Train to Sapa

Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Saturday, February 24, 2007

Our next stop in Vietnam was Sapa. It's a town in the mountains near the Chinese border. It's a popular tourist destination because it provides spectacular views of the terraced countryside, the weather is cool when the rest of the country is baking, and most importantly, it's a gathering place for the surrounding villages, which are home to several ethnic minorities. The most popular way to get there is on an overnight train. Tickets are sold at travel agencies all over town. There are sleeper cars with bunk beds, or if you want to rough it, there are seats you can settle into for the 10-hour ride. We had priced tickets at a place near our hotel: $26 for a first-class soft sleeper.

Here are the levels of train tickets and seating. At the bottom are hard seats: wooden park benches, their backs at an unmoving 90-degree angle. There are no seating assignments. You may share the bench with one other person, but it's more likely that it will be 6, stacked in odd Tetris-like configurations in order to accommodate as many people as possible. The 187-mile journey costs $3. The next level is soft seat with fan. The seats are not wood, the backs recline, and there is no AC. Then it's soft seat with AC. Then it's hard sleeper, then soft sleeper, then soft sleeper with AC, a mint on the pillow, and a nice Vietnamese woman to tuck you in and assure you that you can be anything you want when you grow up.

The prices for the tickets are listed on the Vietnam Railways website. These are not the prices offered at the travel agencies. The top of the line ticket should only be $13, not $26. So we walked to the train station to make our purchase. They would not sell us the super sleeper tickets. They were out...for the next 10 days. How is this possible? Because next to me there were ticket brokers buying hundreds of tickets at a time. These are sold to the travel agencies. The tickets change hands several times and end up costing twice as much. Such is business. So our only option was a soft seat with no AC. It's not that hot here yet, and the tickets were only $6 each. That was fine with us.

We showed up at the train station and stood on the platform. There was a very nice train sitting on the tracks. It wasn't the Hogwarts' Express, but it wasn't bad. The windows of seating compartments glowed with lamps set on tables between facing seats, drapes hung in compartments with plush beds covered in white linens, and tourists bustled on to find their accommodations for the night. Everyone buzzed with child-like excitement, ready for their journey into the mountains. We didn't. Our train was the piece of shit sitting on the other side of the platform - the one with the giant metal shutters with tiny slits covering where the windows should be. No lights came from within. The seats shined in the pale bulbs on the platform, looking like they had just been hosed down to wash away the excrement of the cattle they normally transported on this monstrosity. We dared to enter our home for the next 10 hours.

My incredible luck has simplified the travel experience to some degree. When entering a bus or train I don't even have to check my ticket for my assigned seat. I can simply follow the sound and smell of the lone screaming child in the compartment. My seat will be the one they just used to change its diaper.

The seats were not wet. They were just plastic and shiny. They didn't even resemble the plush upholstered seats from the tourist train. They were something else entirely. And as we sat down, and looked out of the metal slits and watched the station disappear as we began our journey, it seemed more like a POW transfer than a leisurely trip into the mountains. I felt like Billy Pilgrim on his way to Slaughterhouse 5.

I am not unaccustomed to transportation in the developing world. I have been on buses where poultry outnumbered humans 2 to 1. Overcrowding has forced me into intimate, Kama Sutra like embraces with strangers. I've done it and lived. It's actually always a good story, which is what I try to concentrate on as I suffer through it. But I was not amused this time. I found no joy in it. I felt particularly bad for Lindsey, whom I had convinced that $26 was too much to spend.

The train pushed on into the night. We left at 10 p.m. We chatted, eventually laughed at it all. Then it was midnight. We laughed less. It was 2. Smiles were gone. Fatigue overwhelmed us, but we could not sleep. Our seats wouldn't let us.

Much of the problem was that I hail from a country that has embraced the importance of ergonomics. I suddenly found myself sitting in a seat I believe was expressly outlawed by the Geneva Convention. It was a medieval torture device. A tool of the Inquisitor. Every twist and jagged edge seemed to conspire to extract information from its occupant. I was ready to tell all. I looked around for a confessor, but only found a sea of sleeping faces. The Vietnamese seemed to be immune to the rack. Their quiet slumber only served to deepen my discomfort.

And there were people everywhere as always. In the aisles, between cars, walking from car to car. Running out of seats is no reason to stop selling tickets. Every armrest is a potential resting place for another traveler, and they were used. Strangers sat down and pressed their asses into people's shoulders. The people would wake up and simply turn the other way. It was no big deal. To them. I assured myself that if it happened to me, it would be a very big deal. It did not.

The ride was made less pleasant by the massive and shocking inconsideration of everyone else in the car. It was much like Hanoi. People just don't care about anyone else. People smoke in their seats without hesitation. They turn on the lights at 3 a.m. because they feel like playing cards, despite the fact that the 80 other people in the car are sleeping. They re-arrange luggage, have some snacks, laugh and yell, play the drums, set up a slip and slide in the aisle. No one else's comfort is even an issue. I am convinced that these people are not malicious. They are simply utterly oblivious to everyone else around them. At least in the States, when people are being pricks, they know exactly what they're doing.

We made it to Lao Cai at 7 a.m. We slept all of 15 minutes. The scenery was beautiful but we were too miserable to enjoy it. We hopped into a mini-van bound for Sapa, another 40 kms away. We were dropped in front of half a dozen hotels. A guy approached us and offered a room for $5 a night. It has soft beds, clean sheets, a view of the valley, and hot water. We dropped our packs, checked in, and fell into bed. It was less like falling asleep and more like being euthanized. I closed my eyes, someone pulled the plug, and I was dead to the world.
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