It felt great arriving in Hanoi on a warm night four days ago after twenty four hours of buses, walking and waiting around. Not to say that the trip from Kunming was a chore at all, in fact it was actually quite enjoyable. The Chinese side of the trip took me through small villages where people living in shacks stopped what they were doing to look as the coach passed by. There were tree covered mountains overshadowed by even bigger mountains which stretched off into the distance and there were industrial towns, coloured black by soot and pollution but in which people were still smiling and in the streets of which children were still playing and having fun.
When I reached the border crossing I was half expecting there to just be a hut in which a fat, sweaty border control guard would be sat and whose eyes would light up at the sight of a foreigner whom he could extort money from for the night's alcohol and cigarettes by way of a 'stamping fee' but the reality turned out to be as far from my expectations as you could get. The border crossing at both sides was a very new, very modern operation and the staff that I dealt with were all extremely professional and friendly. The whole crossing process took no more than five minutes at each side and before I knew it, I had arrived in Vietnam and my fate passed from the hands of the border control guards into the hands of a very over-enthusiastic motorbike taxi driver who was to take me to the nearby Lao Cai train station.
Having spent the last month traversing almost the entire width of China and witnessing first hand the mayhem that is their road system, I thought that things would be similar in Vietnam and they were, kind of. To coin a phrase that I've heard kicked around here quite a bit, the traffic in Vietnam is "Same same, but different." It's the same in the sense that normal road rules don't apply such as stopping for traffic lights, going the right way down one way streets and every other rule in the highway code, and at first it can seem quite a daunting thought to even get on the back of the motorbike taxi whose driver snared you with the two English words that I think are known more in Vietnam than any other; "Hello, motorbike?" Once you've spent some time on the roads however, be it as a pedestrian, a pillion passenger on a motorbike, cycling around or even just on a bus you start to notice how the different vehicles flow around each other like fish in a pond, with drivers always moving into the space in front of them and stopping only when they have to. One other important road rule that I've noticed is that the bigger the vehicle, the more right of way it has.
Pedestrians are at the bottom of the pecking order and they must give way to everything, although don't expect any vehicle to stop at pedestrian crossings or traffic lights to let you cross, instead just walk out into the road and walk across very slowly, looking at the oncoming traffic so that you can (hopefully) jump out of the way if a kamikaze scooter rider who is on his mobile phone, smoking and riding his bike at the same time doesn't happen to see you. What you'll find happens is that as with fish in a pond, if you put an object in the middle of said pond they will swim around it rather than going head first into it. After pedestrians the pecking order goes pushbikes, motorbikes/scooters, tuk-tuks (although they go so slowly that everyone just drives/rides around them), cars, vans, then come the top dogs; buses and trucks. If you are on any road either as a pedestrian or as a driver of a vehicle and you value your life then you should get the hell out of the way when a truck or bus approaches. (note: some people, like the suicidal minibus driver that I had back in Chengdu obviously do not value their lives [geek content] but like anomalies in a computer program, sooner or later the day will come when they are identified and deleted [/geek content])
Wow, I've managed to ramble on for quite a while and I've not even got up to my arrival in Hanoi. Well to cut a long story short, there were no sleeper beds on the overnight train from Lao Cai - Hanoi and whilst I'm sure spending eight hours overnight sat on a plank of wood (hard seat in Vietnam really does mean hard seat, unlike the coach style seats on trains in China) in a non air conditioned carriage with my bags and a couple of hundred other sweaty people would've been an 'experience', I didn't quite fancy the idea after being on a bus all day so instead I booked a ticket on the sleeper bus, got myself a nice cold Bia Hanoi and waited until it was time to board my bus.
Now I've heard stories of people being drugged and robbed on sleeper buses (not so with trains, I wonder why?) so when a local guy on the bus kindly (or not so kindly) offered me a pear I refused it. What he did next was slightly worrying in that once he had finished the pear that he was eating, he took a token bite out of the one that he had seconds ago offered to me, then I saw him spit it out and put it in the bin along with the rest of the pear. Now at this point I thought maybe I was just over-thinking the situation, I mean maybe the pear had been bad and had I taken it, I would've just been left with a sour taste in my mouth rather than the loss off my money, phone & other personal possessions but what happened next made me glad that I had erred on the side of caution when dealing with his offer of food. He had started a conversation about where I'm from and what I'm doing in Vietnam etc and he was leaning onto the bunk next to me whilst talking to me which put him at a comfortable distance away from me but then in a split second, he reached out and grabbed at my trouser pockets, my bag and my money belt then he motioned that I was a skinny guy. This was definitely crossing the line and although it's common to see Vietnamese men or women walking around with their arms around one another (although not a man and woman unless they're married), this was more than just friendly physical contact and I told him in no uncertain terms to leave me alone and not to put his hands on me again. He went back down into his bunk and didn't bother me again but needless to say I had a night without sleep. I turned my money belt around and put both my phone and wallet into my back pockets just in case I should fall asleep but I still had no more than a few minutes at a time, instead opting to watch the Vietnamese films which were shown on the bus and then stare out of the window at the sleepy neighbourhoods that passed by covered in a cloud of darkness.
Right, it's nearly midnight here in Vietnam and although I'd love to get right up to date with my blog I think that my laptop keyboard could do with a rest, as I'm sure your vision could too. Mine's going blurry now staring at the screen and I've only had two beers today so that can't be affecting it! I've been for my first motorbike lesson today having put a deposit down on one yesterday and I will try to blog again after my lesson tomorrow.
Over and out.