Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Night Train

A memorable train ride in Vietnam 2008

Have you ever taken the night train you ask your Auntie Number 5 at the hotel, unable to choose from the impossible breakfast buffet – dragon fruit and baguettes, mangosteen and milk, crab soup and cornflakes. This is your first time back in Saigon in 3 decades. This is the aunt, who knew you when you were 6 pounds, 10 inches - who kisses you with the authority of her nostrils and hugs you with the burden of her bones. She loves you so much, it hurts. She is the one who stayed behind. When she looks at you, taking her attention from the plainest rice porridge on the planet save some redeeming flecks of pickled daikon - not with a look of nostalgia – but with a look one has when in Cartagena, Colombia you encounter a 60-something fellow traveler, the sagging colors of yellow, blue and red, a soccer team emblem tattooed on half his face - mouth agape in astonishment.

Why would you do this, she asks?

You have not fully lived until you have taken the night train in Vietnam. You want to fully immerse yourself and explore this country your ancestors gave – beyond the nón lá, the rice fields, the incense burning Buddhist buildings. First, you vanish into the veins of the locomotive. Then you sense that panic stricken jolt of solitude glued to ribs – a feeling you haven’t been able to shake off since your plane taxied on the tarmac of Tan Son Nhat.  You locate the numbers on door, corresponding to ticket. The smell of boiled pork bone, sweaty feet and dandruff on sour sheets welcome you as you enter the compartment. This is neither the TGV nor OBB nor the SBB -Schweizerische Bundesbahnen when you smuggled a 20-pound leg of proscuitto di parma from Sienna to Geneva. No, this train has none of those stylish comforts you have come to expect.

The bodies of 2 young men occupy the top beds. Their legs eject the fireworks of flip-flops that splatter and crash onto bottom bunks. Yours. You search for some confidence afforded by all those months of private tutoring mastering the atonal accents over letters m and a – letters and accents when combined can shape shift words into - mother, rice, horse, grave and ghost. You take a deep breath and release a frustration of silence. You gaze at the traffic of vendors - their carts the width of the corridor. Noodle soup, coffee, chè, chewing gum. You are not hungry.

You step into the corridor. You feel a million miles away, drifting above Orion. A crow has swallowed the moon. Somewhere in between myth or memory, you can no longer discern. You are among a group of 3 friends, at a time when you study a semester in Vienna, when you all decide to spend Halloween in Romania, a pilgrimage to Dracula’s castle. You gaze out the window as Holly hands over her last  20 shillings to the inebriated Romanian ticket conductor - his palm open and Botero-esque. How he wobbles and screams, Paşaport Paşaport! The other conductor tries to drag him away from committing such a shameful, vulgar act. But it is too late. You paid up then. A helpless hamster.

You wave now at the Vietnamese conductor with a mustache. In your flawless southern Vietnamese dialect, you ask for another compartment. His hands smack before you, rubbing in front of an imaginary fire. “How much will you give me, sister?” 

I ended up paying $20 for a different compartment. It doesn't seem a lot now -  if you consider at the time the average monthly salary being $100 a month in vn - it would have been a nice bonus. Several hours later, only as we were sleeping, another conductor barged in - then quickly left. As it turned out, the compartment was the conductor's and another's private room. As Cedric tells me later, after a trip to the toilets, they slept in ours.

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