13 April 2006

Journey Back To HCMC

While I was packing, I kept hearing lots of voices and noises outside my window. I finally looked out to see a throng of Hmong men standing amongst large bags of an unknown substance that was being off-loaded from a massive, flatbed truck. Finally, I thought. I would be able to get pictures of the men.

I checked a few camera angles and could see that I was too far away to get a decent shot, so proceeded throwing items into the extra bag I had to buy to accommodate all my purchases. As I hoisted said bags onto shoulders, I wondered how I was ever going to carry all of it. Being in the abandoned section of the hotel, it was not like there was anyone to help.

Stumbling down the stairs and trying to push open doors with no free hands, I eventually made it outside where I had a closer look at the goings on. This was obviously the distribution point for the bags, which were now stacked on both sides of the narrow road. I saw that a few men were tallying and allotting sacks, while others stood around getting ready to take their portions. A fair number of motorbikes had arrived, ready to transport the supplies down the hill.

Once inside the main hotel, I asked what was going on. The sacks were filled with grain to grow rice. Since I had still had time before the van picked me up, I asked if there would be any problem in taking pictures of the goings on. I was told that it would be fine.

I started down the stairs and out the front door, then had to go back in. The monster delivery semi was attempting to turn around on a narrow dirt road that had the hotel on one side and a sheer, 3000 foot drop on the other. I couldn’t watch. Either he was going to back off the cliff, or ram into the hotel. The driver, with the help of his partner, somehow managed to back up, drive forward, back up drive forward, over and over again, until they finally made it out intact.

I went out and sat unobtrusively, I hoped, on the edge of a planter box, watched the action, and started to shoot pictures. I listened to the conversations in Hmong all around me and tried to identify its sounds. Directly across from me, a few women stood, rolling hemp into twine, waiting to help with the motorbike loading.

One woman in particular, was the group clown. Obviously, I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but could tell that she was cracking everyone up. She had this essence of fun that translated across language lines. When it was time to load sacks on bikes, she’d tuck her hemp back into her waist band, lift her half of the sack onto the bike, all the while cutting up. I was trying not to laugh, imagining what she was saying. Everyone around her was laughing and smiling.

I watched as two sacks at a time were loaded onto a motorbike, sometimes with another person on back, for the perilous ride down the mountain. One industrious crew bound two sacks to the sides, secured them with rubber bindings, then loaded a third onto the back seat. I wondered how he would make it down without either dropping a sack, or having it burn up on the exhaust pipes. I figured they had probably been doing this for years, so I shouldn’t worry.

I would have preferred to get closer shots but, as I have said, felt that it would be too intrusive. At one point, an ancient man bent over to see the picture I had just taken of his grandson. He smiled when I showed it to him. I must have sat there, feeling invisible, for at least thirty minutes. It was one of the most interesting, enlightening, segments of time I had had on my trip. It ended when my van showed up.

My original trip back to Hanoi was supposed to have been on the day before, but I had extended a day. I had called the gal at Sinh Tours in Hanoi, who’d told me that she would send a new train ticket up for me. By the time my pick-up had arrived, the ticket was not there. I was assured that I would get it in Lao Cai, at the restaurant where I would wait for the 9:00 train. An hour down the mountain, and our group was deposited at a tiny restaurant that stood next to other restaurants, around the square in front of the train station. I sat at an outdoor table and looked at my watch. I had three hours to wait.

Lao Cai, at least from the few blocks around the train station, resembled any interior town in any country I have ever been. Kind of grimy and dilapidated. The restaurant staff and the people in the streets had the same type of appearance. All, that is, except for the owner, Ms Phuc.

Ms Phuc, model thin, looked like a high class madam. She wore a tiny, black, satiny top, with a matching, clingy, three-quarter length skirt, slit up the back. She wore black open-toed heels, and clutched a cell phone. Her long black hair was tied in a pony-tail, and she wore beautifully applied make-up. She did not look cheap; just totally out of place. When things got busy at the restaurant, she’d bark orders to get people moving. I’d asked about my ticket and she said it would be there by 8:00. The people at the table next to me were also waiting for tickets.

Somewhere, during the past few days, I had found out that Lao Cai was only 3k from the Chinese border. I had planned on grabbing a taxi to drive over there just to say that I had seen China, but no longer had the energy. I also realized that I should eat something, so ordered rice and tofu. As I sat, more and more travelers arrived and were dropped off at my restaurant or a neighboring one. A young Korean woman joined my table. We started to talk and I found out that she had also been in Sapa alone, at the same hotel, and that we’d both spent the previous night alone in our rooms. I wish someone at the hotel had thought to introduce us.

I talked with other people around me and found out that the train left at 8:30. I had thought it left at 9:15. Apparently, there were several different trains leaving at various times, both coming and going. So how was it I managed to get the latest one in both directions? I asked Ms Phuc and she said she would get me on the 8:30 departure.

It was now dark, and although not brutally hot, I was already sweaty and grimy and I had a whole night ahead of me to just get more gross feeling. At 8:00, people started to leave for the station a block away. I again asked Ms Phuc about my ticket that hadn’t shown up. A few minutes later, I heard her yelling into her cell phone, then rushing over to my table and the one next to me saying it was time to move. She took off at a fast clip. I went to retrieve my bags and realized I would never be able to carry it all and make it onto the train in time. I had lots of tipping cash, so looked around and asked one of the staff for a hand. Even with one of them hauling my heaviest bag, I was still weighted down, and trying to keep up.

We rushed to the station, falling in behind Ms Phuc and assorted travelers, pushing through crowds and finally to the ticket entrance, where we met up with the lady who had our tickets. I got mine, and followed my porter out on to the tracks, the straps of my bag digging into my shoulder.

Luckily, my car was very close. As the conductor took my ticket, he said something to my helper, and we set off in the other direction. It was the wrong train. We carried on until the end of that train, crossed the tracks, then walked to the end of the cars, finally arriving at the correct one. We were really rushing, seeing that the train was to leave in about ten minutes.

I got help getting to my berth, but thought it was odd that no one, other than two western women, was on the train. Not that I would argue about a cabin to myself on the ride back. Really drenched and miserable at this point, I dug into my bag to get some money for my bag-carrier. I was worried the train would take off with him onboard. Then I looked at my ticket and saw that I had a top bunk. There was no way I was going to do that again, so went to look for train personnel.

On my way down the deserted car, I stuck my head into the room with the women. I asked if they knew why the train was empty. Simple answer: it didn’t leave until 9:15. All that running and sweating for naught. I continued down to the end of the car and leaned out to where the conductor was having a smoke. I did my song and dance routine to try and explain that I could not be on a top bunk. I think he said that it wouldn’t be a problem. Back at my room, I liberated a bottom bunk, piled all my junk on it, and lay down to read. I was not moving off it until Hanoi.

Eventually, the car did fill up. My roommates were three young Vietnamese women who had no problem with sleeping on the top. The rest of the car was filled with Chinese men. I really hoped I would be able to sleep this time.

As I lay on my bunk, I started to think about some of the other things I had noticed on my trip and all the information I would need to understand it. Like the green pith helmets that I’d seen on lots of men both in Sapa and Lao Cai, but never in HCMC. And then there were the woman with the black teeth. I am not even sure which minority group they belonged to. I actually don’t think their teeth were black; it looked more like they had black mouth guards over their teeth. Also, the Red Zao women either had shaved hairlines or it was genetic. It was hard to tell because of their head scarves.

Between reflecting on my trip and reading a book, it was soon 11pm, and my roommates were sound asleep. It was time to turn off the light. Even though it was much more comfortable on the bottom, and I didn’t get a headache, I couldn’t sleep for more than twenty minutes at a time. Knowing that the train should arrive around 5:30am, I got up at five to go to the bathroom, wash m face and brush my teeth. Then I sat on a stool at the end of the car and tried to look out the grimy window.

This was the part of a trip that I hated. You feel so totally alone in the world. I was tired and filthy and probably hungry and thirsty, and it would be hours until I got home. I pulled out my cell phone and sent a text message to the one person in the US who not only knows how to message people, but answers me. So here I was, in the back waters of Vietnam, at five in the morning, feeling pretty down, sending a message to a friend in California. Within a minute I got a reply, and the gloom lifted.

Soon, all the Chinese men were coming out to use the toilet, and in no time there was a line. The conductor came by, saw the men waiting, and unlocked a small hatch at the bottom of the exit door, indicating that the man could pee out of it. I went back to my berth.

Twenty minutes later we arrived in Hanoi. I loaded up, and waited until the car was empty to make my exit. I had to walk through fresh pee on the stairs out. Still in pretty much of a daze, a man came up and asked if I needed a taxi. I hesitated only a few short seconds before saying yes. He grabbed my bags and flew off. I had to nearly run to keep up. He took me outside of the station and handed me off to a friend with a taxi. I had no change, so he got a serious tip. However, I think he may have said something to the taxi driver as the trip to the airport was over double what it was coming in.

I got there at 6:30, and had a plane reservation for 10:30. The first thing I did was to see if there was an earlier flight. There were three, but all with Vietnam Air, and I was on Pacific. I did manage to leave my bags at a check-in counter so I could go to the bathroom, change clothes and kind of clean up. That left another three hours to check in.

I didn’t have any luck finding food, so settled for coffee knowing there would be a meal on the flight. It took all my powers of concentration to stay awake until the 10:15 boarding. By that time I was really looking forward to getting some nutrition in my body, but I was tricked again when I found out that the menu only contained foods which I do not eat. I got two dinner rolls.

I eventually made it home, threw clothes in the laundry, took a shower, and ate. I also realized that although I had thought it was hot in Sapa, I had been mistaken. Compared to HCMC, it was only mild. Not that I minded at all. It is nice to get back to your own bed and shower, especially after such a whirlwind adventure.

I have already received emails from the girls, always with the same three sentences they know – “How are you? I hope you are fine. I miss you.” I continue to reply in similarly simple language and hope that maybe they will start to improve their reading skills.

I still have stuff to unpack and put away.