Train to Danang / Hoi An

Construction in Nha Trang starts about 6 am, which is a real pain in the ass if you’ve stayed up drinking beer and blogging until 2:30 am like Murphy and I did, or if you’ve got rooms with windows facing the streets, like we also both do. Running on less than four hours of sleep per night is quickly becoming the norm for this trip.

We’re still not sure how to get out of here but we know there isn’t much point in spending more time here, the Russian-dominated nightlife isn’t so appealing, nor is the Disney-style water park over on the island. We grab our now-ready laundry, scarf down some breakfast and try to sort out an exit strategy. No good flights but there is a train heading north to Danang just before 1:30, it’ll take 10 hours or so but it’s still our best option so we get a tuk-tuk to the train station.

Our last-minute seating options are limited. If we go with beds we’ll be separated into three different compartments, not ideal but not terrible. Our other option are “hard seats”. I’m a bit reluctant on this – I’ve ridden “hard seats” in China and they were basically two planks nailed together at a 90 degree angle, no cushions, four people packed together in a space appropriate for two. We figure it can’t be that bad, it’s way, way cheaper and we can get three seats together so we fork over about $11 each and proceed to the waiting room.

It’s kind of a clusterfuck when the train arrives. Some passengers are trying to get off carrying luggage or gigantic bags of produce, us and others are trying to get on with a bunch of stuff, and about a dozen fish and snack merchants are pushing through everyone to try to sell their wares to passengers not going anywhere before the train starts moving again. Our “hard seats” are in fact just hard wooden seats but there’s only two of us on each bench so it’s not really that bad. It’s air-conditioned too thankfully; some of the cars aren’t and just have windows that can slide open.

About ten minutes after we roll out we decide to mosey down to the drinks car at the front of the train. Doing so means getting through two of the ultra-cheap cars, hard seats with no AC, and they are complete zoos. First we have to step deftly over a dozen or so children and infants rolling around on the floor. Some people are unconscious and stretched out over two benches across the aisle, we hoist ourselves over them using the backs of the bench seats. A snacks cart comes the opposite direction from us, we get out of the way by ducking into the seating areas and one very friendly fellow insisted Drisdelle sit on his lap. Drisdelle rudely declined his generous offer. All said it probably took about five minutes to cover the distance of two cars.

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When we reach the drinks car nobody’s working there but an employee is stretched out across two benches, his body blocking the aisle. Another employee appears after a minute and wakes him up; he shakes his head and tries to pull his shit together but he looks like hell, definitely hungover. Drisdelle and Murphy order up a round of beers but they’re warm so I decide to pass and read for a while. They fire up a game of Crazy Eights with Drisdelle’s deck of Maoist propaganda cards, a couple of locals are fascinated by them so much that they grab the deck while a game’s on and start flipping through them all.

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The scenery is great, mountainous and lush to the left side of the train and intermittent coastline to our right. Clouds occasionally cover the top bits of the mountains. We pass rice paddies full of egrets (or cranes?), sugar cane fields, and duck/geese farms with hundreds packed into pretty tight little areas with ponds. The rice paddies have graveyards out in the middle of them which seems a bit strange. Lots of lily pads in the open ponds.

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Lunch comes and it smells great. Murphy and Drisdelle get chicken, spring rolls and mystery meat on a stick that turns out to be sausage. I’m paranoid about mystery train food so I get a bowl of white rice and dump a shitload of hot sauce on it. It’s pretty decent but the looks I get from the train staff aren’t.

After lunch I’m watching the scenery roll by when Murphy asks me “What are you thinking so hard about over there?” “Hey man, I’m a deep guy.” “Are you trying to decide whether to take a shit on the train?” “Actually that’s exactly what I’m thinking about.”

“Six hours is a long time to have quiverbutt.” – Jonathan Murphy

He’s right of course so when the train comes to the next station I decide that a stationary train is probably safer than a moving train and break for the back. The bathrooms in the zoocars are atrocious so I leap over some babies and try to get to ours but the door is locked. A train employee tells me I have to go outside and re-board to get to that car. Getting off a train sounds risky but not taking care of business right now could be equally dangerous so I jump out and hope for the best. The first door I try is locked. Oh shit. I run to the next door. Okay this one’s open, I jump on and the bathroom’s completely unusable. So is the next one. I keep moving until I reach the fancy “soft bed” seating in the back and find one that’s not a complete disaster. I jump in and the train starts moving. This just got a lot more difficult.

On my way back I check our stuff to make sure it hasn’t been jacked. One of the doors is still locked but after a while I find someone to get it open and head back to the dining car and order up a celebratory room-temperature beer.

Dinner’s over but it’s time for the staff dinner, everyone in there is wearing train uniforms except for us and two guys who look to be police or military or something and are getting the VIP treatment from everyone else. One of the officers comes over and wants to look Drisdelle’s Mao cards. He’s rifling through looking at every single one. “We’re going to be arrested at the next stop”. He politely hands them back and thanks us.

I’m nodding off so I jump into an empty seat behind ours and promptly pass out. Not long after one of the train employees shakes me awake, grunts and points me in the direction of our actual seats. I head back but our seats have now been taken by an old woman and several children sprawled sleeping around them. Okay then. I just grab the first empty seat I can and hope I don’t get booted. Not long after the boys join me after being kicked out of the dining car as well.

The snack cart comes along and amazingly they have cold cans of Tiger beer so we grab a round as do a couple of Vietnamese guys sitting in the benches next to us. One round of beers and they’re blowing it up, blasting cheesy 80’s-sounding Vietnamese Party Rock over their tablet and giving zero fucks about the numerous small children sleeping around us. A girl behind us apparently dislikes their choice in music as she cranks up some V-Pop over her tablet. Sitting between them is horrible but the frosty Tigers go down fast so we order up another round then another.

While Murphy and Drisdelle are off in the bathroom shaking each others’ dicks one of the railway employees approaches me coyly and offers to sell me six more Tigers at a discounted price. Weird – did he swipe them? Pretty sure we’re close to Danang at this point so I say we’ll take six but he shakes his head no, he thinks we really need six beers and that’s hard to disagree with so I grab all six. Our line of empty cans turns into a pyramid.

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Sure enough we roll into the city with three beers left. It’s pissing down rain so we quickly negotiate a fare to Hoi An (half hour down the road but no rail link) with a van driver after using the station wi-fi to look up a place to stay. The driver has no problem with us drinking the remaining Tigers in his van so that worked out perfectly.

For a city we’d been told to not bother with Danang looks like a really happening place. Neon lights everywhere, massive karaoke bars, highrise hotels, and surprisingly clean and modern looking. The road to Hoi An follows the coast south and is peppered with swanky-looking resorts and casinos as well as some less-swanky places like a seven-story greasy looking massage parlour and a bar called “Guns n’ Roses” which is surely endorsed by Axl himself. Bizarrely there are also dozens of shops offering 12-15+ foot tall sculptures. How do you even get one of those home?

We get to Hoi An and the place is totally dead aside from the occasional white person walking past. Granted it is about midnight but compared to Saigon or Nha Trang this feels like another country. We walk up to the hotel we had directions to and the front doors are locked but an employee opens up for us. Turns out it’s already full. We head down the road five minutes, find another place that looks slightly upscale but it’s full as well. As we’re walking away I saw a group of older English guys and their wives coming in behind us but didn’t take much notice; a couple minutes later Murphy asked me if I’d heard what they said… “Sorry boys, too pricey for you.” It’s a good thing I hadn’t heard that. The third place we try has a room for $30 and it’s alright, it has it’s own balcony so it only seems appropriate that we buy a few beers from the front desk and drink them up there.

While we’re sipping brews a procession of white people go past, mostly in their early twenties and speaking French but a handful of Brits in the mix as well. We’re definitely in another white guy zone which is unfortunate because that seems to be all we’ve hit here with the exception of our day out with Rich. I guess we’ll see what the place holds tomorrow.

After beers we make a snack run to the corner where there’s a little food cart selling pork pate bahn mi. While the woman is making three of them she drops one on the ground, picks it up and keeps going. We can’t see what she’s doing but we’re all playing road bun roulette now, let’s see if anyone’s bun has grime on it. There are tiny child-sized stools to sit in on the sidewalk which we lower ourselves into very, very carefully then get another round of beers.

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Two drunk Brits named Adam and Mikey roll up and order up a couple of buns. They’re coming from the downtown about 10 or 15 minutes away but one of them has already had three sandwiches on the walk back before this one. They’ve been here a couple of days and give us the lowdown on the place, it’s nice but really more suited for couples than for dudes looking to party. Good to know, we’ll strongly consider getting on the road tomorrow.

Back in the room we shut it down with one more round of beers and Vietnamese “Fashion Television”, which is mostly girls in bikinis rolling around on the beach along with the occasional music video. This gem was on heavy rotation:

 

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