On Different Tracks : TALES FROM TWO TRAINS THROUGH SOUTHEAST ASIA : From Saigon to Hanoi, Getting to Know Ordinary Vietnamese People on the Old Transindochinois Local

It was a bright, noontime heat that seared the platform at Ho Chi Minh City's municipal railway station, yet it was only a little past 6 in the morning. The mid-May monsoon was weeks overdue, and today the air was wet and oppressive. In the still of the railway compartment, sunlight danced on worn upholstery and faded brightwork. And drifting through the open window came the hawking tones of the station vendors, touting crisp baguettes, pungent coffee and 10-cent paper fans.

From this corner seat I had planned to see an enormous amount of Vietnam. Beginning here, in the Saigon of old, the iron rails of the Transindochinois would carry me northward 1,240 miles along Vietnam's coast on the South China Sea, to the capital at Hanoi. Over the next three days, my journey would traverse seven degrees of latitude and some of the most dramatic vistas in the world. But as I gazed out at the bustle of departure, I pondered what else had lured me to Vietnam.

"Adventure" destinations can have a magnetic appeal. It's like skiing virgin snow or emerging into an undiscovered cave. President Clinton's lifting of the U.S. trade embargo was still 10 months in the future, so Vietnam was powder of the freshest kind. There was also the matter of resilience. For more than 2,000 years, the Vietnamese had fought outsiders for this tiny corner of the Asian continent. The legacy of that conflict, I was told, is to be found in their language, culture and customs, and is said to be what most defines their character. On this train I thought I might have a chance to touch that.

A little before 6:30 a.m., the bright-red diesel thrummed to attention, sending a shudder the length of the train. Uniformed officials hustled stragglers aboard, while bags and boxes tied with string piled higher and higher in the passageways outside each four-person compartment. Amid the chaos, no one checked tickets or berth assignments on this all-sleeper train. But I saw no arguments over seating or baggage. As I was to discover again and again in Vietnam, there is a natural, unspoken order of things, where mutual respect is derived from common cause. As the 16 pale green carriages slid from the sweltering platform, I marked this to be the first of many lessons I would learn.

The train picked up speed; through the shanties on the outskirts of Saigon, past rail crossings with waiting hordes of bicyclists, and across the Saigon River, where the sampans made their lazy passage from shore to shore. As the clatter on the sleepers hit rhythm, I settled deeper into the upholstery, ready, eager and expectant.

Like all the great rail journeys of the world, the Transindochinois evokes memories of a time past as it plays its role in life present. As in Egypt and India, Vietnam's railway system has colonial roots. Construction began in 1899, when the French sought to link the three provinces of Annam, Tonkin and Cochin China. The terrain was difficult; the climate was worse and it took 37 years to complete the 1,072 miles of narrow-gauge rail from Saigon to Hanoi. By 1936, trains in both directions were covering the distance in a speedy 40 hours and 20 minutes.

Today, France's grand achievement serves farmers on their way to market, distant relatives making family connections and businessmen rebuilding a shattered economy. After decades of track damage and reconstruction, the journey from Saigon to Hanoi now takes 52 hours--12 hours longer than 40 years before. But then again, as a man on the train told me, "Vietnam is not a place that's in a hurry." At this particular moment, however, I was in a hurry to take advantage of a far simpler invention. At the end of each carriage, in a commodious booth, was the classic Gallic hole-in-the-ground, over which I had to perch for relief--a difficult proposition on terra firma, made worse by the swaying motion of the train. At our measured pace, we pushed east toward the coast at Phan Thiet, some 6 1/2 hours distant. In time, the picture at the window changed. Forests of coconut and casuarina gave way to endless waterlogged plains that mark the beginning of the south-central Vietnam rice basket. Levees crisscrossed the broad expanse of paddy, creating a patchwork quilt of green that stretched to the horizon. And knee-deep in water, men threshed, women sowed and oxen plowed in the traditions of the centuries.

As the sun had climbed high in the sky, the mercury inched a little higher. Overhead, an electric fan hummed and whirred sporadically. And across the compartment, two men in short-sleeve shirts and suit pants worn shiny with wear, cooled themselves with paper fans. My stomach growled at the obvious foolishness of not traveling well-stocked with food, when the carriage attendant, a young woman of no more than 17, came to the door and made an announcement. "You want lunch?" translated one of my companions in halting English. They were schoolteachers from Da Nang, returning from a training seminar in Saigon. "I have known many Americans," he said, over small bowls of warm rice and dried fish. He had the steady face and quick eyes of a man who had been under fire, but I didn't ask if he had been with the army of South Vietnam. "You have children?" he asked. We shared the wrinkled photos that every father carries in his wallet, and spoke of wives and family, like two neighbors across a fence in suburban America.

Moung Ma is the station that serves the coastal city of Phan Thiet. You can't quite see the South China Sea from here, but you can feel its cooling breeze. Beneath a ragged stand of banana trees, two old men in dark clothes and rubber sandals spit betel juice in the dust as they sat playing dice. An old woman swept the dirt in front of the waiting room, swiping at a pair of scrawny dogs scavenging for scraps. The station buildings, like most along the route of the Transindochinois, were once an expression of European civilization in the wilderness. Today, the shutters hang at the windows by rusty screw and nail, as one might find on an abandoned house in the French countryside; the neat flower beds, devoid of living color, retained their whitewashed wooden borders, and the flagpole still stood tall, only flying different colors. During the 30-minute stop, the tableaux barely changed, like a Rockwell painting of a bygone era.

In motion again, the picture at the window changed once more. The late afternoon saw rice paddies give way to gently undulating hills covered with giant cacti and poinciana trees, and looming at the horizon, the low mountain range that is the southern extremity of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Storm clouds had gathered and the air was wet with expectation.

*

At Thap Cham, sandstone statues of the Hindu gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, stared downfrom a hill to the west. The stop was for but a moment, but long enough for a young boy of about 7 to sell thin purple volumes to eager, outstretched hands. "Today's prayer," said one of my companions. The thunderous skies grew deep charcoal and hastened the night. Scattered showers danced in the distance as the train turned northward. Rain began to spatter the window, as a young man who had boarded at Thap Cham began to tell me of his visit to his grandfather. "It is traditional for the dying to receive visitors for two weeks, to formally take leave," he said. My condolences were greeted with a wave of the hand. "There is no dying. Only departure to another place." It is theory central to the Vietnamese culture. Each person is part of an extended family, bound together in unending bloodlines, through the spirits of the dead, of children unborn, and even of those not conceived.

Around 6 that evening, the carriage lighting came on dimly, flickering with each bump and shudder. The train slowed into Nha Trang, the "Cannes" of Vietnam. This night, however, its golden beaches and sparkling waters were hidden by darkness and rain. At the station, passengers boarded, the locomotive crew was changed, and the rest of us ate. Rain drummed on the roof as bowls of aromatic soup, pungent with basil and lemon grass, were passed through carriage windows from makeshift cook stands on the platform. Vendors selling beer, cigarettes and hard candies spilled into the compartments. Fistfuls of grimy dong, Vietnam's near worthless currency, changed hands. "Watch your bags," a voice whispered earnestly. Rail journeys in Vietnam are relatively crime-free, but the young boys who ride the roof of the train are known to take opportunity where they find it.

The diesel's whistle blew and the soup vendors scurried to collect their bowls, finished or not. About 9 that evening, the carriage attendant brought us clean white sheets and lowered the cantilevered sleeping berths for the night. The teachers settled in, but I was mistaken if I thought that sleep would beckon me. Across the compartment, a young man who had joined us at Nha Trang, turned to me and said softly in Vietnamese, "Han hanh duoc gap ong." He continued on, louder now, "Chao ong." I bravely fiddled with the pages of a throwaway phrase book found in a drawer at Saigon's Rex Hotel. He mercifully took it from me, indicating the words he was saying: "Hello . . . glad to meet you," I said, pronouncing the English translation. As he pointed to the appropriate response, I gingerly tried the Vietnamese words: "Ong manh khoe khong." A voice from above gave out a big belly laugh.

With that simple phrase book, the young man and I conversed throughout the night. As the train clattered on through the rain, the intricate tones of the Vietnamese language curled around and lingered in the back of my throat, exiting now and then to peals of laughter, and sometimes applause. At some point, we drifted into sleep, rocked by the rhythm of the train. Dawn broke in the Central Highlands and the diesel's whistle blew, prompting salutary waves from a group of peasants on their way to the rice paddies. The rain had stopped, the skies were clear and the golden hues of early morning bathed the countryside with a coat of amber.

The train began a series of gentle arcing turns that carried us into the backwater town of Quang Ngai. It's a peaceful spot, famous only for its proximity to My Lai, the hamlet where women and children were brutally massacred by U.S. troops one afternoon in the early 1960s.

From here, the rail tracks run parallel with National Route 1 for a distance. Here, evidence of another war and another time dot the hillsides. Gray stone pillboxes that once guarded this strategic highway during the Franco-Viet Minh War, now are covered in moss and lichen, but their sniper slits still stare down with anger. And then, there is Da Nang.

*

Da Nang marked the halfway point on my journey north to Hanoi. It is Vietnam's fourth largest city and second most important port. It was also to be the place where my companions would bid me farewell. The teachers were cheered to be going home. "Today I will see my sons. Soon you will see yours," said my talkative friend. My all-night language friend said goodby in his own special way: "I have some linen to take to the laundry." The diesel shuddered. And we were gone.

Da Nang to Hue by rail is the most scenic journey in all of Vietnam. The 3 1/2-hour journey covers a scant 62 miles, but climbs high into the Annamite Cordillera, giving breathtaking views of the most beautiful coastline in the world. Lush green forests of coconut, betel and plantain descend from the mountain tops to the curving strips of golden sand that mark the water's edge. The South China Sea shimmers in the sunlight. The locomotive's brakes screeched steel-on-steel as we descended into the ancient capital of Hue. It was a journey of anticipation. Without visiting Hue, one has not visited Vietnam. Straddled across the Perfume River, it is the confluence of everything spiritual and intellectual in Vietnam.

It is where the Nguyen Emperors, the last Imperial Dynasty to rule Vietnam, held court; their Citadel and Forbidden City still stand in majestic ruin. Ho Chi Minh, the father of the nation, received some of his boyhood education at the French Lycee here in the 1920s. And in 1963, Buddhist monks from Hue shocked the world when they used self-immolation in the streets of Saigon to protest the corrupt Saigon government. Today, Hue is still what Somerset Maugham called "a pleasant little town with a leisurely European air."

There is a certain grace and splendor here that transcends the poverty so apparent elsewhere in Vietnam. It is also renowned for the most beautiful women in Asia. The train, however, had no time for such dalliance.

Northward from Hue, the tracks returned to keep company with National Route 1 as we forged into Quang Tri Province and toward what was once the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Vietnam was partitioned here in 1954, and despite reunification, this place remains a demarcation line. The smiles and waves along the railroad tracks that were so common in the South, were suddenly replaced with sterner faces. The multicolored hues of Saigon laissez-faire, became the drab monotony of olive green military shirts and pith helmets. I sensed restraint. And a little sadness.

The Transindochinois continued north, for miles, for hours and for what seemed like days. The view from the window became so monotonously drab that we, the passengers, became theater. Walking the passageway, I discreetly peered into each compartment and found people doing what boredom demands--eating, sleeping, playing cards, reading novels. Afternoon became evening and the twilight lingered, longer now at this higher latitude. And around 10 that night, the train ambled into Dong Ha, where the soup vendors were waiting and the tableaux of commerce was played out once more. Thirty minutes later, we were in motion again on the longest leg of our journey--seven full hours to the provincial capital of Vinh. Sleep came mercifully.

The morning of the third day was greeted with rice and eggs, sizzling on the carriage attendant's oil stoves in the passageway outside the compartment. With a steaming cup of cafe sua , I peered into the gray dawn and saw Vinh disappear in the dust of its poor soil and harsh climate. I imagined I hadn't missed much. The capital of Vietnam's most populous province has never really recovered from the bombing it received in the Franco-Viet Minh War. It is now just a traveler's stop on the way to Hanoi. It did, however, mark the beginning of the closing stages of my journey. Hanoi was now about eight hours distant; a scant 155 miles. As we forged onward, the bomb craters that dotted many of the bridges and railheads along the Transindochinois, became more numerous. In the brown waters that now filled them, women washed their clothes while their children splashed and frolicked. And on the highway that had kept us company for much of this journey, two men rode a bicycle, each with a foot upon a pedal, both sharing the burden of forward progress.

Pushing into the Red River delta, the fields, by degree, became greener; and across the flat plain, the timeless picture of agriculture was painted once again. A cantilevered bridge held sway across the river, and through its rusting stanchions, Hanoi flickered into view. The French had once thought this city to be the most elegant in the East. And as we approached, it wasn't hard to imagine that beneath the grease and grime of the shuttered architecture, the colonial jewel still lurked, waiting only for a good sweep and a fresh coat of paint.

The wheels of the Transindochinois clattered in to Hanoi's rail terminal about 3 that afternoon. As the passengers emptied into the bowels of the station, I was struck by that special melancholy of travelers, when so many half-told stories are left at stations along the way. It was the end of the line.

But Hanoi was the perfect place to end this adventure. I had come looking for the soul of Vietnam, and found its humanity everywhere. Like the city in which I now found myself, all it took was to scratch beneath the surface.

GUIDEBOOK

The Vietnam File

Getting there: Since President Clinton lifted the trade embargo earlier this year, travel to Vietnam has become less complicated and more affordable. But since formal diplomatic relations with Vietnam have yet to be established, no U.S. airlines offer regular passenger flights there. So for the time being, getting from LAX to Ho Chi Minh City is still a two-stop undertaking. The most economical, hassle-free connections are through Singapore (Singapore Airlines) or Taipei (Singapore Airlines, China Airlines or Eva Airways), with round-trip fares currently running $1,100-$1,200.

Visas: Americans traveling to Vietnam need a passport and a visa. The easiest way to get the latter is through a tour operator (if you are using one for other arrangements) or through a visa service such as Zierer, with offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.; telephone (800) 843-9151 or (800) 421-6706. Allow a month for processing.

Tour companies: A handful of companies have experience in arranging all-inclusive tours to Vietnam--providing the necessary paperwork, visas, and comprehensive travel and tour arrangements covering your stay, including accommodations and guides. Among those on the West Coast are: Asian Pacific Adventures, 826 Sierra Bonita Ave., Los Angeles 90036, tel. (213) 935-3156; Travcoa, P.O. Box 2630, Newport Beach 92658, tel. (800) 992-2004, and InnerAsia Expeditions, 2627 Lombard St., San Francisco 94123, tel. (800) 777-8183 or (415) 922-0448.

Self-booking: The more adventurous may prefer to make less-structured (and cheaper) arrangements. For my trip, I pre-purchased a limited stop-over package (three nights' accommodations in Ho Chi Minh City, two nights in Hanoi and all visa arrangements) for $660 from Adventures in Paradise (now doing business as Absolute Asia), 155 West 68th St., Suite 525, New York 10023; tel. (800) 736-8187. I booked airline reservations through a travel agent. The remainder of my three-week trip (including train journey, $80 one way) was arranged after arrival in Vietnam with OSCAN, the competent and highly accommodating government tourist agency. Their offices in Ho Chi Minh City are at 2D Pham Ngoc Thach St., near the Catholic cathedral; from the United States, tel. 011-84-8-231-022, or fax 011-84-8-231-024.

For more information: Two guidebooks are indispensable: "Vietnam: A Travel Survival Kit" (Lonely Planet, $15.95) and Barbara Cohen's "Vietnam Guidebook" (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95).

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