Friday, February 1, 2008

When Chaos Reigned Supreme

I am about to attempt to describe one of my craziest travel experiences to date. It might be difficult to convey the utter chaos that was surrounding this event so, please, whatever I describe, and whatever you imagine, I want you to then amp up the chaos level by a factor of 10. It was that insane!

Tet (The Chinese Lunar New Year) is fast approaching. To say that Vietnam is chaotic and congested on a normal day would be a slight understatement, but to try to describe the madness that has gripped the country as it prepares for the New Year is just about impossible. People are EVERYWHERE! Most people spend Tet with their families, and thus moving about the country is quite a task as all the bus and train stations are crammed full of people trying to get home in time for the celebrations on February 6th.

Pat and I had decided to flee Sa Pa (and the incessent rain) before we ended up catching pneumonia and the only way to return to Hanoi was by train via Lao Cai. We wandered down to the booking office and tried to purchase seats on the night train back to Hanoi. By this point in time I have adjusted to the fact that most Vietnamese treat travelers like mushrooms (i.e. leave them in the dark and feed them shit), but was super frustrated when the people at the booking station first told us to come back three hours later, then told us they were not selling tickets, then told us they were actually closed for the day (despite the OPEN sign on the door). Thus, we left Sa Pa for Lao Cai without train tickets, hoping that we could simply purchase them at the station. It all went down hill after that.

When we arrived at the train station three hours before our train it looked like a large scale riot was taking place. The amount of people who had some how packed themselves into that station simply defies logic. There were a couple fo lines so Pat and I battled our way into one and waited to buy tickets. About thirty seconds later a group of ticket scalpers comes to inform us that the train is sold out, but they have two seats left (lucky us). We aren't buying it, and continue to wait in line to try to buy seats. People are pushing left and right to cut in line and the police are present in staggering numbers. They are screaming into bullhorns, and pounding the railings with their battons. When they see people cut they try to grab them and move them to the back of the line. It is sheer chaos and Pat and I have to scream at each other just to be heard. All the while the group of scalpers is jeering at us and generally harrassing the shit out of us. After one young woman somehow managed to worm her way in front of me I had had enough. The next person to try to cut was an old woman in her sixties or seventies. She roughly shoved me aside and stepped in front of me. Despite the fact that I am becoming a hardened bastard even I am above hitting an old lady. So, as gently as possible, I put my elbow against her chest and push her back behind me. Yes. I did elbow an old lady. Anyone remember that post about the Guatemalan bus stations? Well it is actually happening now. I'm beating up old women! In my defense I want to say that I was gentle. I did not throw an elbow, I pushed her with my elbow. The next man who tried to cut was not so lucky.

This is one of the few situations I have found myself in since I started this trip where I was actually feeling a bit worried about what was going on. The cops are trying to control the crowd, but there are not enough cops to keep an eye on everything, and about a minute after I had asserted my dominance by elbowing grandma a younger Vietnamese man climbs over the railing and hits me in the neck with the heel of his hand and violently shoves me out of the way. I am not about to let this slide, and using a technique that I developed in mosh pits for self preservation I drop my shoulder under his in order to raise his arm enough to expose his rib cage. With one swift motion I deliver a violent elbow which causes him to hit the railing giving me time to squeeze past him and regain my position in the line. He spins around swearing at me in Vietnamese with a look of sheer anger on his face. Fortunately for me he does not have enough room to throw a punch, but he tries to grab me and push his way back in front of me again. I'm in complete 'stay alive' mode now. I grab him by his jacket, and snarling things I don't dare to repeat here, I shove him against the railing and hold home there, pressing my face into his. Before I know it a cop is stepping in, grabbing the man and ordering him to the back of the queue.

I've made an impression on the people around me and no one tries to cut in line again. Unfortunately this does not help much because when I get to the ticket window the teller informs me that they are sold out of tickets on all three trains tonight and the morning train the following day is also sold out. Without any other options available to us we turn our attention to the touts and purchase two tickets for a slightly inflated price. In hindsight we are quite lucky. For one thing we are alive and back in Hanoi, and second, we only ended up paying about an extra five dollars for the tickets. Another experience I won't soon be forgetting. There seem to be a lot of those on this trip.

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