I like trains.
Not in geeky, pocket book, pen and camera kind of a way – you will not find me drooling over the 12.10 to Easton – it is the style of travel rather than the trains themselves. I would travel everywhere by train if it was possible.
Vietnam – 1975
Bloodied by a series of wars reaching back to before World War 2 – the problems faced by the newly unified country were unimaginable. Not least beginning to heal the painful division between the North and the South.
The Hanoi to Saigon train line had been completed by the French in 1936. Spanning over 1700 km, the line took in almost the entire length of the country. During World War II, the Indochina War, and the American War – occupying forces attempted to use the line as a cheap method of transportation – but a relentless guerrilla campaign of sabotage had left it almost unusable.
It was seen as an important symbol. A symbol that would, quite literally, tie the country together again. A mere year and a half after the end of the American War, the line was re-opened. It carried a noble name – ‘The Reunification Express’.
Hanoi’s main train station lies in the heart of the bustling city. Opened by the French in 1902, its exterior now bears only a little resemblance to the Gallic elegance that it once was. Damaged during the American War -the central facade is now a dull, yet boisterous Soviet square – sandwiched between the original wings. The building echoes of past when the train was king – before airplanes cut swathes through the air above us, cutting a journey of days into mere hours. A plane journey to Ho Chi Minh City takes under two hours. The train – a rather hefty thirty six hours.
It was late when we stepped into the station – the calmness in the air a stark contrast to the bedlam experienced during the day. Vendors quietly sat outside, hopeful of a final sale of the day. We gathered together a few snacks and boarded the train.
Two people hurriedly left our compartment as we entered – obviously hoping to snap a couple of prized bottom bunk beds. The train was pleasant, a definite upgrade on the train to Sapa we had taken the week before. It came complete with toilet paper in the toilet and a helpful sign that suggest you should ‘flush and hold for 2 ÷4 seconds’.
It was dark when we rolled out, impeccably on time, from the station. The train line cuts through the heart of Hanoi – houses sometimes so close you could whip dinner right off the table. Lights eliminated the darkness – fleeting portals into other lives – as we sped by. Two men joined our cabin, scrambled up to their bunks, and did not move for the rest of the night. We toasted the beginning of our journey with a few beers.
Clouds hung low as a sleepy morning broke – images of hills and mountains occasionally seen through the haze. One of the great joys of train travel is that you are confronted with a long period of time where you have absolutely nothing to do. “Ca phe, Ca phe” came the morning call. I nudged the door open, retrieved three coffees from the passing drink cart attendant – and sat back thoroughly happy with life. Outside the world was a vibrant green, craggy mountains soared above the train – and the mist began to lift.
I was carefully plotting our course on the map; interested to see if the area around the DMZ was noticeably different. At first it was difficult to see any differences. Minh Anh and I made a trip down to the restaurant – which had been generously named. The stench from a decaying toilet drifted in and broadly covered half of the carriage. We squeezed into the other half. I ordered some noodles for breakfast, but was told with a shrug that they had run out. With the smell of feces occasionally tickling my nostrils it was no great loss.
The mountains had been replaced by rolling green tundra, which seemed a delicate balance between a forest and a jungle. There seemed no sign of the carnage that unfolded here forty years ago.
Things changed as we entered the area around Quang Tri. The setting of some of the most viscous fighting of the war. One of a few locations – graphically dubbed ‘The meat grinder’.
The town of Quang Tri was completely destroyed – several times over. Today it has been rebuilt, but the surrounding area still carries a haunting feel. Military graves are are regular reminder of the past. The landscape is battered and uneven. Enormous craters appear in the unlikeliest of locations. Outside of the town a strange white sand punctuates the greenery, while houses lie forlornly by the side of the tracks. Grubby children play outside. Playing on poisoned – dangerous and blood stained ground.
A staggering amount of ordnance was dropped on Vietnam between 1959 and 1975 – nearly three times that used by the Allies in the Second World War. It is believed between 10% and 30% of it failed to detonate. According to official figures, explosions caused by buried bombs and mines have claimed approximately 105,000 civilian victims between 1975 and 2007. Couple that with extensive use of Agent Orange – it makes for a hellishly dangerous and impoverished area. The government predicts the cleanup work may go on for a further 100 years.
It wasn’t immediately clear when we would arrive. Our schedule said 1pm. An employee, whose sole job appeared to be to lounge in the restaurant cart, gave us a little chuckle an informed us we were running two hours late. Another slightly more active member of the train family claimed it was closer to one hour. At such times what can you do except sit back and enjoy the ride.
As we entered Hue, I commented on the extensive river system that had appeared. It became clear soon after that the ancient city had in fact been battered by flooding. It was difficult to tell how high the water was, but by the telegraph poles standing defiantly quite a distance out – it must have been deep. The train barrelled through, as did everybody we saw.
As we neared Da Nang the train began to climb. The Hai Van Pass was a glorious surprise. As the ocean opened up with a sweeping glory, the train curled snake like through the mountains. So much so it was possible to see the back of the train from where we stood gaping out of the window.
We arrived in Da Nang at 2.30pm. Simon and I had just eaten half a chili each – for no other particular reason than we had been on a train for sixteen hours – and the mind was probably beginning to go. My mouth flared violently as we stepped off the train. A taxi whisked through the streets and onto a coastal road – which would lead us to Hoi An. The city of Da Nang didn’t immediately capture my imagination. The center itself looks like many across Vietnam, and indeed quieter neighbourhoods of Hanoi. As we hit the coastal road we were greeted by a relentless torrent of soulless mega resorts – huge structures that hid the view of the ocean. It also struck me that there was no way of walking anywhere without some serious mileage. The resorts seemed to stretch for miles. Any excursion into the town would have to involve transportation.
There are few towns that I have approached with such high expectations as Hoi An. Nestled 30 km from Da Nang, it carries an almost heavenly aura when described by those who have visited. I have yet to meet somebody with a bad word to say about it. The bar was set extraordinarily high as we entered the town. It took five minutes of weaving through the outskirts before we glimpsed the old town proper.
We checked into the hotel. I nearly exploded when instead of a room with a balcony that I booked we were given a room with a window that seemed to be behind cupboard. I snarled. They quickly moved us.
The town is quite exquisite. Set on the banks of a river, it unravels slowly as you meander through the small streets. Every building is given over to tourism – restaurants, bars, and enough souvenir shops to keep everybody happy. It is incredibly tourist driven, I wanted to be slightly irritated by it but Hoi An’s wonderful charm had me in no time.
As we sat enjoying the third or perhaps fourth cocktail of the night, the town loudspeaker crackled into life. Minh Anh translated for us – a storm was heading in our direction, and would hit the next day. At this point we had no idea about the destruction Typhoon Haiyan had already caused. Just before we left I heard an elderly lady lean over to the waitress and nod in the direction of the loudspeaker
“Can you turn that off” she said. The waitress stared open mouth for a split second before explaining. The woman looked adequately chastised.
Later that night horrific videos and news began to emerge from the Philippines. We sat in an almost solely western bar. Almost half of the packed room was huddled over their smart phones. Updates were flying back and forth. Two English girls sitting next to us seemed on the verge of a meltdown. They gripped their phones with such ferocity; I assumed they would be used as life boats – should the instance arise.
The phrase ‘strongest storm in history’ began to spread. As did the predicted flight path of the Typhoon – which had Hoi An directly in the corridor. We remained calm about it (the alcohol was helping) but tension around the town – and particularly the foreign visitors began to rise. We all made a quick call back home. Not that it is much of an assurance to hear that your children are Ok before the storm hits – but we felt it was important anyway.
The night ended with an uncertainty of what tomorrow would hold. We all bought a little floating candle and released it onto the river. At the time it seemed we might need a little luck. Back at the hotel, Simon and I jumped in the hotels ‘closed’ swimming pool. The man behind the desk glared at us with a mixture of annoyance, boredom and possibly hatred. It may have been the pool incident. It may have been me referring to him as ‘stupid’ minutes earlier. I didn’t seek clarification.