Springtime, just before the new century began. As Laos is now the new Cambodia, Vietnam was then the new Thailand, and my girlfriend and I had arrived – with our backpacks – to see what all the fuss was about. The capital Hanoi had dazzled, and we were due to take the train 420 miles down the coast to Hué. We were late, though. We were always late.
Time for a cab, or two haphazard cyclo boys, pedalling frantically. Mine winged a couple of pedestrians en-route, my girlfriend's stole the hat of a passer-by while he turned a corner. In the event, though, it was our train – part of the so-called Reunification Express service that links Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City – that failed to show up on time. So we waited, squatting on the platform, drinking Saigon lager and munching dragon fruit.
We'd decided to go posh: our tickets cost $32 and entitled us to two bunks, one above the other, in soft sleeper class. But the Vietnamese bloke with the loud CD-player who'd picked the berth opposite my girlfriend's was too attentive for her liking. She swapped to a top bunk, which meant a grumpy, elderly guru relocating to the one below mine. We all rattled slowly southwards listening to bad pop music until daybreak brought the trauma of breakfast in bed.
Vietnam's French-colonial/south-east Asian cultural mash-up means baguettes and noodle soup. Sleep-deprived and over-eager, I immediately spilled mine spectacularly, noodle-juice sloshing in torrents on to the wise man below. I mopped up. I apologised profusely, albeit in the wrong language. But there were still several hours of awkwardness to navigate before Hué. And we'd be late to arrive, of course. We were always late.
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