interludes and examinations: a night on the rails

Before I get to the train story (which is a short one, really), a brief, extremely geeky digression about internet service in Viet Nam:

At the first internet cafe that Miranda and I used here, we were dumbfounded by the speed of the connection. I had to download an ssh client in order to connect to and check my email, and was expecting this to take (as it did in China in 2000 and in Thailand in 2001) a good five to ten minutes, and then expecting the actual connection to be unbearably slow and to cut out every 30 seconds. Instead, the copy of Putty downloaded in 3 seconds, and my connection to my server, while occasionally a touch laggy, was rock-solid, leaving us wondering if we’d somehow walked into the one cafe in Viet Nam that had somehow managed to buy, bribe or extort their way into a functional T1 circuit.

So imagine our shock when every internet terminal we tried was like that.

The answer to the mystery took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out. See, every internet cafe in Viet Nam advertises itself as having “ADSL Connection”, but I barely even noticed this, since every cafe in Thailand had claimed the same thing (or sometimes ISDN), but of course had turned out to be the usual cluster of 6-year-old PCs all sharing the same flaky 56k modem line. It wasn’t until last night at our hotel in Hue that I thought to look behind the computers and found…a Zyxel ADSL modem. Chalk one up for late-adopter syndrome: apparently Viet Nam has managed to leapfrog pretty much the rest of southeast asia and deploy broadband widely enough that you can’t walk down any street in any town of medium-to-large size without tripping over a dozen high-speed internet cafes.

Knock me over with a feather, etc.

Oh, and something I forgot to mention about Cantho. In Cantho we saw, or rather heard, what we think was one of our few glimpses of Stalinist-era Viet Nam: on several street corners downtown, there were loudspeakers attached to the telephone poles, from which strident voices for about half an hour in the evening exclaimed, er, well, something. Actually for all I know they were advertising phone cards and lottery tickets, and I apologize for not having the presence of mind to ask anyone who spoke Vietnamese about it.

Anyway, back along the proper continuity line, Miranda and I had just been dropped off at the train station to take our sleeper train from Saigon to Da Nang (our final destination being Hoi An). Getting onto the train was stupidly easy because, well, there is only one train track in all of Viet Nam: a single line that stretches from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north. There being only one track, there was only one train, and it was waiting for us in the station. We identified our car (number 9; number 9; number 9; number 9…), climbed aboard after showing our tickets to the conductor, found our berth (number 6) and opened the door.

The Vietnamese train system, like pretty much all the other ones in Asia that I know of, has four classes of tickets: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. For a long time, foreigners were only allowed to buy soft sleeper tickets (the most expensive by far) — now you’re allowed to buy tickets in steerage if you want to, it’s just a very bad idea. Our berth was spartan but clean: four bunks on either side (with sheets and pillows neatly folded) and a small table in the middle. We stowed our bags and took our places, myself above and Miranda below and across diagonally. We were shortly joined by our companions for the trip: a Vietnamese businessman and a Japanese tourist, neither of whom spoke much English.

Just after we’d all gotten aboard, a speaker in the car started blaring extremely loud Vietnamese easy-listening music: luckily after a few minutes searching we found a button to turn it off, but not before I’d started seriously considering breaking out the leatherman and risking whatever hellish fine or jail sentence might be incurred by snipping the lead wires.

The train departed on time at 11pm, and after a few minutes of watching the cityscape go by, we turned out the overhead lights and went to sleep. Or tried to, in my case: while the bunk was, weirdly, actually substantially more comfortable mattress-wise than several of my hotel beds so far, it was not really built with 6‘1” honkies in mind, and the only way I could stretch out was diagonally across it, with one foot hanging off. Also, this was my first time on a sleeper train in any country, and while many people describe the sensation of sleeping on a train as restful, my hindbrain was having none of it: every time the train would make a particularly large lurch, I’d snap awake convinced that we were derailing.

It was not the most restful of nights. But chalk it up to poor technique on my part: everyone else, Miranda included, slept like the dead.

Finally just as I was managing to drift off a bit more permanently, the berth door slammed open to reveal a train attendant passing out noodle packs for breakfast. I opened my eyes blearily to see that it was bright daylight outside. After stumbling to the restroom at the end of the car, I decided that desperate measures were probably required here, and dug out the complimentary Singapore Airlines blindfold that I’d presciently kept ahold of from the flight over, along with a pair of earplugs, and climbed back into the bunk and threw the sheet over my head. Thus armored, I was able to get five or six hours of actual sleep before we pulled into Da Nang.

Which is, of course, another chapter.

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