Hanoi >> Cambodia
The bus came across the bridge into Hanoi and the three of us hopped out before it headed out of town again towards the bus station. We sheltered from the rain before finding a taxi. Negotiating the fare with the driver before we got in, he started by asking for 50,000d but we insisted on 30,000. To my surprise, he had a meter which he switched on that recorded the price at 18,000. I argued that we should only pay 18,000d to see what happened but he stood his ground. To be fair, if the meter had read 50,000 for some reason, I wouldn't have budged from the pre-agreed price either.
Joe and Crystal Trooper checked into a hotel for the night and I left my bag in the luggage room so I didn't have to carry it around for the next few hours until my train. Joe and Crystal had only this one afternoon to see the city before they flew home the next morning. Quickly we went to a restaurant they had seen when passing through the city before. It was actually a collection of fresh food stalls. All of their items were on a single menu which you ordered from. The waiting staff then took your requests off to the relevant stall to get them to cook it for you. Pretty neat. Joe declared it to be the best food he had eaten in his entire five-week holiday. Mine was OK, but I was only eating from the vegetarian options.
Afterwards, I walked them around to the Hoa Lo prison and we said our goodbyes. Given our mutual dislike of the pushy motorbike riders, I rather hope that I will be on an aeroplane that Joe or Crystal are flying one day and that they will greet me with "HellosiraeroplaneaeroplanehowcanIhelpwhereyouwanttogoaeroplaneaeroplaneaeroplane?". I had promised to try to buy them some tickets for the water puppet theatre so I walked around the lake to enquire, but everything for that evening was sold out so I had to go back to their hotel and leave the money they had given me in an envelope at reception.
Needing the toilet, I went back to the hostel I had stayed at last time. I didn't have a card for the security door any more so I had to stand outside for a few minutes pretending to read my guidebook until other guests came along and I could tailgate them to get through. Coming out afterwards, my slightly odd feelings had turned into proper sickness. Something I had eaten at lunch was definitely disagreeing with me. I struggled down to a restaurant I had used before and sat down to kill time on the internet for a couple of hours. The service was terrible insomuch as they gave me a menu but then never asked me what I wanted. This suited me fine though. I was in a dreadful state and even a simple drink would not have done me any favours.
With my time up I went back to the guys' hotel, picked up my bag, and painfully walked over to the train station. The ride down to Saigon was just over thirty hours. I wanted to go in the same tourist class that I had been in before, but this carriage was only attached to the train until the halfway point of Danang. So, I had bought a ticket for this and then an onward ticket in a normal bunk on another train two hours later.
Lying in my compartment of four bunks waiting for departure, I could hear a large group in the corridor trying to find their bed numbers. They were exactly the sort of middle-aged American tourists that your mother warned you about. How hard can it be to read the number on your ticket and then go to that bloody bed? Fortunately, none of them came to my door.
Then, two middle-aged women turned up, peered inside and headed off to find the porter. They kicked up a helluver fuss in the corridor. "I can't possibly travel in there, there's a strange man inside. I'm a married woman!!!" she shrieked. "Well, I ain't budging if someone asks me to move in with the Americans" I thought. In due course, they came in and begrudgingly sat down. Introducing ourselves, they said that they were from South Africa and I confess that my first thought was "You should just be grateful that I'm not black, dear.".
Chatting further, it turned out that they were a bit drunk and had only been hamming up the argument for their own amusement and to see if they might get offered something better. They had booked this from home over the internet and had, some what naively, got completely the wrong end of the stick about the facilities. They thought that they would be in a compartment of just two beds. They had seen the picture of the two washbasins at the end of the corridor and had assumed that this was part of their private room.
They offered to share their drink around with this strange man. When I explained how sick I was, they offered various medical assistance that they had with them, but it was nothing I wasn't already carrying. They were rather good fun, actually.
Making it through the night was no fun though. It was a massive struggle not to throw up and one that I thought I had lost on a few occasions. I think I'm rather good at holding it all in but it occurred to me that this might not always be the best course of action. Rushing to the toilet to be ill in Hanoi the afternoon before might have been unpleasant, but it would have quickly removed the problem from my body and I would probably have been quickly left with nothing worse than an unpleasant after taste in my mouth.
The next morning, I was actually feeling 80% better, to my delighted surprise. When I got off in Danang before lunch, I found that they had no left luggage place at the station so I had to bring my bag with me as I walked a couple of kilometres across the city to the deaf charity restaurant. I was so sweaty when I got there that I had to go to the toilet to try to mop it all off me. But, as fast as I could wipe toilet paper across my chest and back, it all sweated back again. I gave up in the end when I started to fear that I was going to block the toilet with all the paper I was dropping in it.
Not only was I able to get some good lunch here but, like my previous visit, I was able to get some pasta in a takeaway tub to eat on the train later. The deaf waiter who had taken me on his bike to the station last time came over to say hello. When he learnt that I was again due on the train afterwards, he once again insisted on taking me there himself and again refused any money for this. And I again say, what a fantastic chap he is!
My new compartment was sparse but harmless enough. Actually, the bunks were three inches longer than the plush beds, meaning I could just about lie down properly without having to hang my feet over the side. I shared with a father and daughter who seemed very nice but we didn't say anything beyond 'hello' as I arrived and 'goodbye' as we all departed at journey's end.
Just as it had in Hanoi, the train arrived unsociably early at 04:30. Although, just half an hour later as the sun emerged for its day's work, there were already many people out and about including organised aerobics in the park. I started off being choosy about where to stay until I realised that everywhere was full up. Sitting down in a backstreet to consider my options, I spied two westerners emerge from a small place with their luggage. I asked them as they passed whether they would recommend it, which they said they would, so off I went and got a room there. It was a great little guesthouse as it turned out and the people running it were very helpful and friendly. I just wished that things would have worked out a little differently such that I could have stayed there longer.
I had tried to renew my visa when I was in Hanoi. They had initially told me that I could only do this through a tour agency and thus pay them commission for acting as my sponsor. In fact, they even said that when I first applied for my Vietnamese visa from Laos, the embassy there would have telephoned an agency inside the country and paid them the fee. Paying an agency for adding bugger-all value to the process didn't appeal to me so I had pointlessly argued this with the Immigration Police until they told me that the one alternative would be if I held a plane or bus ticket out of the country. In this case, I could deal with the police directly.
I suggested a plan to them whereby I would ride down to Saigon the day before my visa expired, buy a bus ticket to Cambodia for a week or two later, then take it straight to the local branch of the immigration Police. They assured me that this would be no problem. So, this is what I did, even though it meant rushing to Saigon a little quicker than I would ideally have wanted to.
The morning of my arrival, I bought my bus ticket and headed off to see the police. Getting there, they insisted that I had to go through an agency. I persisted and told them what I had been told in Hanoi. A second officer eventually conceded that this was possible but that, basically, he didn't want to. In a certain light, he was right in the position that he took. On the other hand, both of them were rude, shouty and highlighted the way in Vietnam that there are no single set of rules or even laws, it all depends upon the local authorities choose to interpret them. The second man finished by shouting at me how he had wasted fifteen minutes of his lunch break on me. Given that their office shuts for two and a half hours for lunch, I wasn't particularly shedding any tears.
It is worth remembering that all of this was just because I didn't want to pay ten dollars to a tour agency. But, by now I had really had my fill of Vietnam. I hadn't suffered any of the more extreme situations that a number of other people I knew had, but you have to be on twenty four-hour alert to fight the constant barrage of lies and people fighting to win your money. Like so many people before me, it had worn me down and I had to get out.
I walked over to the Cambodian embassy. I expected it to take a few days to secure a visa, meaning that I would first have to extend my Vietnamese visa which would take a few days in itself. As it turned out, they told me that I could just turn up at the border and get one on the spot, so I went back to my hotel, transferred my bus ticket to the following morning and then found somewhere to sit down and eat for the rest of the day.
The border itself must be the easiest border in the world to sneak across. Instead of taking your passport to a desk, they are all collected by a man on the bus during the ride. He takes them to the desk where the police stamp them individually and then try to find the right people in the hall to hand them back. You then walk freely out of the other side of the room, no one checking whether you ever had a passport with you in the first place.
At the Cambodian side of the border, everyone gets off the bus, mills around in a crowd in the same unmonitored kind of way until a policewoman collects all the passports again. Slightly worryingly, we all get back on the bus and simply drive away for a couple of miles down the road. We find somewhere to stop for lunch and by the time we are back on the bus, someone has returned the passports which are handed out. A Cambodian visa had then appeared in mine (although, did they really have to use a staple to attach the entry card?).