Last updated: 3rd March 2020
THE Dream Express … that’s the proud name of my train which over the next 36 hours will trundle the 1,000 miles from Vietnam’s ancient capital Hanoi to sprawling, modern Ho Chi Minh City in the south.
But there’s not much Northern Belle-style luxury about the diesel-hauled train with its seemingly never-ending line of blue and red carriages snaking down the station platform, which now resembles a giant market stall selling food and drink to passengers.
Paint is peeling from the walls of my “soft four-berth” compartment, the air conditioning grille hangs at a precarious angle and the tattered curtains look like they haven’t been washed since 1975 when the train began running again after the Vietnam War.
Still, I note with gratitude, at least the sheets on my bunk are spotlessly clean.
Finally, just 15 minutes late at 8.25pm and with a long blast of the engine’s klaxon, we start crawling out the station. And to my great delight I find I’ve got the compartment all to myself.
I’m not going all the way to HCMC, as everybody in Vietnam calls Ho Chi Minh City. Just as far as DaNang, from where I will take a cheap taxi to the nearby picturesque tourist town of HoiAn.
If all goes well, I’ll be there in time for a late lunch.
I stare fascinated out the grubby windows as the Dream Express, its horn now blaring a constant warning signal, rattles slowly down the middle of Hanoi’s famous Train Street.
The houses here on either side of the single track line are so close that you feel you could lean out and touch.
After a couple cans of cold Saigon beer, I’m fast asleep when about 11.30 I wake to realise we have stopped at another station.
Then comes the sound of feet tramping down the corridor outside followed by loud, brash American voices.
Is there ever such a thing, despite what Graham Greene wrote in his book about Vietnam, as a Quiet American?
Suddenly the door opens and this rather large lass heaving a giant backpack gazes in at the three virgin berths.
“Hey, anybody using these? she asks cheerily, quickly adding: “OK if I take one?”
“Guess so,” I reply, without any great enthusiasm, as I’d been hoping to keep the compartment to myself. “Have you booked it?”
“Booked one down the corridor,” she explains. “But somebody else is asleep in it. So this will do.”
My heart sinks a little. Anarchy on the train. Three hours out of Hanoi and people are in each other’s bunks already.
Just then a French couple appear. They have booked two berths in the compartment, including the one the large American is trying to misappropriate.
I’m glad to see them. Three rather than two might be a little more cramped, but better to share with two quiet French folk than one noisy American.
Then the door opens again. This time an English girl, fat and frumpy with frizzy hair, peers hesitantly in through thick specs.
She has booked the fourth berth, numbered 24, and, misreading the numbers on the wall, initially looks accusingly at me as if I am lazing in it.
“Where are you going?” the French lady asks her eventually. “Hughie,” replies the English girl.
“Hughie?” repeats the French lady, looking puzzled.
“Yes, Hughie,” says the English girl, a tad impatiently.
“Hughie Greene?” I, being of a certain age, ask mischievously.
“No,” she replies, with a serious face. “I don’t think it’s Green, just Hughie.”
“Ah, W-h-ey,” explains the French lady, pronouncing it slowly and phonetically.
“I dunno which way,” says the English girl. “But it’s a long way. It’s spelled H-U-E or something silly.”
Then she dumps her backpack and scarpers.
Half an hour later I spot her again, giggling with a friend down the corridor. as I stroll to the none-too-inviting lavatory.
Eventually she comes back to the compartment and, after a bit of a struggle, heaves her way into the top bunk above me.
She snores slightly during the night. But not as loud, I suspect, as I do.
In the morning she gets off like at Hue and disappears. I hope she enjoys the historic city, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its ancient citadel on the banks of the legendary Perfume River.
Perhaps tonight, or at least so I like to think, she will end up in some karaoke bar, lustily singing “I did it my Hue”.
Malcolm Tattersal - Journalist