A year ago this month, I set out on a four-week adventure in Southeast Asia.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] traveled with two Vietnam War veterans — John Townsley of North Carolina and Bob Kirkland of California — who had organized many such tours with the goal of helping people still struggling from the war. John, whom I have known since college, once explained to me that the idea was to create good new memories to crowd out bad old ones. I’m not a veteran, but John knows I love history and travel and encouraged me to join them on the trip.
I’m glad I did. Things I saw continually surprised me: seaside casino hotels in Danang, a lovely waterfront along the Perfume River in Hue, and skyscrapers in Hanoi and Saigon (officially the latter is now called Ho Chi Minh City, but locals prefer the old name). We toured battle sites, explored historic temples and palaces, and stayed in luxurious hotels. It was an amazing trip. I hope to go back someday.
However, there was one night, early in the tour, when I wished I were back home in bed.
On the evening of May 23, we boarded a train at Ga Ha Noi, the Hanoi railway station, for an overnight, roughly 400-mile ride south to Dong Ha. Once we’d settled into our four-berth compartment, I began taking cell-phone pictures. My fellow travelers sat on the edges of their bunks and indulged me by mugging for the camera as other passengers wheeled their luggage past our open door.
Before long the train was pulling out of the station. We talked and read awhile, but the car’s rocking soon lulled us to sleep.
About 2 a.m. I awoke with an urge to find the restroom. I pulled on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and, out of habit, pocketed my phone. (Actually, throughout the trip I never used my device as a phone. Bob had one for international calls, so I only used mine to check email and take a few thousand pictures, posting many to Facebook.)
Slipping on my sneakers, I tried to be quiet as I hustled out into the corridor to find the restroom.
All was dandy until, on the stroll back to the compartment, I turned a corner, looked down the hallway, and suddenly realized: I had no idea which room was ours. Upon boarding the train I had blithely followed my buddies to our room, taking no note of its number.
I felt uncertainty bordering on panic.
The next day promised to be a long one. At Dong Ha, we were to meet a couple of tour guides and drive across the country’s mid-section, visiting several battle sites and a former prison near the Laotian border. I dreaded the idea of traveling on little rest.
I considered my options. I had had the presence of mind not to lock our door, but I just couldn’t go down the hall jiggling handles. I imagined taking my best guess and timidly knocking on a door, waking a stranger who first would be confused and then very unhappy about being roused in the middle of the night. Another scenario involved waiting there in the corridor for what — an hour? Two? Sunrise was several hours away.
I leaned against the wall near a corner and gazed glumly out a window, watching the dark countryside roll by. My stomach burned.
Then I walked to a random door and raised my hand. I kid you not, I came within an inch of knocking, but paused. What would I say if a sleepy stranger opened the door, especially if he spoke no English? Defeated, I retreated to my Corner of Gloom.
I have no idea how long I stood there. It could have been five minutes. Or 20.
Then I felt my phone. Would one of the pictures yield a clue to our room? I carefully studied each of the dozen or so images. Sure enough, looking at one of Bob sitting next to that open door I noticed the window across the hall from our room was unique. It had two panes; the others each had just one.
The door handle resisted, so I had to knock and disturb my friends anyway, but after profuse apologies I soon settled back into my bunk and slept hard for a few more hours.
Our compartment, by the way, was next door to the one where I nearly knocked.
I lead a charmed life.