International Writers Magazine:Vietnam
Train through a New Country: A Ride on the Reunification Express
Noi is a city at peace with its yesterdays. Museums featuring everything
from the well known (Vietnams wars with France, America, and
itself) to the obscure (folk tales featuring the likes of kleptomaniac
turtles and suicidal royals), dot the city. Except for Uncle Hos
Mausoleum, these exhibit halls are mostly aimed at foreign tourists.
Then there was the
living history of Old Town, a place where goods of every kind spill
out of workshops onto the narrow lanes. Yes, there are Honda motorbikes
and cell phones, but the vibe seems not to have changed in 200 years.
Workshops sit aside living rooms, which often double as showrooms. Craftsmen
practice their great-grandfathers trade.
Add to this heady concoction the colonial buildings, temples (so old
they could only be defined as ageless), and a street life that, though
urban, has a strong element of small town quaintness.
There is no escaping history in Ha Noi.
The train station was no less of an antique. On the track sat the Reunification
Express, a boxy-looking train that was supposed to symbolize modern
Viet Nam, but which looked more like the Technicolor version of a train
in an old black and white movie.
Pushing aside my fear of fast moving old things (that could fail at
any moment), I climbed on; already concocting fantasies based on Graham
Greene novels and 1930's silver screen classics. My imagination was
given ample time to work, because the train didnt leave until
45 minutes after scheduled.
By the time we finally started rolling south towards Hue and Da Nang,
I had had the chance to get to know the others in my four-bed sleeper
compartment. There was Hung, the owner of a apparently prosperous incense
factory. He wore three gold rings, spoke decent English, and kept a
pair of sunglasses pushed up on his head for the entire trip.
The two lower bunks beds were occupied by a plump silver haired woman
and four children, ages 4 to 12. I wondered how they planned to cram
into those two beds that were each barely wide enough to accommodate
one grown person. They seemed unconcerned, though, conversing with each
other and casting curious glances at me. I tossed them sticks of gum,
which only seemed to invite more glances and an occasional giggle. They
only stopped when the train lurched forward and slowly started to roll.
I would have ventured out of my bunk on my own, but Hung, the incense
factory owner, was eager to show me the ropes of rail travel. He, like
99.9% of all Vietnamese males, smoked. The first order of business was
to stand in the space between the sleeper car and the hard seat car
and light up. In Vietnam, smoking is not about assuaging a nicotine
craving. That is an added bonus. Those three minutes between the strike
of a lighter and the tossing of the butt were a time to get information,
to make gestures that could earn friends or make enemies. It was the
preferred way for someone to pause and take the pulse of what was going
on around them. In a sense, these tubes of tobacco were a different
kind of incense.
I think I laid awake most of that night. I was listening to the train
move, not quite sure which unfamiliar sounds I was dreaming and which
were actually there. The youngest member of our compartment wet the
bed in the middle of the night, but the grandmother simply threw a jacket
over the wetness and went back to the floor, where she slept half-propped
against a backpack. The kids, sprawled head to foot to head on the beds
didnt seem to be bothered by the constant clicking of wheel on
rail or the occasional light that flickered past outside our curtained
window. Perhaps I slept six hours, perhaps just one. In the morning,
the excitement of travel, though dulled, was enough to keep fatigue
from my mind.
The dreams didnt stop with daylight. Grandma, perhaps in an attempt
to thank us for putting up with the smell of urine offered us a shot
of rice wine for breakfast. I accepted when Hung did, and then regretted
doing so. The taste made me grimace and the burn trekked down my throat
and into my empty stomach. Grandma grinned, showing her betel nut stained
chops. Her facial expression seemed a bit too mischievously. I nodded
The rice wine necessitated a trip to the room with W.C. hand-painted
on the door. No, it was not dirty. In fact, it was quite clean. If it
werent for the fact that I was afraid of falling through the hole
of the squat toilet and becoming mangled on the rails below, I might
have even enjoyed it. Perched precariously above certain death, though,
was enough to make me promise to forgo liquids for the remained of the
Despite the toilet experience, I accepted grandmas sausage and
fish sauce breakfast. It was the first of many meals that I expected
to regret a few hours later, but never did.
I announced my attentions to Hung (and Grandma, though she couldnt
understand). I was going to get off in Da Nang and fly the remainder
of the trip. Hung, on our final smoking excursion, gave me some advice:
"We are on the DMZ. You know it, right? Americans know it.
Last trip I saw a big man cry here. But Vietnamese dont care.
You are looking for it. But it isnt here anymore. Vietnamese care
about now, now, now." He flipped his sunglasses down as he shook
Vietnam could be classified as a sleepy country, for the most part.
But I saw signs of "The Big Change" (dubbed doi moi by the
Communist Party) everywhere. There was the massive construction at Da
Nangs airport. Signs proclaiming allegiance to Samsung, Coca-Cola,
and Tiger Beer towered over murals of workers and images of Uncle Ho.
I crossed a sparkling new bridge and a large, traditional, tin-roofed
market that was sitting in the parking lot of a gigantic shopping and
Once aboard the Vietnam Airlines flight to Sai Gon, things went at a
pace I had not experienced since I had landed in Ha Noi four days ago.
At takeoff, I had images of the China Beach and Full Metal
Jacket in my imagination. But these were not as intense as the daydreams
I had experienced in Ha Noi and on the rails.
A quick time aloft was punctuated by mystery meat on a croissant, a
pretty stewardess, popping ears, the cement wartime hangers of Ho Chi
Minh Citys Tan Son Nhat Airport, and a crowded bus from plane
Ho Chi Minh City is tangible. It is not Ha Noi in more ways than mere
geography. Anyone who lives there will readily remind you of that. (They
will also remind you that it is Sai Gon; Ho Chi Minh City is the label
uttered by Communist Party Members and politically correct tourists).
A kind of compulsive, exciting energy rules the city. History? Its
relegated to market stalls and the odd, humidity-stained, wooden-shuttered
colonial era villas of District 3.
Sai Gon is about pop music, new buildings, and a brand of capitalism
that would make New Yorkers blush. Billboards are gigantic and actually
seem to grow before your eyes. On major streets, the sound systems of
competing boutiques strain to drown each other out. Buildings rise high
above downtown, and cranes and scaffolding point to a future with exponentially
more towering structures.
Over my month in Sai Gon, the "of the moment" energy began
to seduce me. But it was not all modernization.
I wandered daily through Tan Da market, taking in the exotic, pungent
goods. I frequently stopped for lunch at a soup stall on the far end
of the market. An elderly woman with some English always gave me a fair
price and sometimes, if she were not busy, would sit and watch me eat.
She would tell me about her business, about her recipes, and about her
daughter, who went to school to learn graphic design and now never visited.
But I noticed that she never talked about the future, never commented
on the flush-with-cash patrons who stopped by after work at a nearby
commercial center or before hitting the clubs.
For me, the surface of the city was loud, bright, and attention grabbing.
For the soup lady, life passed by as it always had. Sure, people wore
different clothes, drove different vehicles, talked about different
things. But they came from work as they always had; they craved her
soup like they always had. They sought out the market, despite its over-ripe
smells and lack of air conditioning. There was a sort of comfort under
the tin roof and amongst the scents and sense of timelessness. This
was the authentic side of the country; the thing that I had been looking
for since Ha Noi.
Except I was looking for it in places when I should have been looking
for it in people.
Lew June 2008
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