Screw. That. Train.
I'd say it in harsher terms but I hope the following story will make my sentiments clear without the need for what some might consider coarse langauge. All that really need to be said are two things. The first is to book trains in advance of you can, and the second is that if you arrive at a booking office to find that the sleeping carriages are booked up, and especially if that train is described as a "hard sleeper", Do. Not. Take it.
Wednesday morning was given over to sorting future flights, hotels and transport. If only we had been less confident about the transport for Wednesday evening. Following our planning and booking session we visited Pho 24, a noodle bar with a sort of fast food vibe, but still with waiter service and proper locally cooked food. Apparetnly a chain there are even rumours they plan to franchise in London; if this ever makes it to Manchester call it my new breakfast spot - Mi Xao Bo (noodles with beef) or Ga (chicken) is a brilliant breakfast, add in their iced white tea and even the full English will seem slightly less high on its pedestal.
The rest of the day involved relaxing on the beach or in beach bars, along with bouts of photography. We tried to hire sea kayaks from people with a big board advertising that they hired out sea kayaks, but were told "can not", which is Vietnamese for "there may or may not be a reason we won't do this; we almost certainly can so might not want to stand up, not want to go out in the sun, have already reached our target sales for the day or never had sea kayaks to begin with". To prepare for the evenings train we decided to have a hearty Vietnamese meal, so were conused when we ended up sat in a Texas BBQ restaurant with a big man from Memphis, Tenesse (he says no Vietnamese have heard of Memphis, hence the name of his restaurant) selling us Mexican food. I was happy to be off script this time and mudered a burrito and refried beans. After a quick trip to a store to pick up food and water supplies we made our way to the station in good time.
After queing at the station (actually the Vietnamese don't queue and don't understand the concept, so to enforce one without crash barriers the station give out tickets like you might find at Argos or the council office) we were told that the night train was fully booked for sleeping. It wasn't great but we agreed to take normal seats. I felt not too unhappy at the time - sure we were looking at a train timetabled for 16 hours overnight, but I've slept on many a train before without a bed, and assumed that some sleeping customers might not sleep 16 hours, maybe we could do shifts?
As we waited on the platform, playing Magic on my coat on the floor, I started to get a bit nervous, noticing that the other trains looked a little old, full of people, kids, luggage and even animals anywhere, and with bars across the windows. It was then that we were told the haunting truth "you know these are wooden seats right?" WRONG. Who thought of these wooden seats? Maybe in the 1800s it was fine, but we've had trains for a little while now, does some foam and some cloth really cost that much? The apprehension worsened as the train approached and we joined the mob (no sign of a queue) trying to get on whilst naturally a similar (but forced by the train aisles to roughly queue) mob valiantly fought their way off. Arriving at our allocated seats we encountered, a number of bags containing various fruits, a large amount of crockery, some with water in it, and a kettle. We nervously cleared stuff out of the way, crossed our fingers that our travelling baggage would fit on the racks (it did) and sat down on the hard wooden slats that were ours for the next 16+ hours. It seemed quite bad but we were trying to put a brave face on it. Then the man opposite us began to smoke. Then the baby next to us, naked from the waist down as it was, began to cry.
We steeled ourselves for the worst; at each step things had seemed to depreciate further, but surely now, in the depths, we had to get thrown a few bones? Fortunately, we did. I'm not sure why; maybe it was our anxious faces, the strained way we were talking, the forced laughter and thoughts of distant beds and enormous but totally justified taxi fares. Whatever it was, one by one the locals sitting opposite us withdrew to other parts of the train; first the smoking man, then the coughing man and finally the woman with the wailing baby. Drawing inspiration from this minor return, Rosie and I decided to grin and bear it, even deciding to keep hourly updates of how we were feeling - from positive down to whereever.
The Kindle was undoubtedly a life saver; knowing I could read far longer than the length of the journey let me avoid the worry of endless boredom, and allowed the minutes until shortly after midnight to proceed better than expected. During this time it became clear that though we may not be in a sleeping carriage, the locals still all intended to get a night's sleep. They went under the benches, they went down the aisles, they scrunched up on a bench or lay with their legs vertically up a wall. Two children even seemed to be sleeping in what looked like a supply cupboard at the end of the carriage. Chris and then Dave tried sleeping on the floor, with reasonable success. Rosie managed to sleep on a bench. I gave up my seat, found a small plastic chair to place just outside the seating area of the carriage, by the sink, and read whilst keeping watch on the bags.
Despite shifting position a thousant times, despite the long stops to let other trains pass on Vietnam's single track railway line, despite the occasional passer by up or down the carriage we got through to 3am, halfway where I rewarded myself with a ham & cheese sandwich from our supplies, a taste of home on a dark train in the middle of nowhere. As 5am drew closer though I felt the painful pull of the half sleep you get when your head hits the desk on an all nighter. Without a way to lie, without quiet or dark and with continued disturbance of people passing to go to the toilet I spent maybe an hour in that jolting, sinking sleep which isn't quite right, leaving myself feeling tireder than before these attempts as the sun rose.
Passing through Da Nang at 7am though and this long slow slog turned into a tense waiting game. As the hours ticked down they seemed to go slower, not helped by the Kindle finally making good on its promises the night through and packing in about 8am, and brought to breaking point as we lingered 30 minutes in one stop in the hills as masked women in hats (like slightly withered ninjas) prowled round the barred windows trying incessantly to sell mostly fish and a few other bad smelling home cooked treats. I guess the hopefullness of the sellers has to be admired as much as their persistance is an annoyance; trying to read, sleep or talk as yet another face screams something in Vietnamese through the bars over a train window is probably a psychological trigger for some people - Chris was suggesting things that one could do in the remaining 4 hours and I suggested "murder everyone on the train?" to add some British black humour to the situation.
Then finally, as every stop I desperately checked the clock, knowing we were late for arrival in Hue, a Vietnamese man who had joined us to watch a game of Blackjack said "this is Hue" and we feverishly packed our bags and prepared to disembark. Like one final cruel trick we were stuck in this final limbo for a further 15 minutes as the train crawled towards the station; tense as I was I could probably have beaten it in a sprint. These final minutes were made a little easier as my new seat placed me opposite the wailing baby from the night before and, whereas in the night our white faces brought him to more tears every time he spied us, even down the other end of the carriage, this time he offered me both his food and drink, a kind offer though politely rebuffed.
Then here we were, the push to get out started, one woman seemed to be transporting a huge sack of grass, but we were breathing open air again, striding towards a taxi and on our way to the hotel. We made it, 19 hours since leaving our hotel in Nha Trang, frayed, tired, sweaty and skirting regrets, but we made it.