Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Farewell, Hanoi; Hello, Nanning

Christmas Day, 2010 began with another mediocre but filling breakfast at the Luxor Hotel in Hanoi, a place we had come to feel at home in.  Afterwards we walked around the lake in central Hanoi before stopping in a fancy cafe called Little Hanoi just past ten o'clock to escape the sudden strong rain.  Ponchos appeared like magic on the unending stream of motorbike riders passing outside our window while we nibbled on a mid-morning snack of crab rolls and pasta.  It was a relaxing way to spend a Christmas morning, and certainly not traditional by Western standards.

As we anticipated our departure from the city that evening (by train to Nanning, China), our kids reminisced about their favorite Vietnam experiences.  Our son appreciated that the Vietnamese people were all so nice, and our daughter enthused about the whole city of Hanoi and the buffet on the Halong Bay barge.

The rain soon passed, and we crisscrossed many of the streets in the old city, ending up at La Place restaurant near the cathedral in mid-afternoon for a late lunch.  Their food was outstanding. 

Heading back to the hotel on foot, we bargained with street vendors: 50 cents for a face mask; 30 cents for a journal.  The rain presaged a cold snap moving in, and we were glad to reach the Luxor and warm up.

Late in the afternoon a seven-passenger taxi-van (part of our hotel package deal) transported us across the river to the Gia Lam rail station where we waited for our 9:30 PM train for Nanning. 

The Gia Lam train station is small, very depressing, and quite remote.  I had to look hard to be sure the taxi had brought us to the right place.  It's just a half hour from old Hanoi, but the locals on the street stopped to stare at us like they'd never seen a round-eye in the flesh. 

The nearest toilets (out the side and down the street from the station) were filthy and dimly lit.  The stench made me think of some places like it in Malaysia I'd visited. 

The "International Train" waiting room gradually filled up with Vietnamese and Chinese.  We were the sole Westerners. 

A gaggle of twenty-something Chinese girls who spoke pretty good English explained that they were students at a university in Hanoi and going home to China to visit friends and family.  Giggling, they told me that I looked like "Christmas Man" (they meant Santa Claus, of course).  Why? I asked. "Because you are old and fat and have whiskers," they said, smiling deferentially.  I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but finally concluded that old, pudgy, and bearded is OK as long as I am still vertical.  Anyway, those girls left me with a unique Christmas memory.

We were allowed to board at 9:10 PM (9:30 was the scheduled departure).  The train equipment and crew were Chinese.  The five of us (five including our Italian exchange student whose parents had funded her trip with us) found our "soft sleeper" car and were shown our reserved rooms by the car steward. 

That's where I turned out to be the odd man out.  Each soft sleeper compartment has four beds, and there were five of us.  My wife, our two kids, and our Italian exchange student (a girl) filled one entire compartment.  The steward showed me to a bed in the compartment next door. 

Being separated from my family was no problem, as they were just a few feet away.  But I had to share my compartment with a late middle-aged Chinese man who smoked incessantly in his bed despite signage imprecations in several languages stating "NO SMOKING." 

It is no exaggeration to describe my compartment as constantly filled with blue smoke.  The cadaverous Chinese fellow chain-smoked one butt after another, never sleeping.  I barked at him in English and used sign language to demand he snuff out his coffin nails, and he reluctantly complied. But as soon as I'd drift off to sleep, he would light up another fag.

I complained to the steward, but he claimed not to understand English.  He sheepishly shrugged when I pantomimed the problem and pointed inside the compartment where smoke was wafting out the door as though a bonfire was blazing inside.  It was plain that nobody would enforce the no-smoking policy, so I stayed for a long time in the aisle by the window and dozed standing up to avoid the noxious atmosphere of my soft sleeper compartment.

I lost track of time, partly because of the time change at the Vietnamese-Chinese border, but I think it was around 2:00 AM that we reached Dong Dang on the Vietnam frontier with China.  There all passengers had to vacate their cars and enter the dark, stark terminal building for customs and immigration checks.  All passports were taken, and after 45 minutes of inspections of people and luggage, our names were called to collect our documents and bags.  It was by then very cold (the cold snap I mentioned earlier), and we were exhausted. We trundled back to our compartments, and soon the train was crawling slowly to the Chinese side of the border.

It took a surprising 45 minutes of slow running to reach China where we stopped again for another 45 minutes of customs and immigration checks under buzzing fluorescent lights so bright they made my eyes hurt.  It was still cold, and we were all shivering as we stood waiting our turn.

When we were finally allowed to return to the train, I was relieved to find my compartment mate snoring loudly in a deep sleep.  Better covering my ears than my nose and mouth, I thought, and I was soon sleeping hard, too. 

When I awoke at 7:35 AM we were passing some of the most beautiful landscapes in China or anywhere on earth.  Guangxi Province is famous for its terrain, and the southern part near Vietnam is captivating.  I headed for the diner.

Next blog entry: the beautiful morning train ride to Nanning, punctuated by a delicious, if simple, breakfast of noodles in the diner.


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