470km by train
45km by bike
The train to Danang was due for departure only after 10 PM and we had to hang around the station for a couple of hours. It gave us the opportunity to watch people on the platform going about their business and witness a Vietnamese phenomenon we have seen all over on our trip…
In Vietnam, QUEUING is a four-letter word. Queuing is a nice idea that is widely practised in many western countries but it is little understood in Vietnam and certainly rare. Western people are famous for queuing. We queue everywhere. We queue just to get into another queue! We queue to ask about where we should queue. We separate queuing people with ropes and guide them with signs. We split queues when they get too big and start them again on somewhere else. We zig-zag queues to accommodate all the queuing people. In some countries like India, people pretend to queue. They form orderly lines until the bus or train arrives, whereupon it all collapses into a mad scrum - but they still queue.
The Vietnamese people do not queue. AT ALL.
They will push and elbow their way to the front and even if another person is in the process of being served by someone behind the counter they will shove they’re hand/ticket/whatever in between and demand attention. They will not wait for others to get out of an elevator before pushing inside. They will squeeze past people trying to exit a doorway - whether it’s a bus a train or a shop.
They do it to foreigners and they do it to their fellow Vietnamese. It doesn’t matter if you are trying to put in fuel at a garage, draw money from an ATM, check-in at the airport (I kid you not), pay in a shop or buy a ticket at a booth - prepare yourselves for the worst. There is no aggression – merely stupendous oblivion and a total lack of respect. This attitude is indicative of the way they drive as well – almost like an extension of the culture if you will (with hooting added).
There is no order on the roads and if you believe someone will give you a gap you will wait until hell freezes over before that happens. Stops and traffic lights are treated as optional and it’s a mad jostle to squeeze past each other at intersections. If the intersection is full – no problem – just hop on the sidewalk and hoot pedestrians out of the way! It’s a peculiar phenomenon and for the semi-law abiding westerner a completely mind-boggling experience.
There are plenty of explanations around as to why this happens as Vietnamese supposedly used to queue a lot during the era of rations and government subsidies 30 years ago. Some say that it’s a “lack of awareness” or perhaps a “lack of self-discipline” or “cultural rebellion against forced queues” or even “the belief that if you are in front your status is better”.. Frankly I reckon it’s mostly due to a lack of consideration and respect for each other. Even the most civilized or disciplined nation won’t work without consideration and respect for fellow citizens. So if you come to Vietnam leave your manners at home and get in their elbows first! If you can’t beat them join them.
Our train arrived on time and we jostled our way into our assigned carriage. Just to find other people in our seats. It proved an arduous but interesting 11 hours. The smell of noodles and talking woke us up just before 6 am. The views from the rolling train were sublime rolling green farmlands and villages passing by. Not a moment too soon we arrived in Danang.
First thing I did was walk down the platform to the goods cars to see if I can spot Jerry. It was with great relief that I saw the familiar silhouette being offloaded next to the train. Phew..
We exited the station and near the goods area found a Café serving coffee. Lisa was left with our kit while I went to find the Dispatch Manager. When the bike eventually arrived I first had to cough up a ‘release fee’ (umm ok) after which they promptly started unwrapping.
As soon as the first piece of cardboard came off I spotted the broken clutch lever taped to the seat. You have got to be kidding me! Ranting and raving only got me blank stares and I eventually gave up and wheeled the bike to the Café where Lisa was waiting.
Fun fact – before putting a motorbike on a train in Vietnam by law it needs to be drained of all fuel. As you need to actually ride it there you can’t exactly arrive with an empty tank. So the station workers do you the favour of emptying the tank for you – in a communal container - for free. When you arrive at your destination you have a problem. Your bike’s tank is empty. But fear not! Someone (guess who) will sell you the content of a 750ml bottle at three times the price of a litre of petrol! Failing that you’re welcome to push your bike down the street in search of a fuel station. But I digress.
With nobody speaking a word of English, one station guy eventually grabs me by the arm and lead me down the road; pointing to a small, dark, grease and oil covered Sua Xe (something like our local garage mechanic back home with a little less equipment and a lot more ingenuity). Usually, I can easily find rapport one-on-one with the Vietnamese but this time it was different. A friendly chubby chap was sitting on the greasy floor surrounded by parts from a starter motor he was umm… fixing. Another guy (who appeared to be the boss man) was less taken by my presence and gave me some angry stares. Through the magic of sign language, we agree that they will fix/replace (who knows?) the broken lever for the princely sum of 100 000 VD. (About ZAR 45 or USD 4).
The boss man one jumped on a scooter with the broken lever in hand and disappeared down the street. Sheepishly I hung around - not sure what exactly was going to happen next. After about 20 minutes I gave up and walked back to the station to tell Lisa what’s going on. She just had to sit tight until I can get the bike running again.
Upon my return, the boss man came back – wielding a decidedly 2nd hand and slightly rusty clutch lever. Not one to be put off by such minor details and excited at the prospect of getting back on the road I walked closer to express my enthusiasm as he fiddled with the clutch cable. I was met with furious gesturing towards a stool in the far corner and what I figures were the Vietnamese version of ‘shoo-ing’. Clearly the guy didn’t appreciate me watching his every move. Which is understandable but these guys aren’t exactly known for their finesse.
In fact, another peculiarity of the Vietnamese is their ‘there I fixed it’ mentality. You know, if it works it works no matter how you get it to work! Or what it looks like. The lack of attention to detail is rather astounding and visible almost everywhere in Vietnam. The ‘new’ lever didn’t fit but it didn’t seem to be a problem as Mr Angry immediately started adjusting it with a hacksaw and old file. With the file clearly not producing the desired results he proceeded to rub the lever vigorously on the sidewalk. When he brought out some more tools – a hammer and vice grip – I really started to worry. After what felt like hours he grunted and motioned me over. The lever was so stiff that Hulk himself would’ve had a hard time changing gears but I faked a smile, paid and hurriedly pushed the bike away before he came back for more hammering.
Back at the Café I got my tools out and adjusted the clutch as best as possible and we finally got out of Danang. Phew.
Danang’s a major port city and the largest city of the South Central Vietnamese Coast. It is located close to a number of UNESCO heritage sites and tourism is a big part of its industry. We didn’t plan on staying over but instead drove about 50km south to the Old Town of Hoi An.
Once over the bridge, we followed a wide dual carriage road out of the city and soon saw “Marble Mountains” or Ngu Hanh Son (Five elements mountains). It’s a cluster of five marble and limestone hills just south of Da Nang. The five 'mountains' are named after the five elements: Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth. All of the mountains have cave entrances and numerous tunnels, and it is possible to climb to the summit of one of the peaks. Several Buddhist sanctuaries can be found within the mountains, making this a famous tourist destination.
After our delayed departure from Danang, lack of sleep we weren’t up to much sightseeing and settled for stopping next to the road below one mountain where various artisans produce marble and limestone sculpture and artwork. Direct rock extraction from the mountains is banned and all materials are now being transported from quarries further away.