My travelling companion and I sat on the edge of the Lao Cai railway platform in northwest Viet Nam sipping a fairly cold local beer before we boarded the night train to Ha Noi. We were tired.
Its not easy getting to and from Sapa. We had just spent an hour and a half in an overloaded minibus careening down a dodgy road from the giddy heights of Sapa to catch this train. And that was only 35kms. Then the train trip takes 10 hours.
The previous two days wed travelled through the Hmong peoples land around Sapa on rented motorcycles. The motorcycle is a way of life in Viet Nam even Hmong women cling to their Honda seats like they cling to their children, the steep slopes and their way of life despite the tourist invasion.
Long ignored by the Chinese, the French and the Vietnamese because of their very remoteness, these people still retain a culture that is as refreshing and mysterious as the mists that quickly and often shroud the terraced mountains on which they live.
Finishing our Bia Ha Noi, we boarded the train and found a fat white man filling our sleeper.
His name, we learned instantly, was Shane an expat New Zealander with a Thai wife and a drinking problem. We also quickly learned that he hates trains, Chinese humour, the Japanese work ethic, the way briefcases wont close properly, the bunks plastic mattress, Uzbekistan beer, Vietnamese workmanship, John Howard (okay thats fair enough), and rice wine of which hed drunk quite a lot. He just never shut up.
Apparently he worked for an international company the exact nature of its business was unclear but that he was a whinger was as obvious as the rolls of fat that wobbled with each train lurch.
His voice irritated me.
Each word was fouling my trip like rubbish at a Hmong waterfall chucked by tourists.
So my companion and I did what any Australian traveller would do when under stress (or not) we went to the drinking car.
It was full of Vietnamese people, drinking, smoking and singing. The carriage was so full of smoke you could hardly see the karaoke screen let alone the no smoking signs.
A Viet family offered my companion and me a seat at their table. The usual conversation followed Where you from? She your daughter?
An old fella with brown teeth offered us a huge bong. Heroin? he asked. Seeing the look on our faces he could contain himself no longer and burst out laughing. Very funny. Of course, the pipe is used for tobacco (at least on trains).
The Hmong are a beautiful people. They create rice paddies on high, sheer slopes. They laugh a lot. But they get little benefit from the tourists who increasingly flock to their lands. In fact, many are reduced to hawking and begging, addicted to the yankee dollar.
After a while my companion (She your wife?) and I thought it safe to return to our sleeper assuming that the fat man would be asleep.
Wrong. The corpulent one was wide awake.
Incredibly, he continued the monologue hed started three hours earlier when wed left.
Distracting him from yet another rant about some crap thing or person, I asked him what he actually did that took him to Sapa.
Proudly (and for the first time positively) he told us he was working for a company thats going to build an expressway all the way from Ha Noi up to Sapa.