By Ira G. Barrows
Standing on the platform at the railroad station in Nha Trang, surrounded by suitcases, hand baggage and a paper shopping bag for the overflow, I watched the arriving train as it slowed to a stop. "How did I get roped into this one?" I asked myself, as I hoisted the priority bag, which held the computer, camcorder, camera and tape recorder, gripped the handles of the large suitcase and duffel bag and attempted to climb the steps to car number nine for the seventeen-hour journey to Hue.
When contemplating a long rail journey, I must confess that my thoughts turn to luxury trains: the Orient Express from Venice to Ankara, the new E&O from Singapore to Bangkok, or even the Canadian National from Montreal to Vancouver. So when my wife told me to book us from Saigon to Hanoi, I was less than overwhelmed. After some months of deliberation, looking at schedules and faxing back and forth, it was finally determined that we would travel by car from Saigon to Dalat, a resort city in the mountains, and then to Nha Trang, a seaside city, where we would board the train for Hue.
Organizing such an expedition in Vietnam is not the same as in the United States or Europe where all you need to do is present yourself at any ticket office, make a reservation, pay the fare and receive a ticket detailing your train time, car number, compartment and berth. Not so in Vietnam. Tickets must be purchased in the city of departure, thus we could not buy a ticket in Saigon for a journey beginning in Nha Trang. The train schedules change frequently and are difficult to obtain in advance. The trains tend to be fully booked and there are not many of them; there are even fewer of what they refer to as express trains.
The information we obtained prior to arriving in Vietnam indicated that there were several classes of accommodation, ranging from hard seat, which is similar to a cattle car, to super berth, a small private compartment with two berths. We asked our Vietnamese travel advisor for super berth and hoped for the best. After having spent two and a half days on a Russian train some years ago, we figured this could not be any worse. After all, as long as we were alone in a compartment which had a lock on the door, what harm could befall us? While we had read stories in guidebooks and magazines about people riding on top of the trains and climbing in the windows to make off with travelers' belongings, we decided that we would take turns sleeping and standing guard.
There were a few glitches in obtaining our tickets. We had thought that we would pick them up from our agent in Saigon, but were told that we would receive them at his office in Nha Trang on the day of departure. On arriving in Nha Trang, we found out that he had no office and had meant the ticket office, which was located in a hotel. When we inquired, we were told that the tickets had not actually been booked and that we might have to wait until the next day. Finally, the tickets mysteriously appeared by special messenger from Saigon. We also found out there was no longer any such class as super berth and thus we would be cooped up with two strangers for the eighteen hour trip. Now, fearing a frontal assault from our traveling companions while we were repelling an invasion by window, we tried to envision the configuration of our compartment and the possibility that we might not even get all of our belongings inside.
All of a sudden we heard a train approaching and saw its headlight piercing the darkness. A voice came over the loudspeaker and a flurry of activity broke out. People were running in all directions, shouting and gesturing. Pushing through the crowd and trying to keep my wife within view, I was able to locate car number nine. As I hoisted one bag on to the train and dragged another behind me, all the while attempting to keep my shoulder bag from falling off, I managed to get into the car and dump my cargo into the narrow corridor. Of course, the conductor chose that time to ask for my ticket, so I had to dig it out of my pocket and show him that I belonged on the train. He then beckoned me to follow and pointed to an open door leading to a compartment. As I stumbled through the door, I was able to see two berths, one up and one down on each side. On one of the lowers were seated two young Vietnamese men and an older woman. Before I could do anything about the luggage, the two men leapt to their feet, pulled up the lower berth on the other side, revealing a luggage bin, and helped me stow the big bags. One of the men climbed up to our upper berth, opened an overhead bin and motioned for me to pass up our other items, which he deftly placed inside.
By the time the train had pulled out of the station and we had seated ourselves on the lower berth for the first part of the trip, I noticed that the young men were gone and only the woman remained with us. She was seated on her berth, fanning herself with one of those small purple fans that the hawkers were always trying to push on us. She smiled and leaned over to fan me as well. This not only cooled me off, but served to allay some of my fears about traveling with strangers.
As we picked up speed, our companion showed us how to tie back the window curtains for maximum ventilation. She spoke no English, but we communicated through gestures and learned that she, like us, was going to Hue, and that it was her home. While the train rolled northward, our new friend offered us tea, water and fruit, which we declined, partly out of politeness and partly because of the fear of the train bathroom. Having now gotten as acquainted as the language barrier permitted, we settled down to our reading.
An hour or so later, the two men reappeared. One of them spoke a few words of English and told us that our traveling companion was his mother and that the book she was reading was written by his father. She had been a famous entertainer, singing and playing the dan tranh, a traditional Vietnamese instrument with sixteen strings. He identified himself as a journalist and got out a copy of his newspaper the Bao Lao Dong for us to inspect. We passed a couple of enjoyable hours chatting, using the English he knew, our little bit of Vietnamese and a phrasebook through which I frantically paged through. Why is it that these phrasebooks always teach you to say "I am a foreigner" and "We would like a room for the night," either of which are fairly obvious when a 230- pound man, a blonde woman and a mountain of luggage show up in a hotel? During our conversation, he passed a small purse over for my wife to inspect. He told us it came from Dien Bien Phu, site of the 1954 battle which ended French domination of Vietnam. She admired it and tried to pass it back to him, but he insisted that she keep it.
We had been warned against the food which is included with a first-class rail ticket, so we tried to politely refuse each time the train crew appeared with a tray. At first, the attendant thought that we did not belong in the compartment and asked to see our tickets, to which are attached coupons for meals. The conductor, who spoke pretty good English, was passing by and not only set the attendant straight, but even stopped for some pleasant conversation and pointed out our route in the guidebook. Finally, they made us accept four cans of warm Coca Cola, which we stashed in our already overflowing bags. Actually, the food did not look all that terrible but we were not really very hungry and remained steadfast in our determination to visit the bathroom as infrequently as possible.
Around ten o'clock, our little party wound down. Our Vietnamese friends climbed into their berths, we into ours and I hoped for some sleep before our scheduled arrival at 11:30 the next morning. Lying down, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of room in the berth, which actually contained my somewhat oversized frame. While the experience was not the same as a night on a king-sized bed in a luxury hotel, I was able to doze off periodically.
When we awoke, our journalist was still asleep, but his mother showed us the wash basin, which is hidden away under a table top. After we had washed our faces and brushed our teeth, she insisted we take a large ripe dragonfruit for breakfast. The sweet, moist flesh was quite refreshing.
As the sky became light, we saw much familiar scenery-rice paddies stretching out in all directions, some already filled with verdant sheaves, some populated with rows of small seedlings, and some being plowed by farmers trudging behind stoic water buffalo. Coconut palms with clusters of ripe fruit dotted the landscape as we moved through small villages where the townspeople gathered at the morning market.
We had heard that our train would be passing through some of the most scenic areas of Vietnam, and had chosen this mode of transport for that reason. What we saw did not disappoint. Soon we began to gain altitude. Through the palm trees, we were able to glimpse the ocean from time to time. Our journalist had awakened by this time, and he acted as our guide, pointing out in our book the area through which we were passing. He pointed to my camera and motioned to the window, indicating that I should be prepared to take pictures. As the train climbed, we finally got our first clear view. We were on a winding track high on a green hillside that dropped off precipitously to a white beach and the blue water of the South China Sea. "Lang Co," said our friend, pointing off to the left, where we could just see a town with a sheltered harbor full of fishing boats. A short time later he said, "Too Nehl. Two kilometers." I scrambled for my guidebook to find out what sort of place this could be, when everything went black. I realized then that we were in the first of a series of tunnels cut through the mountains. Fortunately, our lady friend had brought along a candle for such times.
Our friend continued to guide us, anticipating good photo-ops such as the Hai Van Pass. Soon the sea disappeared from our view and we began to descend. Checking my watch, I saw that we were nearing the end of the journey.
My wife looked for something to give our new friends who had made this such a memorable trip. She dug in her bag and found a jewelry case she had bought in Hong Kong. I contributed something very American, a book of O. Henry short stories that our journalist promised to read when his English was good enough. Before packing it away, he passed it back and motioned for me to inscribe it.As we pulled into the station we scrambled to get our bags off, having been warned that the train only stopped for seven minutes. We said our good-byes on the platform, not truly able to tell them what their kindness meant to us. They had made us welcome in their country and had given us the most rewarding experience of our visit to Vietnam.
The train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi runs along the coast and is a little more than 1,700 km. The quickest trip takes 36 hours, at an average speed of 48 km per hour (the average train in Vietnam travels between 15 km per hour to 30 km per hour.) Nha Trang to Hue, one of the most scenic stretches, is 620 km.