Armed with chocolate, bread and cheese, my husband Keith and I planned to enjoy a Valentine’s Day feast on a Vietnam train. Bribery, bugs and getting lost were not part of the plan.
Our journey seemed simple, a twelve hour train ride from Nha Trang to Danang and then a half an hour bus ride from Danang to Hoi An. On Valentine’s Day we purchased train tickets for comfortable soft seats located in an air-conditioned compartment. We were ready for a relaxing ride.
When our train arrived at the Nha Trang station, we showed our tickets to the conductors. Five conductors later, we still did not know which car to board. With the train about to leave, we jumped onto a car that the sixth conductor pointed to. We pushed our bags through the aisle to what we thought were our assigned seats. A man was sprawled across both seats – snoring.
Flustered, we stared back and forth from our tickets to the sleeping man. A Vietnamese soldier approached us. He studied our tickets, led us to a compartment and brusquely pointed out two seats. Rather than our reserved cushioned seats in a cool room, these were hard backed chairs in a hot and steamy compartment. I shook my head, but the soldier was adamant. Tired of lugging our gear, Keith and I gave in and slumped into the seats. My chair was broken. We ate our bread and cheese in silence.
A woman conductor casually walked over to us. With hand signals and a wink, she offered to move us to two beds in a berthing compartment. I nodded that we were interested. She slipped us a sheet of paper with ‘100,000’ dong written on it – our first Vietnamese bribe. Keith surreptitiously handed her the money and we hauled our bags through several different cars, following her lead.
The conductor halted in a car with doors to berthing compartments. “A compartment to ourselves,” I thought. Then she opened the door to our compartment. Six bunks, three on each side, crowded the room. A Vietnamese family of six curiously smiled at us from the bottom four bunks. The conductor pointed to the top two. These berths were wooden slabs, not the cushioned beds we were expecting. By the time I realized this, the conductor was gone with our money.
For a brief second I thought, “Maybe this won’t be so bad.” Then I pulled myself up to the top berth and realized it was the most uncomfortable location on the train. The air was jungle hot, the back breaking bed was within a hand’s space from the ceiling, and bugs whirled around on the fan located inches from my head. Keith and I lay there the next few minutes not speaking. We ate our chocolate.
The chocolate cleared my mind and I considered…remain here or try to move again. A dead fly fell from the fan next to my ear. I jumped down from my berth and walked through the train cars. I discovered an air-conditioned car with two empty soft cushioned seats. Sitting in this compartment was the same conductor who sold us the “upgrade” to the berths.
I determinedly approached her and pointed to the two available seats. It took a minute but then she understood what I wanted. Looking at the expression on my face, she nodded okay without asking for any “tip.” Five minutes later Keith and I hauled all our gear to the seats, and I was happy (or at least more comfortable).
After some fitful sleep, we woke up at 8:30 am as the train stopped. This was about the time we were supposed to arrive in Danang. Keith asked a conductor if this was Danang. She answered yes. We hurried off the train and it chugged away.
We discovered we were the only passengers who had exited the train. There were no cyclo or cab drivers ready to vie for our business. There was no train station. Somehow we had gotten off at the wrong stop and were lost in Danang, a city of one million. I frantically studied my map.
When I looked up from the map, I found a group of Vietnamese encircling us. A few approached us and pointed to the map. Warily, I handed it to them. A man shook his head and through hand signals indicated we were in an area that was “off the map.” A woman spoke one English word, “Taxi?” We vigorously nodded our heads. She escorted us to a small store across the street.
Keith in I in Hoi An, after we finally got there!
As we arrived at a store, the woman ran in and found the owner. He spoke a little English and understood we were trying to reach Hoi An. While he called us a cab, smiling local children and adults approached us. Though we could not verbally communicate, their hospitality and genuine friendliness was easily understood. An older woman offered me her chair to sit in when she noticed I was carrying a heavy backpack.
The taxi arrived. We climbed in and as the car began to pull away, the entire crowd waved goodbye and smiled. After twelve hours of tiring and confusing travel, it was surprisingly easy to smile back.