Sitting at a sweltering Saigon railway station sweating profusely under the noisy rotating ceiling fans I began to doubt my sanity for the first time on this trip.
I had dragged all my travel companions along with me on this little venture of mine, this personal quest to travel through the night on a famed sleeper train, north across the vast landscapes of Vietnam to the old and ancient royal capital of Hué.
On paper it had looked like an enthralling adventure, but now it all appeared somewhat less inviting to all involved as boredom and fatigue began to set in as a result of a long wait at the railway station sitting in an over-populated and sweltering waiting room on some very hard and uncomfortable seats.
They say (I am told) that there is a romance to train travel, but it was certainly lacking around here, stuck in the functional surrounds of this clichéd looking communist inspired concrete terminus where we waited, and then waited yet some more, waiting for The Reunification Express!
We waited for what seemed like an eternity until eventually (and to our utter amazement) the announcement finally came over the tannoy system that the train was finally in platform and at long last ready to board! Finally we were on the move again, ‘Hurray!’ we shouted aloud as we jostled and barged our way through the madding hoards of fellow passengers and onlookers all eager like ourselves to clamber aboard our new home for the next two or more days.
Now I’ve read some great books like ‘The Old Patagonian Express‘ and ‘The Great Railway Bazaar‘ by Paul Theroux but trust me when I say this train was absolutely nothing like I had imagined it to be, nothing like the romantic trains described in the books that I’d read. Functional is the best description I have, yes functional is probably the only description I can come up with for this train.
If I had bothered to read up on the railway some more back in the UK my aspirations may have been somewhat lower as evidently the railway holds the record for being the railway on which the speed of the trains is the slowest anywhere in the world. The highest speeds that the trains of the Vietnam Railways Corporation can reach result in a boggling 30 hours of travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi or vice versa. The railway is also crossed by many roads in several crowded areas. Many accidents between trains and vehicles have happened over the years.
Luckily though ignorance is bliss and so it was that we had one way tickets north to Hué (around the halfway point on the line) and a night of adventure ahead of us. On the plus side however was the fact that the route is world renowned for it’s beauty as it serpents the stunning coastline of central Vietnam, passing through several beautiful landscapes such as Hai Van Pass, the Lanco Peninsular, and Van Phong Bay on it’s long journey.
Our sleeper cabin was ‘functional’, yes it’s that word again functional. Our bunks were ‘functional’ the windows however were not ‘functional’ as they were stuck fast and no amount of strength could open them so reluctantly we sat sweating in our compartment, sweating and waiting for the train to move and for the rudimentary and ‘functional’ air-conditioning system to kick in.
We dumped our dusty rucksacks and bags on the floor in the compartment as we waited to move off and shut the door as instructed in the warning manual handed out to all foreign travellers on this train. Then all of a sudden and with no announcement or fanfare the train trundled out of Saigon and we were on the move!
The night was still young and invigorated by being back on the move I craved some excitement. We quickly downed some Jim Beam in our compartment in anticipation of a night of action aboard the express. We played some cards and drank some more but all too soon we became bored, very bored indeed. Worryingly we had become incredibly bored within just 30 minutes of leaving Saigon, this I thought to myself did not bode well for a 18-20 hour journey ahead!
Having been engulfed with such boredom so soon we decided that it might be high-time to investigate this mile long train for something to do. We were stuck in carriage number 12 out of a possible 15, with the buffet car (as much as it could be described as that) at number 1 …. it seemed it was going to be a long chaotic trek to the bar but a quest that had to be taken on.
Battered from pillar to post, nearly decapitated by steel swinging doors and after several weird encounters with folk from the seedier end of Vietnam’s social scale we found ourselves at the buffet-bar carriage! The bar was in full swing. Red Chinese lanterns illuminated the carriage as they swayed back and forth hung from the ceiling as the train rumbled along into the night casting an eerie and strangely brothel type ambience to the proceedings. There were beer mountains made of scattered Tiger Beer cans everywhere and the pungent smell of cheap cigarette smoke filled the air, the whole carriage went deathly silent as two pink westerners stood in it’s doorway waiting to enter into the foray. We politely crept in fired up two beers from the chain-smoking barmaid and tried to find a discreet and quiet corner to be anonymous in.
Discreet and anonymous it seemed are not words that are understood in Vietnam, and soon we became surrounded by drunk Ho Chi Minh boys eager for us to buy them all drinks and carry the party on way into the night. Politely so as not to offend we accepted their hospitality and a good time was had by all. After a few too many drinks though we decided we had to make it back to our sleeping compartment while we could still stand and so sneaked out undetected as the party continued at a pace…these boys were in it for the duration!
We wobbled and tottered our way back to our railway carriage along the snaking express train and when we arrived attempted to climb into our respective bunks as the train sped over undulating yakety-yak track faster and faster speeding into the night. The last thing I remember that evening was perring out from between the dirty old carriage curtains, out into a dark mysterious landscape that sped past illuminated only by hand lanterns at the many manned railway crossings that we careered across in our charge north ever north towards Hué.
We woke the next day to a series of delays, rain, halts and more stoppages! The further north we ground the wetter the climate became. Now unable to see out of the steamed up windows we sat in almost solitary confinement in our tiny and by now quite smelly compartment. The day dragged on endlessly.
First we were an hour behind schedule, then two, then three hours. By the time we reached the most stunning stretch of coastline the hills were so cloaked in mist and rain that anything beyond a few feet was barely visible. Deeply disappointed that we could see next to nothing we could do no more than sit around and play cards, read books or Kindle’s etc. The time dragged!
As night drew in once again and after a mammoth twenty-two hours of plodding travel we finally pulled into Hué station. Tired, smelly, bored and dejected, we disembarked onto the non-descript uniform platform and shuffled through barriers and eventually outside to catch a battered taxi into town. We had arrived at Hué eventually but not quite in the grand and adventurous style I had anticipated or envisaged. But we were here now at long last and ready to start the next chapter of our travels around Vietnam and Cambodia. Hué and central Vietnam here we come!
You can see more photos from my Indochina Adventure on Flickr by clicking on this link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/sets/72157629031722105/