It bumped, jostled and curved its way onwards. It was as though its screeching wheels and groaning cogs were winding down or in serious need of lubrication. The passing life outside was shrouded. The dark night kept it secret, a murky world, mist-covered by windows. Daylight, welcoming, was there. The sun pushed through shods of clouds that hung on distant mountains. Some, closest, were rocky and variable. The rest was flat and fertile: rice fields, palm and banana plantations. The clapped-out rust and crudded stretch of iron proved remarkably resilient as it jolted and shunted forward blaring its horn, grinding to a halt.
It made a change being able to chat liberally to a fellow English speaker, an Irish script writer based Down Under. The crowded tourist den, Saigon’s ‘Crazy Buffalos’ and ‘Allez Boo’ bars sprang to mind, feeling eons away – something conjured up from a distant past. But that’s what I like about train travel. It can be traditionally slow and time enveloping, or rapid, due to modern demands, spurting the adrenalin. The former speed gave me a fleeting chance to see Vietnam’s hinterland: a passing mountain backdrop, oblong shaped houses, huts, and shacks used by land holders. Some were tending to crops, others wielding the odd cow.
I briefly got off at a station and bought two rolls of bread, and cheese slices. The bread was 100,000 Dong more, the cheese cost 40,000.
Much later, a man in his thirties and a thin woman in her mid-sixties, got on.
“Would you like some chicken and rice?’ She asked.
“Well….OK,” feeling in the mood to eat.
“I’ll get you some.”
“How much?” I asked when she came back.
“A hundred thousand.”
“A hundred Thousand! Too much.” I was going to hand the carton back.
“We got one for thirty earlier on this train,” Ronan, the Irish guy chipped in.
“Okay, forty thousand,” she compromised, stroking my bare feet and ankles hanging over the berth, appearing sweet.
“You…coffee? You coffee?” The guy pressured.
“I’ll get the coffees, Dave,” Ronan was being extra supportive and hospitable.
“Forty thousand for one.”
“What! You’re joking!” I fumbled through a bundle of Vietnamese money. I hadn’t the correct amount. Ronan got into an even hotter argument. The guy became aggressive.
“It’s too much, and you’ve only filled half the cup.”
I tried to fob him off with 5,000 Dong in two 2,500 notes. He threw them back in a rage, although I think he changed his mind and took them back in a flash just before the train started moving.
“Notice how the old woman looked sweet,” remarked Ronan.
“Sure did. When they behave like that they lose my sympathy.” The deceit, though, was easily manifested.
It’s what’s repugnant about today’s world; money mixed with ignorance. We are declining, not progressing; both as a civilisation and as a species.
However, the difficult incident passed away in a welcome relief made more so as swathes of sunlight fell upon mountain sides underneath blue skies. The Central Highlands area of the country told a few tales of intense activity during the Vietnam War.
“Come and see this, Dave.” Ronan invited.
We stood behind the window. He pointed out that passing close-by tree-clad mountains would tell a few stories about jungle warfare waged between the guerilla cong. Tons of Dioxin was used against the militia, scorching much of the plantation. Ronan could identify the names of these hills. A few scorched buildings were seen, evidence of the War. Discussing the conflict, I wondered.
“So it was Johnson, then Nixon, who were chiefly responsible for prolonging the war?”
“Nixon was a big crook,” Ronan interposed.
If you consider the amount of bomb tonnage dropped on the North and the Watergate scandal, it isn’t hard to refute the allegation. However, taking the actions of Bush and the Iraq War for all the wrong reasons, Nixon’s actions perhaps pale by comparison.
The train stopped at a packed level crossing. It had hit a girl and remained stationary for a good half-hour until she was lifted out of a ditch. It wasn’t easy to see how injured she was.
The locomotive made a big uphill sweep, hugging the edge of the coast. It twisted and bended by the side of a 3,000 foot mountain above a coastline of little coves. Little waves from an inky sea were lit-up by funnels of light beaming from offshore patrol boats. A necklace of lights twinkled on a horizon while myriads of stars lit-up the sky.
I gave Ronan my Hue Backpacker’s Hostel Card. It would ease his taxi journey into the old capital.
‘You’ll have the place to yourself,” he thought as he pointed to the other occupants of the cabin. A young guy and his wife with their little girl sucking a bottle of milk staring bright-eyed up at me, were preparing to leave.
“Are you sure they’re a couple?” I asked.
“Yes, they were very much together down the corridor.”
“But I never saw him hold the baby.”
“Maybe it’s a cultural thing.”
The train hit a wall of fog as it rattled, ground and jolted into Hue station. It would rat, tat and crunch its way into the darkness a whole lot more after I called “cheerio” to Ronan, watching his slim build disappear into the station.
The swoony song, “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” had a hollow ring as a guardsman came in and crashed out on one of the empty bunks.