Continuing on from – Off the Rails in Hong Kong
And then, miraculously, order prevailed. Smart uniformed guards stood attentively beside each train carriage and, as it turned out, mine was the first carriage directly opposite where I wase spat out.
Compartment No. 3 was easy to find as was my bottom berths number 5 but unfortunately my berth was already occupied by an outstretched man defiantly smoking despite the no smoking sign above his head. Reluctant at first to go – he was already tucking into his styrofoamed packaged dinner with his bag stowed under my bunk – and it was only with some urging on my part – brandishing ticket under his nose, jabbing my finger at the numbered berth, shrugging disconsolatedly (but sternly) and that sort of nonsense that he shuffled his bare feet into his grubby sandals and buggered off, muttering audibly, no doubt about round-eyed foreign devils.
Punctually, the train jerked off at 6:30 and it was time for another few nips from the diminishing bottle of Stolly peach. Disappointingly, the restaurant car appear to be closed to passengers as once again the train official were occupying all tables but I managed to persuade them of my thirst and a 5 yuan can of warm Pabst Blue Ribbon beer was produced for me!
About four hours later the train lurched to a stop at the Chinese Border. Passports were collected and checked for exit forms and then everyone with their luggage had to get off the train. Luggage was – for the fourth time? – scanned while us passengers huddled sleepily together. And then pick up the bags and back on the train.
Passports were handed back just as the train lumbered past the final Chinese border checkpoint and I was officially back in Vietnam. Less than an hour later, the Vietnamese Border post where once again all bags had to be put through the scanner (again with nobody looking at the results). Passports were handed in to a tired looking, Immigration officer seated behind a plain table in the doorway of a small room.
Waiting for my name to be called I was pleasantly surprised to a) recognize my name (Mista Tee Ven) and b) retrieve my passport so quickly. However, I had to wait until all the passengers had received their passports before I could get back on the train and sleep. While waiting, I shared some of my dwindling vodka with two guys from Argentine and skillfully blended my Spanish and Italian remnants of language to amuse and baffle everyone.
Finally getting back on the train, I somehow caught my watch strap on the door and just managed to catch my watch as it slipped off my wrist. Least of my concerns at the time and it seemed all too soon when the lights in the compartment came on and the conductor banged the door to announce arrival in Hanoi – only this wasn’t Hanoi main station. Instead this was a fairly small station north west of Hanoi called Gia Lam.
Apparently the rail gauge differs between Vietnam and China so the only common line they share is the spot between the border and Gia Lam. After that, Vietnamese trains need a different track width.
Arriving in predawn darkness, we stumbled off the train to be greeted by a line of the smallest taxis I have ever seen. Most of them looked to be no bigger than a Mini or the old Fiat 500. No choice here, really so I attempted to bargain the fare down a modicum and then squeezed into the back seat and off we were to an unknown street that I had picked from the map.
Sometimes, I suppose, it is better to book in advance and have a hotel ready for that awkward arrival time of 5:30 AM especially when the street you end up on remains firmly shuttered and the heavy rain begins.
No point being fussy here, thinks I, and I dashed around the corner, ducking under awnings and around parked motorbikes and barrows to the only hotel I could see which had a light on.
The Hanoi Orchid was just fine with a long, corridor like room but who cared about the shape when all I needed was a decent sleep.
Hanoi was radically different from Saigon, I noticed immediately when hunger finally drove me out later that morning.
Much less busy with regard to motorbikes, and the pavements were almost uncluttered, while ancient trees seemed to shroud so many streets. Petals from purple jacaranda and red hibiscus littered the promenade around the Lake of the Recovered Sword while the twisting streets of the old town changed their names bewilderingly every few metres.
And then there was Halong Bay
and the lure of spending a night on board a cruise ship. Halong Bay was declared a world heritage sight by UNESCO in and is a bizarre area of jagged limestone and karst outcroppings, some honeycombed with vast caves, rearing up from a bay of tranquil luminous water. No matter what the weather – clear and sunny or shrouded in mist and rain, Halong Bay is reputed to still cast its aura of beauty, peace and mystery over all who see it.