Sleepless in SP

From Hanoi to Lao Cai, May 12-13th  2010

I booked my train tickets for Hanoi - Lao Cai through a travel agency I had trusted. I required for a soft seat with Air Condition in SP1 (Hanoi - Lao Cai) and SP2 (Lao Cai - Hanoi). My reason of choosing SP1 was because it arrives earlier than SP3 in Lao Cai. I meant to take a walk round Lao Cai in case there would be some information for my next trip crossing the Chinese boarder in September. My other more important reason of chossing SP2 was because it arrives earlier (than SP4) in Hanoi and I needed to make sure that I got plenty of time to catch my flight to Kuala Lumpur that same morning.

However, the next day, my travel agent told me that he had booked SP3 and SP4 for me. I was startled. "No," I wrote on our YM chat box, "I want SP1 and SP2."

He answered that SP1 & 2 is no good. To that, I did not question it. I was only worried about the schedule. He assured me that I would still have plenty of time to catch my flight. Again, I trusted him with all my heart. Deal. An extra of 40.000 dongs which he said was for the travel agent fee was included to my charge.

When I came to his office to get the tickets, I brought 2 packages of Indonesian shrimp crackers (kerupuk udang) as a token of gratitude for his kindness caring to choose the best for me. I really believed SP3 & 4 was a better.

To my surprise, my seat turned out to be one facing backward and was right in the middle. Half of the seats in 1 carriage faced forward and the other half faces backward. So, being in the middle meant sitting face to face with the opposite passenger and having a table laid in between.

Before I could feel the disappointment, a guy suddenly came and grabbed the collar of the guy sitting on  the opposite row of mine. I understood none of their conversation, but it was obviously something serious. And then came a man in a uniform. He pursued the angry guy to go back to his seat. Not long after, that guy came back. And then another guy came. It looked chaotic to me. But some of the passengers were smiling. Judging from their faces, I reckon that there was no danger to worry about.

The lady next to me seemed to be watching the scene while texting on her mobile phone. The lady across her looked rather irritated. The lady right across me seemed to care no less. I said to myself, if these ladies don't look panicked, then everything must be okay for they understand what the argument is all about.

Just when the train started to move, the guy whose collar was grabbed moved and switched seats with someone else. I don't remember who moved to where. All the 4 passengers on opposite my row turned out to be friends. Some from the middle seat moved to the back seat and some from the back seat moved to the front seat. It was really, really, confusing for me.

At last there were 4 men and 1 lady sitting face to face on the opposite row to mine. The lady was pretty and sexy. The man sitting across her pulled his legs across on her lap with his toes only half an inch from her breast. When everything seemed to be quieting down, one of them pulled something out from his bag. Cards. They started to play in full excitement.

I was of course disturbed by their noise. But what really shocked me was that the sexy lady held a stack of bank notes on the table. What?! Are they gambling?!

I used to travel on trains during my college days and afterward when I worked in Bandung. But, I've never seen people gambling on the train!

A young man in blue uniform passed by. I asked him in English whether I could change seat. He signaled to follow him and so I did. It seemed a long way to go for me. It wasn't just to the next carriage.

The young man slit a door to a cabin (they usually refer this as a "berth"). Apparently, along with me came two other ladies. So we all entered the cabin. It was a cabin with 4 beds. A stack of  two on each side. The two ladies sat on the bed in front of me. Next to me sat the young man. Although the cabin was rather gloomy, I thought, okay, I'll take this, but I have to get my travel bag on the rack above my previous seat.

"I want to get my bag," I said to the young man.

"Bed? Bed," he tapped his hand on the bed.

"No. I want to get my b-a-g."

"Bed, bed," he repeated.

"Any of you speak English?" I asked the ladies sitting in front of me. They shook their head and giggled.

Suddenly an ill feeling struck me when I saw them giggling. Something's not right. I turned my head to the young man next to me. He was still sitting on the bed. His gingerly smile made me even more uncomfortable.

I immediately grabbed the handle door while fearing it was locked. Luckily it wasn't. I walked from carriage to carriage and got back on my previous seat. I was relieved to see that my travel bag looked exactly where it was. The lady next to me was now reading a book while facing the window with her legs pulled up. The gang on the opposite row of mine were still gambling in full gusto.

I sighed on my seat. I was really tired. Physical and emotional. The night before I had to wake up at 1 AM in order to catch my flight from Kuala Lumpur to Hanoi. And then, I had for sure spent a lot of energy touring Hanoi the whole day.

Suddenly I remembered that I hadn't made clear with my travel agency in Sapa that I would arrive in Lao Cai with SP3. I was offered a free pick up from Lao Cai to Sapa, but the time wasn't confirmed yet. So, I emailed my travel agent, Mr. Hung, using my 3G mobile phone although I wasn't sure he would possible read it before I reach Lao Cai. I was worried he had thought I took SP1 which arrives earlier in Lao Cai than SP3. If he thought so and the travel agent couldn't find me, I might not be picked up.

Having the email sent, I checked my inbox for new emails until the signal when out. Viettel seems to have a larger coverage area than Mobifone although Mobifone seems to save more money.

I fell asleep until I heard voices next to my ear. I opened my eyes and turned my head. What? The lady attendant in blue uniform was sitting on a short stool in the alley and joining the gamblers!

The young man in blue uniform passed by once or twice, but his look was as if he had never had any encounter with me.

About half an hour later the gamblers went to sleep, but I never got back my sleep until we arrived in Lao Cai at 5:30 in the morning.

I wondered how could I got such a seat whereas I had booked more than a month in advance. I had thought that the sooner you book, the more chance of good seat you will get. So I texted my had-trusted travel agent. His answer made me more upset. He said it was funny to hear me complain and that it was my own fault not to take a sleeper berth. Phew. Am I talking about a soft seat and a sleeper berth?

Honestly speaking, the broken trust hurts more.

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