Leaving the air con cool of the hotel, we walked out into the oily heat of a Saigon evening. Our guide, a tiny 57 year old Thai woman called Lek, who seemed to hate everything Vietnamese, hailed a taxi. We climbed in and were whisked through the chaos of whirring motorbikes beneath the infinite mass of telephone lines. We arrived at the train station after dark.
Thank God for Lek, who managed to scowl her way past the queue and terrify the ticket attendant into printing our passes. We took our seats in the fly-wracked waiting room, and I sat slapping away dive bombing bugs until I feel asleep, head lolling on my backpack. I was nudged awake to the whistle of the train arriving, and we floated our way to the platform.
We stocked up on drinks from a stall by the tracks, and wrestled our way onto the sweltering locomotive. Down narrow corridors we heaved our backpacks, passing compartment after compartment packed with Vietnamese faces. We reached our cabin and squeezed inside, slung our bags onto our bunks, and set about doing a whole lot of nothing in preparation for the next 8 hour train journey. Lek sat glaring at every Vietnamese person who dared consider taking the spare bed in our cabin.
Prior to the train, Lek had painted for us a mental picture of grotesque filth and contaminated horror. Rats live under the beds, she told us. If Lek was to be believed, (and we did believe her, prior to boarding the train) there would be cockroaches scaling the walls, rain dripping in through the ceiling, and piss everywhere. Turns out this was more of Lek’s random Vietnamese-orientated racism, and the train was rather nice. Well, actually it was pretty grim, but compared to the horrors we were expecting, it was a few steps up. So in a way, thanks, Lek.
The train wheezed and chugged and boom-crashed its way out of the station, and with our noses pressed against the window we found snapshots of Vietnamese life flashing past. Through the open windows and the crumbled walls of the city’s homes, we saw families cooking, playing and relaxing. I stared at tired parents relaxing in the blue-glow of knackered old TV sets, and I saw lone mechanics tinkering with their bikes in gloomy garages. Waitresses hurried across bustling restaurants under towers of plates. Students in detention scribbled notes under florescent lights. The city was never ending. I fell asleep.
I woke once in the night, needing the bathroom. It must have been 3am. I crept down off the top bunk and slid the door open. In bare feet, I padded down the rattling carriage, peering into other compartments as I passed. The Vietnamese were almost invariably awake, sharing drinks and playing cards and rolling around in laughter. There was a choice of two bathrooms – Western or Vietnamese. The former was a battered, blackened toilet pan. The latter was a hole in the floor. I don’t know which was worse.
I awoke a second time as the train took a fast corner and shunted me nose-first into the wall. Rubbing my eyes (and nose), I moved the curtains a fraction aside; brilliant light spearing into the room. Terrified of Lek’s wrath should I wake her, I allowed myself half an inch of window to spy through. Outside, all the fantastic grimy chaos of Saigon was nowhere to be seen. There was green everywhere. Waterlogged rice paddies whipped past, dotted with farmers in straw hats dragging ploughs across the surfaces. The fields were sporadically interrupted with explosions of dense jungle.
In the fields, buffalo stood chewing grass, tails swishing, vacantly watching our dark red train tear past, along with my wide eyes and wider grin.