There’s a distinct buzz about it that doesn’t come with air travel. Airplanes take us from A to B. They suck us up in one place and spit us out in another.
Any sense of having moved across continents and mountains, lakes and forests, cities and people, is lost on the air traveller.
Trains however offer the real possibility of adventure.
On a train you really travel.
As you chunter slowly down the track, you have the time to absorb the scenery through the window, to get acquainted with your fellow passengers on the long journey ahead. To share a meal, swap some stories, drink a few glasses of beer.
Yes, trains are marvellous!
It’s seven p.m. and we’re in Saigon waiting for the night train bound for Hanoi.
The platform is full of busy people, buzzing about getting bags and cases and children into the compartments, saying goodbye to friends and family, rushing around at the food stalls buying last minute supplies.
Paolo heads off down the platform to see what he can get in terms of supplies, but I am happy just to stay put and take in the busy scene around me.
I have a real sense that I’m setting out on a journey. I’m not simply moving from Saigon to Hoi An (my destination). I’m going somewhere.
I haven’t felt this way about a journey in a long while.
Years ago, when I still lived in the UK, I would often take the train from Glasgow to Manchester. No matter how often I made that journey, I always looked forward to it. There was something so satisfying about sitting there and watching that familiar landscape pass by, listening to the clack of the wheels on the rails, counting the stations as we headed down the line.
I remember all this as we load our bags onto the train and an eagerness to get going wells up within me.
Standing in the corridor, hanging out the window, the whistle blows and slowly the train screeches into action, lurching slowly through the station, past a sea of faces, all waving and smiling and shouting last minute greetings and farewells.
It feels really epic. Cinematic even, and I am mesmerised for a while, staring at the ever diminishing figures on the platform that are bathed in the strange turquoise glow of the station lights.
And then they are gone, so I head to the compartment to examine our room for the night.
It’s spartan, narrow and dimly lit, but clean, and comfortable (save perhaps for the woollen blankets which scratch and itch a little).
Barely ten minutes after pulling out of the station, and I’m busy making my bed when a trolley car rattles down the corridor, offering simple noodles and pork, and hot green tea.
I ask if I can just take the tea and encounter strong protestation and head-shaking incredulity from the trolley boy who cannot understand why I wouldn’t want my evening noodles.
I can’t explain that I’m a vegetarian so I lie and resort to simply rubbing my stomach and puffing out my cheeks to indicate I have eaten and am full.
He laughs and hands me my tea and rattles on his way (little do I know he will return in the morning with a double portion of instant breakfast noodles !)
The surrounding carriages are filled with Vietnamese and I am sitting wondering if there are any other westerners on the train when a woman pops her head round the door.
“You speak English?”
She disappears and Paolo and I look at one another and shrug.
She returns barely a few minutes later with her bags and takes a seat next to me on my bed.
“Hello, I am Van”
“Eh, Hi. Jen. I’m Jen.”
“Where you from”
Paolo can see what’s coming and sinks his head into his book, smirking, deciding to leave me to it..
And sure enough the usual questions are fired at me in rapid succession.
How old are you? Are you married? Do you have children? Why not? What do you do? Where do you live? How long are you in Vietnam? Do you like Vietnam? Where are you going? Why are you taking the train?
I answer politely and Van seems riveted.
“I want to practice my English. Can I sit here with you and we can talk?”
We’ve been talking now for a good twenty minutes, but apparently that was just the formal introductions. Fantastic!
I learn a little about Van. She teaches mathematics at her local high school in Phan Thiet , is married but has no children. She is heading back home after travelling that same morning from her town to go to see a doctor in Saigon.
“Gee, that’s a long way to go just to see a doctor.”
“Yes but the doctor’s in Saigon are the best.”
“Very expensive though.”
I nod and don’t want to pry further as to the reason for her long, expensive journey, so we sit for a while, quietly and pensively, until Van decides we have spoken enough English. Now it’s my turn to learn some Vietnamese.
“One to a million. I can teach you how to count to a million in Vietnamese.”
She checks her watch. Yes indeed we have four hours until the train pulls in to Phan Tiet, that should just about give her enough time to teach me the basics.
“Do you have a notebook, a pen?”
I nod and rummage around in my bag to find them. Then, teaching implements acquired, I sit up straight ready for my lesson.
One to ten.
“Mot, hai, bam, bon, nam, sau, bay, tam chin, muoy”
I listen and repeat, reading the new words on the page.
After the third repetition, Van closes the notebook.
“Now,go. One to ten.”
I blink. Shit. She means I should have it down by now and be able to repeat it from memory.
“Mot, hai, ….errr”
Van opens the notebook and stabs the page “bam, bon, nam…”
“Bam, bon, nam …” I parrot after her.
I’m not sure how long this initial phase lasted. To my shame it may have been as long as a half hour. I just couldn’t get the words to stick.
I plod on for an eternity and then, finally, I get it
“….tam, chin, muoy!”
Phew! I did it.
I sit back to congratulate myself with my accomplishment and ponder whether I should celebrate with a beer, when I feel a sharp prod in the ribs and realise that she really does intend to take me all the way to a million.
So it is that I rattle my way down the line, repeating and repeating the compound words that go to make up the numbers, marvelling at the old fashioned strictness of Van’s rib poking teaching methods.
Which nevertheless prove effective, if short lived.
I make it to a million a good twenty or so minutes before we pull into Van’s station, and for the week I have remaining to me in Vietnam, I rattle off my party piece count-along-with-Jen rendition, to many a bemused Vietnamese. But now, months on and I struggle even to make it to ten.
I am a bad pupil, with a lousy memory, this much is clear …
Van alights in Phan Tiet a little after eleven p.m. with my address and my promise that I will send her a postcard from Amsterdam “with tulips on”.
I wave her goodbye and sit back in the compartment to muse for a while on the phenomenon that is the tulip.
Everywhere you go, people seem to love this simple, colourful flower. The thought of all those colourful rows of tulips fluttering in Dutch springtime fields never fails to fascinate for some reason. It’s as if this humble bloom is the key to global happiness…..
….I fall asleep with that silly thought in my exhausted brain and wake to the sound of knocking on the compartment door.
It’s my double noodles and hot water!
I smile and take my little packages of food, then lie back and stare out the window.
Half awake, he rice fields and the palms seem surreal, some imagined impression of what Vietnam should be like. As cliched as those Dutch tulip fields.
Then I remember that those Dutch fields are real, and that I really am on a train in Vietnam, hurtling through the misty morning towards Hoi An….