Thursday, November 30, 2017

Vietnam: Trains and Traffic

Train (Nha Trang-Saigon)

View from train,  N. Vietnam
The same song plays over and over on Rail-TV: the singers, tune and lyrics are all different, but still it's the same song. It features tears and smiles and heartbreak. It stars young and shiny girls and boys with tight jeans and glossy black hair. They mime and emote amongst props of flowers and hearts, dead trees and autumn leaves, moonlight and star-shine. Their dancing technique makes high-school musicals look good.

Meanwhile the landscape slips by - rice fields and water buffalo, unfamiliar orchards and crops, stony hillsides and the occasional pagoda. But the locals, who make up 99% of the passengers aren't here to see the landscape. The fare for the eight hour trip from Nha Trang to Saigon is about $10 - they are here for the cheap travel from A to B.

Travelling as we tourists do - hours on the road or train or boat, only to leave again for the next place a day or two later; moving in endless circles; photographing, writing, planning as if our lives depended on it - must seem absurd to the local people.

The cowboys of Lao Cai (Hanoi-Lao Cai)

Train track, Hanoi
The first one we meet in Hanoi, as we board the Lao Cai train. 'Let me help you': neatly dressed and officious, he must work for the railway. We have already walked 3/4 the length of the platform carrying our bags and have almost reached our carriage; still he takes my bag, inspects our ticket, and marches forthrightly to the carriage and into our compartment, where he shows our berths and demonstrates the light switches. Then holds out his hand for a 100,000 dong 'tip'. We laugh - that's five times what we paid the taxi driver to bring us here! - but he is serious and insistent. 20,000, 40,000 finally 60,000 and he leaves. Clearly he does not work for the railway.

At almost 6am we disembark, bleary- eyed and determined that no-one will touch our bags. A cluster of neatly- dressed smooth-talking young men surround us. 'Let me help you. Where do you want to go?' Directed to the local bus, we ask the fare - '300,000 dong. Per person.' I am dozily handing over the notes when reality hits - 'No!' I yelp, snatching back the money, 'that's too much!' We threaten to take another bus instead, and the fare is quickly negotiated down to only 250% of the real fare.

Returning by bus from Bac Ha to Lao Cai a few days later we pay only a 20% premium - a bargain - but it's a slow trip with a flat tyre on the way, and numerous freight pickups and drop-offs. Then Lao Cai to Sapa - half an hour wait, 33% markup, another flat tyre. Finally reaching Sapa around two hours behind schedule, the driver drops us on the outskirts, off the map, so we need another cowboy in a minibus to charge us the same fare for the 2km into town. Seems that they think we belong on tourist buses; maybe they're right.

Back at Lao Cai station for the return to Hanoi I try to find where to check in our travel vouchers. A confident and neatly dressed young man takes them from me and says he will get our ticket. He does so and leads us to the train (we hold tightly onto our bags). It's a grotty compartment in the wrong carriage. Actually it's also the wrong train. We grab back our vouchers and ask what's going on - his English is not so good now. An argument ensues after which we are finally handed a new ticket
- right train this time, still the wrong compartment, but it is for a 'deluxe' tourist carriage so we settle down to wait. Another young man approaches, 'I sell you VIP upgrade?' No way Hosé!!

Playing in the traffic

On the street, Hanoi
It is warm and humid, and gently drizzling, and the constant streams of hooting scooters, taxis and cars, and jingling bicycles, are increasing to dense shoals, skilfully slipping and weaving around each other, so nonchalant. Here there is a cyclo with family of tourists braving the din. Here a skinny woman laden with heavy baskets makes her way on foot to her street corner to spread her wares. Here a moped, the teenage driver is texting on his mobile as his girl hangs on. and another bike with a family of two parents and three vari-sized children squashed between.

It seems impossible that any pedestrian could cross through this whirling mass, but look closer - two young girls on their way home from school saunter across the road, chatting and laughing they join two even smaller boys who play in the gutter. The chaos seems terrifying to we whose life is dedicated to rationality and order, but those children playing in the traffic are accustomed to and comfortable with the apparent disarray, and at a very young age have learned the skills to survive it.

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