IN TRANSIT, REUNIFICATION EXPRESS — No one heard the typical train whistle sound as the Reunification Express train at Saigon station prepared to take off.
The audible sounds were the choruses of people who were trying to make themselves comfortable in finding their seats. A tiny squabble can also be overheard between confused passengers and train crews (they were the ones in blue uniforms, looking like pilots).
The door of carriage number 11 became a bottleneck as a Vietnamese couple, towing luggage and their kids, had lingered from one cabin to another having a hard time finding their berths indicated on their tickets. Others had to give way for those who wanted to stay on the lower bed to pacify their cranky babies. We gave up our beds for them, too, and opted for the top bunk near the musty air-conditioner.
And just like emotional scenes in a Philippine airport, some passengers were accompanied by their family members or close friends inside the cabin before the train left. They appeared to be sharing parting words and sweet goodbyes.
It was all dramatic and inspiring until we realized that our room became packed beyond its four-person capacity.
The commotion soon waned and the train started moving without the whistling sound that we so ever looked forward to hearing.
As it turns out, only steam-powered train locomotives can produce that sound through a built-in air whistle; goodbye Hogwarts Express fantasy!
We are in Vietnam, but the train itself had its own magic.
The Vietnamese connection
The North–South Railway, by which our train was moving, is the principal railway line that connects capital city Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
The length of the single-track meter gauge line stretches to 1,726 km through the beautiful curve of the country. The name Reunification Express literally refers to the reunification of Vietnam (although at present, this name isn’t considered a brand by any train company that runs through the tracks).
The train line was established during the French colonial rule and was completed 1899 to 1936. We felt a certain amusement knowing that we were literally riding through history.
We were also lucky to have gotten tickets for the sleeper carriage, which were hot commodities during the Lunar New Year holidays in Vietnam.
Our cabin did not look fancy as we had imagined (our minds were set on European trains we’ve seen on movies); but it wasn’t bad either.
We were to stay in it for the next 16 hours or so. There was enough space and amenities for us to use in time of needs.
Luggage can be kept in our compartment. Sinks and squat toilets are located at the end of each carriage (imagine using these while the train shakily moves).
There were pillows and blankets that didn’t smell like fresh laundry (but didn’t stink either); the newsprint-like texture of these kept us warm throughout the ride. There were meals carted around and there’s a kitchen (at carriage 2) where anyone can order food.
After we dared to come out of our crammed cubicle, we explored the other 10 towed cars that made up the long rust-accentuated train of Vietnam.
Then, we realized that sleeping in soft beds was actually a better disposition than being like the rest that we saw.
Some passengers were sitting on small plastic stools along the narrow corridors, while others were lying on the floor with tarpaulin or any cloth on their backs. We passed through them by stretching our legs like leaping over hurdles amid the train’s constant swaying and juggling.
Every car has two toilets at the either ends near the door that connects the car to another. But, some of the toilets became tiny storage rooms for luggage, and for an old woman, it was her cradle for sleeping in fetal position. As the car numbers decrease, the levels of convenience among passengers downgrade. Cubicles of the same size as we had, now have six beds in a parallel of three decks.
The tiny spaces in between cars have different stories to tell just like a man and a woman sleeping on the floor like spoons, oblivious of people skipping over their legs.
Down at the wooden hard seat carriage, people can be seen napping and sleeping all over the place: under the chairs, on the chairs, beside the chairs, in the aisle, near the window, and near the door.
What was more surprising is the fact that none of them appeared to be complaining (as much as we were). Each train carriage seemed to be a calm communion of the Vietnamese from all classes. Believe Jesse when he says that he saw a guy in a tuxedo with a Beats by Dr. Dre studio headphones on his neck; that guy was in that carriage.
More sights and scenes
The way to Danang from Saigon was not exactly smooth. There were moments when the train would abruptly stop and make us fall off our beds.
“Did the train encounter a problem and cause us to stop?” “Were we being hijacked?”
Some paranoia set in Jesse who felt like the ride was a scene in an action movie set in mainland Asia.
There were a few stops in provincial train stations. These lasted for about 10-15 minutes.
Aside from seeing cars and motorbikes stop at train crossings, the scenic views in coastal areas and hills were a delight to us. The best ones and the most magical part of the train journey are those scenes through Danang and Hue (although we strongly argue that these scenes repeat themselves in some parts of Mindanao in the Philippines). Seat61.com noted that this train “runs along the South China Sea, snaking from cliff to jungle-covered cliff past beaches and islands, then heads through the lush green mountains via the Hai Van Pass to reach Danang.”
Train passengers also get to catch a glimpse of Vietnamese country life by seeing rice fields, palm trees, and water buffalos through the ride.
This, along with the amusing train nuances, makes up for a great traveling experience. We learned that there is no better way to travel through Vietnam but to get on a train: it is relatively safe and inexpensive.
Journeys through the rail are an integral part of traveling through the country. People who favor train rides argue that it is so much better than taking domestic flights because flying wastes the opportunity to see, experience, and smell all things Vietnam. And if you’re worried about being disconnected? Don’t be. There’s good 3G across the country so you can always brag about your train experience to your friends in Facebook.
And as we did post train photos, we heard screeching train sounds.
Those were our cues that we have arrived. (Lorie Ann Cascaro and Jesse Pizarro Boga/MindaNews)
(Lorie and Jesse are both fellows of FK Norway’s exchange program in Asia; they’re currently backpacking from the South of Vietnam to the North. Follow their adventures in Instagram @jesiramoun and in Twitter @kalowrie.)