Monday, June 11, 2007

Train journey from Quang Ngai to Nha Trang Vietnam

Train Trip from Quang Ngai to Nha Trang, Vietnam

13:00

Pulling out of the station in complete and utter chaos. Man with his family with what appears to be 6 children, consume the seats around me and as he rips off his shirt, is now sitting bare chested in a seat in front of me. His wife has taken the chair directly in front of me and both have lowered the backs to what I call the ‘chaise back lounge’ position. Oh joy as this has barely left me enough room to breath.

Seems like over half the train is below the age of 18 which pretty much is a decent demographic representation of Vietnam today. On to Nha Trang!

As we pass rice paddies along the dike the tracks are resting on, I can’t help but marvel at the engineering feat they entail in their construction and upkeep.

If you look closely at them, you will notice they are structured in a tier system with water being pumped onto the highest level allowing it to naturally low out and down from that point.

I also can’t imagine the heat the men and women in the fields must be enduring on a day like today with the temperature hovering over 35 and the humidity quite high. Fully clothed in long sleeve shirts and pants and rubber boots, they must be baking under this mid-day sun.

People in my coach are sprawled out like we at a teenager slumber party. It is actually quite funny to see as teenage girls covered with their constantly worn surgical masks and floppy hats spread themselves across their other seats, poking their long legs and bare feat into the air. You sure as heck would never see such a thing in Thailand as sticking your feet at anyone is considered a very rude and unholy thing. What an amazing cultural difference.

I have been told that I am on an ‘express’ train which simply means in Vietnam that the train makes less stops and supposedly waits less on the side rails for other trains passing us. Once again, ‘express’ is defined as a comfortable jog as we make our way south. I wish my camera hadn’t been ripped from me in Saigon as there are so many great photos in this coach alone. The only thing that is missing are the pigs and chickens and the snoring is free!

Well, we did manage to leave only 20 minutes late which isn’t bad considering the previous ‘express’ train to Saigon scheduled to leave at 06:00 didn’t pull out of the station until 07:30. But unfortunately even after leaving near the appointed time, we are now parked on a side rail waiting I am sure for someone to pass us only 30 minutes after leaving Quang Ngai.

The snoring in the coach is now being balanced with the crying of a small infant just to the left of me. It is quite small and the parents are quite young and seem quite unsure about what to do.

Massive thunderheads with their anvil shapes are building up towards the western mountains on our coastal run to Saigon. I suspect we might be hitting some rain before this trip has ended.

I did notice before we left the station in Quang Ngai that the man who had his computer and documents stolen at the station around 7AM was now back and was sitting at Shirley’s café with an obviously very pregnant Vietnamese woman. I managed to ascertain from him he had not recovered his belongings and from his looks, I could tell he felt like his guts has been ripped out. Definitely not the self assured, almost arrogant strong man that had strolled into the station in the morning with shined combat boots. Actually now his face could only be described as a puppy dog who just got hit in the nose after peeing on the carpet.

As the train restarts after another train passes us heading north, the snoring and crying intensify. And to think, only 8 more hours to go!

But that is why I do this; the entertainment and fun of it all.

Other than me, there are no other white faces on this train.

Wow, that’s a first. Fields of watermelons being harvested with huge stacks being loaded into trucks along the roads.

14:00

We pass over a second river since Quang Ngai and as with the 1st, a mere refection of its former self. I use the word ‘reflection’ as you can tell the deep and wide channels that the waters once cut haven’t been experienced in quite some time as now fences and crops are starting to consume the silty soil where the waters once flowed. Even fences for livestock are now frequently seen in these dying river beds.

I really haven’t had a chance to talk about ‘Shirley’ who took such good care of me during the 6 hours I waited for my train. As I said earlier, she rode in with a uniformed man a it after I arrived that I later learned was a police officer and her husband now.

She really wanted to tell me about herself and as I listened, she gave me an amazing tale of her working for the Americans as a combat nurse with the 91st Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai in the late 60s and early 70s. You sensed a lot of pride in her story and recollections and asked me if I could help her son find a job. I said I would do my very best.

I also played at length with her 20 month old grandson who is as smart as a pistol. I mean the kid took to my computer like a fish to water and after watching me shake hands with another gentlemen I had been talking to, put out his small hand and shook mine strongly! Pretty cool for a 20 month old I would say.

We stopped very briefly at a place called ‘Ga Duc Pho’ (poor duck I guess..) where thankfully the young couple and their infant left. After leaving this station the train started to pick the pace up and after entering a lovely valley, it is starting to sway back and forth with the familiar ‘clacky, clack’ that these trains make. God how I love that sound.

Although I think I have never told anyone my grandfather’s faite, the family story is that he died in a railroad accident from a pressure line that got uncoupled and snapped his neck. That supposedly happened when my father was 16 which contributed to his heading to Chicago where he worked as a drummer and started driving fast cars (for various unmentionable endeavors) Maybe it is because of the family but I suspect it is more because I like to ‘go’!

Although today has been a scorcher up here on the central coast, I have found Saigon to be constantly cooler and more pleasant even in spite of it being June. I can honestly say that of all my years in places like Bangkok and Phnom Penh and now Saigon, Saigon has been without a doubt the most pleasant temperature and humidity wise but maybe that is because of its constant breezes?

Another thing that one needs to understand in this part of the world is facial expressions. So much is communicated without saying anything at all and that could be one reason I feel so comfortable out here.

You almost have to be an actor to communicate here and making people laugh with your expressions and a smile is a key to that success. As an example of this idea is the tremendous success of ‘Mr. Bean’, which is actually showing here in Vietnam in the theatres with posters of his stupid expressions hanging everywhere.

They also love cartoons like Tom and Jerry which seems to be showing on just about every TV in every waiting room I have passed through. Obviously the message and the humor is being communicated without a word ever being spoken. Something to learn from the above if you live and work here.

We have passed an area along the eastern dike our track is on of huge salt farms where mounds and mounds of salt are captured from the sea in large, shallow evaporating pools. They look very similar to the thousands of similar pools I saw from the plane as we made our numerous turns back at Chu Lai while looking for the runway. Seems ‘salt’ is a major business along this coast as well as oil.

One thing that I have also been surprised with in Vietnam as I make my way up and down the coast is people here love colors! The brighter, the better with intense blues, greens, yellows dominating the exterior walls of many buildings and homes. Not quite Santorini but an Asian equivalent.

Combined with the lush, vividly green rice fields, quite a panoramic of colors at times. Sure won’t see that in Thailand or Germany. Large concrete water ducts also crisscross the landscape as well as other dug into the earth by both man and animal. These arteries represent life to the these people, no different than the blood that flows through us.

On a not so serious subject, they love to play ‘Petanque" or ‘Boule” which are the common names around the world for a steel ball game. I couldn’t agree more as I have played 100s of game while living along the banks of Chao Phraya River with my Thai friends.

The game is simple and fun and involves each playing having 3 balls and 3 chances at getting as close to a pea some meters away. It is sort of like bowling but unlike bowling, you can throw the balls as well as roll them. From what I have observed so far, it seems Boule is more common the farther north you go with Hanoi having ‘Boule pits’ everywhere. Great game to play on a hot evening, underneath a large tree, while sipping a Mekong Rum with a bit of coke and ice.

The train continues to zip down the coast passing within spitting distance of the South China Sea. The sea’s waves along with some beautifully colored temples pass by and then we enter the total blackness of a tunnel with the feeling you are in a chapter of an Agatha Christie novel.

After the brief flirt with the ocean’s waves, we head further inland as we get close to the second hour mark of our trip. We are now immersed in coconut groves which have obviously been planted by humans but beautiful nonetheless.

I am also curious about the loudness of the people around me as it is constant wherever I go. The reason it is so noticeable to me is that I spent so many years in Thailand where public transportation is quiet except for some blaring music or movie and people talk softly and even when on their mobile phones in public, cover their mouths. That concept is obviously alien to this culture!

They also don’t seem to mind who sees them while doing their business in public facilities as I have yet to find a lock door and often times the door isn’t even closed. Sort of embarrassing to keep walking in on people on trains and waiting rooms but they don’t seem to mind.

Public norms here in Vietnam reminds me of living on a farm with a bunch of brothers and sisters. Guess that is sort of what communism and socialism has taught these people; we are just one big happy family, so little things like closing the toilet door isn’t necessary which might also be the reason everyone is screaming at the top of their lungs when talking on their phones as we are all related and maybe they think I am trying to hide something if I talk softly? I don’t know but it is another huge difference between Vietnam and Thailand.

15:50

‘Ga Bong Son’

We just made our third stop in two hours. Once again it was quick but not painless as I had moved to another seat where the seat in front of me was inclined into my stomach (and no wisecracks about me being fat!). A new family was boarded and I have the lost the capitalist luxury of a seat I can breath in.

Very shortly out of Bong Son we cross another river that has three bridges across it. Once again, and I know this gets old, but there is only a trickle of a channel and as before, large areas of the silted river bed are being turned into pastures and gardens.

That reminds me as I write it that a few days ago I was watching Chinese TV and say a very interesting news feature about the 3rd largest lake in China reaching a state of pollution that now the millions of locals who rely on the water, have to now use bottled water instead. Due to soaring temperatures the lake’s chemical composition has changed and the sulfur and pollutants have reached a point where the water is unusable.

What was sort of interesting about the feature was not that the lake was polluted beyond human use and involved millions of people but the story’s slant that people were hoarding the water and that the government in Beijing was stepping in to save them by diverting bottled water from other provinces was a rather interesting twist to the real problem I would say. And you thought only Washington had ‘spin doctors’!

We enter another tunnel but this time a single light pops on. Now my visions of bloody daggers sticking out of bodies as we exit a pitch black tunnel have been erased from my head…

Wow! I just discovered there is a table hidden in the arm of my chair. I honestly don’t remember seeing that in the other 40 hours of trains that I have rode in Vietnam but I unfortunately can’t use it anyway, as Ms. Cool’s chaise lounge in front of me precludes that from happening.

The girl several seats up from me is seated so she is facing my way in a 4 seat table seating arrangement. Now try to imagine the image of a young lady, surgical mask in pink and white totally covering her face to her eyes, where you see two slits followed by your typical floppy hat pulled down low to meet the mask.

Her legs are propped up onto the small ‘dining table’ that serves the group of 4 seated passengers, with her naked feet and toes inches away from an elderly man trying to make use of the table to eat some food. Next to him is her friend, also similarly attired with her feet also propped up on the table. Doesn’t that make you hungry?

I thought at first when I arrived in Vietnam the ‘head to toe’ Taliban dress code was something to keep their young white skin from coming in contact with the sun. Now I am not so sure as I glance around my coach and notice every single girl, without children and not married and in their late teens, seems to be also dressed this way….while inside a train coach with the curtains drawn. Seems to be more a social status symbol which could be "I’m single", look at me!? Maybe it is the Vietnamese equivalent of body piercing? Don’t know what it is but there is more to the story here than just the sun.

I forgot to mention that the price for this seven hour excursion was actually less than my ‘1 hour = $1USD’ rule I use for ground and river transportation in Asia, with the rule only being violated when forced into transportation occupied only by foreigners. In today’s care, as I am the only one, the $1 rule applies.

The girl to my left has started to sing, even though she still has her surgical mask on as if she is performing an operation at a M.A.S.H. unit. The young lad sitting next to me has offered me his chips several times and to be polite, I have accepted twice. What is also amazing is his father has realized that maybe his wife’s chair is putting a bit of crimp in my seating arrangement and has told her to raise her seat. That is so cool as there are many more hours to go. I guess good things do happen for those that wait, and wait..and wait…

The train is really screaming along how and even the ‘clacky, clack’ has ended for more of a ‘metallic roar’ for lack of a better phrase. If we could keep the door closed to our air-conditioned compartment the sound might be a bit less but the hired help make sure that doesn’t happen with their frequent trips up and down the train selling something or the other.

The young man seated next to me seems like a bright young lad and obviously bored. As I really have nothing to give him, I pull out a couple of English language magazines about Vietnam I have on me and let him look through them. At least there are pictures he can look at. He is quite polite and says ‘thank you’ in English.

As I look up, I notice the mountains are to the east of us and between our train and the coast. I guess we have moved further inland as I don’t see mountains that were to our west for several hours.

We are now three hours into the run south and some pretty impressive Cham ruins appear towards the coast. Almost appears the pointed hills they are sitting on are man made. Need to look into that as a possibility and also take a peek at the area when I get back with Google Earth.

As we pass over stream after stream it suddenly dawns on me how exposed Vietnam is to bird flu as every place there is water, not far away down stream, there is an open air duck farm, and they are everywhere! I sure wouldn’t want to be the government official in Hanoi responsible for a lock down in this country.

I also have to laugh as the man in front of me realized that maybe ripping his shirt off as he settled into his seat was a good idea as he just got a whiff of his own body odor. Seems that was enough to make him get up and put his shirt back on. Comical to watch as he came to this realization…

16:00

We are starting to enter into an area that is obviously seeing some substantial growth with new warehouses under construction. Once again, another river BUT this one has water! Wow. Wonder why such an exception compared to the dozens of streams before this one? I also notice a road bridge crossing the river has a large diameter blue pipe strapped to the bridge which I know also carries water. Shortly after this crossing, there is another filled with water and then some more amazing Cham ruins right in the middle of some good size town we are passing through. Where the hell am I? I sound like I’m writing the script for a Carmen Santiago geography lesson!

16:15

A few miles from the Carmen Santiago mystery, a garbled speaker announces something which no human could ever understand in any language. It seems we are stopping at a rather large railway station called ‘Ga Dieu Tri’. I remember this from my last trip south from Hanoi and I know we are going to be here for awhile.

Once again the air conditioning stops when the train stops and the heat from the western sun trying to come through my curtained window is intense. Now I know what a lobster in a lobster pot feels like as they slowly turn up the heat. Once again, the boarding chaos commences but this time we have ‘cleaning ladies’ making a sweep through the train looking for anything of value, bottles to cans.

The children around me are so cute I can’t stand it. Bright, well behaved, curious and very polite unlike their older teen-aged adolescence elders. Wonder when and how they turn into the ‘ladies’ with their feet sticking up into the air in old men’s faces?

16:30

Two blasts of the horn and we immediately start moving again and the aircon starts. Whew! Really sorry for those in the other cars that are riding in the heat but I guess they do have the windows down so there is air flowing through the coaches. Once again, I am car ‘6’ which seems to be the airconed car on these trains.

The young lad just laid a carmel treat on my small table as I had my eyes closed for a moment. How can you not love these people in spite of all the things that make things here very difficult at times? I don’t even want to think about the war….

I just can’t help but laugh to myself as I stare down the coach and see all the thin, naked feet and legs peering over seats like seedlings growing over beach dunes. If you have been exposed to customs and culture in Thailand and understand a bit of Buddhism, this simply could not happen on a Thai train. I know teachers who have been fired from their jobs in Bangkok for putting their feet upon their desk while reading. Feet are so unclean and so very unholy…

As I watch male train staff move up and down the aisles doing their duties, I can’t help but wonder at the simplicity of their uniforms compared to what you might expect in Thailand. Here people in uniform, from police, to teachers to military is at best described as utilitarian. In Thailand on the other hand, it is hard to tell the Chief of Staff from the military from a parking lot attendant as they both wear pretty much the same amount of ribbons, lanyards and hats that would make Admiral Nimitz blush.

Another thing here is the police don’t carry guns-anywhere. Haven’t seen one yet except maybe a glance of a sidearm when I was boarding the plane with the police officer next to the plane while boarding to Chu Lai.

In Thailand, guns are everywhere and even the teachers in the south have been issued shotguns. Not saying that is a good thing but it is here that someone violently ripped an $800 camera from me while the police meters away only shrugged. I have never, ever, once felt unsafe in Thailand and seldom locked my doors to my apartments and homes there. Think there are any links here between guns and security? Most Americans sure think so.

Thailand is about show and the uniforms and the guns are part of that. Mirrors American thinking of course. But another thing in Thailand which is hyper-critical to understand is the concept of 'face', and of course the trappings of 'face', from watches, to offices, titles on business cards as well as the uniform you wear and the gun you might carry.

The concept of ‘pretty’ is also critical as well in Thailand, from building a tall tower, to the looks of the cars on the SkyTrain. Haven’t been here in Vietnam long enough to know the importance of either or both, but from the outside looking in, doesn’t seem to be important (at least for now) but I have a funny feeling that will change with time.

The coastal mountains are definitely getting larger as we progress south, with our train making a course which appears to be in a valley between two parallel ranges. Rows and rows of planted trees of some variety (rubber?) sway in the low lying foothills, while higher elevation timber appears to be older.

I have FINALLY got to see the face of the girl with her pink surgical mask. Now I know at least the reason she is wearing it. I would too.

As we progress into the ‘evening hours’, the people are starting to come alive from their listlessness. Women with their husbands seem friskier, the children are chattering away, girls now removing their masks and I can even hear laughter now and again.

Although there is no ‘siesta’ part of the culture, it does seem that one in reality happens due to the intensity of the afternoon heat. The public servants take one of sorts but it begins at 11:30, not really a response to the heat of the afternoon or what I would call a 'siesta'.

It has already been a very long day for me having been up at 4AM with a 6 hour wait at the station for my train. As the sun lowers over the low peaks in the west, the shadows are getting long and the colors are starting to dance their evening dance.

The bright yellows and greens of the passing structures almost twinkle as we whip pass them. This is what traveling is all about; the dance of the colors!

Now the young lady that was singing with her mask on has offered me some peanut flavored treat which I graciously accept. She has removed her mask to eat however!

I feel bad I have nothing to offer back to either her or the young lad next to me.

17:30

Dinner served! As the cart makes its way down the compartment, excitement builds and everyone gets prepared for dinner. Soy sauce bottles appear. These people are prepared!

My tray arrives and I once again have my central rice dish with three side dishes. You would have to be an old Asian hand to eat what I ate, but it was filling.

I also managed to return my young friend’s kindness as I remembered on my laptop, I have an assortment of games that came with the operating system. Cool, I thought. What child doesn’t want to play computer games and as it turned out, he knew immediately what to do and it wasn’t long before he was surrounded by his sisters and others telling him which box of this memorization game or another to turn over. They were having some serious fun and fun is something that is not allowed….at least with a foreign man on a train I quickly found out!

The rest of this story unfortunately takes a sad turn as the police turned up. And they got heavy. First question wasn’t if I was an American but confirming the fact that I was. The second was, “Is this your son?” No I stated, it the man who is sitting in front of the boy.

The police sergeant with decent English skills and a strong odor of alcohol on this breath continued with his interrogation by asking me where I was going. I stated I was departing the train at Nha Trang. Was I going to the festival there? Didn’t know there was one was my response. Apparently not the right answer as I am suppose to know where I am going and for what reason. It was obvious I needed to shut down the notebook and tell the children to go away as he continued to watch them play a game called “Purple Palace” and he was obviously not pleased.

I shut down the computer and he took an empty seat behind me a few rows back. I thought maybe I needed to take a ‘walk’ and went to the toilet but as I was coming back, it was obvious he was ‘debriefing’ the boy next to me. When he saw me, he stopped. I honestly felt they were going to pull me off the train and interrogate me as I have had two other conversations with travelers who have had this happen to them.

I have found out as I try to talk with people up and down Vietnam that they expect you to be married, have children and if not, it doesn’t fit into the profile they have been taught to expect. Even their English training entails these questions in their 2nd and 3rd position after “where are you from?”

Traveling alone, as I have learned long ago puts you in a class that is ‘suspect’ for whatever reason the culture has for single people traveling alone; gay, pervert, etc.

As it turned out the remainder of the trip had a heavy cloud over it and there was a 30 minute wait only a few kilometers from my intended destination of Nha Trang, which delayed my arrival until past 21:00 (9PM).

Needless to say a very long and tiring day but I did manage to collect my things and my thoughts and we parted with the kids and the children’s father shaking my hand as they were also departing the train in Nha Trang. I guess all in all not so bad a day as from Quang Ngai to Nha Trang, from a 20 month old child, to an ex-Army nurse, an old man, children and a father; many shook my hand this day. I guess for others, they would have preferred me dead……….

Throwing my rucksack over my shoulder, off I went into the blackness of Nha Trang….

Good night Vietnam!
Saigon Charlie