I like to experience different modes of transport between destinations, within reason, and believe in a well-rounded travel approach. I have talked about these methods on this blog quite a few times, in fact. I ran my teeth over buses. I have debriefed the world on road travel. Airports have copped a fair whack and I have even tentatively sunk the boot into motorised scooters.
All of these tried and tested, gaining the dubious honour of a Wayward View tick of approval.
So it is only fair that, over the next two weeks, I eliminate the last couple of modes of transport I have left to cover.
Let’s start with trains.
When you think about it, train travel has been around far longer than buses, cars and planes. I have experienced the slow, yet reliable services of the railway system throughout Asia. Like a noisy ride on a flat roller coaster, every bend and bump in the track is accounted for and those ‘reliable services’ bring you in ‘reliably late’.
So it was, then, that on a typically hot and humid Vietnamese evening in Hanoi last year, my friend and I decided to chance our arm on a sleeper train to the midway city of Hue. This was something I had always wanted to do; something I felt was quintessential to any journey through Vietnam.
Five years before, I had had my chance and missed the opportunity. When I say ‘missed’ what I mean to say is ‘There were no more sleeper carriages left so we had to sit in the comfortable seating instead. For fourteen hours. At night’. It was not the experience I was hoping for. Sure, I got know some of the locals. They plied me with homemade rice wine that tasted distinctly like methylated spirits and poured it from an old plastic water bottle. All this to get me plastered enough so they could find the courage to ask me to move and finish their card game. They would fill my plastic cup and about thirty men would all hold theirs above their heads and chant until I followed suit and finished. Some kind or drinking game that I kept losing, I guessed. If I only knew the rules.
I asked where they were from. “Hanoi,” they said, “On a business trip.” Perhaps that’s what the Vietnamese call a booze cruise. I know some Australians who call it the same.
The positive out of this event was that I didn’t end up violently ill, probably more miracle than anything else, and I managed to get a few hours of hot, sweaty sleep. Yet it wasn’t the ‘sleeper train’ experience I wanted.
Fast forward five years and one pre-booked ticket later, I was standing on a Hanoi train station platform, paper ticket in hand and confused look on my face, ready to try again. Each carriage was numbered, supposedly matching the numbers on our tickets. It’s easier, though, to shove a piece of paper under a station attendant’s nose and walk in the direction he points. Then you find another attendant and repeat the process. It’s no way to make friends, but you will find your carriage.
Walking down a train passage with an overweight pack, while busy people try and find their own compartment is like trying to get back to your window seat on a plane while everyone is asleep and the meal cart is coming around. It’s chaotic, with little room to move. People buzzing around, frantically trying to match compartments with tickets to get out of the struggle.
We literally fell into our compartment. The next problem was scaling the walls to our beds, no problem if you are a gecko, but a different story for a human. Each berth had six beds, three aside. We had been allocated the top beds. Asians are a particularly nimble people. Nimble but short. Exactly like the size of each bed. I am not a tall man, but these beds made me feel like a cramped giant. The mattresses were firm, but anyone who has ever stayed in Southeast Asian accommodation could tell you that is par for the course; rocks are usually softer.
Below us was what sounded like a whole Vietnamese family. An elderly couple and a man with his children. Anytime I felt the need to clamber down to use the facilities, I worried I was close to kicking any one of them in the head. They would glare at me like it was my fault I was living above them and that I should have better bladder control. This is an easy thought process for people who can roll out of bed and stand. If we had rolled out of bed, though, we hit the floor from a height. I bumped into a Swedish backpacker in the corridor. He was easily six foot two, maybe more, and had managed a top bunk of his own. This explained why he was standing out by himself at four in the morning, I suppose.
The technique for disembarking the beds was a precarious tango involving steady movements and luck. An abseil system would have been a simpler way to get down. Hell, it would have been an easier way to get up as well. Foot pegs could be folded out to act like steps but the distance between each one was quite large. I had visions of either torn muscles or the crutch of my shorts blowing out if I made the assent too often.
The journey was everything I had expected; sweaty, uncomfortable and long. It’s easy to assume that all travel through Asia will be like this, though. If nothing else, it was consistent with other modes of transport. Rolling into our destination a good three hours late typified that. We had no clue where we were in our journey, except for tourist announcements in broken English and had to ask other passengers how far from our stop we were. That just made the whole trip even more worthwhile.
I’ve used train travel in both Thailand and Vietnam. You feel grotty, tired and bored yet still feel like you are on an adventure. You can stand at an open window and watch the scenery pass by or lie on a bed and rest. All the while getting closer to your next stop, one station at a time.
As a practical alternative, there is nothing like it.
Wayward Tip: as a way to beat the monotony of buses and planes, it’s a sure fire way to reinvigorate your travel experience. Pack some snacks though, not all trains have food available.