Saturday, December 22
There was another cockroach in the bathroom when we got out of bed. Water bugs, Ruby calls them. They certainly look like cockroaches, and their proud, unafraid traipsing across the kitchen floor induces screams in the house’s two young children just the same as their smaller North American cousins. Animal lovers though we might be, it met a quick end at the bottom of a sandal.
Owing to the entirely imaginary time constraint that we faced, there was no coffee had that morning. Instead, we packed our things and left our Nha Trang home stay, just a few blocks from the beach, and headed for the train station. Since we were expected at a Buddhist monastery near the end of our trip, we were also sure to fit in a twenty five minute meditation session before we left (recently upgraded from twenty minutes), lest the monks be able to detect our lack of dedication to mindfulness upon our arrival.
We arrived a healthy and unnecessary two hours early to the station. Employees of ticket counters usually speak enough English for us to get by, we’ve learned.
“Two tickets for the Danang train, please.”
“Two ticket, eight o’clock train. Ok.”
Ruby grimaced. “Is the one thirty full?”
The woman behind the counter cocked an eyebrow. Why anyone would take an eight-hour sleeper train during the day was beyond her.
“One thirty, ok. Hard bed, thirty three.”
“No soft bed?” No. “Soft seat?” No. “Ok. Hard bed.”
“Thirty three” meant thirty-three thousand Vietnam Dong, or about $15.
Having secured a ticket, plenty of time, and not having eaten, we set off for a cafe that serves food as well as coffee. Cafes are easy enough to find; there are usually two or three on both sides of the street on any block of any Vietnamese city that we’d visited. Food and coffee at the same time is a Western novelty, though. Undaunted by this knowledge, we embarked on our doomed expedition, finally settling after a mile’s wander on a pho spot that, like many others, had a picture menu above the counter for foreigners to point at.
This restaurant did not have the sort of liberal seating policy to which we Americans are accustomed. We sat at a table that was for cafe only. Once it became clear that we were going to be delivered food from behind the counter, our hostess instructed/pantomimed to us that no, we had to move to the table next to it, which was for dining. This was not a matter over we we could object, it was simply a fact. Ruby’s protestations that she wanted to sit at the original table, which was on the other side of a small brick wall and in view of some plants, was not an expression of a desire of hers, no, it was clear to the hostess that Ruby simply did not understand that it was a cafe table. Defeated, we complied.
Two bowls of seafood pho, two bottled waters, and two teas later, we paid our seven dollars and returned to the square in front of the train station for the coffee we had missed a few hours earlier. The coffee in Vietnam, much like our earlier time constraint, is mostly imaginary. A “black coffee” is perhaps a third actual Robusta coffee beans (you, my wealthy American friend, are used to Arabica beans, which have much fuller flavor and are proportionally more expensive). The rest of the grind is largely a mystery, but one can taste at least the soy, coconut oil, and sugar that have been added to produce a cheap but drinkable beverage.
While there, Ruby responsibly took advantage of the required coffee accompaniment, free wifi, to download some documents to review while on the long journey to Danang. (Our nomadic lifestyle affords plenty of travel time that can be thus taken advantage of: Ruby works her legal magic a few hours a day, more than paying for our travel expenses. Not feeling credulous that day in supernatural powers, even her own, the time on the train was actually spent reviewing clips for the forthcoming year-in-review Gemstone video. Get excited!)
Back at the station, we joined the other Danang-bound travellers waiting for the blessed gates to open. When the light finally cracked from behind those doors, it prompted a stampede into what may have reasonably been assumed to have been the waiting train, given the fervor with which a good spot in line was pursued. However, predictably, we merely were fighting over the right to arrive first at the track, where we were to wait another half an hour for what we learned was a perennially late train.
When it did arrive, we watched as the cars filled with the soft seats and soft beds passed us. The lower-quality cars in the back of the train stopped in front of us moments later. Quickly taking his place at the entrance to the train, the conductor seemed to be very interested in the validity of some tickets, but simply waved us aboard. Tourists rarely try to swindle the railroads, it seems.
A hard bed was, thankfully, not just a plastic shelf, but did in fact include a padded surface, a pillow, and a blanket. Six to a car, though, meant we had to climb. We thought about the ADA as we scrambled into our top berths, using the fold-out footholds and various bars to support ourselves in the attempt.
Half hour into the ride, a uniformed man came through.
“Bạn có thể cảm nhận được tình yêu đêm nay?” he asked the occupants of our cabin. There was a twitter of responses.
“What?” Amethyst asked Ruby.
He looked up at us and saw we were white. “Dinner? Chicken and rice?”
We were wondering if that was a thing that was going to happen.
“Dinner. Yes. Vegetarian? Vegetables? No meat. No ga.” No ga: no chicken. Ruby had used a tenth of her Vietnamese vocabulary.
“Ga? Chicken? Yes, Chicken. Seventy.”
“No. NO ga.”
“Say khong, not no.” Amethyst reminded her that in not every language is the word for “no” the same.
“Khong ga. Khong bo.” No beef.
“Oh! Chicken, beef, tofu.”
“Tofu! Yes. Tofu. Two.”
“Ok. Seventy.” We exchanged our seventy thousand dong (roughly three American dollars), wondered why they didn’t just drop three zeroes, and received two dinner tickets. The official disappeared. We wondered if we would ever see him again, or if the tickets meant anything.
“This is actually pretty nice, maybe we should have taken the night train. We would have been able to actually sleep.” Ruby was right- that had not been the case on the night busses.
“Ok, next time.” Amethyst was, of course, pretty sleepy and already thinking of a nap.
After another hour and a half, a woman appeared at our door.
“Cafe? Banana? Banh?” Coffee, bananas, and bread. These are the available snacks. We weren’t sure if dinner was going to happen or if we’d been swindled. Ruby jumped on the opportunity.
“Banana. Yes. Two? And two coffee. Hot.”
“Hot? Two? Banana?”
“Yes! Thank you.”
The woman disappeared and returned with a bunch of seven four-inch bananas and gave them to us.
“…Oh. Are these… all for us?”
The woman nodded and clearly did not understand.
“Iunno,” Amethyst offered, helpfully.
She returned again with two two-ounce hot coffees in flimsy plastic cups. With straws, of course. The Vietnamese love having extra things to throw away after the purchase of to-go food.
“One hundred.” This was way too much, but Ruby didn’t care enough to argue. She gave her a 500,000 dong bill; we didn’t have anything smaller. The astronomical numbers resist parsing into relatable amounts, but rest assured we were not Americans flashing our extravagant wealth: 500,000 dong is about $22.
Ruby tried to return the excess banana.
“Wha? No.” They were all for us.
As the woman left, Amethyst implored, “What about dinner? Dinner? Hello?” She did not hear or did not want to hear him.
We sipped our coffee (no reason to let those straws go completely to waste), had a couple bananas, and wondered if that was going to be our only sustenance for the evening.
“So I guess when the trains stop, these women hop on, try to sell us stuff, and hop off?”
One of our compartment-mates interrupted us. “Ma trận là gì?” He pointed at his friend’s food. “Ma trận là gì?”
“Oh. Dinner! Yes.”
He opened the compartment door and yelled down the passage, “Tôi đến từ một vùng đất phía dưới!”
Ruby climbed down and scuttled off to find our dinner.
Meanwhile, the man gestured at Amethyst. “Bốn điểm số và bảy mươi năm trước.” He pointed at the floor.
“Bốn điểm số và bảy mươi năm.”He smiled, pointed at Amethyst, and pointed back at the floor.
“I guess I’m supposed to get down? Ok, sure.”
With the grace one might excuse if Amethyst did not have opposable thumbs, he made his way down to the floor. The Gemstones’ Vietnamese compartment mates had pushed up the middle beds so the four of them could sit upright on the lower ones.
“Sit down!” The man was proud of the English phrase. Amethyst complied, and concurrently Ruby returned.
“We’re eating with them!”
“Cool! We got chicken, not tofu.” Ruby said, rolling her eyes.
“Yeah, of course. We tried, though. Pretty hard, actually.”
An interesting and romantic story would be if we then all became friends, swapping stories and learning between cultures. Ah, rolling slowly through the mountains of Vietnam in a wooden boxcar, the faces of our new friends lit by kerosene lamps.
But we couldn’t, of course. As the reader will recall, our Vietnamese vocabulary hardly broke double digits. Instead, for the umpteenth time, a Vietnamese person, frustrated with the ignorance of foreigners, took it upon himself to show us how to eat.
Amethyst had just begun eating his chicken with the chopsticks he had removed from their plastic, leaving the napkin still wrapped. Amethyst is not an Olympic chopsticks athlete, but he was doing a fine job. The Vietnamese man across from him took the plastic wrapper and removed a spoon that was still inside.
“Oh, I didn’t realize-“
The man pantomimes scooping up rice with the spoon and putting it in his mouth.
“Right, yeah, a spoon, got it. Thanks.”
Removing the napkin, he puts it in his lap, then pantomimes cleaning up around the tray of food.
“Oh, a napkin! How novel. Thank you.”
Finally, a toothpick is removed. The man judges that Amethyst surely knows how to use a toothpick, and sets it down on the tray. Not trusting Ruby’s ability to learn except by personal direction, he picks up her spoon.
“Got it, thank you.” Ruby takes the spoon back and laughs.
It is genuinely difficult to tell if the Vietnamese Good Samaritans who so frequently insist in re-teaching us the basic processes of dining are genuinely trying to be helpful, are having a bit of fun, or both. To them, we clearly do not know the very basics, like how much of the plate of greens to put in the hot pot and when, and so we must not know anything about eating. It thus is reasonable to start from the very beginning, as if we were infants.
The train finally pulled into the Danang station. As we left, our new friend, who was continuing farther north, waved at us.
“Bye-bye!” he again addressed us as one would an infant.
“Bye-bye!” we returned.
And indeed, surrounded by a culture that is at once completely foreign to us and also striving in many ways to cater to our interests, we often feel as if we have entered an entirely new world. This life we’ve chosen, we realize, is a dream to many. We feel like we’re still waking up.