Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Overnight train to Hanoi pulls into Danang Train Station

Russia has the Trans-Siberian Railway. Europe has the Orient Express. And Vietnam? They have the Reunification Express, and it’s my ticket to the north.

There is just something about train travel. It’s romantic really. There’s the anticipation everyone feels as they wait in the station. The train pulls in, horns blaring. Departing passengers pull luggage across the platform. Relatives have emotional goodbyes. Everyone loads up, climbing stairs into passenger cars. Everyone searches for their berth, and settles into a comfortable room. The locomotive whistles, the train lurches, and you’re on your way. I see all these steps as I begin my journey on the overnight train.

“Hey you,” says a brusque Vietnamese passenger. “Where you go? Hue?

Vietnamese passengers say their goodbyes, and board the train
“No,” I answer, "Hanoi."

I’ve begun my trip by boarding the train in the coastal city of Danang. We stop in Hue before continuing north, across the old DeMilitarised Zone. There are later stops in Dong Hoi and Vinh, but I’m hoping I’ll be asleep by then. After a 14 hour journey, I should arrive in Hanoi in the early morning.

As the train slowly rolls out of Danang, I peer out the window, and see the Vietnamese version of a railroad crossing. They don’t have automatic crossing gates, here they use sliding red and white fences, which are pulled across manually by railway staff. At first, I just think this is an easy way to keep some government workers employed, as crossing guards. But then I recall the recklessness of Vietnamese motorbike drivers. This is probably a much safer way to keep them off of the tracks.

Our train has 13 passenger cars, plus the locomotive. As I’m settling into my room, I kick away a small roach as it’s about to take shelter in my luggage. Well, I wasn’t expecting first class accomodation. My room is a soft sleeper, meaning it has four beds. This is the best they have on the train, and it cost me all of 25 dollars. Most Vietnamese passengers are packed into the cheaper, hard sleeper rooms, meaning they have six beds packed in together.

The room’s interior has light blue walls, with bright red bunk beds. Thankfully, there’s air conditioning. The best part of all: there's a large window with a great view of the passing countryside. As we rumble along north of Danang, the scenery becomes stunning.

Our train chugs up the coast, giving us fantastic views of the South China Sea
It’s a good day for a train trip, the weather is clear and the train is on time. Soon we're up in the mountains; beyond I can see all the way down to the South China Sea coast. The slopes below us are blanketed with green foliage. For this stretch of the journey, I see no signs of civilization. There are only mountains, deserted beach, and the vast ocean. Far below, ocean waves wash over a platform of solid rock. As each wave crashes across the bedrock, it leaves a long blanket of white water behind. As I watch the surf, I’m instantly enveloped in darkness; we’ve entered a tunnel. There are a few tunnels along this section, as we make our way towards the Hai Van pass, which means ‘Pass of the Clouds’.

This railway was first built by the French way back in the 19th century during the colonial era. As we head through the mountains, we pass an old abandoned French Army outpost, built to protect the short railroad trestle we're on. Back during the war years, the railroad was attacked and vandalized often by the various nationalist and communist groups. Trains were derailed numerous times.

But those days are gone now, and the trains have run peacefully for years. Continuing along the coast, railway staff bring around a snack cart, with coffee, soft drinks and beer. They also hand out a dinner menu. I order chicken and white rice, which arrives later in a styrofoam container. Even with the soy sauce provided, it’s pretty bland. I don’t know it yet, but I’ll be surprised with a far better dinner later on.

Abandoned military post once protected the railway
As my room has four beds, there are two other Vietnamese men sharing it with me. One is fashionably dressed, and is assigned to the bunk above me. He climbs on up, and soon is snoring quietly. The other portly passenger sits on the bunk across from me. He speaks a fair amount of English, and I discover that he works for the Vietnamese Railway I'm now riding. I’m fortunate to have a roommate who can tell me more about the Reunification Express, at least as far as what a government employee is allowed to tell a foreigner.

After a couple hours, we pull into the old capital of Hue. This was the end of the line back during the war years, since communist sabotage kept the trains from going any further north. Back in those days, the locomotives didn’t run in front. The engineers would push a flat car out in front of the locomotive, in order to trip mines or booby traps that may have been laid on the tracks.

As the train departs Hue, we are joined in our little cabin by an Australian. He’s a former finance man who just finished working in London. The Aussie decided to tour Vietnam on his way home.

As often happens on trains, I am quickly chatting away with my new cabin mates. It’s one of those times when the talk flows freely, and after a while I realize that nobody has gotten around to introducing themselves. Nobody knows anyone else’s name, but that doesn’t really matter. We're enjoying each other’s company, knowing that after arrival, we probably won’t see each other again. We joke and chat, pausing to admire the scenery out the window. All the while the train rumbles along, and time happily passes by.

The train's rather spartan bathroom facilities
Later I step out in the passageway for a look around, and I find that our toilets are rather spartan. They are the basic squatty-potty style which is so common in Asia. When the toilet is flushed, it seems to empty right out onto the train tracks below.

On my way back, I spot the neighbors. To one side are two rooms inhabited by a group of 50 somethings from New Zealand. They have water on the floor of one room, so they've all crowded into their second room next to ours. They are already having drinks. Our other neighbors are a couple of Russians, and a woman from Switzerland. They are a good deal quieter, since the Kiwis are making enough noise for everybody.

Stepping back in my room, the Aussie and I start questioning our Vietnamese rail expert, the Train Man. He’s worked repairing the rails for many years. He says the train’s top speed is 90 km per hour, but operationally it only goes about 70.

Old bomb craters are next to the train tracks near the old DeMilitarized Zone
He boasts to us that Japan is going to help Vietnam build a new high speed railway, and laughingly says that it will take about 20 years. With the slow pace of government projects in Vietnam, it may take even longer than that.

As the miles go by, and conversation drifts off, I start listening to the sound of the train itself. The rhythm and movements change as we chug along. The sounds below shift from a clackety-clack, to a whooshing noise, and then rises and lowers in pitch. If I listen to it for a while, it’s rather hypnotic. The train goes from a bumpy ride, to swaying from side to side, but its comfortable enough.

Leaving the mountains, we gradually descend down to the coast. Our picture window is filled with palm trees, and fishing villages with wooden boats. The skies darken, and rain starts. It occurs to me that
A 'hard sleeper' berth
since I’m not in a car or bus, I don’t have to worry about slick roads on this trip. As we approach the old DMZ, I see perfectly round little ponds, that are close to the train tracks. These are old bomb craters from the American war years, that later filled with water.

As we continue, Train Man tells us more about his past. He’s from a small village in Vietnam. He was a young teenager when the US war ended, so he didn’t have to fight in that conflict. However, he did have to fight in the next war, in Cambodia. He served with the Vietnamese Army there from 1981 – 1985, fighting the Khmer Rouge. He didn’t like it there at all.

“I went over there with five friends,” he told me. “Two came back.”

Train man tells us more about the railway. After the American war finished in 1975, the  north – south line was quickly repaired, and reopened in 1976. Given the enormous amount of destruction to the rail lines, that was a major accomplishment. Back then, the trains were far slower than they are now. When the full line started running again, it took 56 hours to travel from Saigon to Hanoi. Today, it’s down to 30 hours for the same trip.

Our other Vietnamese cabin mate doesn’t speak English, so Train Man translates for him. “He in Vietnam People’s Army. He along the Lao border. He General.”

Dinner fit for a king: a whole chicken, and vodka (served from a plastic bottle!)
He doesn’t quite look like a general to me though. He’s wearing civilian clothes, and appears to be in his low 40’s, which seems rather young for a general. Perhaps Train Man didn’t translate correctly. Still, he’s very well dressed. He must be an officer.

We arrive in Dong Hoi station, and Train Man disappears for a few minutes. He returns with a whole cooked chicken, and a bottle of Vietnamese vodka. He announces he’s going to share it with all of his cabin mates. What a perfect time for Vietnamese hospitality.

A small pop-up table is lifted between the bunkbeds, and a newspaper becomes our tablecloth. We don’t need a dining car tonight. As the kilometers pass by, the chicken is devoured by all, and the bottle of vodka is gradually emptied. It soon becomes apparent that the General has a low tolerance for
A stroll through the carriages, before bed
alcohol. He’s gone from being quiet, to a laughing machine.

The conversation shifts from the basic, to the bizarre. The Aussie asks Train Man, “Have you ever eaten dog?”

“Yes,” Train Man answers.

“You like eating dog?” he continues.

“Yes,” Train Man answers again.

“I would like to try eating dog,” the Aussie announces. I don’t mind trying new foods, but the thought of eating dog meat will never appeal to me.

I take a final walk between cars to stretch my legs, and return to the room as the night winds down. Before long, I kick off my shoes, and get ready for bed. Train Man is already stretched out, and the tipsy General is in his bunk above me. Unfolding my blanket, I lay down to sleep. Outside our window in the night, dark silhouettes of trees are flowing by.

I can hear the Kiwis still laughing next door. They’ll be partying for a while yet tonight. The Russians and the Swiss on the other side are silent. The sound of the train has changed now to a low, rolling rumble.

It’s been a great trip. I haven’t had many folks to chat with the past few days, so I’ve enjoyed the diverse company. The conditions aren’t world class, but I wasn’t expecting them to be. I would rather be here than in a five star hotel. I’ve shared the night with a group of new and interesting people, having a great time as the miles went by.

I’m feeling content. Sleep reaches me.

In the morning, I’m in Hanoi. 

No comments:

Post a Comment