Author and television personality Clifton Fadiman once said, “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”
Nowhere have I found this to be more true than in Vietnam. And at no time have I found this to be more true than on our recent overnight train journey from Ha Noi down to Hue.
Vietnam might not seem to care whether or not you’re comfortable. Vietnam goes along at it’s own sometimes frantic, sometimes maddeningly slow, pace and it’s up to you to adjust to that. Vietnam is getting on with the business of business and if you’re not going to play, not going to buy a t-shirt or a fake Zippo lighter or pay to pose for a picture holding baskets of bananas on your back, then step to the side, please. No one here is being rude. They just have places to go, pineapples to sell. Don’t take it personally.
We booked our tickets on the overnight train through our hotel in Ha Noi. A US$8 service fee was tacked on to the already-inflated-for-tourist prices, but that’s ok. That’s how they roll here. If you spend all day worrying about much more you’re paying for your train tickets / bowl of pho / motorbike ride than the local sitting next to you, you’ll go mad. It’s better to take a deep breath and remind yourself that “It’s only $8. It’s only $8.”
I genuinely don’t believe that the hotel or the ticket company were aiming to rip us off, although it can feel that way. I once said to Andy, “I feel like I’ve got ATM stamped on my forehead.” He said, “You kind of do.” The two tiered pricing structure can feel like you’re being taken advantage of; but try to see things from the point of view of the Vietnamese. A ticket on the overnight train (first class, air conditioned soft sleeper bunks, thank you very much) may cost some of them several days wages. It cost us less than an hours wages. Why not try to even things out a little bit?
We got to the train station and sat in the dim waiting room, the peanut shells from previous passengers crunching beneath our shoes. There were no signs at all in English and the announcements were made in crackly rapid-fire Vietnamese. Best of luck getting on the right train. We showed our tickets to the surly lady at the doorway and she pointed to car #10. Our home for the next 12 hours.
Once we were on the train a young porter, dressed not in a railway company uniform, but in jeans and a dirty t-shirt, grabbed our two bags and threw them into our cabin. The bags weren’t put away or stowed safely. They were tossed directly into the middle of the small room so that no one could move in or out without climbing over them. The porter then turned to Andy and demanded a tip. Andy passed over a few small bills and spent the next ten minutes trying to rearrange our bags so our fellow cabin-mates didn’t have to sprain their ankles if they needed to go to the bathroom.
Oh, you’d like to know about our cabin-mates?? I don’t blame you. We were in a 4 bunk cabin. Andy was on a bottom bunk, and I was on the bunk above him.
Across from Andy was a slimly built Vietnamese man. He was probably around 50 years old and possibly the most fastidious person I’ve ever shared a 4 bunk train cabin with. He arrived, promptly took of his shoes, changed his socks, hung his hand towel on a little rack, stowed his tiny overnight bag under the bunk, climbed into bed and didn’t move again until 7am the next morning. Then, he awoke, spent what felt like 45 minutes opening crinkly plastic packaging so he could make a breakfast of instant noodles. After he slurped his noodles, washed his hands, combed his hair and used a cordless shaver to shave his chin, he folded all his blankets and sat silently until the train pulled into Hue at 11am. As far as I know, he never said a word.
If only our other cabin-mate were so pristinely silent. Across from me was a Vietnamese woman who was taking the train all the way from Ha Noi to Saigon; a journey of about 40 hours. Kill me now. She was very friendly to me, and apparently very friendly to the entire Vietnamese population. How else could you explain why her mobile phone rang approximately every 7 minutes for hours on end, long into the night? Perhaps she was a very important person? Or maybe she was running a psychic hotline? I doubt that though. If she were a psychic she certainly could have seen how incredibly frustrated I was by her constant, very loud, conversations in the bunk across from mine. So, not a psychic. Just rude? Maybe, maybe not. The Vietnamese have very different ideas about personal space than I do. In the cities, Vietnamese people are used to living in close quarters and spending all day surrounded by lots of people. I’m fairly sure that she thought nothing of her late night gab-fest. Comfortable for her… hell for me.
After a night of rocking and rolling down the Vietnamese coast, I woke up and dug through my backpack for my breakfast, a tube of Ritz crackers. I was sleepy and sticky and really thirsty; but I didn’t want to drink any more water. Peeing whilst hovering over a metal toilet on a rocking train requires greater acrobatic skill than I felt capable of mustering at that hour. Just as I began to crack open my crackers, I saw a hand reach across the cabin. The woman, Chatty Cathy in the other top bunk, was reaching over and offering me some of her bread for breakfast. She was smiling at me and, despite the complete language barrier, she seemed to be asking if I was ok, had I had a good night. Her kindness, her simple gesture of “we’re all in this together” almost made me cry. She wasn’t a bad person who didn’t care whether I’d slept. She just didn’t realise that her actions might seem inappropriate to me. Not only was she comfortable in her own country, but she cared whether I was as well.
And that’s the thing about Vietnam. That’s the thing about every country I’ve ever visited. People are kind. People want other people to be happy, to like their country. They might come across as rude, or seem to be taking advantage. But, the mindset is so different that it’s actually not fair of us to make that judgement. Distance and circumstances make so many comparisons impossible. But, breakfast is breakfast.