Thursday, August 19, 2010

Murder Train

We weren't able to fly directly to Ho Chi Minh City from Phuket, so we flew from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur, where we slept overnight in the airport, and then flew from KL to HCMC the next morning.  The trip went fairly smoothly, although at one point we were awoken by a police officer in the airport.  Apparently the place we had chosen to go to sleep was not satisfactory, and we were sternly told to get a move on. But we quickly found a new place where lots of other people were sleeping, and KT and I curled up on the cold linoleum floor and drifted off right away.  Mark wasn't so cozy, and spent the night roaming the airport, eating, and chasing away some creeper who thought it would be interesting to stare intensely at KT and me while we slept.  The next morning we got some coffee and caught our next flight.  It had been a long night, and we were all doing OK, but I think it's fair to say that we all got a little loopy...

Once in HCMC, we were planning on catching a train to Dong Hoi so that we could go to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park.  We were supposed to have the tickets delivered to us at the train gates, but in order to avoid the delivery charge, we decided to take a taxi to pick them up.  This turned out to be quite an adventure into some out-of-the-way neighborhood, then into a back alley where some guy came out of his house toting his kid, and handed us an envelope.  It most definitely looked like some sort of illicit drug deal had gone down.  Anyway, we came back out of the alley and eventually flagged down a cab.  I was used to the traffic from the last time I'd been in the city, but my friends were still completely flabbergasted by the racing, disorganized hordes of motorbikes, and I kept losing them when we attempted to cross the streets.  Once we made it into a taxi intact, they were free to ogle the crazy tangle of traffic from relative safety.  I told them to keep an eye out for strange things attached to the backs of motorbikes, and we spotted some whole families piled onto one bike, boxes stacked over four feet high and lashed onto the bike seats, and strangest of all, a live cobra in a little mesh cage, strapped onto a seat.
Traffic through the windshield.  Why is that traffic coming at us head-on?!
Mark didn't seem to be enjoying the bustling city or the non-stop traveling we'd been doing over the past few days.  He looked like this as he loudly proclaimed his dislike for Vietnam:

 We headed to Pho 24 so everyone could have some authentic Vietnamese pho and spring rolls.  The food was restorative after all the traveling we'd done, and Mark started to perk up a little, especially once he'd had some dessert.  He still wasn't quite up to par, so after lunch KT and I left him in a coffeeshop with our bags so we could wander around the Pham Ngu Lao area a bit.  KT went a little souvenir-crazy at one of the shops.  She was gathering up so much stuff that the proprietor closed the door, turned on the air-con and offered us a drink, which made me giggle.  In the end, KT walked out with an armload of gifts for people back home, and I had one scarf for my mom.  I think the woman closed up shop and took the rest of the day off after we left!

It started to rain pretty heavily, so we hung out at the coffeeshop awhile before heading to the train station to start our 30-hour journey.  On the way there, Mark said "Man, after sleeping in the airport last night, this train's going to be like a 5-star resort!"  I gave KT a terrified look, knowing that the train would, in fact, be nothing like a resort of any kind, but not wanting to crush Mark, who was still tired and not feeling well.  I said quietly, "Mark, I don't know much about the train, but I really don't think it's going to be resort-like," to which he replied, "Well at least I'll be able to get a shower," which forced me to break his heart further by saying, "Yeah...there aren't going to be any showers..."

The train station was an adventure in itself.  Maybe the fact that we were some of the only tourists in the place should have tipped us off to the fact that the train wasn't what we were expecting, but at that point we were just looking forward to getting into our sleeping berth and stretching out on our beds. 

After a couple of hours, the train started to board and we walked up to our car, showed our tickets to the worker, and were pointed to another door, down the platform.  We went there, showed our tickets, and...were pointed BACK to the first person, who pointed us BACK to the other person.  This went on like a bad comedy sketch until I grabbed the train worker's hand and tried to drag her along with us, which she refused, and looked at me like I'd lost my mind.  We snuck onto the train behind her, and someone else helped us find our berth.  The berth was...interesting.  It was small, which I expected, and old, which I also expected.  The unexpected part was the fact that it was HIDEOUSLY DIRTY.  There was a dead bug on my pillow, placed as neatly as a mint at a nice hotel, and Mark's sheets had what appeared to be blood spatter on them.  I said c'est la vie, and plunked my bag on the floor and my butt on the bed.   Mark stared at me miserably and said, "Where's the nearest airport?"
Pictures REALLY don't do it justice
Two days without sleep will do this to you...

 Before long, we were joined by the fourth person in our berth.  I couldn't help but smile when I thought about how Bryan would react to this guy- he was Spanish, and he was one of the most beautiful men I've ever seen in real life (except Bryan, duh).  He stood in the doorway like an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, introduced himself, then got comfortable. 

As soon as the train started moving, a voice came on over the loudspeaker and made a bunch of announcements in Vietnamese, then English.  One of the first things the voice said was, "In the event that you find any body parts, or a corpse..." We didn't hear the rest because we were too busy shouting "WHAAAT?!?!"  It was thereafter referred to only as the Murder Train. 

After awhile, KT, Mark and I decided to try to find the dining car.  Oh, boy, venturing outside our berth was quite an experience.  There were men sitting in all the aisles in lawn chairs; there were people jammed into cars like cattle; people were peeing in the hallways, or holding babies out in the air and letting them go to the bathroom.  There was a bathroom at the end of our car and even though the train had just started moving, the toilet was full of urine, which was sloshing out with the motion of the train.  At that point, I resolved not to drink any water for the rest of the train ride.  The whole place smelled like durian, pee, and body odor.  I was taking it all in stride, knowing that we'd only be doing this for a little more than a day.  As I reassured myself, I felt someone grab my arm.  Assuming it was someone who had tried to stand up from their seat and inadvertently grabbed onto me, I turned around to smile, and found an old man leering at me and clutching my forearm.  I yanked my arm away, and right about then, KT and Mark turned around, wide-eyed, and said, "Go back.  We don't care about the food car.  Go back."  We booked it back to our car with all eyes on us, the conspicuous foreigners.

When we got back, our Spanish roommate was leaving to go get a drink.  As soon as he was out of the car, we started talking about our journey through the train.  Up until my friends opened their mouths, I thought we were OK.  I knew the train was kind of shady, but I figured we'd stick it out and then maybe find an alternate means of transportation from Dong Hoi back to HCMC.  But as soon as the door closed, KT expressed her opinion- "We need to get off this train," she said, "Now."   Mark vehemently agreed.  When they said that they weren't going to eat anything from the train because of the nasty conditions, I knew things were serious- these two need to eat every five minutes.  I took a deep breath and we started to talk about our options.  According to trusty Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, Nha Trang was the next stop with a large enough population to support things like hotels and transportation back to HCMC.   We wouldn't be there for about eight hours, at 2 AM.

We planned on getting off at Nha Trang, and spent the next few hours watching the scenery outside and reading books (Waiter Rant really got me through that ride). At one point, I spotted a sizable cockroach crawling around on my bed, and I leaped into KT's bed with her.  As 2 AM got closer, we all huddled near the glass and watched for signs of an approaching city.  The three of us must have made a pretty pitiful sight, all nestled in next to one another, desperately watching the windows and whispering to avoid waking up the random guy in our bunk.  The train was running late, and time dragged on.  We saw no city lights....and still no city lights.  The train rolled to a stop in Nha Trang, but we couldn't see any signs of the city from where we were.  In fact, the train stopped in what appeared to be a large railyard, next to a hobo warming himself by a fire.  Despite all of that, we still wanted to get off the train, but there was a train worker blocking our way.  He didn't understand English, so I kept pointing at myself, then tapping on the window, repeating "Outside," over and over again.  He shook his head, pointed to our tickets and said "Dong Hoi," authoritatively.  As the train started rolling again, Mark moaned, "I think that was the most crushing disappointment I've ever experienced in my life."
Crushing defeat

I again consulted Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, which I'd begun to think of as some magical genie with all the answers.  The genie told us that the next best place to get off would be Da Nang, around 11 in the morning.  So we stretched out on our disgusting beds and got some sleep.  I marveled at KT's ability to sleep while touching the smallest amount of the mattress possible.

In the morning, as we waited for time to pass, we watched the scenery passing by.  As much as we disliked the train, the Vietnamese scenery outside was really beautiful.  As expected, pictures through the window didn't turn out very well.

A couple of stops before Da Nang, our roommate hopped off the train with some Vietnamese guy he'd just met.  He was all excited about going to hang out at this guy's house.  We were just glad we wouldn't have to explain why we were getting off the train early, so we happily said goodbye to our traveling companion.  We finally pulled into Da Nang, and this time a lot of people were getting off, so we lined up with them.  Someone pointed to our tickets and said "Dong Hoi," but we so adamantly protested that they just gave up and walked away.

This time we successfully got off the train and got a taxi.  We asked the taxi driver to take us to the airport. After our misadventure on the train and our re-routing to Da Nang, we'd decided to give up and try to head back to Singapore. When we got there, I laughed at the site of an airport about the size of a KMart.  The international terminal was closed but would open in a few hours.  The agent at the desk told us we wouldn't be able to get tickets, but we decided to give it a shot anyway.  In the meanwhile, we got some lunch at an attached cafe.  Sure enough, when the international terminal opened, we couldn't get tickets, so we asked the desk agent for an expensive hotel- we wanted something nice after the way we'd spent the past couple of nights.  When he asked us how much we wanted to spend, I said "Whatever.  Something really nice.  Eighty dollars."  He looked at me like I was bonkers and said, "We don't have anything that expensive."  We gave up and requested that a taxi driver take us to a decent-looking place that I found in the yellow bible

When we got there, we saw the impressive SunRiver Hotel next to it, and I knew that was the place I wanted to stay.  The building was tall, there was a big front desk and a marble floor, and the lobby just looked so clean.  I could have slept more comfortably on the couch in their lobby than anywhere I'd slept the past two nights.  We went there and booked a room at $60 a night. 

As soon as we walked into the room, I hopped into the shower.  It was one of the most wonderfully satisfying showers I've ever had in my entire life.  Afterward, we ate dinner on the 8th floor of the hotel, overlooking the city.  KT and I each had a strong drink, and I was passed out asleep by 9 PM.  I hadn't slept in a real bed since Phuket two nights before, and I slept like a baby in an air-conditioned room, between deliciously clean sheets.
Da Nang at night


  1. Wow, I will remember not to take the train to Vietnam. What a horrendous adventure it sounds like! Glad you all made it safely back to Singapore. Whew!

  2. I alternated between laughing and crying while reading this.

  3. Yeah, it was quite an adventure. In the long run, I'm glad we did it, because it was definitely an educational experience. And it's something I'll talk about for the rest of my life.

    And Mark, I felt the same way while writing it. There were a lot of deep breaths involved. Ohhhh, the memories.

  4. very informative on Vietnam. I actually wanted to head up there for work and passed by your blog when I googled. Very very cool !! By the way Crystal, I lived in Ohio for a bit (i'm a singaporean)

  5. What did you think of Ohio?! I bet it seemed cold and spacious after living in Singapore!