Just before noon each day, the southbound train from Hai Phong to Hanoi rumbles past Mrs Bay’s front room, missing her porch by no more than inches. To me, the scene looks like something from a disaster movie. With its horn blaring like the last trumpet, the huge locomotive barely squeezes through the tiny space where the railway track runs between two rows of dwellings. It’s close enough to block all the light from the windows, flap the drying laundry and silence our conversation.
Mrs Bay, a well-preserved 64-year-old, whom I’ve bumped into on a stroll, bats away my concerns. ‘I hardly notice it,’ she says as the last carriage finally disappears, continuing to massage black hair dye into her scalp with plastic-gloved hands. Mrs Bay is a retired railway worker. Space in this teeming city is at such a premium that she counts herself lucky to have a centrally located home, despite its obvious hazards. ‘It’s fine for the kids, too,’ she says. ‘We just call them inside when the bell rings.’
A few hundred metres from Mrs Bay’s house stands Hanoi’s central station, Ga Hanoi. Ga, the word for station, is like the tracks themselves: a legacy of French rule. From here, the railway line runs 1000 miles down the long stalk of this narrow country to Ho Chi Minh City – formerly Saigon. Four express trains a day make the 34-hour southbound journey. Aeroplanes and a rapidly modernising highway system now rival the railway for speed and convenience, but travelling slowly by train is an incomparable way of plunging into the heart of the country, and the beauty and history that make it unique.
The first southbound express leaves at 6am. Through the drizzle, the neon sign spelling out Ga Hanoi flames red above the central entrance. Propaganda posters remind you that, in spite of its astonishing commercial energy, this is still a communist country. The station has a Soviet flavour, as do the red, white and blue livery of the rolling stock, and the smart blue uniforms of the guards who check the tickets.
Walking unsteadily from the front to the rear of the train as it rattles along the uneven rails, you pass through the various strata of society: the air-conditioned, four-berth cabins in which tourists and well-off Vietnamese sleep on soft beds; the carriages of upholstered seats with big television screens showing homegrown music videos and soap operas; and the hard wooden seats of the steerage section, where families stretch out on the floor on pieces of cardboard. At the very end of the train is a restaurant car and kitchen. A menu in Vietnamese and English offers a range of dishes, though only noodles with meatballs are available.
I eat the noodles and drink a syrupy coffee sweetened with condensed milk. Out the window, the concrete and stained masonry of the suburbs gradually gives way to banana trees and emerald paddy fields worked by solitary farmers in conical bamboo hats.
The North-South Railway is sometimes referred to as the Reunification Express, to commemorate the moment in 1975 when North Vietnamese forces finally overran the south. The victory of the North Vietnamese concluded a 30-year conflict in which first the French and then the US armies had been humiliated.
Three hours beyond Hanoi, I get out at Ga Ninh Binh. I’m headed to Van Long Nature Reserve, one of the country’s famous beauty spots, but I’ve decided to make a detour to visit tiny Mai Do village, a place that’s off the usual tourist itinerary, to meet the father of a friend.
Seated on a veranda, shaded by longan and guava trees, are 70-year-old Hoang Van Huan and his friend, Thanh Mai Phan. During the war years, both men worked on the railway for the North Vietnamese government. Straight-backed and handsome, with shiny white teeth, Mr Huan exudes a justifiable pride that he helped see off the army of the most powerful nation on Earth. He tells me his job was to repair track and bridges after they had been shattered by US bombs. He says the railway was a vital part of the war effort, carrying tanks and heavy weapons to Vinh, one of the line’s major stations, from where they were transported along the Ho Chi Minh trail to the frontlines. ‘We’d have one night to repair a whole bridge,’ says Mr Huan. ‘We’d hear the air raid sirens and than have to get away.’
‘It was extremely dangerous,’ Mr Phan adds. ‘The line between life and death was very narrow.’
I’m half-American and it’s strange to think that these two old men were once on the opposing side of a war in which members of my own family took part, but there seem to be no residual hard feelings. They wave farewell as I set off on the 40-minute drive to Van Long.
Vietnam has modernised rapidly in the years since the war. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are huge, sometimes overwhelming cities, but you don’t have to go far to find serenity and extraordinary beauty. Van Long Nature Reserve protects an area of huge limestone cliffs that jut out of tranquil, lily-choked canals. The high, weathered ridges are cloaked with dark-green foliage that looks like the habitat of some mythical creature. It’s not surprising that it was chosen as one of the locations for Kong: Skull Island.