SAIGON

THE UNIFICATION EXPRESS RUMBLES into the former ghost town of Vinh at 1:30 every morning, hissing and clanking to a brief stop during its 1,078-mile journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, as it’s still called on the schedules. Vinh is dark and deserted except for a few enterprising men who have shown up to meet the train on their cyclos—taxis that consist of a two-person carriage at¬tached to the front of a bicycle—and a handful of women who clamber aboard and scurry down the aisles with baskets of lukewarm soft drinks and rice cakes. Business is bad at this hour. Dozing passengers look at the vendors through squinting eyes and give a quick shake of the head. In less than five minutes conductors with kerosene lanterns are yelling instruc¬tions up and down the length of the train, and the old Czechoslovakian diesel engine, followed by eight Indian- and Romanian-made coaches, make their way slowly out of the station, bells clanging.
Although the state-run Vietnam Railway has cut the travel time be¬tween Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City from seventy-two to thirty-four hours while doubling the average speed to fifty-four miles per hour in re¬cent years, this is not a journey for the faint-hearted. Toilets are holes in the floorboards, which grow slippery before many miles have passed. The heat takes a toll on everyone, with men stripping down to their boxer shorts and T-shirts, the women with comatose expressions waving small fans in a futile attempt to move the thick smoky air. I had not packed a supply of food or water, and every time I inquired about the possibility of a meal the conductor kept saying, “Saigon.” It took me a while to under¬stand he meant I’d have to wait a day for some sustenance, until we reached Saigon.
Still, I have always liked trains and the sense of nostalgic adventure they conjure up, and the Unification Express was no exception. We cut through the night at a noisy, steady clip toward the now-unmarked DMZ and the South beyond. Sleeping children stretched across their parents’ laps. Small towns flashed by. Sometimes a silhouette of the Truong Son Mountains appeared briefly in the distance. I dabbed at my sweaty fore¬head with my shirtsleeve and thought about a steak (medium-rare with bearnaise sauce), but I was not unhappy.
This was only the second time I had ridden a train in Vietnam. The first was in 1969. South Vietnam had reopened the rail line on its side of the DMZ after a rash of Viet Cong ambushes, and the Saigon govern¬ment, wanting to show that it controlled the countryside, invited a dozen reporters on a press trip from Hue to Danang. Our engine pushed two flat-bed cars designed to take the brunt of mines and towed another flat¬bed on which we crouched. We had only gone ten or twelve miles when the train seemed to explode and stopped dead in its tracks. I dove for cover off the side and cautiously peered ahead. The lead minesweeper had hit a deuce-and-a-half truck on the tracks and flipped it upside down. Two Americans inside scrambled out the windows, apparently only their dignity bruised, while photographers snapped away. “We just stopped for a piss,” one of the soldiers said. It was an amazing feat: Ours had been the only train over the track for more than a year, and the two GIs were wait¬ing there for a dead-on hit. The South Vietnamese army officer escorting us cranked up his field radio, and a truck soon arrived to take us back to Hue.
Construction on Vietnam’s rail system—known as Transindochinois during colonial times—began early in the twentieth century. By law, every bolt and rail came from France; by custom, every drop of sweat from Vietnam. Not until 1936 did the line south from Hanoi and north from Saigon link up, with Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai, and the French governor general, Rene Robin, pounding in the ceremonial silver spike near Tuy Hoa. Engineers called the completed project a marvel—a ribbon of rail that negotiated steep mountain passes, crossed scores of rivers, and, following the densely populated coastal corridor along the Mandarin Road, connected Southeast Asia’s two great rice bowls, the Red River Delta of the north and the Mekong Delta of the south. A French company, Compagnie Francaise Immobiliere, ran special cars for weekend excursions to colonial resorts in Haiphong and Dalat and, for a while, tried to promote the line for luxury passenger travel. But the fine- dining cars and wooden-paneled sleeping coaches never paid their way. What made the system indispensable was war.
The line enabled France to move military materiel cheaply and effi¬ciently during the colonial war. It proved a benefit as well to the Viet Minh, who controlled several spurs such as Yen Bai to Lao Cai and Ha Tinh to Quang Binh in northern “zones of freedom.” In the end Ho Chi Minh’s guerrillas neutralized whatever advantage the system gave France by forcing the French to fight the war’s decisive battle in the isolated out-post of Dien Bien Phu, so far from the nearest rail line that troops had to be supplied by airdrops.

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