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Sad to leave Hanoi, but eager to see the rest of Vietnam, we arrived at the central station ready to board the Reunification Express, which runs from Hanoi to Saigon. Like the Trans- Mongolian, no single train bears this name, but the route is still commonly known as such. Completed by French colonists in 1936, the line was severed in 1954 when Vietnam was divided into north and south. Throughout the Vietnam War the railway was battered and bruised by American bombs, but resurrected itself and resumed a regular service after the country’s reunification in 1976. We were travelling at peak season and an extra service numbered SE17—the Limited Express—had been put on to cope with the increased demand. Approaching the train, I eyed the hem of rust and struggled to decide what colour the outside used to be. Nervous to put my foot on the steps in case they broke off and fell into the tracks, I climbed into the carriage as it creaked beneath my weight. ‘Limited’ was an understatement: the inside of the compartment looked like the aftermath of a fire. Paint flaked off the walls like dead skin, covering the berths with yellow dandruff. Rat-grey tufts sprouted from the edge of the air conditioner, which was held together by four pieces of tape—two of which were flapping off , the body of a bluebottle attached. Black mould stained the ceiling, and the smell of decay leaked from under the sinks where a pipe had broken and was bubbling down the carriage. Ankle-deep water sloshed along the side, swept up by a guard whose shirt was stuck to his back.
Whenever I read about these kinds of trains on blogs, they were described as having comfortable compartments with vendors bringing food to the seat, and were usually accompanied by twee photographs showing tied-back curtains, pink plastic flowers, and bald middle-aged men holding aloft their beers. No one else seemed to travel in these mobile skips, and while appalled, I was inwardly thrilled when faced with journeys like these. It was a test of wills, to see what stuff I was really made of, and how long I could go without contracting tetanus. Keeping my rucksack at the foot of my berth, I moved to the window as the carriage began to shake, assuming we were on the move, only to discover the quaking was the result of four brothers and sisters under the age of six, tearing up and down the corridor in vests, pants and bare feet. A Danish couple was sharing our compartment, reading in their berths, and getting ever more annoyed by our attempts to make conversation—eventually turning over to face the wall.
Over the PA system, an anguished woman began singing like a sonic weapon as we rolled out of the station through a downpour of warm tropical rain, the kind that obscured and drenched everything in the three minutes while it lasted. The city’s red lights blurred at the window, as water wormed down the glass. For the first hour, the train ran parallel to the highway with nothing more than a single wooden fence separating us from couples on scooters, and trucks flashing past in the opposite direction. After running neck and neck with lorry drivers chewing cigarettes, glancing sideways into our compartment, the train wrenched away from the road, delving into the guts of the city. Presumably resigned to the dire state of the compartment, whoever was in charge of the railway’s soft furnishings had attached a pair of incongruous gold curtains in the hope that they would distract from everything else. Holding them back, I sat at the window watching as the train panted in the darkness past rundown houses lit by hurricane lamps, and strung with children’s laundry. Night trains indulged a special kind of voyeurism, and I sat in the dark as the others slept, spying on inner-city families winding down for the night: fathers washing dishes and mothers unpinning their hair. But soon the shops were shuttered, the lamps blown out, and nothing but blackness met my gaze. As the city fell away, I let go of the curtain and crawled into my berth, the train thundering on through the night.
A groan came from the berth above, followed by the sound of a pillow being punched. The Danes were not having a good time. Mandolin music began to whine from the PA system that was just outside our door, along with the same woman who was still in mourning or pain—or both. Dawn was about to break, and this was not at all conducive to a relaxing journey. The Vietnamese siblings were charging down the carriage playing knock-and-run. Whether I liked it or not, I had to concede that the day had already started and I threw off my blankets. Rolling back the door, I met the red-eyed gaze of the children’s father who was standing in resignation, smoking out of the window. With a sympathetic nod in his direction, I realised that what was an isolated experience for me, was his daily existence. He nodded in return with an expression that was part apology, part envy, part suicidal, as his children clattered past for the third time, the smallest covered in the dank water from the night before.
Sharing a metal mug of hot chocolate and a packet of sugary biscuits, Jem and I sat by the window enjoying the warmth of the sun as it winked through the trees. Thick, waxy leaves flapped at the sides of the carriage, rustling into the windows, opening up to reveal fat fists of green bananas. Skinny palm trees leant to the side and buffalo wallowed in lotus-filled waters, white birds prancing boldly on their backs. The Danish couple disembarked at Hué, neither of them saying a word as they packed up their things and left. It takes such a valiant effort not to talk to fellow passengers when travelling in such close proximity that I couldn’t help but admire their determination to remain as unfriendly as possible. Between Hué and Da Nang, the jungle crept up the hill and wrapped itself around our train, shadows and sunlight strobing through the carriage. This was the most beautiful stretch of the journey, and I was pleased the Danes had missed it. Leaning from the doorway, I watched the front of the train curling in and out of tunnels and boring into cliffs, when suddenly the South China Sea opened up below in a magnificent haze of blue. From Lang Co Bay, a finger of creamy sand ran along the edge of the water, tracing the foam all the way to Da Nang where we were due to break the journey. Stopping just long enough for us to drag our bags across the track, the train shuddered, then continued down the coast and on to Saigon.
Monisha Rajesh’s Around the World in 80 Trains (INR 999) was published by Bloomsbury in January 2019.
Read the book review here.
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