Saigon to Hanoi is the longest train journey I have ever undertaken, it’s 35 hours eclipsing Hong Kong to Beijing at 23 (back in 2011). Both took place in December and both were in search of new fortune, not just travel.
A metro under construction and ancient buses meant a rare taxi ride, never my favoured choice especially when they opt for their own fancy route. We start by heading in the opposite direction and down Bui Vien st. I question this but there’s no answer from the driver fueling my concern, suffice to say it’s a very tense drive!
At the station (we got there in the end, driver and I parted amicably) I ponder on buying more food and probably should have. There’s no ticket barrier and the train is there for boarding; carriage 9, seat 9 – it’s a quad dormitory on wheels.
I’m joined by two guys: a tattooed American in his twenties who not only doesn’t say much but doesn’t want to and a Pakistani who does. It is his first long haul train trip or tour as he puts it. Less than half way he half jokingly says he doesn’t think he’ll survive and I think the same not because of its duration but because the anti-social American is huge and straining the chains attaching his bunk bed above mine to the wall.
We set off and almost immediately traverse several sets of level crossings, seeing the lights of bikes and shops dazzle through the drops of windowpane rain means the night is less than dark. We cut up close and personal through communities. Many lives momentarily seen and gone forever. Some are preparing food, some are watching tv, some are dancing, some are staring back at the train and some are naked!
Dining car is carriage 1 a long walk from 9. Stewards periodically come round with shouts of cafe! Other carts include sweet corn and the kind of congee seen in China. Eventually this is expanded to rice and pork or chicken and soy sauce whether you want it or not. The train is bouncing around which makes sleep, getting to and using the urine perfumed toilet rather difficult. Only if you were having sex would this frenetic motion be an added bonus.
The morning is draped in hues of white and grey. It took me a while to realize that the towns and villages of coastal Binh Dinh province were flooded. Homes, shops, temples partially submerged. The road impassable. Why did they not build their houses on stilts like the Filipinos and the road on an embankment like the railway?
The cabin is air conditioned to the extent a top is necessary while the chain supporting the upper bunk bed crackles like static. There is barely enough room between beds to drag out my main bag and grab said jersey (or sweater) and some longer trousers for the temperature drop expected in Hanoi.
Rail side shopsellers approach my window with baguettes, soft cheese (Laughing Cow) and a stainless steel cup to symbolize coffee. I go to meet them at the carriage door but the train conductor prevents my purchase as they ask for 100,000d (which seems about right to me). I can’t help but feel sorry for the women who are only trying to make a living.
At another station further up I am again obstructed from getting off to peruse their wares. This most likely serves a dual purpose. One is to stop Johnny Foreigner going walkies and the other of course means you can only buy the limited goods carried by the train. However further along in the journey we are allowed to step off onto the low platform where I buy some peanut brittle which I know I’ll be sick of by the time we make it to Hanoi.
The purchase point of this trip is the stretch from Da Nang to Hue and when it comes is somewhat an anti-climax. Yes it’s spectacular but the day is so dreary it kind of puts a dour glance on things. As night falls and the 24 hour mark passes the air conditioning is retired which means we are into northern Vietnamese terrain and the final stage of this extensive voyage.
At 01.25 the train makes another stop (don’t recall the station name). I note its old world architectural beauty (like Parnell in Auckland) caught in the amber lights of leaving. This is a place I may never visit in its own right, and it’s easy to document the beauty seen against the unseen rats and roaches lurking in the shadows.
Soon enough we’re rolling through darkened fields with mysterious rows of white lights peppering the view. The sky is strangely light considering the time and the few lights which dot the way. The rock formations I write about in my Nanning Hanoi piece are also in attendance though not a constant.
Lying back down on my hard soft sleeper gives a whole new dimension; the trees drift by like clouds. I see billboards, the naked concrete of overhead bridges and whatever light is there permeates the carriage walls, sometimes in a rapid blink sometimes in suffusion. The curtain silhouette slides across the wall.
A sudden jolt to a halt. I bolt upright to see a temple but even though it’s right in front of me the iPhone can’t pick it up and registers only darkness. My wallet is also missing and my thoughts race back to Amsterdam where I was robbed in my sleep! Oh no, not again I thought finding it on the floor. Heart racing, I grasp it in my hand and look inside. Fortune this time is with me and nothing is amiss.
More peanut brittle, more buildings, one says HA NOI and I now know we are on the final stretch into the capital, my second visit both by train, both from different directions to different stations. Screeching to a halt, the doors open and everyone clambers onto the platform to duly disperse. The Pakistani guy evaporates into the crowd – he in one direction, and I in the other, another incidental in my travellers life.
Like the previous year at GIA LAM the taxi drivers line the platform en mass to irritate and annoy any way they can. Granted they, like the aforementioned railway women are trying to make a living but following the misadventure in Saigon this nomad prefers other means – even if they are difficult to come by.
I take a moment to survey the building which was under going refurbishment last time I was here before venturing into the dark of early morning. I realise the only way to keep the taxi pests at bay is to get clear of the station so I cross the road where a Vietnamese woman wrapped in winter puffa jacket and scarf offers coffee, After a quick snap of the station facade I agree as I know she is probably in need of the money. She is happy and asks to have her picture taken with me; a practice I am familiar with from China.
The coffee is strong and she tries to arrange a taxi for me unknowing that I mean GRAB CAR. In the end I walk seeing the city at an hour I’d normally be in bed and the early morning joggers and exercise routine is a joy as I lug my bags to my homestay. This is Hanoi in a new light and the early signs are it’s a place I’m going to like, if not love.
Vietnam Discovery (affiliate link)
**disclaimer, I haven’t used this service myself as it’s a company who approached me, hence I have no opinion of them being good or bad.