Uday k Chakraborty unravels Vietnam while traveling from its southern to the Northern end.
In the Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux travels the world by train, and Vietnam makes a deep impression: “Of all the places the railway had taken me since London, This was the loveliest.” And, one of the most apt symbols of the country’s revival effort is the Unification Express that, in 36 hours, travels from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) all the way to Hanoi. Trains are in decent condition, clattering along at a leisurely speed, allowing passengers to watch a scenic Vietnam rattle by through the windows.
Leisurely Through the Landscape
We boarded our Train Ga Saigon (Ga=station) and occupied two lower cabins of a 4-cabin soft class coupe. During initial couple of hours the train ran parallel to city streets with offices, shops, and mobike infested road traffic forming a moving scene. Quite often it came really close to residential tenements, so close that I could see what was shown in their TV from my train window.
Every sleeper compartment had its own attendant cum ticket checker. Ours was a smartly dressed woman in her early thirties. Before every stop she would alert the passenger about the station ahead and then get down to the station platform to check the incoming passengers. Occasionally she also helped in cleaning the coach. Catering inside train was a strictly non vegetarian affair, but quite healthy and cheap. Accompanied by Vietnamese beer, aptly named Saigon and Hanoi, we enjoyed a great feast while the quaint Vietnamese villages and towns passed by.
Next morning, the train was running mostly through a table-flat countryside, emerald green with rice fields and woodlands, sparkling with the waters of a thousand ponds, rivers and ditches that crisscross the land. Here we saw men and women working on the fields or going about their daily life, many wearing typical conical bamboo hats. We saw local people doing their morning exercise on the platforms that also hosted vendors selling myriad things. From the coastal town of Na Thrang, slightly hilly terrain became visible.
During the journey we tried to refresh our memories about the country’s tumultuous and war-torn past, However, Vietnamese passengers whom we interacted with did not seem to be overburdened with the bitter memories of the past. I noticed that people from Ho Chi Minh City, particularly the younger ones, were generally ignorant or evasive about the Vietnam War. Typically they preferred to discuss more about happenings in the Western world or their recent experiences with American and European people. Northerners, on the other hand, eagerly talked about Vietnam’s past struggles, their culture and appreciation for India.
I took a walk from my carriage right down to the “hard” class sitting coach next to the engine. Mingling with passengers here gave me an introduction to poorer rural and small town Vietnamese. With warm smiles and sign languages, their willingness to talk was quite palpable. When we cuddled the baby on the lap of a pretty young girl, she gave us an intro “mama (my) sister….Mama (from) Hanoi…….Papa (from) Saigon” and went on for some time. Some others invited us to sit with them and offered snacks or fruit to eat and green tea to drink.
Hardly any foreign travelers take the entire 36 – hours stretch in one go, preferring to break journey at popular tourist destinations on the route. Many young western tourists had got down at the sea-side town of Na Thrang. Most other foreigners left at Danang, to proceed to nearby quaint UNESCO heritage coastal town of Hoi An, one of the few places that were not destroyed by the war.
We, on the other hand, became more alert as the train left Danang, as from here onward is the most scenic part of this journey. As the train skirts the coastline, we faced a beautiful sea view as the train slowly wound its way towards Hue. While the train huffed and puffed and screeched its way up the very aptly named Hai Van Pass (Ocean Cloud Pass) standing over the Gulf of Tonkin, I could not take my eyes off the stunning scenery. It was a sheer drop from my window pane right down to the sea! Many beach fronts – some crescent shaped and some straight could be seen below at the foot of the mountains. Everyone, including the locals, crowded the corridor and windows to have a look and take photographs.
The train stoped at Hue for about 10 minutes and we decided to get down and stretch a bit. The narrow platform was full of vendors selling everything from food items to curios to clothing. Here we noticed quite a few Vietnamese in their traditional pajama dress. I remembered that during the American War, this city was completely destroyed. But, Hue is now a serene riverside town overlooked by its Imperial citadel, much favoured by international tourists.
Just after Hue, the train crossed the erstwhile border line that divided the North from the South Vietnam. Next morning the train crossed Ninh Binh, a popular tourist town with many scenic attractions. And, then we noticed distinct loosening up of the passengers from the North. They were talking more among themselves, chatting with their mobiles. I saw one group of older passenger surreptitiously fishing out their big bamboo pipe for a furtive round of smoke (officially prohibited) in the corridor. Indeed, North Vietnamese apparently felt more relaxed near home!
After another couple of hours amidst this mild cacophony, the train chugged in to Hanoi, the political and cultural capital of Vietnam.