A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant
Author: Marika Chalkiadis
“Danang is served by all Reunification Express trains. The train ride to Hue is one of the best in the country – worth taking as an excursion in itself” proclaimed our guidebook.
We’ve had some fabulous train journeys in Asia. We’ve been back to childhood courtesy of cornflakes and hot milk in India, on trains that exceeded expectations and journeys that opened our eyes to the often sadly overlooked realities and extremes of a vast and otherwise beautiful country. We’ve glided through jungle from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, in soft‐seat air‐conditioned (near) luxury reflecting the (near) glint and glamour of those cities. We’ve sat numb‐bottomed on a rickety, spotless train with open windows and wooden seats on route to Hellfire Pass, passing through flower‐lined Thai stations, vendors jumping on and off with trays of beautifully presented snacks. And rumbling overnight from Laos to Bangkok, we’ve eaten Laotian curry carried onboard in small clear plastic bags reminiscent of the times we’d transported pet goldfish from shop to home, taking us back again to childhood.
And so lured by the words “best in the country”, we decide to train it again. Danang to Hanoi, a mere 15 or so hours of daylight travel. It is pre‐dawn. Barely awake and clutching our take‐out bacon butty breakfast, we arrive at the station. It’s small and busy. The stuffy waiting room is bare apart from not so neat rows of hard chairs and a large fish tank lining one wall, in which at least one dead fish is floating, as yet apparently unnoticed. We find seats and entertain ourselves watching a blond European’s very public clothes changing, dry bathing ritual until a commotion at the fish tank diverts our attention away. The dead fish noticed, station staff and interfering passengers are going through elaborate farcical moves to get it. It is like watching an episode of The Keystone Cops. The train arrives as day breaks. By now hot and sticky, we imagine the airconditioned soft seat comfort of previous journeys, anticipating a blast of cold air as we enter the carriage. The air that blasts us is warm and stale. People lay sprawled everywhere. My husband mumbles – in hope ‐ about a wrong carriage. “I’ll go check” he says out loud. Perching on my stained and hard seat waiting his return, I exchange curious glances with those around me. Women mainly. Men curiously absent. Mothers cradle squealing babies, children with crusted noses at their side, eyes fixed on me. Graceful grandmothers with reddish brown toothy smiles effortlessly sit cross‐legged, showing agility that I – less than half their age – cannot manage. No tourists. Just locals surrounded by the detritus of a night’s moving accommodation, looking spent from being cramped into decidedly not so soft seats in noticeably un‐air‐conditioned comfort.
My husband returns clearly deflated. No need for words as he searches for space to put our bags. They remain at our feet for the rest of the journey. Footrests we reason, and at least to begin with, definitely cleaner than the floor. We settle in. Almost immediately, I am enveloped by a stale meaty smell coming from my seat. But I am well known for imagining bad smells, so I keep quiet. “My seat smells meaty” my husband says. I offer him some antibacterial hand gel and breakfast. We eat in silence as the train lurches forward, the eyes of our fellow passengers still on us. Shortly after and we are no longer the focus. The stunning view takes over. We all leap to our feet to gape in awe down the near vertical cliff side that our now crawling train is hugging. The scene is spectacular; ocean expanse, waves crashing against rocks, the dawn sunlight glistening on the water. Woes are forgotten as we jostle to get enough of the views. At that moment, we are pleased with ourselves for having noticed that small stark paragraph in our guidebook. But the spectacular views only last so long. The train picks up speed. We are now back in our seats looking out at towns, villages, memorials, lush green rice fields and rainforests; scenes that although interesting and at times beautiful, will be repeated many times during the rest of the journey. So begins train life as we are to know it for the next 14 hours; a continuous cycle of betl nut chewing, spitting and consequent floor sweeping, knee‐shearing trolleys offering, but mostly re‐offering, food at odds with a Western palate on well worn plastic plates (roast duckling perhaps?), guttural throat clearing and spitting, “Armageddon” dubbed into Vietnamese accompanied (oddly) throughout by hearty laughter putting paid to any chance of sleep and wafting by very occasionally, the smell of disinfectant liberally thrown about the hole in the floor toilet in a losing battle to keep it approachable. Not that we care. Having seen the hole pre‐disinfectant, we are by now on a liquid amnesty, figuring that dehydration is the better sufferance. And to while away the slow moving time, we watch each other doing the same. Except that is, for the smartly dressed man now opposite us. He whiles away his time oscillating between deeply excavating his nose with long fingernails, sloppily eating, rhythmically and loudly cleaning his teeth, and “grooming” his feet and hands with a lethal looking bone handled knife that he also uses to slice fruit to share with his new friends around him. We are dehydrated, exhausted and hungry by the time the train enters Hanoi late that night through an impossibly narrow, brightly lit alley bordered by decaying homes. The long, hot shower and first gulp of rehydrating beer that follow are a pure joy.
No, it wasn’t an excursion, nor was it comfortable. But in part it was spectacular, and as a whole it was an unforgettable experience that we still reflect upon with a strange affection. Would we now take the new sanitised tourist carriages that have since been added for us “soft Westerners”? Somehow we don’t think so.