"The great challenge in travel is not arriving at the glamorous foreign city, but solving the departure problem, finding a way out of it, without flying. Busses are usually nasty and bus stations the world over are dens of thieves, cutpurses, intimidators, mountebanks, and muggers. Hired cars are convenient but nearly always a ripoff, and who wants narration from the driver? The train is still the ideal- show up and hop on."
- Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
It's hour 9 of 14 and we're getting a little loopy. We’ve assigned nicknames to the passengers in our car and have bets on the murderer in the Vietnamese soap opera that's playing (at full volume) on the tiny television screen. Each time the carriage door opens, we turn, hoping to see the cart selling beer (not pho or steamed sausages). For the fourth time today, we compare this train to the speed and efficiency of the those in Europe or Japan, a hopeless exercise that only leads to further frustration. The only thing to do is surrender to the travel mindset and adopt the "we'll get there when we get there" mantra.
We've opted to take the train to Hanoi (the Reunification Express) following our last 14-hour travel adventure on an overnight bus from Nha Trang to Da Nang that included one bathroom break, unpaved roads and a near Dramamine overdose. In comparison, Theroux is right; the train is the way to go. Sure, there are some seriously strange smells, the bathroom requires half a bottle of hand sanitizer, and Vietnamese pop music competes (at full volume) with crying from the soap opera on TV, but we're nine hours in and happily rolling along.
To describe the passing Vietnamese countryside as beautiful is selling it short. At 5:30am, the train rocks through the waking streets of the Hue suburbs and shortly after we're slowly moving past rice fields, ponds full of blossoming lotus flowers, and massive limestone cliffs, jutting straight out of the ground. By 1pm, we're in an agricultural area, with the flat plains sprinkled with water buffalo and the bamboo conical hats of farmers. The bright afternoon sun slowly moves overhead and prepares to set as we close in on Vietnam’s capital. Stop after stop, we inch closer to the city, and as darkness falls the train creeps through small villages where men gather around short tables on plastic stools, drinking beer and playing cards. It is, without a doubt, the best way to see the country.
With so much time, we read aloud from Theroux's book, finally reaching chapters on Vietnam and comparing our time here with his. As we learn more and more about this country - the history, the war, the economy and the culture - our experiences start to make more sense. It sparks conversation and reflection; a deeper understanding of the people and place that is only attainable through a combination of effort and time. We're grateful for the opportunity, proud of our decision to travel and happy to experience the world together. All of this from 14 short hours on a train that stands today as a symbol of independence.