Riding the Rails in Vietnam

October 3, 2011

I arrived in Vietnam with a strong sense of purpose: to travel all the way from Hanoi in the north to Saigon in the south by train. The "Reunification Express" covers the 1,070 miles between these two cities, making stops at other points of interest along the way. In terms of comfort, reliability, and scenery, I had little idea of what to expect. But there was one thing I was knew for certain. I was in for an adventure.

The flight from Bangkok to Hanoi was uneventful, unlike what would soon follow. My first venture into the Old Quarter of Hanoi was a full blown sensory assault. Narrow streets were choked with pedestrians, traffic, and commercial activity. People huddled around small plastic tables and cheerily consumed strong-scented exotic foods, oblivious to the seeming chaos enfolding around them. Rows of French colonial buildings, in a picturesque state of decay, were fronted by leafy trees which shaded passersby below. And everywhere I turned, a constant, all-enveloping buzz produced by swarms of scooters that plunged headfirst into busy intersections with impunity.

Just in case you've ever wondered, "what happens when seventy motorbikes, three cars, and two hundred people try to fit into a narrow intersection?", well, go to Hanoi and find your answer!

One thing was apparent from the start: Hanoi was different than anywhere else I had been in Southeast Asia. These streets were so full of life, contained so much to explore, and hid many secrets to discover. I was absolutely enthralled. I hadn't felt such a rush, such a shock to my system that shouted "Adam, you are in a different world now!", since I stepped foot in Yangon, Burma. And one of my initial priorities in Hanoi was to eat a bowl of authentic Vietnamese noodle soup. My first taste of Phở Bò in the land of its origin did not disappoint.

Phở Bò Soup

All over Hanoi, Communist propaganda adorned buildings, waved from flags, emerged from sculpted stone, and was painted onto public walls. The hammer and sickle was prominently displayed alongside the Vietnamese Star, and I could not go for several minutes without spotting an image of Ho Chi Minh, the deceased leader of the Communist revolution.

To say that Ho Chi Minh, or "Uncle Ho" as he is fondly remembered by many locals, is an important figure in Vietnamese history is a colossal understatement. Even though I don't speak Vietnamese, I perfectly understood one song I heard playing on a street corner, where the chorus was literally "Viiiieeetnaaammm, Ho Chiii Miiiinh, Viiiieeetnammm, Ho Chi Miiinnnh!" His portrait is on every single banknote. (Fun fact: one US dollar is worth twenty-one thousand Vietnamese dong. Every time I made a withdrawal from an ATM I became an instant millionaire!) Furthermore, the importance of Ho Chi Minh to the legitimacy of the one-party state is such that his eerily preserved corpse is on display at a specially built mausoleum in Hanoi, in direct contrast to the dying man's wishes!

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Shaking hands with a portrait of "Uncle Ho" inside the Ho Chi Minh Museum

After five memorable days in Hanoi including a side trip to the stunning Halong Bay, it was time to move on south. For around twenty dollars I had booked a first-class ticket on an overnight sleeper train headed to the former imperial capital of Vietnam, Huế. I took a taxi from my guesthouse to the dimly lit Hanoi rail station. A few other Western tourists were lingering in the waiting area, but the majority of passengers would be Vietnamese. When the train arrived, I located my car, lifted my bags inside, and found my compartment. This is what I saw.

It wasn't the Ritz, but it would suffice. Still, if this standard was considered first class, I was glad that I didn't go for second class or lower! 

I had opted out of eating dinner in the city as I assumed that the locomotive would have a dining car. Well, the only nibbles offered on-board turned out to be little more than prepackaged Chinese junk food and instant ramen. While searching for the dining car, I explored the other carriages on the train. The second class sleeper compartments had six beds, stacked three high. Another car had only seats, where passengers would have to spend the night in a far-from supine position. And most surprisingly, one car had wooden benches, which would make for an even less comfortable night than a cushioned seat!  

Stomach growling from hunger, I attempted to fall asleep around midnight. The ride was extremely rickety, and I never got used to the constant jostling nor the intermittent horn blasts triggered by the overactive conductor. When the sun brightly shone through the window at six in the morning, I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and distractedly watched the beautiful green countryside glide past. I had barely slept a wink the whole night. It had been an inauspicious start to my train journey through Vietnam, but I had faith that it would get better.

Lush Grounds of a Royal Tomb in Hué

Huế (pronounced "Hwaay") has deep historical significance in Vietnam as the former seat of the powerful Nguyen dynasty. As a result, there are some interesting archaeological sites to visit, including some beautifully maintained estates built to serve as royal tombs for dead emperors. But what stood out most for me was one specific feature of the modern city. If you cross a particular bridge at rush hour, you'll be treated to a bumper-to-bumper exhibition much like you would back home...except that all of the vehicles are of the two-wheeled variety!

Unlike the marathon overnight journey of two nights' prior, the rail trip to my next destination would last a mere two hours. The stretch between Huế and the city of Danang is known as the most beautiful in the country. I sat in front of a friendly young Vietnamese lady who was eager to practice her English, and she gave me notice when we were about to enter the most picturesque section of the ride. Our train cut through tunnels and chugged up the side of a mountain. We passed through dense foliage and then an opening appeared. A hush fell inside our carriage as everyone turned their gaze to the mesmerizing blue sea that unfolded before us.

The trailing cars of our train snaked behind

I said goodbye to my new friend and joined up with a group of Westerners who shared my destination. We jumped into a minivan and made the quick journey to the neighboring town of Hội An.  

Hội An
Hội An was an important trading center for three centuries, and many Japanese, Chinese, and Dutch merchants settled here. When neighboring Danang eclipsed it in importance, Hội An became a forgotten backwater. Fortunately for us, that means its unique fusion of architectural traditions has been preserved. The charm of wandering its historic streets is somewhat diluted due to an overwhelming number of tourists. But it is still a magical place to explore, especially after the sun goes down and aged balconies become illuminated by the warm glow of paper lanterns.

I departed Hội An and braced myself for another overnight train ride. The transport arrived and I located my compartment. The other three beds inside were occupied by sleeping Vietnamese, with one woman in particular snoring her way through dreamland. I set down my luggage and went to check out the bathroom. The other trains I had been on were not very clean, and this one was no exception. Some of the cars even had squatter toilets, which is not exactly a recipe for sanitary conditions on a gyrating moving object!

I was roused in the early morning by the shouts of attendants passing in the hallway. I assume they were saying "coffee!" or "tea!" but for all I know they were exclaiming "Wake up, lazy fools!" Once again, I had slept sparingly. The others sharing my compartment were quite amused by the groggy foreigner in their midst. When we arrived in the beach city of Nha Trang, I stepped off the train and resolved to take a long nap as soon as I checked into a hotel.

Nha Trang Train Station

Nha Trang is a relatively unremarkable modern city but its sandy coast affords it quite a spectacular setting. I didn't do much in the two days that I spent here, aside from swim in the ocean and join a snorkeling trip to some of the neighboring islands. The view from the top floor balcony of my hotel was one to remember, though!

Coast of Nha Trang

I was now only 255 miles from Saigon, and having learned from prior experience, I elected to get a proper night's rest and take the train in the morning. My carriage was jam-packed with passengers, and everywhere I looked there was someone smiling at me while making a remark containing the word "Gao!" ("Tall!"). The seven hours on-board passed quickly, and we were even fed a nice lunch of soup, rice, pork and vegetables. The movie "Avatar" was shown on TV, and I couldn't help but wonder if some of the Vietnamese around me viewed the film as a metaphor for a modern conflict that took place on their own soil.

After accumulating over one thousand miles and thirty hours of train travel, I finally arrived in Saigon. But little did I know that my adventure in Vietnam was far from complete. In this former US-occupied metropolis, I would confront a stormy legacy that I'd so far avoided deeply contemplating.  


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