In late 1978, the ‘Reunification Train’, symbolising the union of the old capitals of South and North Vietnam, began its journey in Saigon’s stinking humidity beside the Mekong Delta. Departing Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, it took two days, sometimes three, even four, on a leisurely northern journey of some sixteen hundred kilometres, to arrive at the capital of Hanoi, built on the Great Red River where the air cooled and the sweat from the oppressive southern heat finally dried.
Never rushing, just slowly moving, imperceptibly at first, the adjoining carriages clanged into motion one by one, with the strain of a single heaving locomotive. Walking pace continued along the station platform, allowing those waving farewells to jog alongside and giving passengers running late time to chase and leap aboard. Creaking harmonics twisted the dry wood interiors along the carriage sections, setting the brittle windows rattling and thumping in their old dried supports, shaken permanently loose from their journeys. Settling down towards Hanoi, the wheels established a clack-clacking rhythm thudding over the rail joins, gradually falling into a slow, sideways, rolling rocking, lulling the passengers into a cocoon of serenity.
Up through the mist-covered valleys of Da Lat, and the long sandy bays of Nha Trang, past the old medieval houses of Hoi An and the port city of Da Nang. Along coastal beaches, where long, wide expanses of the South China Sea sparkled with beckoning rain, and flashes of lightning on the eastern horizon heralded the approaching typhoons. If lucky, it stopped beside a platform, allowing the passengers to alight in safety, but more commonly only paused near a simple station house. Here, unprepared leaps onto the tracks, holding luggage, killed passengers instantly if they were not watching in both directions, with oncoming cargo trains too heavy to stop.
Entering the north, past the old borders, colder air tapped at the windows asking for entry, with the mountings obediently shrinking and rattling, allowing air in around the edges to warm itself on the passengers. Lone trackmen working through the long nights secreted themselves inside switchbox shelters in the middle of nowhere and waved their lonely lanterns, urging the journey onwards along a final stretch of some six hundred kilometres to Hanoi. Entering the outskirts, the train rumbled past homes built to within a metre of the tracks, so close passengers could reach out to shake hands and greet people through the windows if the train moved slowly enough.
Arriving in the centre of Hanoi, Hoam Kiem Lake materialised out of the gloom. Here, many centuries ago, the Turtle God gave a sacred sword to the Vietnamese to aid them in defence against their Chinese attackers. The god then snatched it back after they had vanquished their enemies. Over the modern war years, the Vietnamese had sacrificed their children, rather than using swords, to defend against the Americans and French, later the gods taking them back without a word. In nearby Hun Tiep Lake, a wrecked American B52 bomber lay partly submerged, shot down after bombing Hanoi not so many years before.
Swapping form the southern to the northern platforms, the train left to travel further north, ceaselessly lumbering on to the Chinese border and beyond into Siberia and through to the great Russian cities.
With the changing seasons, icy hard winds blew, dissipating the warmth and stripping away life, removing leaves from the trees and humidity from the air. The insects preparing for winter huddled to quietly hum together, waiting for the return of spring.
The train, readying itself for its return journey down south to Ho Chi Minh city, was now joined by soldiers heading to war, who clambered towards it over the old steel tracks through mazes of slow-moving locomotives pulling unknown carriages. They shouted out to people, ‘Where is the Reunification Train?’ with no notable features distinguishing it from any other. Cries of ‘Wait for me, and I’ll come back’, the first line of a cherished Russian poem, echoed through the station as they waved goodbye to family and friends.
The locomotive developed a chugging sorrow for those aboard, perhaps from the war years fighting the Americans and French, dragging itself past coastal mountain ranges in a staggering sort of way. Maybe it noticed the returning souls still trudging north along the railway tracks coming home, fulfilling their promises to girlfriends and boyfriends, husbands and wives, friends and relatives, shouted from carriages years before.
‘Wait for me, and I’ll come back,’ whispered the tracks passing beneath.
The slowly warming air heated its tired old arthritic bones, easing the constant rattling as it travelled towards the tropical sun. People were different down there, they said, past the old Demilitarised Zone separating the borders of the old Vietnams, past the ancient capital of Hue and its ruins, past Da Nang and Hoi An. Those travelling in both directions were certain it moved quicker heading south, yearning to get away from the frigid air ...