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On Different Tracks : TALES FROM TWO TRAINS THROUGH SOUTHEAST ASIA : From Saigon to Hanoi, Getting to Know Ordinary Vietnamese People on the Old Transindochinois Local

May 08, 1994|TREVOR HOLDEN STUTELY | Stutely is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, Calif. and

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — It was a bright, noontime heat that seared the platform at Ho Chi Minh City's municipal railway station, yet it was only a little past 6 in the morning. The mid-May monsoon was weeks overdue, and today the air was wet and oppressive. In the still of the railway compartment, sunlight danced on worn upholstery and faded brightwork. And drifting through the open window came the hawking tones of the station vendors, touting crisp baguettes, pungent coffee and 10-cent paper fans.

From this corner seat I had planned to see an enormous amount of Vietnam. Beginning here, in the Saigon of old, the iron rails of the Transindochinois would carry me northward 1,240 miles along Vietnam's coast on the South China Sea, to the capital at Hanoi. Over the next three days, my journey would traverse seven degrees of latitude and some of the most dramatic vistas in the world. But as I gazed out at the bustle of departure, I pondered what else had lured me to Vietnam.

"Adventure" destinations can have a magnetic appeal. It's like skiing virgin snow or emerging into an undiscovered cave. President Clinton's lifting of the U.S. trade embargo was still 10 months in the future, so Vietnam was powder of the freshest kind. There was also the matter of resilience. For more than 2,000 years, the Vietnamese had fought outsiders for this tiny corner of the Asian continent. The legacy of that conflict, I was told, is to be found in their language, culture and customs, and is said to be what most defines their character. On this train I thought I might have a chance to touch that.

A little before 6:30 a.m., the bright-red diesel thrummed to attention, sending a shudder the length of the train. Uniformed officials hustled stragglers aboard, while bags and boxes tied with string piled higher and higher in the passageways outside each four-person compartment. Amid the chaos, no one checked tickets or berth assignments on this all-sleeper train. But I saw no arguments over seating or baggage. As I was to discover again and again in Vietnam, there is a natural, unspoken order of things, where mutual respect is derived from common cause. As the 16 pale green carriages slid from the sweltering platform, I marked this to be the first of many lessons I would learn.

The train picked up speed; through the shanties on the outskirts of Saigon, past rail crossings with waiting hordes of bicyclists, and across the Saigon River, where the sampans made their lazy passage from shore to shore. As the clatter on the sleepers hit rhythm, I settled deeper into the upholstery, ready, eager and expectant.

Like all the great rail journeys of the world, the Transindochinois evokes memories of a time past as it plays its role in life present. As in Egypt and India, Vietnam's railway system has colonial roots. Construction began in 1899, when the French sought to link the three provinces of Annam, Tonkin and Cochin China. The terrain was difficult; the climate was worse and it took 37 years to complete the 1,072 miles of narrow-gauge rail from Saigon to Hanoi. By 1936, trains in both directions were covering the distance in a speedy 40 hours and 20 minutes.

Today, France's grand achievement serves farmers on their way to market, distant relatives making family connections and businessmen rebuilding a shattered economy. After decades of track damage and reconstruction, the journey from Saigon to Hanoi now takes 52 hours--12 hours longer than 40 years before. But then again, as a man on the train told me, "Vietnam is not a place that's in a hurry." At this particular moment, however, I was in a hurry to take advantage of a far simpler invention. At the end of each carriage, in a commodious booth, was the classic Gallic hole-in-the-ground, over which I had to perch for relief--a difficult proposition on terra firma, made worse by the swaying motion of the train. At our measured pace, we pushed east toward the coast at Phan Thiet, some 6 1/2 hours distant. In time, the picture at the window changed. Forests of coconut and casuarina gave way to endless waterlogged plains that mark the beginning of the south-central Vietnam rice basket. Levees crisscrossed the broad expanse of paddy, creating a patchwork quilt of green that stretched to the horizon. And knee-deep in water, men threshed, women sowed and oxen plowed in the traditions of the centuries.

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