Right in the middle of south Vietnam where rice plants thrive side by side cactuses, I felt the complete freedom of being alone and to forget about, even for a while, my pursuit for a destiny I am not certain what. In six hours, I would reach Ho Chi Minh City and again be immersed in an almost endless plethora of humanity, each desperately seeking his own yet-to-be-known destiny. Just like me.
It was my first time to ride a train. Spanning nearly 1000 kilometers, the distance between Hanoi and Saigon is a staggering 30 hours. Had I heeded my friend’s advice to take the plane, which would take me around two hours, I would have not felt this tired, yet I would have also missed the stunning landscape of Mien Trung and Mien Nam (middle and south of Vietnam) and the diversity of people I met in each of the stopovers.
I was accompanied by friends from Chi Le’s house to the train station. After a simple lunch, we took a taxi from our house along Kim Lien Moi to the station. They even helped me carry my luggage to my cabin–Chau, a student of the National Economic University; Song who is Chi Le’s best friend and a student of Hanoi University of Technology; Duong, Chi Le’s schoolmate at the Foreign Trade University and Duong’s boyfriend, Hai; Son who is working for a television station in Hanoi; JP, our Belgian friend who is visiting Vietnam for the second time; and of course, Chi Le.
After the final whistle, we said our final good byes to each other. I felt so empty while the train slowly came to life. The scene did not become as melodramatic as I expected. I left Hanoi with almost no spectacle like the night I arrived in the city. But who needs drama and spectacle? I met people who have made indelible marks in me and who have helped me look at friendship in a different light.
The train left at exactly 1:05 in the afternoon, as stated in my ticket, the least that I expected from a third world train company. According to the train brochure, which has no English translation, there would be a total of 14 stopovers ranging from 3 minutes in small provinces to 15 minutes in major stations. And surprisingly these schedules were religiously followed.
The amenities and services inside the train, however, were poorly maintained. But for somebody like me who is used to the worst of conditions, I have little to complain about. To relieve my boredom, I read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and followed the psychological drama of the protagonist, Raskolnikov, as he planned the murder of the pawnbroker to the actual act of killing. I am yet to finish the book, probably while inside the plane from Saigon to Manila.
It is also interesting to note the changes in pronunciation of the people as we neared Saigon. Ns are replaced with Ls as in Viet Lam for Viet Nam, luoc for Nuoc, and a peanut vendor even asked if chau la nguoi Ha Loi khong? (Are you a Hanoian?)
Inside my cabin I met a 21-year old girl named Huong who is also on her way to Ho Chi Minh City to find a job. Just like me, she is also in search of her future and consequently her family’s. I asked her if she’s scared since like me it was also her first time to be in Saigon and to ride a train. She said no. We conversed in straight Vietnamese, and although there were words I did not understand, I reassured her that I can totally empathize with her feelings. During lunch, she even shared to me two hard-boiled eggs and told me with a tinge of pride in her voice that they were duck eggs. Not trying to be so condescending, I told her that duck eggs taste better than chicken’s. Huong, if I may add, is one of those who replace Ns with Ls.
The train reached Vietnam’s biggest city exactly as stated in the brochure: 8:45 in the evening. I said good bye to Huong. I’ve been saying a lot of good byes these past few weeks.