The carriage attendant just walked past and scowled at me. She is a scary one. We are on the overnight train from Phan Thiet in Southern Vietnam to Da Nang. All these places and names that ripple forth from movies about the Vietnam War (or American War as it is referred to here). Every time I say the name Da Nang I can hear Robin Williams yelling it at the top of his lungs in Good Morning Vietnam.
The old Vietnamese man three feet away is snoring his head off as we whistle past rice paddies with wallowing water buffalo complete with post card like white cranes perched upon their backs. Two of the girls are lying down in the next cabin and Mel and Zoe are wrestling on the bed next to me. Of course when we booked the tickets with a request for all five of us in one sleeper cabin they said “yes”. When we got handed the tickets the reality was “no”. So after one more white knuckle 10pm car trip from our little beach side hotel to the train station we were on the move again. Passing surreal night time groves of Jackfruit that are peculiarly illuminated at night with rows of light bulbs. The effect is to make these fields of spiky stunted trees, about 5 feet high, look like something out of the X Files. Like some secret military test site where they are hiding the real evidence of UFOs.
So we hit the train station – the Shanahan circus with our mountain of bags. I stood on the platform in the dark looking with envy down the line at the only other tourist. He was 40, travelling solo with nothing but the smallest day pack you can buy and that was all. It was now 10:50pm and the girls were dopey and sleepy as the train rounded the bend and blinded us with its spotlight.
I get a little nervous with these trains where we are boarding half way through the route. You have precisely 3 minutes to get everything and everyone on board before the whistle goes and the carriage shunts forward. Mel and I have to make a quick logistics plan. Girls on first, me on second, Mel on the platform handing the bags up. All the while my mind races with the worst case Dr Zhivago moment where Mel or I are left wide eyed on the platform with the other half of our little party sailing off into the distance – hand outstretched in horror. But we have the fallback plan of who moves and who stays put. The last thing you want is a real life version of when you are on the phone to someone and they cut out – you are not sure who should call back so sometimes you both try, sometimes no one tries until you give up. We had images of Mel and I both jumping on trains both trying to get BACK to the other one and we end up in an eternal ever passing loop.
At first it was the one with the most kids stays put. But we soon realised that the kids are a breeze to travel and move with. Bags are a nightmare. So now the rule is the one with the most bags stays put – the other returns.
But we got on the overnight train and – as we expected – someone had assumed our births were free and had fallen asleep in them. So at 11:00pm the fierce female train attendant is hauling the well heeled squatters from their sleep and screaming in Vietnamese at them, us, anyone else. I had the gall to ask for fresh sheets and she started yelling at me….
But being on a train again was a blessed relief. The last bus trip was on a “sleeper bus” which is not just nice reclining seats as one might expect – but actual lying down, straight legged bed bunks all stacked in this rolling, hellish, feet smelly mobile version of a hostel dorm room. Of course the seats we booked (down low, near the front) were meaningless as we were duly informed by the backpacker near us (“Naahh…you just take any seat you can!”). So for almost 6 hours Mel and I were reclined in a three row seat that I didn’t fit into lengthways. We were down the back next to the toilet, in a floor space that I can’t physically sit up in with my feet about 2 inches from some poor person’s head. I felt worse for the 6’3” guy in front of us though. He kept grimacing and shuffling from side to side for 6 hours to relieve the cramps and pain.
But the train is just beautiful. Fast, clean, sliding past glorious mountain scenery of unworldly lime greens and a thousand shades of blue. We arrived in Da Nang which merely 20 years ago was a non-descript coastal city. Well its been “discovered” now so the entire 15km stretch of sand is wall to wall Hyatt like resorts (and one real Hyatt) or large bill boards announcing that two concrete pylons in the sand is actually a soon to be opened super-amazing-extreme-ultra-luxury-world class-resort.
But Hoi An somehow dodged it all. This has been an important trading site for hundreds of years and the Vietnamese, French, Japanese and Chinese have all left their unique cultural mark on the landscape. The result is this gracefully aging, low rise, maze like, lantern lit fairy land of a town. Still wrapped around your quintessential Vietnamese market with overpowering fish smell, the brightest tomatoes you will ever see and a thousand yelling voices all clambering for your attention.
In some strange ironic twist of fortune they say that the city actually had a demise in the 19th Century so no one was interested in it. So the demise meant no one tried to change it or improve it as on one wanted to go there. So they left the very thing that makes it fascinating and now makes it a world heritage site. 20km up the coast they are happily destroying the very thing that people came for in the first place.
So we have been here for 5 days now. And for 5 days it has been raining. Good, hard, constant typhoon rain coming over from the Philippine’s last storm. It is the first time we have been cold for 5 months (outside of those crazy ice box air conditioned hotel rooms you get in Asia). So we got bikes, swallowed our pride and bought those brightly coloured rain ponchos and happily trundled through these sodden, lantern lit streets. It only takes 4 days in a small, market central town like this and people actually remember us. We ride past street vendors and they smile and yell in rapid fire Vietnamese yelling “Baby! Baby!” (the Vietnamese term for any child of any age). Last night we were huddled under an umbrella in the dark empty swollen streets. Sitting on 1 foot high plastic stools warming our hands on the street vendors BBQ coals eating Vietnamese donuts and trying in vain to learn and pronounce “goodnight” in Vietnamese. I am sure we were actually saying “dog stew” or something but they loved our mangled linguistic efforts. We rode off into the dark promising to come back tomorrow for more pork satay and donuts.
Then out of nowhere the rush came upon me. Its so strange how you adapt to the newness of everything. The way Asia works is less of a novelty now and less foreign so we find ourselves moving more easily through cities. But with that comfort we lose a little of the edginess that comes with being thrust into a new land. It’s funny how you search for the newness (which is the essence of travel) but then you also strive to become comfortable and to lose the newness.
But there we were in the dark, in the rain, riding our bikes back to our little dorm room, crossing the river on the thin one lane bridge. Me out front with Zoe riding pillion – her little arms around me and her head on my back. Tully in the middle on her own bike, Mel in the rear with Ellie on the back. It’s raining pretty hard, motorbikes fly past horns blaring, cars squeeze by in gaps that are barely wide enough. We started descending the other side and a big red neon sign blared through the rain haze from a hotel roof – in a language I can barely read or even get my vocal chords to reproduce. A language that is so far from my own that it is alien to me. Suddenly it all came down upon me. The dark, the sound of rain on a river, lanterns, city lights, the sign, the motion of a bike, the cold and two little trusting arms wrapped around my stomach. I was overcome with the journey, with the responsibility, with the foreignness.
Dorothy’s immortal words came to me: “We’re not in Kansas any more Toto”.
And holding onto that rush I slid on home slushing and hissing through the mud and puddles.