Train journeys –proper ones with old engines and sleeper carriages – are a little like dining at Indian restaurants. Go to a good local curry house and you’ll find silverware and tablecloths and all the polished trimmings of fine dining.
But when the food comes out, it’s a rough and ready free for all of hands ripping and dipping Naan bread into delicious messy curries, drips of sauce splattering the cloth and your napkin wiping the sweat from your brow. It’s a perfect balance of genteel precision and chaotic indulgence.
So it goes with old school trains. The obsolete wood finishes inside the carriages, the plush carpet, the big windows and dining car and the conductors clipping tickets and pushing the drinks cart through the aisles. Whenever I get the chance in my travels, I take the train, to enjoy that mix of formality cut with wear and tear.
And so it went with the famed train journey from from the coastal city of Danang to Hue in Vietnam, the nation’s ancient capital. Our locomotion started normally, whizzing along the coast in a taxi from Hoi An, past the never-ending tourist resorts stretching from the lantern lit old city to China Beach in the Danang bay.
We speared inland and into traffic and got dumped at Ga Da Nang, the city’s faded railway station. After an hour’s delay the train sloughed into the station – two knackered engine cars pulling at least fifteen carriages with the outside of every window streaked in dust and grease, and the inside panes clothed with sun bleached curtains. Brilliant, I thought, and walked out into the sun baked the platform.
Our tickets told us carriage 1, seats 26 and 27, and we made our way all the way to the very end of the train. The service plies between Hanoi in the north and Saigon in the south, stopping at major points along the way, so they just whack an engine on the other end when it reaches the terminus. Today we were in the carriage just before the caboose, where the weary train stewards not on duty were catching a siesta. To get inside it was necessary to haul myself up a pair of stairs so steep it should be termed a ladder, no mean feat with my 15-kilogram backpack and hand luggage to balance with.
The inside of the carriage was pure disappointment. The air conditioning was a mere suggestion, and teased the sweat on my brow with snowdrifts of cold air that came and went, came and went. The aisle was wide as a thin man and the seats looked like they had been rescued from a burnt out 1970s furniture store. I shoved our backpacks into the precarious overhead luggage racks and we sat down, facing a sleeping couple opposite, a tin table separating us, like the world’s most uncomfortable job interview.
Chug, chug, chug – more smooth and steady acceleration, and we were away. The momentum built and built until Danang’s crowded streets were flying past and the carriage was bouncing up and down like it was taking on moguls at Chamonix. Hoot! Hoot! The windows went black and the sickly florescent bulbs above lit the carriage like an operating theatre. Tracks screeched, seats twisted, black and black and black.
The outside world cut back in as the train soared from the tunnel and the view expanded to the blue horizon. The flat, shallow calm of the South China Sea glittered far down below, framed by the curving green coastline, sloping away almost vertically from the railway line to a line of breakers on a deserted beach.
Up above, a midday flight – maybe taking our direction from Danang to Hue – roared in take-off, angling up and up. Inside that modern steel tube they’d have better seats, cleaner windows, colder air conditioning and a faster ride. But they’d never have this view.