Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Hue to Hanoi: letting the train take the strain?

Tired of the tourist soap, in Hue we elected to tackle the next leg of our route by train. We wanted to see a bit of Vietnam other than the tourist fleshpots, and encounter local people rather than Westerners.

Perhaps travelling by train would give us more of a chance of doing this.

We were looking forward to getting back onto the rails again, rather than onto yet another bone-rattling, leg-twisting, ironically-named ‘sleeper bus’.

Trains have always seemed to have more soul about them; fun, friendly, more of an adventure.

The photojournalist Tim Page, who’s rattled along a few Vietnamese railways in his time, puts
this better than me:

"Train travel allows the mind to wander, the eyes not really focusing on the passing countryside, the heady clackety rhythm becoming white noise, a mere sound tapestry to meditate upon."

"On a train you actually have a sense of getting somewhere, denied the traveller sealed in an aluminium tube zooming across the sky.

"There is an intimacy with your fellow voyager, a shared sense of the adventure rather than the common fear of being five miles high in the inexplicable."

So the Saigon - Hanoi train it was. Often termed the ‘reunification express’, the entire journey takes about thirty hours between the two great cities. Former opponents, now united.

Hue’s French-style train station (the ‘Ga Hue’) is a modest-sized building. Its pink paint is peeling off, leaving the impression the last person to paint it came from Le Havre rather than Hue.

Inside the small dusty waiting room, we occupied an entire row of flimsy plastic seats, our enormous bags dwarfing the slender locals hemmed in around them.

I poked my head around the door to glance at the platform: it was uncomfortably quiet, hardly a soul moved, let alone a train.

The scene looked more like one from my childhood bedroom - two platforms with low awnings faced each other across diminutive train tracks, barely lower than the platforms themselves. It was almost like revisiting my boyhood.

Did this Hornby Railways outfit really run all the way up to Hanoi?

Vietnam Railways is hardly enormous. Unlike say their Chinese neighbours, the Vietnamese, the 13th most populous nation on earth, do not enjoy a great spider web of a rail network. Indeed it’s a minor miracle that there’s a railway at all.

It runs the full length of this long land, winding its way along the coast, hemmed in by the high land to the west, battered by typhoons from the east.

During thirty years of war the line experienced more than its fair share of destruction, attracting the unwanted attentions of from Viet Cong guerillas on one side and American B52s on the other.

And even now it still can find itself under attack, running the gauntlet - in some provinces - of unfriendly locals, usually children, who like to let off steam by lobbing the odd rock or two at carriages.

Yet still it runs on, repaired and patched up, a symbol of the dogged determination of the Vietnamese people.

Back in the waiting room this determination was much in demand, as the minutes ticked by and the time dragged well past our designated departure time. Still no train.
The locals seemed unconcerned, dozing in the seats, nonchalantly sipping green tea and gazing at the traffic outside.
Finally, 50 minutes later it was action stations: a guard stirred, a tinny loudspeaker croaked out some kind of announcement and we were allowed onto the platform.

People plus baggage began shuffling onto the platform. Hardly a great swarm of people like you’d have to contend with in China, more a trickle of the unhurried.

A group of men crouched down on the platform, lay a battered old briefcase on its side and immediately started playing cards. They fingered their dirty old dong notes whilst others crowded around, watching the gamblers.

A young couple strolled up and settled down on the bench next to us, resuming the cooing they had been so rudely interrupted from back in the waiting room.

And still no train.

I began to wonder what it could be that was causing such a severe delay. Mexican bandits? The wrong type of snow? Richard Branson?

Finally, an hour later than scheduled, the noise level seemed to pick up, passengers stirred and, to much whistling both from its driver and the sundry guards on the platform, a train appeared, its headlights piercing through the descending gloom.

The dusty green carriages hauled up in front of us, the grimy windows obscuring the interior. We quickly boarded, hauling our bulky loads through the narrow corridors as the rabble pressed up eagerly behind us.

Peering into our cabin we found it already occupied: a large family, big enough to fill a small village stared back at us, their grubby kids sprawled all over the beds. Cue frantic hand signals and pointing at beds and tickets before finally the guard came along and turfed these stubborn train gypsies out.

Although ‘soft sleeper’, our cabin didn’t quite live up to our expectations: it held six beds rather than four, crammed in so that each bed had about two and half foot of space between it and the one above. Grimacing as I adopted a contortionist pose I squeezed my slim frame into a bunk at the top, hauling my pack up behind me.

We’d heard many scare stories about theft on such trains and I’d come prepared, squashing my bags into the tiny cubby hole over the door and securing them up with the bike chain I procured back in a Beijing market.

The chain‘s oily odour - one of Lara’s constant sources of complaint - added to the heavy fug of our narrow confines.

The bare strip lighting, the only light which worked, bore into my retinas and bounced off the soviet-style d├ęcor - a kind of faded bluey-green paint, reminiscent of the old trains I once travelled in Eastern Europe.

There was a jolt, and we started moving: ten hours through the night to the capital.

Our companions turned out to be the cooing young couple from the platform.

We held the usual confused conversation with them that we’d had with all fellow passengers since leaving Europe.
Courtesy of Lara’s point-it book and my natural flair for charades we covered marital status, family and occupation before moving on to the details of our time in Vietnam and our trip as a whole, with the aid of my much-used Michelin map of the world.

We moved on in the dark, crossing the former DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) around the Ben Hai river, lying on the 17th parallel - the dividing line when the North and South fought each other.

I felt the call of nature and sought out a suitable facility. A brown swamp sloshed around the bowl, splashing over the edge onto the floor with every jolt of the train. I tried another: locked. And another: also locked.

I sought out the guard, in his tiny broom cupboard of a cabin and persuaded him to open the one remaining, semi-useable fortress of solitude. No water - I silently thanked the ex-work colleague, a cleanliness obsessive, who had furnished me with handcleaning gel before leaving .

Back in the cabin more passengers joined us at Dong Hai; our lovebirds left us at Vinh, and through it all we fitfully slumbered, rocked gently to sleep by the motion, suddenly woken by a clang or a bang.

A short night, abrupt ended at 5.30am. Raised voices, doors slamming, a knock at our door: we’d arrived. Hanoi.

Alighting on a deserted platform I rubbed my eyes and pulled on my fleece in the cold morning air. The light was just seeping into the sky, revealing the faded yellow hue of the station, another French-style edifice.

I may have been half-asleep but there was no let-up from the touts. A particularly merciless posse awaited us in the station forecourt.Taxi drivers and cyclos, baguette vendors and orange sellers, the descended on us like crows on a sheep's carcass, tugging at our sleeves and searching for our wallets .
Their patter was well-worn: the same old tricks, the same old questions. Again and again.
‘Hey where are going?’, ‘Ello moto?’ (Are these people moonlighting for Motorola?).
In my dazed condition I felt like giving up, chucking a grubby wad of Dong in the air and making a run for it as the mob fought behind us, scrabbling in the dirt for the notes falling like autumn leaves onto the tarmac.
I needed a bed and a wash. I needed some tourist soap.

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