Finally, after almost a month of travelling by bus, boat and moto, I’m back on the train with a ten hour journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An. And it’s great to be off the road and back on the straight and narrow track.
At first I don’t feel that relaxed about the experience. Getting on the train in Vietnam involves an undignified scramble, with everyone using elbows, shoulders and the kind of pushing and shoving you normally only see in the front row of a rugby scrum. An old woman, in her 80s if she’s a day, is moving slowly into the seat before mine. I’m waiting in the aisle to let her settle and behind me are a crowd of shouting Vietnamese, all trying to push past. I shout back and gesture at the old woman; it halts the tide for around a second before the shoving starts again.
When I’m finally seated and have finished glaring at everyone else around me (a good ten minutes or so later) I take a deep breath and look out the window. It’s as if Vietnam has turned on a nature slide show designed to calm and uplift tourist tempers.
In the soft light of dawn the train is running through emerald green rice paddies. Just behind are mountains, pale blue grey in the morning light, running one behind the other to the horizon. On the other side is the sea; calm and mirror clear.
The stewards bring breakfast through and the scent of rice porridge with herbs and chicken fills the carriage. I drink thick sweet coffee and eat a baguette that I bought at the station; crisp and fresh it fills my lap with crumbs.
The day brightens. Ducks squabble and float in dormant fields turned ponds and mud covered blue black water buffalo pause their masticating to watch the train go by. The fields start to fill with farmers. One walks with a hoe over his shoulder and his conical straw hat, a picture postcard shot of Vietnam. Others stand ankle deep in the mud, bent double, harvesting bunches of rice by hand. It’s picturesque from the train but it must be terrible, back breaking work, particularly as the day wears on and the heat builds and beats down on heads and shoulders.
I notice that graves are situated on the corner of many fields. Big, often gaudy mausoleums, some cared for, others over run, sit watching over rice and corn fields. There’s a kind of pleasing symmetry about it all: work the land during life and then return to the earth in that very spot. Some graves are just sand covered mounds. At first I think they must be recent but then, as they become increasingly regular, I realise that for the poor a headstone is a cost that can’t be met.
By the time I arrive at Danang in the mid afternoon, I’m enjoying the process of travel again. Train travel is a thousand times more peaceful, picturesque and relaxing than travel by road.
For starters you can move about, there’s none of the cramped frustration that comes from sitting in one seat for hours on end. I wander to the restaurant car to drink tea and eat lunch (rice with vegetable stir fry and a pork wonton, £1) and then check out the sleeper carriages, chat with Vietnamese passengers using smiles and sign language and stand by an open window in the guard’s space enjoying the breeze on my face.
It’s also a much smoother journey. Forget stopping and starting, traffic jams and traffic lights, instead there’s the rhythmic and soothing clack of the rails beneath my feet. The constant tooting of horns that is an integral and irritating part of driving in Asia is finally also absent.
And, I realise, train travel is much more picturesque, too. Roads, inevitably, become populated by towns as people take advantage of the access and business they provide. Railways, meanwhile, are less desirable to live beside – all you have is the noise and inconvenience of trains rattling by. And that means that for the most part, railway lines run through countryside. When they do hit cities they sit out of view, behind homes and businesses rather than in front, unintentionally providing a much more intimate and honest view of life than the front facade ever shows.