last days

We are back in Ha Noi after catching the surprisingly comfortable new first class sleeper carriage on the night train from Lao Cai. I say surprisingly because all previous trips by long distance train in Viet Nam, even the exclusive Victoria Express, have been uncomfortable because the rolling stock has been of very old design and had poor suspension. Combine this with the old narrow gauge system in Viet Nam and the ride has always been akin to riding an old Minsk motorbike across rough gravel roads. (Hmm… why have I used that analogy I wonder??). But they have got it right with this new rolling stock and at US$19 for a first class sleeper with four berths it’s extremely good value especially as the squat toilets have been replaced with pedestal ones in the communal bathrooms.

We are all a bit tired and a bit scratchy (none more so than me), but seem to have retained enough of a good sense of humour to still be friends at the end of a long and tiring trip which is cool. We have especially enjoyed taking a long hot shower and getting into some clean fresh clothes and I have just finished eating my first hamburger for a long time. The food we have eaten along the way has been nothing short of sensational (more on that later), but I needed a fix of fat and carbohydrate.

The highlight (or lowlight if you like) of our day in the township of Lao Cai was the Boxer Dog bitch who was on heat and had a pack of very amorous male dogs chasing her all over the central square outside the railway station. All night we could hear the males fighting and all day the conquest continued as first one male dominated and then another. I guess it was fitting when finally, late in the afternoon the female and one of her male suitors became painfully stuck together. Ouch!

You may well wonder why I bother to report the above sordid incident of “The Bordertown Town Dogs” but really it is just to highlight that there is not much to do in this part of town where life is governed by the arrival and departures of the twice daily Ha Noi train. We had good clean cheap accommodation above a small Nha Hang (restaurant) and excellent food served by friendly helpful people, but it is in the countryside around Lao Cai that we found real treasure.

As has often happened to us in the past, we found some country to ride through not far from Lao Cai that was arguably the best we have seen and, because we had to be back in time to catch our train, we didn’t have time to pursue fully the rural trails that beckoned.The good thing about that of course is that it gives me a reason to return to this part of the world and spend more time exploring the back trails of this place.

There are several regions that I want to visit again and last night while I was lying awake in the train berth I was trying to figure out why this place has intrigued me so much. It is true to say that in Viet Nam you don’t have to travel far to find a sense of history and this is very evident in the far north. History is reflected in the way in which people design their houses and clothes and in the everyday ways in which they live their lives. By itself that would be enough to keep me wanting to travel back to this part of the world but it is not only that.

The thing is that this part of the country is so complex with its mountain peaks and hidden mountain valleys, all of which have many trails heading off in a myriad of directions that there seems to be unlimited prospects to encourage an enquiring mind to want to see what is around that next bend and up that small trail. I think that is what I find so intriguing about Viet Nam’s north west. That and it’s diversity of cultures and of course the food, have I mentioned how good the food was?