Thursday, 4 February 2016

Being held captive in Ha Noi and a night train towards that sweet southern weather ...

I actually sleep until 4 am, which is surprising given all the naps I had yesterday.

My walks through Hanoi yesterday felt different than those on the previous two trips. I can't quite put my finger on it but suspect that it's that Hanoi looks a little like Europe at Christmas. No, NOT the mad present shopping, but people walking the streets in thick jackets and long pants. It feels like winter despite the 16 degree temperatures.  There is also not much I haven't seen in Hanoi, so I decided it is time to head SOUTH today.  The weather forecasts for Da Nang and Phnom Penh beckon with 26 and 34 degrees, respectively, and that is one of the reasons I came here after all ;-)

The Mystery Destination

At 5:45 am I am not quite sure where to go or when to go, but then I set my mind on Mystery Destination (I've never been there, but the pictures look VERY promising). I briefly consider spending the 12 hours travel time in a day train, but quickly abandon the idea.  The time in night trains passes much quicker !  So that leaves with me the issue of a train departure time of 10 pm and a hotel check out time of noon.  I feel like  I'm too old to wing it for 10 hours walking around, especially if hotel rooms in the neighbourhood go for as little as CAD$ 15  (That's about US$1 per hour of not having to walk the streets. Quite reasonable I believe.  We'll see.

At 5:50 I take the elevator down to the lobby to catch the sunrise over Hoan Kiem Lake.  When I checked in yesterday, I offered to have my 3 or 4 am cigarettes on my balcony, but was told to smoke outside, even after I pointed out that people might be sleeping in the lobby.  A quick glance through the opening elevator doors into the lobby to my amusement confirms my suspicions: The lights are off, occupied bedding material is visible right next to the elevator doors as is the bicycle look through the front door handles.

View from my prison later in daylight (it even has bars ;-)
 I don't even leave the elevator but quickly press my floor and the door-close button again. I'll give them another half an hour of sleepy time ;-)  Another decision I quickly regret (NO good deed  goes unpunished ;-). I step onto my tiny balcony on the 4th floor,  pull the doors closed behind me, and smoke my cigarette. When I try to step back into my room I notice to my amazement that the old-style lock-bolt must have moved just a millimeter, because the balcony door now is LOCKED.  OH NOOOOOO!  I'm TRAPPED on a small pedestal 4 floors above street level.  Good thing this didn't happen at 4 am because I notice someone far below and 2 doors down the street moving scooters from the entrance into the street. After a quick HELLO! and him looking all around him but not seeing me, a sequential UP HERE,  he sees me and after some explanation knocks on the door of my hotel and informs them of their CAPTIVE GUEST. 

Enter at your own risk ;-)
 15 minutes later (It seems  like an hour) the receptionist in his bare feet frees my from my tiny outside prison.  It seems I had put the security latch on my room door by habit and they had to open the room door first. 

I later see that their tools for that included a screw driver and a TOOTH BRUSH!  At least they knew how to do it instead of calling a locksmith ;-) CAM ON !!!!! 

With a grin I have to remember that the receptionist told me to lock the balcony door when I sleep or when I GO OUT, but I'm sure he meant something entirely different.

After recovering from my captivity, I decide to go on my morning walk and at 6:40 am shocked that the hotel staff has gone back to sleep and that I have to wake them AGAIN to unlock the bike lock on the front door ;-(

Huan Kiem Lake in the morning

Don't take this bus. It leads to Boo Hoo !

This is the first time I walk all the way around Huan Kiem Lake and my mood quickly brightens when I see the Vietnamese busy with their morning exercises, either with stomach crunches, Tai Chi, playing Volleyball with feather cocks, or whatever else they have come up with.  

To my surprise I also get drawn into a group shot of a couple of middle aged Asians in front of this old architecture. By their looks I seem to have made them happy to have me in the shot ;-)

I get back to my hotel in a grand mood and am relieved that the staff has finally risen.  Breakfast is served and is wolfed down, even though I have to admit eating a piece of chocolate cake at the lake 35 minutes ago.

the sidewalks have parking attendants that ensure maximum space usage
Time to head to the train station.  A phone with Google Maps and GPS comes in VERY handy in navigating Ha Noi's convoluted street network.  I find Ga Ha Noi without problems and buy myself a train ticket.

All the soft sleeper spaces are gone so yours truly will travel in a HARD SLEEPER for the first time.  I've seen the HARD SEATS (wooden planks) and wonder whether I will sleep at all tonight.   At first I  also suspect that I've  paid tourist prices, i.e. way too much, but I check when I'm back in the hotel and have Wifi and discover that I paid about half as much as quoted on the very popular website. Caveat Emptor (Buyer  beware), this site charges DOUBLE !   

Back at the hotel I get myself a room until 9 pm and leave the substantial change to the guy who rescued me this morning.  It's too cold in Ha Noi to spend the 10 hours between check out and departure time wandering around, especially at my age !!!!  When I change rooms the new room still has more than 6 suitcases (HEAVY ones in it).  The  Viet kid has visible trouble lifting them. I ask how many people they belong to because I'm not sure that this room isn't the luggage deposit for the entire hotel. When he says that they belong to only 2 people I can't help but exclaim CRAZY, to which he just smiles and nods.  I gave the huge tip to the right  person ;-)  This kid (somewhere between 20 and 30 years old) sleeps in the hotel lobby at night and works during the day and these 6 suitcases contain more clothes than his whole extended family possess and possibly more than they have possessed in the last 10 years!

Noon approaches and I've been up for 8 hours, which includes a period of captivity. Definitely time for a nap.

When I awake the lights are out.   Sending the reception kid on a quick errand to the fuse box on my floor puts a quick fix to that.  I go out with Hoan Kiem as the general destination to buy some T-shirts but already after half a block am drawn into a store along the way.  They have T-shirts, yes, but they also have HOODIES.  In outrageous patterns! The price is high for Vietnam but LOW for Canada, so I end up leaving the store with one. Good thing the sales clerk helped me to decide which one looks best on me (just confirming my opinion was enough), other wise I might have bought two!

Instantly I notice that when you wear something that you obviously bought in Vietnam, all the shoe-polishers, shoe-fixers, sellers of a myriad of edible and non-edible goods instantly hone in on you, because they can plainly see that you are spending money here.  So my first trip is back to the hotel where I leave the jacket and put on my Western-bought clothes.

I am drawn back to Chuon Chuon Quan, where after 4 visits I finally try something else on their menu: Stir-fried chicken with chili pepper and lemon grass.

 It is good to get away from the re-heated restaurant chicken meals of you-know-where.  Food freshly prepared from fresh ingredients is such a joy. And it is one of the pleasures not easily found in the West anymore. None of us really knows how long the vegetables have been sitting around in their artfully arranged displays at our local IGA or Safeway!  As a guide on my October trip said: If you want clean pretty houses, go to Germany or Switzerland. If you want good food, come here!

 A final walk around the clothes shops around Hoan Kiem Lake does not provide any finds, neither shirts nor T-shirts. Ah well, there is a local market close to my hotel in Da Nang. I'm sure to find something there; in addition it'll cost less than half the price of items in Hanoi's tourist district!
Why is it that in so many general traffic pictures I later discover a child staring at me ???
This is around the time of Hanoi's rush hour at 5-pm-ish.  Not only does the traffic call traffic cops onto the intersection (there are traffic lights but no one pays attention to them),  but it also creates noticeable air pollution.  I say noticeable because the air was quite good all day and it is noticeable when it deteriorates due to higher traffic volume.  

At 7:30 pm my eye lids start becoming unbearably heavy. I set my alarm clock to be on the safe side and to make sure I don't miss my train.  This alarm clock is almost not able to get out of the deep sleep that II fall into.

Not really awake but more comatose,  I start walking to the train station at 9 pm

When I enter my cabin I am relieved. The term HARD sleeper does NOT refer to wooden blankets without bedding.  

What it refers to is how HARD it is to climb into the top berth. My first attempt fails miserably and I only get up there with my second attempt. And there are no other passengers there yet.  
too high for jumping !!!

This was supposed to be an epic train-journey encompassing sleep, but no, I wake up at 1:30 am to the sound of a prehistoric mastodon with bronchial issues. Oh no, it is just the guy right across from me snoring his heart out. Trying to sit up, I bang my head on the ceiling (AGAIN).  

A quick trip to enter my bladder and I'm faced with one of these monsters again.  Sphincter-clamping time!  I'm peeing here but nothing else! 

Despite the snoring concert, I quickly fall asleep again and finally wake up for good at 6 am. My compartment is EMPTY. Did I fart in my sleep? is my first thought.  The train hallway is empty, so the other people must have reached their destination and I slept through it all ;-)

Unfortunately they also took the cigarette lighter that had fallen out of my pocket and out of my bed earlier in the night.

Hours to go and no means to light a cigarette.

I roam the hallways looking for another smoker !

Here is an audience participation game:  Which one of the following two men is looking for a cigarette lighter and which one has found one and has smoked a cigarette:

I can already see a glimmer of light through the windows. At some point it is bright enough to  point a cell camera at the passing landscape.
When I was here last, the fields were bare after being harvested

All this green must be the New Rice of this year's harvest

Sometimes the train stops used at tiny unserved train station to let the opposing train pass

GREEN everywhere

The shapes of the hills constantly change ...

.... and I feel like like travelling through Tolkien's Middle Earth

The train finally reaches its destination at 7:40  am. That's over 9 hours train ride and I'm relived to get out.  I can't imagine taking this all the way from Ha Noi to Sai Gon!

What is the first thing I do in this city that I've never been in?  I buy 2 (TWO) cigarette lighters for CAD $1 ;-)

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