Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Reunification Express, Vietnam

This post is from a series of older journal entries I wrote about my trip across Asia in '08. The Reunification Express is the aptly named rail line that now connects the former and current capitals of Vietnam (Saigon and Hanoi, respectively). I covered most of its length on my way to the Chinese border.

I’d been on the train for over a day. The garbage smell had established its residence in my nostrils so thoroughly that I had to concentrate to notice it. The man in the bunk above mine snored.

I’d been lucky to find the bed. Its previous occupant had disembarked on the previous stop and I had managed to seize his spot the instant he stepped away. A quarter of a second later and someone else would have.

The sleeping cabins were cramped and filthy, but at least afforded their occupants space to lay down. The only horizontal space in coach was the aisle where the chickens walked.

There had been a sealed plastic bag at the foot of the bed containing sheets and a pillow. I opened it and threw the contents on the floor. They were dirty and worn – only packaged to appear laundered. So I was cold as I slept – the breeze broke past the window frames and my jacket was a pillow. First class on the Reunification Express.

Twenty four hours down, twelve to go.

* * *

The man who took my ticket at the Saigon station could have easily have been a thief as a station attendant. No one wore uniforms, no one spoke English, and everyone was yelling. It wouldn’t have actually mattered who he was though. I made my way through the clusterfuck of a waiting area and directly onto the platform where I chose a train car at random and boarded without impediment. The handle next to the door was worn, warm and damp with palm sweat.

I couldn’t tell where I was supposed to go because the part of the ticket I’d kept was entirely in Vietnamese. I just took the first available seat. I’d boarded the only train marked ‘Hanoi’, so I figured I would at least be going in the right direction (the Vietnamese use Roman script – an adapted alphabet developed by Portuguese missionaries in the 1600s – an incredible convenience when it comes to navigation). Whoever had designed the wooden plank benches must not only have been on a budget, but held a robust contempt for the concept of ergonomics and the comfort of his fellow man. I shifted uncomfortably as people filed into the car.

The older man sitting by the window to my right smiled happily and extended his hand and a greeting in Vietnamese. He was finishing a cup of instant noodles and threw the container on the ground after he had finished. It drew my attention to the floor – a cement of sunflower seeds, animal hair and tea leaves. The woman sitting ahead of me finished an apple and casually pitched the core into the aisle. Most of the passengers spat.

As the train filled, I came to realize that my bench was not intended for two people, as my privileged Western assumptions had led me to believe, but four. A woman and her young son sidled in next to me, boxing me tightly into the noodle cup man. They all seemed ecstatic to be sitting next to me. The woman immediately showed me a moisture-wrinkled photograph of her other children and nearly cried when I reciprocated with a picture of my sisters.

My assumptions that one’s presence in a tiny train car dictated the use of an inside voice also proved to be in error. Enormous families, 10-12 people, filling several benches, yelled jovially to one another. The definition of humanity changes at that density – an individual becomes a cell, language a din, sights and smells are an indistinguishable blur.

I was taken aback by the situation to say the least, but tried not to show it. I felt like a Muslim in a strip club. Everyone else was having a good time – I just felt dirty, claustrophobic and like I was in very real danger of losing my mind. [I’m not sure how to fill the stripper part of that analogy. Maybe they were the luridly writhing sack of semi-live squirrels that one guy brought onboard and flung into the baggage compartment – trapped, terrified and probably eating each other.]

The train rolled forward like it was powered by a hundred tiny men banging cooking pots together. People in my car clapped, presumably for the lack of boiler explosions. A guy fiddled with his window but it wouldn’t budge, so he spat his gum on the ground with everything else.

We rolled cautiously to the speed of 35 miles per hour, which would be maintained for the remainder of the journey. People really started to settle into their seats and made themselves at home. Blankets were draped over everything as make-shift partitions. Children wedged themselves into the overhead baggage compartments and slept. The noise was incredible.

I toured other cabins to stretch my legs every few hours. I didn’t have access to the first class sleeper cars. The attendants that guarded that side of the train looked at me with pity, as if I had carelessly trapped myself on the wrong side of the door. The 2nd class sleeper cars, though more expensive, were worse than the seated areas. Their occupants took further liberty in making themselves at home. Men were half naked and strewn across their bunks like dead birds below paneled windows. The refuse on the ground was so thick that it opposed foot traffic. And every room seemed to be overbooked – six beds, stacked three to a side without room to sit up, and always eight or nine people. I ate bananas and jerky to purposely constipate myself and avoid the horrifying prospect of having to use one of the overflowing plague chambers at the end of every other car.

The views offered respite. The route runs North-South along the incomparable Vietnamese coastline. From the right side of the train, the ocean is a near permanent fixture. Almost preternaturally steep bluffs and black-green jungles painted views to the left. Massive bomb craters were starkly evident – overgrown and camouflaged, but in deep, perfect circles. The rail lines, I assumed, would have been a popular target.

* * *

A child vomited in the aisle outside my room and for two hours the cabin attendants strode carefully over or around it. I resolved to get off at the next stop – Hoi An. My ticket would have taken me all the way to the capital, but I was finished.

The woman I’d shown the picture of my sisters to saw me gathering my things and gave me a little bag of rice balls. For all the Vietnamese I’d met who chose to conform to their aggressive and impersonal stereotypes, a gem like her will always brighten one’s outlook on the population as a whole. Her age struck me a few moments after I stepped off the train and bit into one of the little rice balls. She was just over 40 – maybe 45 – a child of the war. Her father and mine might have been enemies.

I didn’t want to stay long – there was too much I wanted to do up North. I’d just wanted off of the train. My disembarkation had been knee-jerk and illogical.

I stayed the night. A little bar a few blocks from the train station advertised rooms. There was a good mix of locals and foreigners sitting at tightly packed wooden tables inside and the bartender smiled at me from behind a screen of cigarette smoke.

I sat at the bar after dropping my things in the little room upstairs. The muscles that had been listing toward atrophy on the train refused to carry me for any further exploration of the town. It was times like those – sitting and drinking at a shoddy bar, happily eating whatever they brought out from the kitchen – I was happiest to be alone. I would be back on the train the next day, the opportunity to explore another beautiful Vietnamese town; wasted. But I didn’t care. And there was no one there to second-guess.


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