The S2 from Danang to Hanoi. The second train leg — 16 hours — for us on an unforgettable train journey that started in Saigon and stopped in Hoi An, on the central coast, for 3 days. The train climbs north out of Danang across deep gorges and into thickly forested mountains, where much work is underway on tunnels and roads, presumably to help facilitate the country’s booming tourist trade. The first two hours are relatively slow-going, and dozens of men and women clamber aboard and hang from the sides of the train or ride its roof. Periodically, they squeeze through the little door windows into the steaming hot, cigarette smoke-filled, rattle-roared sections where the cars are joined, then ply dried fish and other snacks through the train.
The train — known as the Reunification Express — is clearly a point of pride. A digital readout near the washrooms – the kind where you stand or squat above a hole in the floor through which the rails can be seen rushing by — notes that “many local resources” were used in the project. And leaving Saigon, a recording played as we departed. It was a history lesson in French and then French-accented English. I wish I’d taped it; as it was I grabbed my notebook just in time. It highlighted the French engineering role in developing the north-south train system; spoke about the destruction to the system that took place during the 1960’s and 1970’s “American War”; the repair work that begin in 1976 but was hindered due to lack of capital; the “free market economy” that since 1989 helped speed the process, and the “obtaining of victorious achievements” since “especially in passenger service.”
Then the national anthem was played as we clattered through the crammed tight track-side neighborhoods out of Saigon.
We booked hard-sleepers, six narrow bunks, three on each side of a cabin that would give a big man (I mean, a man even bigger than me) claustrophobia.
From Saigon to Danang one of cabin-mates was a 33 year-old accountant from Saigon, Nhat, headed to visit his parents and his son. His wife, he said, has lived for 7 years in Portland, where she does nails.
Kids and their parents came kept coming by to watch us — and then to prove to their firends that we were no tall tale — and then about 5 girls spent several hours hanging (sometimes literally) with us in the cabin, paying special attention to Langston and his drawings and to our Vietnamese -English phrasebook.
From Danang north, our cabin mate was a grandmother of uncertain age whose entire family seemed to accompany her aboard to wish her bon voyage and get her settled in.. She wore back hornrimmed glasses and black silk pants and she had carefully-brushed silver hair, rotted teeth, which every so often she would pick at with a toothpick dipped in some peppermint-like liquid, which would put a sweet little aroma into the cabin. Her pink blouse was almost translucent it had been washed so many times; she kept her money in its waistpocket, secured by a big safety pin. When Langston’s feet dangled in her space she slapped them. But when she dug into her bag of food she was quick to give us some fruit to share: knobby- and thin-skinned and about the size of a tennis ball, we peeled them in stamp sized pieces and ate a juicy white meat the name of which we’ve yet to discover.
There was a Scotsman aboard named John, a truck driver who had been on the road for 7 months, from South America to here. We met him after a woman, believing Keleakai single, dragged her down to her cabin to meet him!
Here’s me in the train’s dining/kitchen/staff car, where the conductors, about 8 of them per train, nap and eat, smoke and play checkers.
In the smoking section – the roaring space between the cars — I met Long An and Long Am — taxi drivers from Saigon headed with their families to Hanoi to visit Uncle Ho’s mausoleum. Long An had Ho’s face as a screensaver on his cellphone. We spent a good hour handing the phrasebook back and forth trying to communicate.
We rattled past rice paddies in which you could see the tracks of careful footprints left by those sowing the shoots, past stands of mango, pomelo, frangipani and rubber trees, past water buffalo pulling plows, dozens of graveyards small and sprawling, great pools of water lilies and naked children floating on their backs in green rivers.
Shortly after dawn we rolled into Ga Hanoi.
The mask on Langston’s face, which he picked up at a Hoi An marketplace, is not an anti-SARS measure. It’s a ubiquitous feature of local life, worn by what seems like 80 percent of the motorbike and scooter riders, and a good number of pedestrians too, as a dust and smog and pollution guard. Like the conical dried reed hat, it’s another be-more-local initiative of Langston’s, as if he doesn’t attract enough attention already.