The Reunification Express

26 May

Balloons and the iconic pagoda in Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hoan Kiem lake: the calm heart of Hanoi, Vietnam.

We flew from Manila into Saigon last week, the day after Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, and rode the Reunification Express 1600km or so upcountry to Hanoi to pick up our journey through mainland South-East Asia from the north.

Vietnam is one of Z’s favourite countries. And not just for the pho (we had our first bowl outside Saigon railway station at 3am after our midnight flight…). He likes the combination of very traditional, slow-paced rural life with big, modern, turbocharged cities.

Me? I loved Saigon, and the everyday people we met. But I found the aggressively entrepreneurial spirit, not to say constant scams and ripoffs, on the tourist trail oppressive. So I got on the plane with slightly mixed feelings.

Last time round, our plan still was to cover three continents and sixteen countries in a single year. This left us, as you might imagine, rather short on time. So we only made it as far north as the nineteenth-century capital, Hue, before cutting west cross-country and into Laos. And we took the bus, not the train.

A big mistake… Because the poignantly-named Reunification Express, which runs from Saigon to Hanoi, is a wonderful way to travel.

You settle into your bunk. Trundle along for 32 hours, reading, dozing, eating, chatting and looking out of the window, lulled by the chuntering of the train. Arrive at your destination perfectly content.

Vietnamese communism may be drowning under a wave of resurgent capitalism, but it’s certainly not dead yet. The journey begins with a traditional pentatonic jingle, introducing a voice artist, clearly channelling Charlton Heston as Moses, who pays eloquent tribute to the “revolutionary vigour of the railway workers” before presenting a potted, and ineffably cadre-friendly potted history of each region you enter.

Visually, the journey is stunning. There are folk in pyjamas and conical hats working their paddy fields. The dry season crop was showing young ears, and the wet season crop was just beginning to break surface or still at the ploughing stage: two lifecycles in one tiny plot.

You ride through small towns, where those ineffably Vietnamese tall, narrow buildings, five or six single-room storeys topped by implausibly tiny triangular roofs, punctuate clusters of bungalows. Marble mountains, karst outcrops like something from a Chinese line-drawing, streams, rivers and lakes, banana farms and papaya orchards, patches of young forest, bridges and tunnels, gently pass you by.

When it comes to personal space, Vietnam is a very different country. As anyone who’s traveled in city traffic, where eight-deep scrums of scooters attain levels of driver-driver intimacy which would get you arrested in the West, will confirm.

Z and I had booked the lowest of the three tiers of bunks in our “hard sleeper”*. And, until we donated his to a girl with a four-month old baby and her grandmother, on the morning of day two, our bunks were virtually café society.

There were the pair of railway workers conducting an office romance. Him cute and rather dumb. She less cute, but very chatty. The ladies from the bunks above catching up on gossip and swapping nail polish. The American freelancer from two cabins down come to catch up on world news. The sister of the young mother’s grandmother, bearing snacks…

And, even though the only language we had in common with all the twelve people who shared our carriage over the course of the journey was my 10 or 20 words of Vietnamese, we shared our food, chatted about the baby, and arrived in Hanoi with that warm, fuzzy feeling about the world which, erm, leaves one a walking target for taxi scams.

The odd thing is, on a second visit, scams roll more easily than they did before. Irritating? Sure. Upsetting? No.

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One Response to “The Reunification Express”

  1. jessiev at 10:09 pm #

    i love this!

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