Instead of taking the sleeper bus (uncomfortable and stinking, we know that already) or an environmentally more damaging plane, we decided to take the train from Hanoi back to Saigon. The fastest train, the SE3, covers the 1726 km along the coast line in a little less than 30 hours - according to the timetable, at least.
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“It is forbidden to bring corpses or body remnants onto the train!,“ a staccato voice keeps repeating in English when we arrive at the Hanoi station. One hour before departure, the train is already waiting at the platform and together with the other passengers we shove onto the train. The voice continues: „Passengers without a valid ticket or with a fake ticket have to pay an additional penalty fee until the next station...” The Vietnamese announcement seems to be much shorter – so which part did they leave out in the translation? We suspect the „Flush the toilet after using it,“ because most of the Vietnamese don’t even bother with locking the door.
Shortly before the train starts to move, several people board the train. A young lady in a salt-and-pepper jacket and high-heels grabs a miniature blue plastic stool and squats in the aisle. Presumably a passenger without a valid ticket?
We have opted for the two upper beds in a 6 bed hard sleeper compartment. They do not leave enough headroom to sit up, but there is generous luggage space up there, and climbing over the other beds and some small footrests is so uncomfortable that we feel our luggage is quite safe even when we are not in the cabin. The two middle beds are occupied by two Americans, and on one of the lower beds a Vietnamese mother with her 5 year old daughter, who also go all the way to Saigon, makes herself comfortable. The guy next to her leaves at 3 am at the next station, and who comes in to sleep for a few hours in the empty bed? The salt-and-pepper lady! When the next passenger arrives at 7 am, she returns to the aisle in front of the wash basins and spends the remaining 23 hours sitting almost motionless on the blue plastic chair.
The SE3 fast train doesn't stop often – but when it does, everybody rushes onto the platform to buy some rice, vegetables, hard-boiled eggs and drinks. We had expected some socializing between the passengers during such a long journey, but different from Russia or China, where during the day all passengers would sit on the lower bench, playing cards or having some sort of conversation, in our Vietnamese train almost all the people are lying on their berths, their blankets pulled up to the nose (covering against the chilly air-con). Some are listening to music on their i-pods, others playing games on their mobile phones or sending SMS to friends and relatives. Nobody, except the foreigners, is reading.
When we get off the train the woman in the salt-and-pepper jacket stands up, brushes over her skirt and looks as fresh as in Hanoi 31 hours earlier. As do most of our fellow passengers. Their secret??? Not moving, maybe.
If you enjoyed the 30-hour train ride (or rather, reading about it),here's a post about an even longer journey by bus: