Sunday, 19 February 2012

040 Up the Coast

Vietnam is a long and narrow country, standing up from north to south, with a big head in the north and its feet solidly in the Mekong delta in the south, but with a slim waist in places only 50 kilometre wide. From HoChiMin City in the South, a single track train line runs all the way to the capital Hanoi in the north.
To do the whole 2,000 kilometre distance in one train journey takes around forty hours, but today I am only doing seven of them. The only train that doesn't leave before dawn or arrives deep in the night is, so I am told at the booking office, a hard-seat train. And it really is. We're almost there now and I can't feel my legs anymore, my nerves crushed into oblivion against the wooden park benches in this ancient carriage. Fortunately the train is half empty, so I have room to move around and revive blood circulation. Besides the lack of comfort the ride is actually rather pleasant, I have lots of time to read while the train ambles through the landscape, partially obscured by a metal mesh and a shutter that is, on my window, insistent to stay shut. The shutter is against the sun. The mesh, however, is against rocks that kids sometimes throw at passing-by trains. During this trip is see many rocks and a few kids, but never together. Both the shutter and the mesh do nothing to keep out the unrelenting noise that is the soothing background track of any respectable train journey, but I have Maria Puzo and Akurat to keep me company (the author of the book I'm reading and the band that plays on my headphones). Once I spot the sea at the right, I know we're almost there. In some places the rice fields have made way for rocky wastelands overgrown with cacti on the left, leading up to the modest mountains in the distance.

I get off the train in Phan Rang - Thap Cham, an almost-coastal city, seven kilometre from the sea and home to some famous towers build by the Cham kingdom that once ruled these lands.
My Lonely Planet guide has a map in the front which shows Vietnam, arrows and text balloons informing the traveller which places are deemed most worthy for a visit. Phan Rang is not one of those places, and consequently almost no-one goes here. Walking around looking for a place to stay, I get the impression that today I am the only tourist who made it out here, that in fact not many foreigners come here any day. Wherever I go I am greeted and smiled and waved at. Not only by the dozens of curious kids just returning from school in their characteristic uniforms with white shirts and red triangular neckties that make them look like they all belong to the Soviet Pioneers. Also by their shy mothers picking them up from the school gate. And by the laughing men in the grimy motorbike repair shops I walk past.
I stop to ask for direction at a small shop where a few people stand on the curb. The men laugh but don't apprehend a word I say. One lady understands some English but is so timid that she hides behind her husband's back while she stammers where I need to go.
There are no tourists here, so also no tourist hotels and I spend the night in a slightly dilapidated business hotel. There is a room for karaoke right below mine, but this being a sleepy town, all the talented and less talented singers leave for the safety of their homes before ten in the evening and I can sleep.

The next day I try to explain to the girl at reception that I want to rent a bicycle. After some failed attempts to communicate orally, we resort to communication on paper. She doesn't know how to pronounce the words, although her English is not that bad. And she doesn't understand me when I speak. I guess I have to work on my Vietnamese accent. But on paper she figures out what I want, and five minutes later a guy shows up with a bike, quite possibly his own. The girl draws me a map that should get me to the towers and the sea, and she even writes down which direction to take for Saigon (a mere 200 km away).
After taking a look at the Cham towers I turn towards the coastline. The way there is the most interesting part of the excursion, I stumble upon a true pearl of communist architecture. The boulevard from town to sea is huge, six empty lanes for a handful of motorbikes and a solitary cyclist. I don't see traffic jams happening here any time soon. Halfway through the boulevard gets even wider and folds itself around a big square with a pole proudly flying the Vietnamese flag. On the right side the square is flanked by a pyramid-shaped building that is quite new but would have been considered modern in the 80s. On the left, overlooking the passer-by, stands an enormous concrete statue depicting the workers and farmers of the Republic, designed in the typical Socialist Realism style. No-one is there to admire the spectacle except for a bunch of kids climbing on the statue's stairs and a bored guard shooing them away.

The realization that I really fell off the tourist track settles in when I learn that this city is not connected to the comfortable tour bus network that I nearly grew accustomed to. Instead I will have to present myself the next morning at six at the obscure bus station to see if I can get a place on one of the two daily buses to my next destination (the other bus leaves at the even less acceptable hour of five in the morning).

We go up into the mountains, after we drive around for close to an hour in the city itself to pick up more passengers.
We stop dozens of times to allow shops and traders along the way to stuff the back and roof of the bus with boxes of food and crates of (live) chickens. The road starts of reasonable, but doesn't fulfil it's early promises, and the closer to the hills we get the worse the surface becomes. Every now and then I have to look out of the window to verify that we're still on the road.
Halfway through we make an unscheduled pit stop because one of the front tires is punctured. But on this road that probably happens often, and the guys throw on the spare wheel in a matter of minutes so we can continue our why to Dalat, Vietnam's fabled mountain town.

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