I’ve been in Asia for almost 7 weeks now, so when I say this was definitely the sketchiest thing I’ve done so far, you know that’s really saying something. We found a live chicken in a laundry basket under the bathroom sink in one of our hostels….this tops even that.
A few weeks ago, I told a friend over skype that I was taking a three day train down the coast of Vietnam from Ha Noi to Saigon and that it would either be a really great experience or a complete nightmare. Guess which one it turned out to be. Even my seemingly unflagging optimism couldn’t completely overlook everything that was wrong about our most recent trip. Safe now in Saigon, I can look back with some measure of humor and a great measure of relief.
What got us into this whole mess was Thailand. Not to blame everything on Thailand, but when we got to Ha Noi, we were seriously freaking out about how much money we’d spent. In light of our failing budgets, we jumped on the opportunity to shave $20 off our train ticket by taking the 3rd berth, 2nd class “hard sleeper” car. Woops, would be an understatement. Hilarity ensued when we entered our train car and realized that the space between the two stacks of beds (6 people could supposedly sleep in one car) was barely enough room to turn around and bend over. The hilarity continued when we realized that our 3rd berth beds were on the very top, without a window, and closely resembled a coffin in both shape and size. I could barely get into my bed without hitting by rear-end on the ceiling, much less actually sit up. Hilarity gave way to a queasy feeling of dread when we looked around and realized we were literally living in the midst of a cockroach infestation. We probably saw no less than 30 over the course of the trip. The beds were barely softer than concrete blocks, and as passengers embarked, got off, and new ones got on, we realized that the sheets probably hadn’t been changed and washed in, oh, forever.
Our initial feelings of doom were only compounded as the trip went on and we discovered the night watchmen were mostly drunk, we saw multiple mice in the restaurant car, we heard a dog barking in the kitchen car, and not a single soul on the train seemed to speak a word of English. Throughout the trip, I attempted to keep a sunny disposition, reasoning that the situation was bad enough without making ourselves more miserable than we already were. This worked only intermittently, though the spectacular views out our cabin window certainly helped me stay on the bright side. Even so, I’m upset that we decided to pinch pennies at the wrong time, and I’m sad to think of the potentially lovely experience our trip could have been under better circumstances.
However, I think I learned a lot about myself during our trip. It would have been pretty easy to wallow in self-pity or just stay angry the whole time, but I surprised myself by being able to stay relatively positive. We met a lovely older Vietnamese couple who, though they didn’t speak a word of English, insisted on giving us two hard-boiled eggs and a pouch of milk each in the morning. As they left the train, the clasped our hands multiple times as if to say, good luck, we are with you. These people and others like them made the time pass more quickly and helped counteract the negative feelings brought on by cranky guards. Overall, I feel more like I accomplished something and less like I wasted the past 35 hours. Though the train wasn’t what we were expecting, and many things about our journey were far less than pleasant, I feel like I’ve arrived in Saigon a more resilient person.