One of my favourite things is travelling the world with my awesome and adventurous husband. This is a piece of life writing that covers just a small snippet of a fabulous tour we took through Vietnam and Cambodia in 2013. Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
It’s a surreal experience to be suddenly up close and personal with another couple who were, until recently, total strangers. Four days into our guided tour – travelling through the beauty and bustle of Vietnam – we pile into the sleeper compartment of the train from Hanoi to Hue. Despite our mature ages we have morphed into giddy schoolchildren, breathless with excitement, and high on adrenaline.
‘Not exactly the Ritz,’ says Frank, the first through the door.
We pile in behind him, and as one we chorus, ‘But it is an adventure!’
The moment of unity as our group mantra hovers in the air makes us laugh, and breaks the ice that is the awkwardness of our situation. The compartment is tiny, and a shock to the system after the spaciousness of sparsely furnished hotel rooms. Can this really be our accommodation? There are four narrow and frightfully short bunk beds, a tiny island of sticky floor, and the meanest folding table that is currently jutting out beneath a grimy window. Four bottles of complimentary water are the only hint that this is actually first class travel. I shudder to think what the passengers in other classes are facing.
All of this is, of course, overwhelmed by an excess of British politeness as we survey our surroundings.
‘You choose. Left or right?’
‘No, no. You choose first.’
Not that options are really important. There is no prime selection to be had. And so the tumble of words swiftly turns into a flurry of activity as we huff and puff, squeezing overly large rucksacks and holdalls into miniscule storage spaces, having first retrieved nightclothes and toothbrushes, paperbacks and contact lens cases.
But finally we are done and the long hours of the overnight journey stretch ahead of us.
‘Whisky,’ Stephen declares, carefully placing a bottle of excellent single malt on the table. His smile carries more than a hint of triumph. ‘I have whisky.’
And suddenly we know it is going to be okay. I climb up to the top bunk. Frank settles himself on the narrow bed below me. Stephen’s wife snags the other bottom bunk. We all holler in delight as the carriage shakes and shudders, wheels screeching their reluctance to begin another long trek across the country. We are on the way. After the crowded streets, the motorbike-crammed roads, the noise and chatter on every pavement, and the energy-sapping humidity of Hanoi, we are hungry for the stately splendour of the Imperial city of Hue.
I peer out of the window but the dirt and the darkness have already stolen the view. The lush beauty of rice paddies, flower meadows and jungle are gone until morning.
Stephen has truly turned magician, conjuring up four plastic tumblers from the depths of his holdall. He splashes a generous measure into each and passes them round.
‘No Hanoi vodka tonight,’ he declares, as though announcing the victory in a competition. The flavourless local vodka has featured most nights, courtesy of our generous tour guide.
The change of liquor is welcome, and a single malt is pure luxury in a country famed for cheap cocktails sold by the bucket! We touch plastic rim to plastic rim, and recite together the Vietnamese equivalent of ‘cheers!’
“Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!”
The first sip of whisky is smooth, warming and sweet. For a moment I imagine the hint of smoky peat has drifted in from the roar of coal and flame at the heart of the train’s engine. But that, of course, is mere romantic dreaming, brought on by the promise of a rail journey through a foreign land – with strangers that, for tonight at least, are transformed into best friends by a taste of home.