I was to be proving that by participating myself that day.  Next the BIG seeds came out (much like pumpkin seeds) and the same process began, much laughter at Pam and my facial expressions trying to break the husks of those seeds without doing any ‘dental damage’ for which we would regret followed by the process of picking up the thousands  of empty husks to put in a bag to dispose of later.

All too soon our fellow passengers were departing (obviously not going the entire way with us) and we smiled and exchanged goodbyes !  Not a word was spoken  by us that they could understand and visa versa but we had a great time even though in the beginning we thought it may turn out kind of nightmarish.  Suddenly we were alone in OUR cabin and then….. the family moved in. Mum Dad and the teenage daughter and 9 year old son.  Needless to say in the short time they were with us we exchanged pleasantaries , showed them the world map, exchanged food and Aussie gifts ! We became firm friends by the end of the trip and have beautiful pictures of the wide eyed little boy baring his gifts.  What a day!, what an experience!, what a MEMORY ! that is what this trip is ALL about .

Footnote: the Toilets on this train SMELLED SO BAD we could not bring ourselves to use them (even our local friends complained) We have now trained our bladders to resist the urge to 'go' for 12 hours at a time ! not a healthy option we know but in the case of extreme circumstances neccessary.
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