Asia

Traveling to Hanoi – Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Our time in Chiang Mai and in Thailand was drawing to a close. We were planning our move on to Vietnam, and we reviewed our list of desired Thailand “must do” activities. We decided to see a film.

Thailand’s larger cities have some very nice theaters, and offer a variety of seating options that are unknown to audiences in the U.S. One can choose more expensive luxury seats (wider, partially reclining) that are located in the same theater as the regular seats. As in Europe, all theater seats at all price levels are reserved. The high-end theater option is called “Blue Ribbon” service in Bangkok, and “First Class” service in Chiang Mai. We opted to try the First Class service and take in a viewing of the controversial new film American Sniper.

First Class seating occurs in a specially-outfitted First Class theater. A First Class movie ticket cost us about $21US per person. That’s a lot of money in Thailand, and here’s what ya get in Chiang Mai for First Class service:

– Access to a snack bar before the film (we ate spicy chicken curry and several tiny, delicious chicken burgers)
– A seat for the film. The theater is medium-sized, and equipped with approximately 30 luxury padded seats, some of which are on small couches. All of the seats recline.
– A drink and popcorn, which are brought in and served to you at your seat.
– A blanket, in case you get cold during the film.
– Access to a luxury bathroom which includes Japanese super-toilets. These things represent the absolute apex of the earth’s goin’-potty technology.

This was a fun experience, that I would recommend doing once. There was only one other couple in the First Class theater, and they appeared to be of local origin. Then again, it was a matinée. The film was presented in English, with Thai subtitles. American Sniper, by the way, is good but not great. I enjoyed watching it, but I cannot see how it is a nominee for Best Picture, other than the fact that Clint Eastwood made it and he is awesome. A great many interesting-but-difficult story elements, such as veterans’ post traumatic stress, protagonist Chris Kyle’s time assisting injured war veterans, Kyle’s controversial feelings about middle eastern people, and Kyle’s own difficulties re-integrating with his wife and family are presented, but allotted minimal screen time. If some of those things had been dealt with more completely, this might truly be a timely and great film. It’s an important movie, but temper your expectations.

IMG_3849-1A little blue drink, provided as part of our “First Class” movie service. Sadly, it was non-alcoholic.

IMG_3851The seats from which we viewed “American Sniper”.

IMG_3850Buttons on our movie theater’s super-toilet. May I direct your attention to “Cleansing Move”? Also, “Stop”.

The next morning we explored yet another one of Thailand’s many, many fresh food markets. This one was full of fresh produce, meats, and clothing. There are markets selling fresh food on almost every block in the larger cities in Thailand. The larger markets gather hundreds of vendors under a single roof. There are some western-style supermarkets in Thailand (generally Tesco Lotus), but they are significantly outnumbered by the independent vendors. These folks sell what they have each day, bartering and trading what’s left each night with one another. They return the next day with fresh meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables.

IMG_3853Looking down on one of the fresh food markets of Chiang Mai.

IMG_3852

IMG_3857This little woman is literally surrounded in her produce stall at the market. I guess she crawls underneath to arrive at that spot.

We headed to the train station to begin our 24-hour journey from Chiang Mai to Hanoi…from Thailand to Vietnam. This trip involved planes, trains, and automobiles. Our last overnight train trip was a bit of a nightmare, and we had some apprehension about the rail journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.

IMG_3854One the way to the station, we happened to wander by an odd little shop that had comic book-related items, including unlicensed simulation Lego superhero mini figs. It also had a fine collection of used cassettes, including Kansas’ “Audio-Visions”. Alas, this is not their finest cassette, and I did not acquire it.

IMG_3855At the train station in Chiang Mai.

IMG_3856Aboard the night train. The two seats that you see here can be modified to provide a single sleeping berth. A curtain is placed over that little area, and then another bunk is lowered from a hinged shelf above. The ladder that I am holding is used to access the top bunk.

IMG_3887A view from the top bunk. We forgot to take pictures of this, so this photo is one that I found on the internet. This looks pretty like our train, except that our curtains were green. Those feet presumably belong to the unknown photographer. Bex and I were both in bottom bunks, which had windows. This top berth looks a little more claustrophobic.

Despite our worries, the train ride turned out to be fine. It was very pleasant, although the bathrooms were at the other end of the spectrum from those we found in the First Class theater. These toilets were the smelly, squat-to-go sort. Flushing the toilet causes its contents to be deposited directly upon whatever section of track one happens to be traveling above at the time of the flush.

We had opted for a less-expensive fan-cooled car rather than air-conditioned, and this turned out to be a wise choice. Unlike Europeans, the southeast Asians like to crank up the air conditioning when it’s available. I walked through the first class air-conditioned car and I would describe it as frosty. It was full of Korean university students, and everyone up there was wearing long pants and sweatshirts. Meanwhile, we were all perfectly comfortable in second-class, even putting up the windows to reduce the airflow. It was quite pleasant.

The train men came around at about 2100 to convert our seats into sleeping berths. This process involved them converting the lower seats into a berth by extending some hidden panels between the two seats, as well as lowering down a shelf from the top of the railcar to provide the upper berth. Each berth was made into a bed with freshly-cleaned (but very old and somewhat moth-devoured) linens. Each berth was equipped with a numbered curtain (I was in 24). The berths were sufficiently large to sit upright in, as well as to stretch out fully lengthwise. It was quite nice in there, and I managed to get a few hours of sleep.

Before I went to bed, I watched the old POW film Bridge on the River Kwai on my iPad. I had been meaning to watch this movie ever since we had decided to visit the Death Railway museums in Kanchanaburi and Nam Tok. This film, of course, deals with a fictional situation near Kanchanaburi that closely mirrored many actual stories from the construction of the railway. The Kanchanaburi and Hellfire Pass blog posts get into those stories if you are interested.

Somehow, I got through my first 49 years having never seen this classic film, and I was pretty excited about seeing it. Alas, it failed to meet my expectations. It took far too long to tell this story…if this same script were being shot in 2015, this film would be an hour shorter. Something happened around 1967 to speed up movie pacing, and the pace at which stories have been told on film has been increasing ever since. As a result, just about any film made before 1967 seems to move slowly. Watched Dr. No or Goldfinger lately? That scene where Bond walks around with Pussy Galore as a “prisoner” takes absolutely forever. So does Bridge on the River Kwai.

Also, one of the key premises of the film…We are officers! We aren’t going to engage in manual labor alongside our men…the Geneva Convention says that we don’t have to!…doesn’t really hold up in modern times as a noble reason to go to the mat in a game of brinksmanship with your jailer. Maybe it’s a difference in the culture or a difference in the times. Modern sensibilities might look more favorably at the officer who did get into the trenches with his guys in spite of the Geneva convention. Modern sensibilities probably even question the viability of a war rulebook like the Geneva convention. And, of course, the treatment of the soldiers in the film, while shown to be sub-optimal, hardly reflects the brutality and tragedy that we learned about through dozens of firsthand accounts while visiting Nam Tok and Kanchanaburi.

The movie in my berth ended around 0300 and I decided that it would be wise to attempt a couple of hours of shuteye in my little bunk. I slept, awakening around 0630 as the girls in the upper berths above Becci and me exited at Ayutthaya. I dozed in and out for another half an hour before opening up my berth’s curtain. The little food attendant woman was wandering around, and offered me a cup of terrible coffee. I had some. After an interval, the train men came along and converted the berths back to seats. We rode on in the sunshine, arriving in Bangkok around 0930, about an hour after our scheduled arrival time. Train arrival and departure times in Thailand are approximate.

Suspecting this, we had scheduled plenty of time between the arrival of our train the takeoff of our plane. We had wondered what we would do with our extra time in Bangkok; that extra time was now mostly eliminated, and we opted to grab a cab to the airport.

Bangkok’s airport is huge and modern. I was starving, and acquired a tremendous Toblerone bar in one of the many duty free shops on the international concourse. Then we found a restaurant and grabbed a proper meal. Never go to the duty free shop hungry.

Our plane ride to Hanoi on Qatar Airways was great. We left Bangkok on schedule, and we arrived in Hanoi early. Ticket prices were reasonable. The seats offered somewhat more legroom than modern U.S. flights. The staff was polite, and a surprisingly tasty meal was enjoyed. Each headrest in the plane offered a selection of free films that could be watched in flight for no additional charge. Becci watched Guardians of the Galaxy again (two enthusiastic thumbs up); I saw most of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (meh).

You didn’t know this post was gonna turn into a movie review, did ya? Neither did I. I just sit down and start writing.

It occurred to me during this flight that it was similar to other flights that we have taken recently in Asia, Europe, and even South America, and in contrast to flights we have taken recently in the United States. U.S. carriers are getting out-performed in terms of providing customer service to travelers. Crushed, really. Air travel around the world is better…and no more expensive…than the air travel we experience in the U.S. We have traveled on three continents in relative comfort, hosted by nicer people, and with more amenities, relative to our U.S. air travel.

Once we arrived in Hanoi, things started to change a little. Our Thai travel experience…and our world travel experience in general…has been surprisingly smooth and trouble-free up to this point. We experienced a couple of speed bumps in Vietnam.

Everyone reading this remembers the trouble we had trying to get travel visas for Vietnam from the U.S. in October. Our Plan B approach involved getting online visa pre-approval, which then entitled us to apply for and receive tourist visas at the Hanoi airport. We did this, but the process was somewhat mismanaged and inefficient on the ground in Hanoi. Uniformed workers milled around the visa desk like orange-vest guys at a road construction site. In other words, two people worked while five others stood idly and looked looked indifferent. At one point, one of the two folks who were actually working went away for about 15 minutes (on a break?) while no one attended to his queue. There were essentially two things to be done, but none of the customers knew what they were. There were two steps in the process, and zero signs to explain them. One essentially has a 50% chance of guessing correctly and thus being in the correct line for Step 1. Line is a strong word, as there is no device to assist in the formation of a line, nor any indication that a line is what is expected. In brief: the instant visa process is a real goat rope. Two overhead signs and two sets of stantions could fix most of these issues. Having four people actually working would fix the rest.

We got our visas finally, and just in time too. A guy with what appeared to be about 20 of these on-demand visa forms turned his pile in a few moments after we did. We were fortunate to slide in under the wire before that guy.

Once we were visa-ed up, we jumped in the immigration line so we could show ’em to somebody! The long immigration line, ironically, was clogged with the clowns who were waiting for the 20+ visa guy from the visa line. They were trying to save time I guess by being in line just in case, but they were constantly having to explain themselves and let people go past them, because they didn’t yet have visas and thus couldn’t really see the immigration man at the head of the queue. Suggestion: JUST GET OUT OF LINE UNTIL YOU HAVE ALL OF YOUR STUFF. And this group isn’t even American; I suppose that they are French or German (like Americans, these two groups are in our observation stereotypically obnoxious travelers).

Although we’ve had no major snags in our travels to date, we have had tons of small inconveniences. Traveling between countries teaches one a level of patience. We have learned that there are a great many things…most things…that happen which one cannot control. One can influence many things by paying attention and by being prepared, but one cannot control everything. If the line for visas is unorganized, for example, one cannot correct that, one can only watch and learn and act quickly to adapt. If the immigration line is long, one cannot make it shorter. One can only make sure that he has his paperwork ready and his answers prepared for the questions that might be asked.

So, in this spirit we stopped worrying about the delays that we could not control. We had a driver who had been hired to take us from the airport to our lodging in Hanoi. We were very late at this point, and still had luggage to retrieve. Would our driver still be waiting for us? Did our luggage (backpacks) arrive as expected?

It didn’t matter, because we did not control those things. If the driver was waiting, well, that would have been wonderful. But if not, we knew we could hire another. Would our backpacks have arrived and be waiting? We hoped so. But if not, shirts and pants and toiletries and new backpacks could all be purchased in Hanoi.

We arrived at Hanoi airport’s luggage carousels to find surprisingly that after all of this time, the luggage from our flight was just then arriving at the carousel. We generally check our backpacks as luggage when we fly, due to their size. The backpacks travel on airplanes inside lightweight duffel bags that keep the backpack straps safe from the dangers of luggage-loading conveyors, and allow us to install a small lock on them for security purposes. We quickly spotted our two identical packs, riding the luggage carousel right next to each other.

IMG_3889The duffel bag in which Clifford travels. Bertha has a matching bag.

As is our custom, we immediately set about extracting our backpacks from their travel pods. Put ’em on and let’s get the hell outta here!

That didn’t work for me. I noticed immediately that the lock on the outside of my duffel was wrong, and Becci immediately noticed that the big metal ID tag next to the zipper was missing. I checked the name on the airline baggage sticker. “Herrman”, it said.

I placed that bag, that indeed did look identical to mine, back onto the rotating luggage carousel. I should say, it looked identical other than the two items that I just mentioned, that I spotted in the first 15 seconds after I pulled the bag off the carousel. As I waited for a third such “Osprey” duffel to appear, and as I continued to watch Mr. Herrman’s duffel go round and round, unclaimed, I realized what had of course happened.

Herrman was at this point on his merry-but-dull way to Hanoi with my bag, and Becci and I and I our driver were wasting time airport, watching a luggage carousel that could no longer produce my bag. Because my bag, like Elvis, had left the building. We waited, hoping that Herrman would eventually glance at his bag and get his dumb ass back to the airport.

And after a while, that happened. I was overjoyed to be reunited with my backpack, Clifford, and despite my annoyance, we reminded ourselves how lucky we are to be alive, to be healthy, to be with each other, to be here, to be on this trip. How can we angry about a wasted hour, about a found piece of lost baggage?

We found our driver, who had been waiting patiently for us for this whole time. And safely in Hanoi, we began a new chapter in our journey. We began a new chapter in our adventure that is already amazing and unique and lovely in its own way.

But that’s a tale for a different day.

p.s. Unlike in Thailand, they drive on the correct side (right) of the road in Vietnam. Sometimes.

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Categories: Asia, John, Vietnam

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