Part 2: The night train
Night trains are a special mode of transportation. You don’t get the feeling you are on the road. Laying in one of the cabins, with a reading lamp above your head, in a train cruising in the dark, I usually get a satisfactory warmth and comfort before falling into the most safe and sound sleep, feeling as if I was traveling through space and time, knowing I would wake up to a new place, meet new people, see new things.
We arrived at Sai Gon train station around half past seven in the evening to board the train to Phan Rang. I hadn’t been to this station for ages, and in my memory, it was nothing but faded images blurred in the night lights or breaking dawn. This time was no different. It was already so dark around the time we arrived, and we walked straight inside, looking for empty seats to wait for the train, which would leave in 1 hour. The station was small and cozy, with convenience shops and fast food chains surrounding the waiting area. We took 3 seats next to a Vietlott store – an agency for the lottery company that had caused a fever recently in Vietnam to people dreaming of becoming millionaires overnight. Just like in Cat Thu’s essay where the imported grapes – sweeter and seedless – took up all the market shares of native Ninh Thuan grapes, this new form of mega lottery modeled after the US’s Powerball lottery, had posed a crisis to the traditional lottery form with printed tickets. Much larger prizes, easier to buy, and lot more marketing, Vietlott left other state-owned lottery companies no chance to compete.
Around 8, a middle-aged man walked around the waiting room announcing that our train had arrived at the platform. I remembered someone told me Vietnam had way too much manpower, and wasted on below-minimum-wage jobs, such as having 10 girls at a road toll manually collecting toll fee. Or like this old man. At Penn station in New York City, there was only a digital screen showing which platform we should go to for our train. And yet, Vietnam had a higher unemployment rate than the U.S., after taking into consideration Vietnam’s socialist statistics bureau.
There are 10 trains per day going from Sai Gon station in Ho Chi Minh City to Thap Cham station in Phan Rang. The most suitable one would leave at 9:30 pm and arrive at 6 in the morning the next day, however, during this low season, the railway company had cut down 2 trains, including that 9:30 one. Our train, coded SNT2 (short for Sai Gon – Nha Trang 2) would leave at 8:30 and arrive at 4 the next day, a bit too early for my daily routine. As it was a night train, there was only 1 car with chairs, the remaining 10 cars were cabins with 4 or 6 beds. 4-bed cabins were all sold out about 1 week before our traveling date, and the bottom beds in 6-bed cabins were all sold out by that time as well. Talking about low season!
I felt an adrenaline rush when the train started leaving the station. It had been more than 6 months since I last traveled, the longest period I stayed in one place since 2009. 2016 had been a miserable year, and I hadn’t felt this excited about anything for that much long. 4 days no stress, no work, just the sea, the sun, the vineyards of my dreams!
There were 3 other passengers in our cabin – a married couple occupying the bottom beds with their infant child, and a strong-built man in his late thirties sleeping in the top bed next to me. They all got off at the last station – Nha Trang. The baby would from time to time suddenly burst out a deafening cry, and my aunt would look down from her bed every time, trying to comfort him. The strong-built man, after a short but loving phone call to his kids, fell asleep immediately, snoring like thunder. It was a Friday night, and he must be a father working far from home, who was returning to his family for the weekend. It felt so blue collar here, a mildly warm and sincere atmosphere that I would never sense in the tourist train to Sa Pa, an atmosphere that made my sleep even more peaceful.
The next time I opened my eyes, it was 4 am and mom woke me up, asking “Are we there yet?” Still lost in my sleep, I murmured without any comprehension what I was talking about. 4am, only insomniac brains would be functioning at that time, and the brains of the blue collar workers. The strong built man knelt down from his top bed, telling mom to sleep tight because “We’re not there yet, not until 5.”
“But we’re getting off at Thap Cham, not Nha Trang.” – I suddenly yelped, and probably waking everyone else in the cabin up with my voice.
The bad thing about going on a night train is there was no announcement of the coming stations. And with my talent to sleep through earthquakes and nuclear explosions, missing our station was a totally possible outcome. I rushed down from the top-level bed, waking the baby in the process, and stormed through the carriage to find a conductor. He was sitting on the ground in a corner, discreetly hiding behind the carriage door, looking out into the dark through a window pane. Who would design a window there?
“Did we pass Thap Cham station yet?” – I asked.
“No, it will be in a while.” – He replied after a moment. – “We’ll inform you when we get there. Which cabin are you in?”
“Cabin 4, beds numbered 21, 22, and 23.”
“Got it. Just go back to sleep.” – He nodded.
But I couldn’t. Like a kid excited for her first trip away from home, I stood in the corridor, looking out the window, my aunt standing next to me. Outside was a complete dark dotted by scattered dim lights from time to time, just enough to make out the utterly rural view with just shrubs and arid land. No life could be seen there, no houses, no big trees, even when the train approached the city of Phan Rang. My mind drifted back to a not-so-far-away time, when I traveled on a scooter along the strip of land in central Vietnam to visit my then-boyfriend’s hometown of Quang Tri. Dry wind, sand, and scorching sun, I felt like all my strength was sucked out of my body. And I looked at the skinny, tanned 30-year-old man, covered completely in a mask, a long-sleeved jacket, a thick pair of jeans, and sports shoes, except for his tired eyes, a complicated feeling beat in my chest. It was pity, and love, and admiration, and a sense of responsibility, I just couldn’t explain now.
Around 10 minutes before arrival, 3 of us moved closer to the car door. The train would stop for about 2 minutes. A conductor joined us there, ready to open the door as soon as the train stopped. Talking about redundancy of manpower again.
“Didn’t you need to check our tickets?” – My aunt asked the conductor when we were waiting for the train to slowly crouching into the station. She was always the friendly one, firing up a conversation anywhere, anytime. I guess when we were dating, my ex-boyfriend felt even more comfortable around her than around me.
“No, not at this time of the year. We only check during Tet, when there are too many people traveling. At Tet, we will check 3 times, when you board the train, when you are on the train, and when you arrive at your station. We will check your IDs as well.”
I smiled. Living in a peaceful country had its pluses. I couldn’t get around in the States without showing my passport, not even to go to Walmart for an R-rate DVD.
Around 5 am, the train stopped, 45 minutes later than scheduled. Thap Cham station – the only train station of Ninh Thuan – was tiny, at that time cloaked in sleepiness and emptiness. A handful of taxi drivers waited for us at the gate, fighting to get us on their car – a scene that would definitely scare foreigners.
“Are there still grapes here?” – I asked the taxi driver once we settled in his car. My only care on earth now was to see the legendary vineyards in their renowned beauty, or at least in a form reminiscent of the Google images search.
“I don’t think so. They just trimmed the whole vineyard in Ba Moi, ready for the new season.” – He answered in a surprisingly old-man voice.
Ba Moi is the most famous vineyard in Ninh Thuan, if not in the whole country of Vietnam. Named after its owner – Mr. Ba Moi (literally meaning Mr. Moi who is the 2nd child in the family) – the vineyard is the one-hectare home to 7 different kinds of grapes. Located in a convenient location only 7 kilometers West of the center of Phan Rang City, right on the way to Thap Cham train station, the garden is one of the must-visit places in Ninh Thuan.
Mr. Ba Moi is known as the first grape-grower who proactively contacted wholesale end-users and constantly searched for safer, more efficient cultivation methods. Having an entrepreneurial mind, he recently opened his garden to tourists, who are willing to buy his grapes for 3 times more than his usual wholesalers. His grapes, unlike the imported ones, are a bit sour and have seeds, but many people still prefer them because the sweetness tastes more natural, and lingers longer at the tip of your tongue. Ba Moi grapes are sold in all major supermarket chains throughout Southern Vietnam all year round.
“Maybe they still have grapes in Thai An.” – The driver continued.
Thai An is a small town about 30 kilometers North of Phan Rang City. Around that area is agricultural land, with garlic, onion, asparagus, grapes, green apples, goats, and sheep.
“We’ll pass by Thai An later today.” – I turned to the back seats where my mom and aunt were sitting absent-mindedly. – “By the way, the tour guide will come pick us up at 8 at our hotel.”
As we approached the center of Phan Rang city, more houses lined up along the roads. Despite that, everything looked utterly rural. Houses were small, no landmarks or significant architecture drew our attention, shops and stores were mainly individual-owned, not many national brands could be seen. A very sleepy and quiet city at 5 am.
When we arrived at our hotel – Phung Hung – the receptionist was waiting patiently to open the door for us. The hotel was, again, a family hotel, with small and simple rooms, and a tiny reception area. The receptionist was probably the daughter or some relative of the owner as well. She had a very tanned skin, so tanned that I thought she might be Khmer, not Vietnamese. Her voice was sweet and gentle, with a trace of Central Vietnamese accent.
Quickly settled in our small, low-ceiling 3-bed room, we were immediately disappointed. This couldn’t pass for a “hotel”, but a motel if I was judging generously. There was almost no space to move around. The bathroom, although clean and fresh, was tiny, where 2 people could hardly fit in at one time. There was no fridge, which was a disaster to my mom’s insulin. The air conditioner remote didn’t work and the temperature was stuck at 15 degrees Celsius.
But we didn’t complain much. It was already 6 am when we finished check-in and fixed all the problems. In just one hour, we would leave the room and by that time, we would have thought only about the sea, the sun and the fun, and remembered nothing about the narrow room.