Vietnam by Bike

On the Load

In which a bored Silicon Valley technical writer packs up his 18-speed clunker and finds himself on a freight train to Hanoi

By Andrew X. Pham

The last train of the day rumbled toward the way station as dusk crept out from the Vietnamese jungle. I fought down a surge of panic. I had $45 in my pocket and Hanoi, my destination, lay 1,000 miles due north. A Vietnamese acquaintance had informed me the ticket would cost $30 in U.S. currency, but station officials wanted $120 because I was a foreigner (a Vietnamese- American), the porters wanted $10 for handling my bicycle because it had heavy luggage panniers, and the constable wanted $40 because his salary was only $25 a month. “Passport cua Ong dau?” demanded a dour-faced Vietnamese constable.

I replied in Vietnamese: “I left it in the safe at my hotel in Saigon.” A street-savvy friend had warned me of the brisk black market in Vietnamese-American passports.

“Ho Chi Minh City, not Saigon,” he shot back. “Travel is not permitted without a passport. A photocopy is not acceptable.”

It was hot and dusty inside the decaying station. Rust scabbed the window’s metal grills. Door hinges dangled on doorless frames. Two deputies and four station conductors escorted me to a long bench. The head conductor, a short thick man with graying black hair, lounged behind a desk, one leg cocked on an open drawer. The constable leaned against the desk and eyed my bicycle and the loaded panniers, no doubt appraising their value. The others scowled, not buying my pleas of poverty. No one believed that I’d biked my way up the Pacific Coast from San Francisco and then around Japan, nor that I intended to take the train to Hanoi and bike another 1,100 miles to Saigon.

Three conductors went out to meet the train. Outside, the beggars, vendors and peasants stirred out of the shade onto the hot concrete, buzzing toward the ancient iron monster as it groaned to rest. Healthy beggars abruptly developed the gaits of cripples. Vendors shouted their wares, clawing at the passengers, jabbing sandwiches, bags of peanuts, pouches of sugarcane juice, T-shirts, straw mats, and tawdry gifts through the windows, pleading for a buyer. Peasants scurried, almost frantic to get their baskets of produce aboard before the whistle blew again.

Four laborers hauled pigs individually caged in woven baskets and dropped them on the concrete. The pigs squealed, pissing terror. The stench wafted into the room on a hot breeze and infected me with the animals’ fear.

“May I go now? That’s my train.” I managed a smile and inched to the edge of my seat. They had detained me in this room for two hours, causing me to miss one train already.

“Here, I’ll help you out: $140 US dollars,” said the head honcho.

I carefully explained again that I had only enough for the regular fare. The constable scowled, ordered me to stay in the room and exited, trailing the station manager, cursing the cheapness of foreigners.

Alone, I watched the ceiling boards hang precipitously over my head. I was hungry and weak from a recent bout of stomach flu. Minutes ticked by. The conductor poked his head into the room and asked, “The train’s leaving in two minutes. Changed your mind? Do you want to pay now?”

I lost my composure. “Go through my bags! If I’ve got any money in there, it’s yours!”

He shrugged and left. Two minutes. The whistle sounded twice. The train sighed and lumbered north without me. It was dark. I was practically broke and stranded in the middle of a jungle.

Not for the first time, I cursed myself for picking up the book which, nine months earlier, inspired me to make this trip.

MetroActive Goes Trippin’ . . .

Don’t Miss Saigon: Playing the Pacific Rim by bike requires stamina and good wheels.

Cruising Oblivion: Life aboard a cruise ship is a lesson in scheduling and snoozing.

On the Road: Traveling doesn’t have to mean planes and trains. Automobiles and thumbs can get you pretty far.

Southern Sunshine: Paradise found on Mexico’s tropical beaches.

Romancing the Romanesque: Scouring France in search Crusader ruins.

An Idiot’s Guide to the Universe: How to keep Europeans from thinking you’re completely hopeless.

Queer Across the World: Transcending homophobia in search of another buck.

Packing Heat: Paranoid or not, it’s always a good idea to keep an eye out for danger when you travel.

Virtual World: Armchair travelers can feed their wanderlust on the web.

Like most people who skulk around the travel sections of bookstores, I had neither money nor vacation time. But endless hours sitting at a desk and staring into a computer screen were making my days feel fuzzy around the edges. The weeks collapsed together, nothing to mark their passage. I was bored.

So the cover photo of the author wrestling her burdened bike through the street of a foreign country appealed to me. Something in her sun-bronzed face shouted contained agony. Her brazen expression spoke of the adventure of a lifetime. I bought the book, Miles from Nowhere by Barbara Savage, and read it that night.

The next day I decided to go on a bike tour–not around the world, just around the Pacific Rim: San Francisco to Seattle to Japan to Vietnam. It would take eight months, less if I ran out of funds. I wasn’t a cyclist and I had never been on a bike tour. Ten years had whispered past since I’d been “in the saddle.” My last serious ride ended with an ambulance carting me to the emergency room. Memento: one ugly scalp scar that never fails to make my barber shudder.

Still, it was so simple and irresistibly romantic to start an adventure from my front door with nothing more than a bike. There was nothing to learn. I could quit work and leave instantly! I gave myself 30 days. Any longer, and I feared the novel passion would dissipate.

Deep down, I wanted to know if an ordinary person could chuck it all and be swept up in the moment. I wanted to know if a person who knew nothing about bike touring could swallow his fears and roll out of his front door for the adventure of his life.

The logistics did not look good. My bike was an old entry-level 18-speed hybrid–not an ideal choice for touring, according to published experts. My account balance said I’d be traveling on a disintegrating shoestring budget. I splurged on two bike racks and panniers and stuffed them with my old camping gear. The few friends I told of my plan spewed fear and skepticism, compounding my doubts. By D-Day, I was a mess of nerves, high with adrenaline, sick with uncertainties, knotted with fear.

My brother Tim drove me to the Golden Gate Bridge and handed me a bag of Powerbars, the kind of food I normally avoid religiously. We snapped a few pictures. I mounted my bike and pedaled shakily across the bridge. It was the first time, I realized, my calves pumping, that I’d ridden the bike fully loaded.

Thin strokes of clouds scored a sky blue as a baby blanket. A brisk wind washed across the bridge. I wobbled through the throngs of pedestrians and cyclists with a ready grin for everyone I passed. A lightheadedness buoyed me, as if ambrosia coursed in my veins, intoxicating me with a feeling of rightness, a psychological snapping together of mating parts, a lucid moment of geometrical perfection. “Yes!” I shouted aloud again and again as I raced away from San Francisco.

The euphoria lasted until I cranked up the hills of Highway 1. The bliss dissipated with every merciless incline. My map showed an inland road that meandered some way from the coast and rejoined Highway 1 at Stinson Beach. Confident the Panoramic Road would spare me grueling coastal hills, I went huffing up the grade. I inched up the mountain, pulling over to breathe at every half mile.

At one turn of the road, I looked up and the peak of Mount Tam reared over me. Good God, I thought, I had been climbing the road that led to the highest peak in the area–on my first day! Stupid! Stupid!

That evening, drenched in sweat and shaking with fatigue, I squeaked into Pan Toll State Campground. My knee bled from a fall I’d taken a couple miles back when the road was too steep and I couldn’t uncleat my feet from the pedals fast enough. My odometer read a pathetic 18.7 miles.

The following days and weeks brimmed with excruciating pain. Every part of my body screamed agony. Mounting the saddle the first few mornings was hideous torture. My butt ached, my crotch was raw. My quads were so tight it hurt to crouch. Going over a bump in the road was like having a piece of hot coal jabbed up my groin. Even smiling was hard. I routinely cursed engineers for paving roads over mountains rather than blasting a ravine through anything taller than a mole hill. Still the thrill of the road lured me onward.

I went up the coast from Stinson Beach, then climbed the rolling hills over to Petaluma, zeroing in on the California wine valleys. After dallying in Sonoma and Napa Valley for a week, I pushed north through Mendocino, feeling very high with a tailwind. The road was flat with just enough gentle hills and curves to keep it interesting. It meandered over creeks, through oak forests, around farms with red barns, and along acres upon acres of vineyards that at a glance could have easily been mistaken for the hills of France. Late summer was gorgeous in the California wine country; no wonder the organized bicycle tours were so popular here.

After 400 miles, my muscles became accustomed to the pain of six-hour rides, but my bike started falling apart. The old thing needed a major overhaul that I couldn’t afford. So, just about every day I repaired broken spokes, tightened nuts, adjusted brakes and patched flats. I didn’t know much about bike repair, so the few pages I photocopied out of a bicycle handbook proved invaluable.

Barbara Savage, the author of my inspiration, biked up the Pacific Coast with her husband, Larry, in the late ’70s. I knew 20 years wouldn’t leave things untouched, but I didn’t expect the Pacific Coast bike route to have become the most popular ride in the world. Every year, 60,000 cyclists pedal south from Seattle to San Francisco. Going north against the prevailing wind and conventional wisdom, I met a gamut of cyclists coming from the opposite direction: senior couples on recumbent bikes, teenagers on guided tours, shirtless bodybuilders cruising as though they were on Venice Beach, neon LycraÐclad corporate executive types toting little more than a comprehensive set of gold credit cards, parents with toddlers in carriages, and solo cranky old men on cranky old bikes.

The most bizarre sight materialized while I was grinding up the mountains between the Pacific Coast and Leggett, perhaps the toughest climb on the entire coast route. I was moaning up the grade when a striking woman in her late 50s glided down the mountain. Her long, blonde hair waved behind her, bright halos in the sunlight angling through the trees. Her white blouse billowed in the breeze, beige Bermuda shorts crisp and pressed. A straw basket mounted on her handlebars cradled a bunch of wildflowers. She pedaled in white tennis shoes sans toe clips. Her gloves were strapped on the stem of the handlebar, an expensive helmet dangling from the rear panniers. Two magazines stuck out of the mesh pocket of her pannier: Good Housekeeping and Glamour.

Yes! Bike touring was for everyone, especially on this soul-wrenchingly beautiful coast. The sea girdled the horizon. The tidal pools gleamed turquoise. The white surf marched against the towering gray cliffs. The green pines receded up the brown mountains. The breeze sang with evergreen scents sharpened by a marine tanginess. The coastline stretched a thousand twisting, gorgeous miles.

It wasn’t exactly pristine on the road amid the crazy traffic of lumber trucks and the huge, gaping tracts clear-cut of trees, but there were still many ways of escaping the ugliness. Plenty of trails led off from the road into the woods or out to the beaches. Special state-run parks and campgrounds for hikers and bikers dotted the coast almost every 20 miles, some situated in the few remaining groves of redwoods.

I divided my nights among three types of accommodations: hiker-biker campgrounds, “unauthorized” campsites (i.e. farms, forests, creeks, churches, local parks, isolated beaches, abandoned train stations, large estates), and guest lodgings in the homes of strangers. The hiker-biker campgrounds were great for hot showers and hanging out with other bikers. “Unauthorized” sites, on the other hand, took a little getting used to because they involved some fence-hopping and sneaking around. Then there was the bogyman anxiety: irregular sounds in the night. After the first month, I realized all the bogymen that visited my camp were raccoons, deer and cattle.

The highlights of this leg of the trip were often the people I met along the way, particularly those who welcomed me home for the night. Meeting friendly folks on the road was far easier than I imagined. A loaded bicycle always evoked curiosity. Even when I just stood resting on the side of the road, people would come over and strike up a conversation. I met my hosts and friends in grocery stores, cafes, laundromats, bakeries, parks, sidewalks–just about any public place.

Once a hippie singer gave me a foot massage and a hammock to sleep on for a night. A student gave me dinner and lodging in her basement apartment. A retired CEO couple wined and dined me in their hilltop mansion. A homeless Vietnam vet shared his tequila, a smoke and a campfire with me. A New Age woman put me up in her apartment for a week and fed me homemade biscotti. A recently released patient from a psychiatric facility asked me at knifepoint whether I was a vegetarian, then put me up for the night. There were so many others who invited me into their lives and many more whose invitations I could not accept because I didn’t have enough time. That was the thing about bike touring. There was always something to see just around the bend and the urge to be on the road was as strong as lust.

A certain extravagance about bicycle touring makes it indelible in memory. A strong rhythm permeates it all: the hum of tires on asphalt, the whir of chain and bearings, the pounding of heart and muscles. Physical effort heightens every detail of the landscape. The flavors of bike touring are compellingly rich, the rush addictive.

By the time I got to Vietnam, memories from the West Coast seemed like ancient history and bike touring took on new dimensions.

“Yes, that’s what I said, you idiot!” the station conductor exploded into the phone receiver outside the station.

Squatting on their hams in the dirt, four junior conductors, deep in heated debate, didn’t even look up. They shuffled pebbles along a line drawn in the dirt. The station manager was testing them on train-cargo sequence management.

The conductor howled again: “It left 15 minutes ago, you idiot!”

A roar of curses and victory whoops rolled out from the room behind, where the laborers gambled with the rest of the station staff.

“Yeah, you come out here,” said the man, dripping each word into the receiver. “Come out here and I’ll cut off your balls.”

A baby wailed.

“Your mother!” He hammered the receiver into its cradle, lit a cigarette, and sauntered over to inspect my bike. Finally, his curiosity got the better of him. “Hey!” He turned to me. “Hungry? You want to go for coffee?”

I replied in the affirmative to both. It was the standard “I’d like to be your friend” gesture. After a brief verbal exchange with his boss and the constable, he took me to a kitchen shackÐdiner behind the station. We sat on low bamboo chairs under a thatch awning. A stray dog curled up at my feet and shared his fleas with my ankles.

He ordered each of us a liter of draft beer, rice, pork chops, vegetables and chicken squash soup. He wanted to hear about my travels because he had never been more than 200 miles from his home village. Between telling him my stories, I managed to learn that Hoang was 35, married with three children. He dreamed about faraway places, but his monthly salary amounted to about $30 U.S. Our meal was $2.

“So you really don’t have money?” he asked.

“Forty-five dollars is all I have until I get to the Vietcom Bank in Hanoi.”

He eyed me closely. “Well, there may be another way to get you north. I admire what you’re doing.” He grinned. “Leave it to me. I’ll get you north … eventually.”

It wasn’t the first time that stories of my travel won me an ally. Hoang confirmed my suspicions that the big men believed me when I failed to hock up the cash even when the last train rolled out. He explained that I couldn’t take the passenger train to Hanoi even if he sold me a civilian ticket because I didn’t look sufficiently native. The officials on the train were certain to give me trouble when I presented a civilian ticket. I’d already had several irksome encounters with hungry bureaucrats and policemen, uncooperative because I wouldn’t grease the meetings with bribes.

I spent the night at the station, in a dark room, on a broken divan. The shredded straw mat reeked of stale beer and sweat. The walls teemed with zigzagging geckoes. The air buzzed with crickets; one ricocheted off my forehead. The mosquitoes assaulted my hands and face. Fleas crawled underneath my pant legs and gnawed on my calves. I was raw with bites and crazy with itches.

At last, I gave up on sleep and took a stroll into the village. It was 11pm and nearly everyone was awake. In the shack-diner, a crowd gathered to watch Vietnamese soaps on a 19-inch Sony. Across the street, young men lounged on the verandah of a two-table billiards hall. At midnight, I squatted in the market square at one of the many single-basket food kiosks and ate a late supper of rice porridge cooked in chicken stock and scallions.

In the station rail yard were scores of broken and abandoned passenger cars. Walking down the dark tracks beside the railcars, I heard the snores and pillow-talks of the homeless and beggars who took shelter inside. Down the track from the main platform, beads of flames from vendors’ oil lamps dotted the dark cement islands between the tracks. Jungle sounds underscored muffled distant conversations and laughter.

A beggar boy and a white-haired man squatted on tiny plastic stools next to a girl who sold hot soy milk from a tin pot. They all smiled, inviting me into their circle.

“Try some hot milk,” the boy urged me. He was 10, naked save for a tattered pair of shorts and mismatched rubber thongs tied to his toeless feet.

I ordered a soy-milk eggnog. The girl grinned, then whipped an egg yolk and sugar in a cup briskly for five minutes with a fork and topped it off with a ladle of hot soy milk. It was foamy, sweet and warm.

The grandfather was on his way to see his grandchildren. He made $20 a month as a laborer, so train-hopping was the only way he could travel the 500 miles once every year to visit them. The beggar boy was waiting for a freight train to take him into Phan Thiet, where he planned to panhandle in the morning fish market. He explained that beggars were the only ones who rode the trains and buses for free; it was bad luck to turn beggars away. They all warned me of the “mean cops” who inspected the trains.

I stayed with them until near morning, when the girl’s sister came to relieve her. She had two sisters, and each of them took an eight-hour shift on the basket. Her sister brought a tin pot of soup with udon noodle, chopsticks, spoons and bowls. Yielding the baskets and clay stove to her sister, she sleepily stumbled home with her empty tin pot.

During the night, three freight trains passed through the station, but Hoang couldn’t secure me a passage. One look at me and the cargo supervisors all shook their heads; no one was willing to risk having a foreigner onboard.

At 7am, Hoang managed to press me on the cargo train of a reluctant friend. Hoang shook my hand and whispered, “Good luck. I wish I could go with you. Watch out for the cops.”

Hoang’s friend was the train’s cargo supervisor. He was 37 years old, rail-thin, with boiling-red drinker’s eyes and blackened smoker’s teeth. Tung showed me to the caboose and had my bike stored with the caged pigs and monkeys at the rear. The small car was already packed with 10 “unofficial passengers” and four cargo clerks who took an instant dislike to me because I was “imposed cargo.” I tried to introduce myself several times but received the cold shoulder from everyone.

After the train began to roll, I wondered if I had made a mistake. Red-eyed Tung showed me to a compartment reserved for the cargo clerks. It had six hard bunks, three on each side with just enough standing room in the middle. We sat down on the lower bunks and five other men filed in to join us.

I introduced myself. Redeyes summed up my predicament to his compatriots, who didn’t bother to reciprocate my introduction. In the absence of names, I resorted to nicknaming them. Bugsy was a short fortyish man with pudgy cheeks and two bunny teeth that pinned down his bottom lip. Scarface was a twentysomething punk with a foot-long scar on his face to prove it. Shyboy was a youthful thirtysomething man who spoke little and did most of the work. VC was a brawny and loud soldier, a stout military lifer in his late 40s, returning from one of his frequent joyrides carousing in liberal Saigon. Dealer was a paunchy hustler, card shark and cigarette smuggler.

They conferred and decided that they would take me to Hue for $10, and, perhaps, Hanoi for $20 more. Redeyes wasn’t sure he wanted to risk getting caught transporting a foreigner. They weren’t even supposed to carry luggage, animals or “unofficial” Vietnamese passengers in the caboose.

Redeyes told me to stay in the compartment for my “protection.” A couple of passengers were allowed to come in to talk to me. Most had questions about America and Europe. Some had favors to ask: “My uncle used to send us gifts and money, but he stopped and doesn’t answer our letters. Could you find him for me?”

A young woman named Mai stayed with me for several hours asking questions about the places I had seen. When we approached Mai’s village, she looked out the window at the rice fields and the huts squatting on the mud flats. “Do you really think it’s beautiful?” she asked, taking another hard look at the countryside, trying to fathom what was beautiful about poverty.

I reassured her that it was beautiful in its own way. Mai was 17, but malnutrition gave her the body of a 12-year-old. Her fingers and nails were brown from the dye of the leather factory outside of Saigon where she worked with her older sister. She spoke about her family’s poverty frankly, with no shame and just a touch of sadness that hinted at the Asian way of accepting life.

I asked her if the lifting of the American embargo was a good thing for Vietnam. She didn’t really know, but it couldn’t be bad since her boss was hiring more people, at $1.50 a day, to turn out more leather which would be sent to Korea, then to America. She hoped to get her 14-year-old sister a job at the factory. Sharecropping on poor land wasn’t enough to feed a family of eight.

“I hope they take you all the way to Hanoi,” said Mai as she left to help her sick mother off the train. Unaccustomed to traveling, they were all reeling with motion sickness. I was sick with the disparity between our lives.

This contrast was precisely the reason I’d bike-toured Japan before I flew to Vietnam. Vietnam dreams about America, but it pragmatically yearns to be Japan. To Vietnam, Japan doesn’t embody success, it is success. I wanted to see for myself the third link of this triangle.

When my plane landed in Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, it was dark and rainy. With no sleep in 38 hours, I reassembled my bike and panniers in the bus loading zone at the airport terminal. Then I realized I didn’t have the slightest idea how to get out of the airport, much less find affordable lodging. Besides a few phrases gleaned from a “Learn Japanese” cassette tape, I didn’t speak Japanese. Street signs were useless.

The people at the information booth couldn’t help either. According to one supervisor, foreigners had been seen toting bicycles out of baggage claim but no one had tried to ride out directly from the airport. I was about to be the first fool to try–at 9pm in the rain.

I bit my lips and plunged into traffic, maneuvering between buses and cars all traveling on the left side of the road. Somehow I avoided entering the freeway onramp. A bus nearly ran me down in the narrow lane. Shaking, I pulled over near a parking lot and spotted an old man on a bicycle. I tailed him and shouted questions in Japanese: How do I get out of this airport? Where can I find inexpensive lodging? Where’s the public restroom?

He looked at me as though I were crazy and pedaled harder to get away. I tailed him. It was late. He must be going home. And home certainly couldn’t be in the airport. The sight of me must have terrified him because he finally lost me.

I wandered around for half an hour and found what seemed to be an empty lot in a bamboo grove. But as soon as I set up my tent, a jet thundered overhead. The lot was near the end of the airfield. At 1am the ground shook and the place lit up. I peeked out of my tent and realized my camp was also at the edge of a parking lot for construction vehicles and earth-moving equipment.

This was the beginning of my seven-week tour of Japan. One week was spent marveling at the undercarriage of Tokyo, and I biked away from the largest and densest megalopolis in the world with dark visions and a hacking cough brought on by air pollution. In Yokohama, I camped in the reeds along a river, among the shanties of the Japanese homeless, and drank tea with my hosts. With no definite plans, I made a 1,200-mile loop from Narita to Kyoto and back.

Over and over, Japanese confided to me in near reverent tones, “I want to go to America. I want to see nature. No nature in Japan. Very little.” It was one sentiment that haunted me throughout my tour because it was true: there wasn’t much “nature” left in Japan.

There wasn’t much “nature” left in Vietnam either, I thought, looking out the windows of the caboose in which I was illegally riding. Every bit of land was farmed, seas of rice paddies from horizon to horizon. Land was scarce, so the peasants grazed their cattle near the tracks at their own risk.

Suddenly, a barrage of rocks showered the train. One rock struck the cabin wall near my head and ricocheted into the passage. I ducked beneath the window.

Scarface looked into the cabin at me cowering and laughed. “The cow herders are pissed. Last week we hit one of their cattle that got on the track. The herder wasn’t around so we hacked off enough beef to last us all the way up to Hanoi.”

At dusk, Bugsy escorted me to the front of the caboose where 15 people gathered for dinner. In the light of a single oil lamp, I joined them elbow to elbow, squatting on the rolling floor of the car.

The passengers had cooked a meal of pork stew, steamed vegetables, cabbage soup and rice. The man next to me handed over a large bowl of rice and a pair of bamboo chopsticks. Then, in a gesture of hospitality, everyone within reach put morsels of food into my bowl.

I tried a piece of pork and immediately fought down a fit of retching. Someone hadn’t bothered to shave the pig before butchering it. The prickly hair scraped the roof of my mouth. It felt as though I’d bitten a chunk off a live pig; I could almost hear it squealing in pain. I decided to be a vegetarian for the duration of the passage.

I avoided eating by regaling them with tales of Mexico, America, Europe, Japan, Hong Kong and Indonesia. Sharing a meager meal always seems to bind people on a common level. They believed I wasn’t a snotty foreigner. But they also believed I was a little crazy for doing this trip.

My vegetarianism lasted until 11 the next morning when my caboose mates began their drinking session and demanded my participation.

Redeyes declared, “We are all friends here. Our lives are simple. We don’t have much but we are friends. And friends drink and eat together. Are we your friends?”

He didn’t need to say the rest. They were still debating whether to take me all the way to Hanoi and risk running afoul of the cops at the inspection station just north of Hue. I needed their friendship more than they needed my $20.

At 30 cents a liter of rice wine, friendship went a long way–57 hours to be exact. Scarface, Bugsy, Redeyes, Shyboy, VC, Dealer and I cemented our friendship with murky rice wine. In an alcoholic stupor, I truthfully answered all their questions about the West.

“I heard eating rice makes some Westerners sick.”

“The average salary is $100,000, isn’t it?”

“Do you know O.J. Simpson?”

I also drank and ate all sorts of tidbits that went with cheap liquor: gizzards, snails, liver, goat testicles, fish heads, eel, goat blood pudding, intestines, stomach, pig brain, heart, ox tongue, ox tail, chicken feet, and unrecognizable stuff.

The toilet was a hole in a dark closet. The tracks blurred past beneath. And the thunderous noise of the old train punished a hangover like nothing on this side of Hell. I was groaning in my bunk when the train pulled into the inspection station. Scarface and Bugsy hurried into the cabin carrying luggage, fruit baskets and blankets. They covered me with several blankets, then piled the luggage and the baskets on me.

Bugsy said, “Don’t move. If the cops find you, pretend you’re too sick to talk.” I didn’t need to pretend.

The cops came onboard and began their inspection. I could see them through a hole in the blanket. They went from one end of the caboose to the other. One cop entered my compartment. Redeyes trailed him inside. The cop asked what was in the luggage that covered me. Redeyes said clothes and gifts for his family, then he slipped the cop several folded bills. They went out and I resumed breathing.

We arrived at the Hanoi cargo depot in the evening of the third day. I expressed my heartfelt thanks and said goodbye to everyone. We had a final round of rice wine. VC, Shyboy and Bugsy escorted me to the last barrier: the station police.

VC carried my panniers and walked beside me. Shyboy walked my bike. Bugsy went ahead to scout a path around the cops. We crossed the rail yard, ducked behind the parked trains, and tried to exit the station at the rear gate. The coast was clear. We made a break for it.


Bugsy, who was in uniform, turned to greet the cop coming out of the nearest warehouse. Shyboy hopped on my bike and rode through the gate casually. VC leaned close to me and whispered, “Don’t say anything. Let me take care of everything.”

The cop brushed past Bugsy to me and demanded, “Where is your passport?”

I sat down on a crate and grinned. I’d made it to Hanoi. My bike was safe with Shyboy. I had new friends and 1,100 miles of adventure ahead of me. And no matter how this journey played out, I was glad I had surrendered to a moment of inspired madness so many months ago. As always, travel made me alive with possibilities.

Andrew Pham survived the train station in Hanoi, completed his journey and returned to San Jose at the end of February. He is a regular contributor to Metro, now working on a manuscript about his trip.

From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of Metro

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