The train from China to Vietnam leaves Nanning at 6:45 pm from the hectic railroad station. It’s an overnight trip, and the only accommodations available were “soft sleeper,” which is what I wanted. I hung around outside the station where the thousands of passengers are staged for their trains getting the looks until I finally found out there is a “soft sleeper” lounge. The soft sleeper is a 4 bed cabin with better mattresses than “hard sleeper,” a door which can be closed to the corridor, and two pillows. I had an upper bunk – that’s my bag on the top left.
I didn’t like the company as much as the Shanghai-Nanning trip. The obnoxious couple in the lower bunks were total Flintstones. They changed the orientation of their bunks so that their heads pointed east rather than west as the stewards always arrange it. This meant that to climb into the upper bunk I had to ask Wilma to move her head and pillows so that I could climb up or down without stepping on them. Once I was up in the bunk Wilma would fold up the high step I would need to climb down again. Fred snored when he wasn’t playing with his nose. I childishly shelled peanuts in bed and swept the debris that had missed my garbage bag down onto the floor for Fred and Wilma to enjoy later.
We stopped near the Chinese border and I received a somewhat baffling interrogation in the cabin by a PLA Captain, i.e., “You have been to China many times?”
No sir, just this once.
Why do you have three Chinese stamps in your passport?
I was on a container ship that stopped at three Chinese ports.
Were there a lot of passengers on this ship?
No, just one.
And that was you?
Why you work on passengers in China ships all over all the time?
I think you were working in China.
No sir. I was not working. I’m retired.
Oh, what did you used to do for work? Etc.
I swear I actually blurted out that I was retired when he accused me of working in China, as if the fact of retirement made it physically impossible to perform work of any sort. The whole time Fred sat across the aisle giving me this rock-hard stare, finding my explanations unconvincing and openly siding with the screws. He now bears the mark of the squealer and will get his later in the big showers. We had to pile off the train and our bags were x-rayed, etc.
On the Vietnam side, we were also pulled off the train at about 2:30 am for a one hour passport inspection. It was an odd experience. The railway station is French colonial and dimly lit with a few probably 40 watt bulbs. An old large crudely painted but endearing picture of Ho Chi Minh, painted from this famous photo, presides over the station. The Vietnamese border guards were much cooler than the Chinese, and the border crossing felt like a real border crossing.
We got into Hanoi at a little after 5 am. Took a cab to the Metropole hotel where I ended up waiting until nearly 2 pm to get into my room, bone tired. On first inspection, Hanoi is really something.