Saturday, 6 December 2008

¿is this hanoi or havana?

Yesterday morning began with a nail-biting rush-hour taxi-dash through Kunming, trying to reach the right bus station, after misunderstandings with the driver. Was this to be the first calamity of our trip? Will someone be slain? By the skin of our teeth, with only minutes to spare, we pile onto the bus, where high-emergency adrenaline keeps me rigid and palpitating till beyond the outskirts.

Ten hours of trying to see something through misted windows, and watching half a dozen kung-fu movies on tortuous mountain roads, leaves me battered.

We spend our last night on Chinese soil in an archetypally seedy border town ( a lady of the night disturbs my slumbers with a giggling phone call to my room; as she seems to know no English she just continues to giggle until, like 'outraged of Tunbridge Wells', I slam the receiver down.)

Outside flows the Song Hong (Red River), and on the opposite bank is Vietnam.
We cross over on foot in the morning, and within yards everything changes - physiognomies, sights and smells, buildings.

For the first time we travel 'hard-class' (Colin Thubron always does of course), which means 11 and a half hours of plain, unadorned, wooden seats in a marvellously crowded carriage, a chariavari of peddlars and babies and shifting passengers providing constant entertainment.

Our companions are two charming young men from France and Japan, travelling singly, who were on our bus the day before. From Lille and Tokyo. We meet up with them tomorrow by the temple in the lake.

At last we rumble into Hanoi, and it is exactly how I imagine Havana to be: a tropical breeze ruffling the palm trees, beat-up cars, cavalcades of scooters and bikes, lovely faded buildings and crowds of graceful people shimmying through the streets. Tears well up at the thought of the appalling suffering this country has endured.

We go for a quick meal, and then I sit at this keyboard whose lettering is mostly vanished, trying to recall Qwerty, and Mavis Beacon's typing system, for you dear reader!