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The International Writers Magazine:Vietnam

Old Train through a New Country: A Ride on the Reunification Express
Josh Lew

Ha Noi is a city at peace with its yesterdays. Museums featuring everything from the well known (Vietnam’s 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 Ho’s 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-grandfather’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 my thanks.

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 weren’t 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 trip.

Despite the toilet experience, I accepted grandma’s 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 couldn’t 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? American’s know it. Last trip I saw a big man cry here. But Vietnamese don’t care. You are looking for it. But it isn’t here anymore. Vietnamese care about now, now, now." He flipped his sunglasses down as he shook my hand.

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 Nang’s 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 entertainment complex.

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 City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport, and a crowded bus from plane to terminal.

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? It’s 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.

© Josh Lew June 2008

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