War Planes and Word Games
My second day in Vietnam started with a hasty departure from the apartment I’d borrowed. My plan, formed the previous evening with the person who usually lived there, was to head to the train station and get a ride to Ninh Binh, which I’d been told is a beautiful and peaceful spot.
I had attempted to book my ticket the previous evening, but 12go.asia doesn’t allow bookings so close to the departure time. I decided that I’d just show up a bit before the 9am departure time and hope for the best, which my friend informed me was extremely optimistic because it’s a popular route. Her foresight proved accurate, and I was informed that the only option available was a sleeper berth on the morning train, which was twice the price of a regular ticket, or wait for the evening service.
Fortunately, having been warned that this might happen, I’d prepared a back-up plan. I opened the Google Maps app and calculated the route to a waypoint I’d set the previous evening – Huu Tiep Lake.
You call this a road?
The route Google presented me would take about 30 minutes to walk – not ideal, but it’s not like I had anything better to do for half the day. The next train didn’t leave until well into the afternoon. My route took me past a local market, which was perhaps best described with that much over-used adjective: “bustling”. It was quite fascinating to watch joints of meat being butchered literally out on the street. It’s a good thing I’m not squeamish!
Once I started getting into the more residential areas of Hanoi, the “roads” that Google Maps was sending me down started getting narrower and narrower. Now, I grew up in and around York in the UK, where there’s a famously narrow street called “The Shambles”. It took its name from the fact that most of the shops there were originally butchers (they’re now mostly jewellers) and they would throw their offals and offcuts into the gutters in the street, creating a shambolic scene. The timber buildings on either side of the narrow lane are so old that they have started to lean over under their own weight, to the point that they nearly touch at the top. Ngõ 158 Ngọc Hà makes The Shambles look like a six-lane highway.
Amazingly, the ludicrously narrow alley in Hanoi is actually used by vehicle traffic. Admittedly, it’s only mopeds, but there are plenty of them zipping up and down between the random assortment of shops (coincidentally including a few butchers) and pedestrians at impressive speeds.
A war, not a country
The reason I had selected Huu Tiep Lake for my time-killing walk around Hanoi was because of what has been sat in the middle of it for what is now over 46 years. On 27th December 1972, a nearby plaque explained, with somewhat ghoulish delight, a Boeing B-52D Stratofortress was hit by a surface-to-air missile fired by the 72nd Battalion, 285th Air Defence Missile Regiment. What was left of the aircraft landed in this lake. Actually, the plaque claims it was a B-52G, but US Air Force records show the only losses for that day as being two B-52Ds.
I have had an interest in military history for most of my life, as previous posts on this blog will show. However, seeing this site reminded me of an extremely poignant quote from Jeremy Clarkson (of all people), at the end of the Top Gear: Vietnam Special. He said: “For many people, Vietnam is a war, not a country.” While I was still less than 24 hours into my experience of the country, the war I had always associated it with was already beginning to leave my mind. Seeing this wreckage didn’t bring the usual fascination. In fact, I felt a little uncomfortable. It felt out of place in a city I already associated with the charming people I had met the previous evening.
There was one other occurrence that seemed a little bizarre to me. While I was sat resting from the long, sweat-inducing walk, a tour guide came by with a couple of American tourists in tow. She was listing statistics from the Vietnam War, proudly proclaiming the number of bombers shot down and aircrew captured. It seemed a little tactless, given who she was speaking to, but I guess it’s true that the victors really do write the history books.
Train > nice > elephant
With my curiosity satisfied and most of my spare time expended, I made my way back to the train station. Along the way, an American guy asked me for directions to the Old Quarter. He’d been depending on a paper map and was walking with supreme confidence in exactly the wrong direction. My sense of direction was good enough to point him the right way, but I double-checked on Google Maps, demonstrating the extremely high value of a local SIM card (or, at the very least, a compass).
I was still a good couple of hours early for the train, so I went across the road to a coffee shop and started writing in my journal. Not long after, a couple of Vietnamese girls sat next to me, running through some very complex-looking paperwork. Some time later, I realised that they were listing what appeared to be a completely random set of English words. They were clearly practising their language skills, so I offered to help them. It’s not like I had anything better to do.
The random words turned out to be a sort of game. One person would write down a word and the other person would have to pick a word that started with the last letter of the previous word. Starting a new sheet of paper, I wrote down “train” (it was rather on my mind). One of the girls responded with “nice”. The other apparently didn’t want to play anymore, so I wrote “elephant” and the game went on. And on. And on. We must have spent a good hour or two at it, filling a full sheet of A4 with unique words.
It ended up being a really fascinating and surprisingly challenging exercise, even for me. You’d be surprised how many words end with ‘e’, and how few words begin with it. It got to the point where I had to actively avoid words ending with it. I was also trying to find the right level of complexity in the words I chose, since her English was really pretty good and I wanted to challenge her and teach her something new. I was a little hampered in this effort by the fact that I’m not great at coming up with simple explanations for complex words. You should try explaining the word “xenophobia” to a Vietnamese girl in words she’s actually likely to understand! I swiftly lost count of the number of words I had to look up on Google Translate…
Should have taken the sleeper
Finally, the time came to bid my new friend a fond farewell and catch my train to Ninh Binh. Having found my seat, I immediately regretted not buying the sleeper berth that morning. Public transport in Southeast Asia is not really designed for someone as tall as me and my knees were already jammed into seat in front when the guy in it decided that he wanted to recline. Fortunately, the pregnant Vietnamese lady sat next to me explained to the guy that his head was basically on my chest and he kindly spent the whole ride with the seat fully up.
I really enjoy riding by train. It’s an infinitely more enjoyable experience than taking a bus, particularly in Asia. I’ve had some really remarkable experiences on trains in Thailand, which I’ll be sharing on here some time soon. The only downside to them is that they are extremely slow and unreliable. As the journey from Hanoi to Ninh Binh is relatively short at just 100 km, the travel time for both buses and trains is roughly the same – about two hours. However, this being my only short journey of my trip around Vietnam, it would end up being the only one I’d take by train.
Stay tuned for my next post, when I’ll pick up from my arrival at Ninh Binh station, as the sun was setting on my second day.