It’s a seven-hour overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai on the Yunnan border, starting at 10PM. With a boy who (nominally) sleeps from 8PM to 7AM, and is deservedly a disaster if he doesn’t, this is not an ideal option. Also, on the night train you don’t see anything, apart from the “wooden cabin interior” that is bizarrely advertised by all the tour agencies. But the day train? Eleven hours, starting at 6AM. The manager of our hotel warned: “You will have to sit with the local people.” Concerns about local people cooties aside, an all-day train is also not ideal for a boy needing his stimulation and exercise. The solution: don’t go to Lao Cai.
Not at first, anyway. Take two days, stopping for 24 hours somewhere along the way. Buy a full ticket (they’re cheap), and depending on how far the train falls behind schedule, what the nap situation is looking like, and what you can see from your window, pick a place and get off. Try not to forget the Vietnamese word for “hotel.”
And that’s how we ended up in Mau A, a perfectly nothing-special town on the Red River a little ways past Yen Bai. Nothing special, because there was nothing of obvious interest. Perfect, because it had a basic market to wander and, incredibly, a kid’s playground.
And sometimes the nothing-special, in-between stops are the most memorable. For us, it was:
Getting called over by the work crew to lay a flagstone in the new town square.
Browsing the market with a jovial Korean construction foreman and his Vietnamese counterpart, who helps you find a good pair of coffee filters.
Recieving three big honks from the train conductor peering out his window at Owen and waving (and Owen waving back) as he passed.
At an early breakdast pho enjoyed trackside, shaking hands (and toasting) with the group of nightshift workers at the adjacent table.
Making friends, both small and old, at the playground.