I’m not at my best at 2am. Unlike some night owls, I’m not the kind of person who thrives on the dark, welcomes late nights and embraces the decadence of sleeplessness. I like early mornings, waking refreshed with a long night’s sleep behind me.
I'm tetchy when the alarm wakes me at 1am and I have to creep around the room, trying to dress and pack without waking the others in the dorm. I have a sleeper to catch, from Hue to Nimh Binh. It’s a 13 hour journey and the pleasure of rail travel is palling in the deep of the night.
The taxi ride is shorter than I expect and I’m at the station too early, I have 30 minutes to wait. Around me, locals are sleeping on the plastic seats, stretched out and snoring in what look like hugely uncomfortable positions. The heat is stifling. I rest my head on the top of my back pack and try to doze.
Another foreigner comes along, dragging a suitcase on wheels behind him. The rattle of it along the tiles wakes me up a little. He comes to sit beside me and we make half hearted small talk. He’s British, lives in Vietnam and is teaching conservation at the University in Hue.
There are long gaps in our conversation, as befits the time of night. He asks about my trip and when I tell him my plans he sighs, rubs his hand through his thinning hair and says, ‘I wanted to come that way when we moved out here but my wife didn’t want to.’
Oh, I say, well perhaps when you go back to the UK?
‘I don’t think so,’ he says. ‘My wife...’ his voice tails off.
There’s a complicated announcement in Vietnamese over the tannoy; I hear the word Hanoi but nothing else. Around us a few people start to gather belongings and move towards the platform. Others slumber on. I wonder out loud whether it might be my train.
The British professor says no. ‘That was the announcement for the local one,’ he says.
I congratulate him on his grasp of Vietnamese. ‘I spend a lot of time on the trains,’ he says, in a voice that suggests this is no good thing and not a decision made of choice.
Oh, I say. Why’s that?
‘My job’s in Hue but we live in Saigon.’
Don’t you like Hue, I ask?
‘Oh no, I love Hue, I’d really like to live here.’ He pauses and I know before he speaks what he’s going to say next. ‘My wife,’ he says, ‘has a job in Hanoi.’
I feel sorry for this unmet wife. She seems to be the receptacle for all his disappointments in life, a vessel he fills with his unmet dreams.
The air is heavy with heat. There are beads of sweat on my upper lip and around my hairline. My tshirt is damp. The train is running late. Eventually another announcement is made and everyone begins to move. The professor and I join them. We walk along the platform and I notice three railway workers fast asleep on the stone floor of a store room. They lie on their backs, arms flung out beside them. A light is burning bright above them, insects are gathered around it and moths flutter around the sleeping men.
The train pulls in. There’s no platform and we have to pull ourselves up, a metre or so, to the first step. A hard faced woman checks my ticket and leads me off; the professor disappears to his carriage.
For this leg of my journey I’ve had to take a hard sleeper as the soft sleepers were fully booked. Usually this simply means a six rather than four berth cabin. But in Vietnam it means exactly what it says.
When I pull myself up onto my bunk – the top of three, with not enough head room to sit – I discover it is very definitely hard, nothing more than a sheet of metal covered by a bamboo mat.
There’s a grubby blanket and a pillow that still bears the head mark of the person who slept there before me. As I settle in I can feel the previous occupant’s warmth still emanating from the blanket.
Squeamishly I pull out my own sheet, a silk sleeping bag, and throw it over the blanket and pillow. I toss and turn for 10 or 15 minutes, trying to find a comfortable position but in the end sleep wins and I drift off with the hum and shake of the rails beneath my head.
I sleep well enough to miss breakfast and wake at 9.30. The rest of the cabin has been up since 5am and their staccato vowel heavy Vietnamese has been filtering into my dreams along with the smell of rice porridge and chicken.
When I finally rouse myself from bed to look out the window I see that we have left the sea and sand of the south behind and in their place are the karst mountains that I’m travelling to Ninh Binh to see.