Chuffed about the rail thing

Steve McKenna takes a ride through Vietnam's history on the iconic Reunification Express.

'Chao da' the Vietnamese greeting for hello didn't seem to cut it with the old lady in my compartment. I'd half-expected at least a nod and a smile in response but all I got was a grimace. She muttered something to her friend, who was sitting on the bunk above her, and buried her head in a book.

As the train clattered out of Hanoi, a young Vietnamese couple entered our six-bed berth. I lay on my bed, a wafer-thin mattress that covered a two-metre-long slab of wood, and chatted with the man. After a while, he said politely: "My wife, she thinks it's very strange that you travel alone. People in this country would never do such a thing."

When I told him this was fairly common practice among single Western travellers, he smiled and translated and she looked perplexed.

It was hardly the most auspicious of starts to my journey on the Reunification Express, the iconic rail service that stretches from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

The first leg of my trip was from Hanoi to Danang, a distance of 791 kilometres.

With cheap internal air travel really taking off in Vietnam in recent years, I could have flown for not much more than the rail fare ($47).

But there is something special and exciting about travelling on the express, not least because of its turbulent history.

During the Vietnam War, swathes of the line's 1726 kilometres of track, plus hundreds of bridges and tunnels, were destroyed.

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But the Vietnamese doggedly repaired the damage so the trains could once again run as they did when the French colonialists launched the route in 1936.

Despite my hard bed and the old lady's snores I slept reasonably well.

When I awoke at 9am, the old woman was cracking nuts with her teeth.

I heard a trolley clunking outside the compartment and a jovial young woman sold me breakfast (a tub of popcorn, two fairy cakes and a plastic cup of pitch-black Vietnamese coffee) for about $2.50.

Outside my window were reams of utterly flat, unripened rice fields. An hour later, we had crossed into the former Demilitarised Zone, the old partition area between North and South Vietnam, near the city of Hue.

Many tourists visit Hue, the ancient former capital, to see the crumbling but opulent tombs of the Nguyen emperors or for a side trip to Khe Sanh, the site of one of the Vietnam War's most famous sieges.

Neither overly appealed, partly because I was so keen to continue to Danang a further three hours from Hue.

In his book The Great Railway Bazaar, the notoriously grouchy travel writer, Paul Theroux, waxed lyrical about the Hue-Danang stretch, saying he'd been "unprepared for this beauty" and was "surprised and humbled by it".

This was despite the presence of soldiers, sandbags, pillboxes and bunkers (it was 1973) and the fact that he'd already enjoyed countless picturesque train journeys throughout Europe and India.

"Of all the places the railway had taken me since London, this was the loveliest," he wrote.

As we left Hue's suburbs, passing a jumbled skyline of rusting aluminum roofs and slate-capped brick buildings, the train snaked left and right until we began hugging the coast.

Initially, we were at ground level, then we gradually eased upwards. The higher we climbed, the more spectacular the view.

After all the paddy fields and calm rivers and canals we'd seen, watching the waves crash violently against the cliffs was a welcome change. So too was the salty air that drifted through the open windows.

On the other side of the train was mist-cloaked jungle and I couldn't help thinking of Platoon and Apocalypse Now.

Like me, the old ladies got off at Danang 14 hours after we'd left Hanoi but only one of them said goodbye. I hopped in a taxi to nearby Hoi An, a gorgeous old port town on the banks of the Thu Bon River, which boasts an incredible 350 tailor shops selling dapper new outfits from about $150.

I passed the next leg of my trip an eight-hour jaunt to Nha Trang by day and on a comfy reclining seat.

Refreshment trolleys went past every 10 minutes and flat-screen televisions showed Vietnamese films with no English subtitles, rendering the action unintelligible to half the passengers in my carriage.

With the scenery not a patch on the Hue-Danang part there were rice fields and more rice fields I was content sipping the addictive local coffee while reading The Quiet American, Graham Greene's classic novel set in 1950s French-ruled Saigon. As we stopped at a tatty station midway through the journey, I hopped off for a much-needed stretch of my legs.

Half-a-dozen vendors armed with identikit bowls of steaming rice cried in unison: "You want? You want?"

I almost felt guilty at singling one of them out. But they all smiled as I reboarded the train with a tub of rice and a grilled chicken leg. Nha Trang, when we got there, was lovely and relaxing.

I spent time lazing on the wide sandy beach, then hired a bicycle (for $1.50) and rode up and down its palm tree-lined seaside promenade. Evenings were spent mostly in Tiny Bar Nghia, a nifty little spot where glasses of chilled beer cost about 21 cents a pop.

Above its door, its agreeable sign said: "Very Good, Very Cheap, Very Vietnam."

It was 1am when my train to Ho Chi Minh pulled in to Nha Trang station.

I'd been watching rats dance on the tracks and, nearby, platform vendors hoping to make a few last sales before they slept on the makeshift beds behind their counters. This time, I had a compartment to myself and slept peacefully until 8am, when, with our final destination approaching, I took a stroll to the dining section at the opposite end of the train.

A few Vietnamese, including some railway staff, were enjoying a karaoke session.

Mostly, the singing was awful or at least far too shrill (and early) for my sensitive ears.

But it was hard not to smile, especially when they grinned at my presence, the sole Westerner watching this surreal start to the day.

I sat there until the announcer revealed, first in Vietnamese, then in English, that we would soon be arriving at Saigon station (despite Ho Chi Minh City being the official name since 1975, the old one is still widely used).

"We hope you enjoy travel with us," she said.

I had. It had been a fine journey the entire 1726 kilometres.

I waved goodbye to the karaoke singers and dashed to the other end of the train to retrieve my luggage.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Jetstar flies direct from Sydney and Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh City. See jetstar.com.au.

GETTING AROUND

Rail ticket prices between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) vary, depending on class. I paid 530,000 dong ($47) for a six-berth sleeper on the Hanoi-Da Nang leg and about 350,000 dong each for the Da Nang-Nha Trang and Nha Trang-Ho Chi Minh City sections. See www.vr.com.vn/English for timetables.

MORE INFORMATION

A good one-stop site for Vietnam is vietnamtourism.com.

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