And suddenly we were off. One minute, sitting in our 3rd room in three nights at Khe Homestay in Hue we made the impulsive decision to catch the 7:08 pm train to Da Nang. It was 6:10. We paid the $6 each for our unslept-in room, collected our passports from the front desk, hailed a taxi and sped off for the train station with a very sweet non-English speaking cabbie who informed me about his lack of language abilities via Google translate.
Sarah, Corey and I were on our 3rd visa run and 1st to Vietnam. Every 30 days our tourist visa runs out and we have to leave Laos only to come back in on a new visa. I’m beginning to think work visas will never come. We bought 3 “hard bed” tickets in sleeper car number 8 and were told that the 7:08 train actually departed at 7:53. This was lucky for us since we hadn’t yet eaten dinner.
Just outside the train station a motorbike was parked with a megaphone blaring a repetitive mantra of “bao chi something something bao chi.” From a cylindrical container that looked like a 2 foot tall miniature grain silo appeared a hot bun stuffed with minced vegetables and sauce. It was delicious. The obnoxious, repetitive advertising certainly worked on me. We wandered into one of the many small restaurants nearby and I had a bowl of noodles with mystery meat. I gave the slices that looked like pimento loaf to a begging tabby and ate what appeared to be thinly sliced pork in peanut sauce.
We returned to the full station and milled about with the other passengers, mostly locals, waiting for permission to exit through the double doors to the platform. The platform was only a few inches above the train tracks; we would be stepping up into these cars. Several shops selling pickled shrimp in a jar, red bull, cigarettes and a menagerie of sweet and salty things lined the platform. One women set up plastic chairs for us. We initially hesitated but she added “free” to her command to “sit” and didn’t make us get up when we politely refused to buy any soda.
Before I could here the train coming our plastic seats were whisked away back to their hidden storage space, the snack shops were closed up and everyone was crowding around the estimated location for each car. I stepped up into the train car, past the bathroom, past a tiny double decker closet labeled “staff” with two sleeping employees inside and found the compartment labeled “7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.”
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Corey and Sarah had the middle two bunks in the first cabin on car 8. I had bed 10, which was a middle bunk in the second cabin. The higher your bunk, the less the ticket costs. We paid the middle price for the middle bunk. Corey and Sarah turned out their lights, shut their cabin door and snoozed in the company of 4 other passengers for the 2 hour and change ride to Da Nang. My cabin on the other hand stayed loud and illuminated on the ride. It had two women with two small children and one crying baby eating dinner on the first level, myself one one side of the middle level and two women sharing the 18” bed on the opposite side. The third bunks were occupied by teens playing on their phone who I can only assume were related to the first level crew.
I could not physically sit up, but lying down was more comfortable than any airplane or bus I’ve tried to sleep on. I had a small pillow and blanket provided with my bunk which had an inch or so of padding on it and a fitted sheet. I took my shoes off and put them under the first bed next to a giant bag of rice and put my two backpacks at the foot of my bunk. If I craned my neck I could see the blackness whizzing by out the window punctuated by the occasional street light or train crossing. At my feet was the sliding cabin door, which remained open so one of the women could pace up and down the narrow aisle disrupting the rest of the cabins with the crying baby.
Twice a snack cart went up and down selling bagged chips, drinks and something in a steaming silver cauldron. At one point a conductor roused me asked me for my ticket, which I showed her. It said only “Beach” for my name but that didn’t seem to matter in the slightest. She came in again as we approached my stop, Da Nang. I gathered my belongings and thinking the stop was imminent, tried to get down from my bed. One of the small children was playing with the metal “step” that folded into the wall when not in use. I don’t speak Vietnamese in the slightest and so I didn’t have the words for “please stop doing that so I can get down.” Instead, I held onto the guard rail of my bunk and stretched my foot across the way to the step on the opposite side of the cabin to make my way down, retrieved my shoes and my friends and waited for the train to slow to a stop at the station.