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I had left Hanoi around 9pm the previous night on what is known as the Reunification Express – though no single train in Vietnam bears the name. Completed by French colonists in 1936, the line running from Hanoi to Saigon was severed in 1954 when Vietnam was divided into north and south. The railway then suffered from American bombing throughout the Vietnam War, but services resumed in 1976. Now it’s a run-down, shabby service that has lost custom to budget airlines, but is still the only way to witness the country in all its glory.
During peak season an extra service is put on to cope with the demand and, to my delight, it was limited in more ways than one. Paint peeled off the walls and the air conditioner’s grille was secured by four pieces of tape – two of which were hanging off. The berths creaked, squeaked and clanked and the gold polyester curtain contained more dust than the inside of a Dyson. But the magic of this journey lay outside the carriages.
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For the first hour the train ran parallel with the main road, with couples on scooters riding by just feet away. The train then broke off, swerving into the guts of the city and disappearing into the darkness of run-down houses lit by hurricane lamps and strung with children’s laundry. Next, the train thundered on through the night.
By morning tiny tufts of cloud hovered around the sun. Thick waxy leaves flapped at the sides of the carriage, parting to show stacks of green bananas like fists of fat fingers. Palm trees stood to attention and buffalo wallowed in lotus-filled water, tiny white birds perched on their backs. Patriotic classical hits were cranked up high and a metal cart of deep-fried chicken legs, cabbage and rice was wheeled up and down around noon.
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Between Hué and Danang the jungle wrapped itself around the train. This section is renowned for its scenery and as we slipped in and out of tunnels, and curled around cliffs, the ocean appeared below. Strips of creamy yellow sand trimmed the edges of Lang Co Bay and continued all the way to Danang where I had decided to break up my journey for a few days.
From Danang to Saigon, I could only book a ticket sitting upright overnight surrounded by Vietnamese families eating tinned luncheon meat in baguettes, but that’s another story…
Story by: Monisha Rajesh