The 8-hour trainride that took 26 hours

We continue on the Reunification Express, this time from Danang to Nha Trang, a trip of 524 km. Of course we knew about hurricane Mirinae, we had seen the flooded streets in Hoi An and people continuing with their everyday life.
We arrived at Danang train station at 10 am, having in mind to take the train at just before 11 am, but it was cancelled. There had been a landslide further down the line, but we got a ticket for the next train at 13:13 that should take 8 and a half hours to Nha Trang. We were told that we would have to change for a bus in Dieu Tri because the line was damaged, but that we would arrive in Nha Trang all right, with a delay. Ok, we thought, and bought the ticket.
The train left half an hour late but then went about the usual (slow) speed until it stopped at 5 pm in a small train station, 137 km from our departure. Soon many passengers got off to smoke, and very quickly some local women set up a couple of tables and small stools and started serving food and drinks. At 5.30 it was dark, so they lit small lamps. It looked very cosy but it didn’t give me the impression that the train would start again soon…. I continued reading my book and opened a pack of Oreos. Miguel came back with the news that we were waiting for a train from the other direction (the Vietnamese train line is a single line with few crossing possibilities), but nobody knew when that train was going to be here and when we were going to start again.
Hmmmm… lack of communication. We’ve seen this before, no? In communist or post-communist countries…
At around 6 pm that train arrived, stopped for a few minutes and left again. Supposedly it should have arrived at this station at 3 am – which meant it was 15 hours late. Very encouraging.
After this, our train didn’t leave. We were apparently waiting for another train to cross, but again nobody knew where that train was right now and when it would be here. Around 8 pm everybody was told to get on the train, but nothing more happened.
During all this time, I continued to read my book, trying to close my ears to the neverending noise coming from the loudspeakers of TrainTV. The programme was stopped several times and then re-started from the beginning, so we saw the same Hollywood movie twice (something about rattlesnakes) and a selection of Vietnamese pop that made me want to jump out of the window. In between, some sexistic advertisements for soft drinks.
Just when I was about to go and bribe the conductor to turn off this noise pollution, it went off. Heavenly peace.
As all the passengers had got back on the train, the ladies outside packed together their tables, chairs and food, and the platform went completely dark.
Around 9 pm the passengers in our carriage switched off the lights and everybody went to sleep. I was amazed by the ease with which the Vietnamese can sleep in all possible positions, lying down on 2 seats with their feet up against the window, or on the floor on a sheet of newspaper.
The funny thing is that during all that time, the train now being over 4 hours stopped, there was never an announcement or anybody trying to find out what was happening. It was as if it was the most normal thing, everybody settling for the night.
One of the conductors had offered us a bed in the sleeper carriage for a little “contribution” of 100000 Dong, which we declined, knowing that at some point we would have to get off and change to a bus anyway.
At 11.30 pm I woke up because suddenly there was complete silence. Bugger, they had turned off the air conditioning. Breaking into a sweat at once, I went to the front end of the wagon to find a window I could open, and settled there across 2 seats, under the open window, getting wet in the heavy rain that had just started, and tried out the different “Vietnamese” sleeping position, none of which worked for more than 15 minutes. Maybe we should have accepted the conductors offer for the sleeping car?
At about 1 am, the long-waited-for train arrived, stopped for a couple of minutes, and went on. My hopes didn’t come true though, we stayed where we were.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if the train crew had just decided to go to sleep, or had had too much rice wine.
Shortly after 4 am, as if there had been a signal, people started getting up, went to brush their teeth and wash, and switched the lights on. It was still dark outside, but the Vietnamese are used to getting up very early. At 4.30 am, the train moved. Halleluja.
At 6 am, we stopped again in a small train station, where another train was stopped as well. As our dining car was still closed, Miguel went into that other train to buy breakfast. He came back with two dry cakes and ice tea. At 7 am, there was an announcement that we had to change trains as ours wasn’t going any further. The process of everybody getting off with their bags and cardboard boxes was long and complicated, especially as we almost had to jump off the train as the ground was so far below the stairs. In the other train, we got seats with a little help from one of the conductors, and soon after this breakfast was served, some kind of semi-liquid rice slush. I stuck to the dry cake and Oreos.
This train then went on to Dieu Tri, where we arrived just before 9 am. We were supposed to change to a bus here, but a conductor checked our tickets and told us the train was going on and we could stay on, which we did along with most other passengers. As soon as the train had stopped, several women got on trying to sell drinks, coffee and food. One of them wanted to sell her coffee so badly that she started shouting at the people (I think she was slightly crazy). After about 10 minutes the train started, but stopped again after 10 meters. We were told that finally we did have to get off, but none of the train personnel was able to tell us whether there would be onward transport or not.
Coming out of the train station, there did seem to be some sort of organisation. A lot of men in uniform were walking around with lists and paper and pens, and buses were arriving and leaving, taking the passengers to the next station where there would be another train. We waited around for a while, because every arriving bus was instantly full of people and luggage. Finally we decided to have a go, and we did it just like the locals: push all you can. When the bus stopped, I was right in front of the front door. It started to open, and a tiny lady next to me started pushing her big suitcase in front of me. No mercy, I forgot all my European manners, I was first. With my backpack I have both my elbows free and made use of them, jumped on the bus and threw myself on two double seats for us and a Dutch-Swedish couple we met on the train.
The one hour-and-a-half bus journey was actually quite scenic, with nice views of the sea, beaches and green hills. I just had to struggle to keep my eyes open. In the back somebody was constantly retching and vomiting, a normal event on a bus in Asia. They’re either genetically more susceptible to motion-sickness, or maybe they travel less, in any case there’s always at least one person vomiting.
We arrived at the train station and got on our new train, it was midday. We were lucky to get seats in the Soft Seat car, and soon after we were served a free (although not very filling) lunch of rice, 5 cm2 of meat and 2 shrimps. I was happy to get something different than Oreos.
The train finally left at 1 pm and went at a close to normal speed until Nha Trang, our destination, where we arrived at 3.30 pm, after a 26-hour trip.
The conclusion? Well, I still do not quite understand why nobody seems to communicate, the train crew knowing nothing about what’s going on. But then, the locals don’t seem to mind, I guess they’re used to just “wait and not ask any questions” (again, this seems to be a characteristic of communist/post-communist countries…). They just sleep, just as they do in their shops or on their “cyclos” (sort of bicycle-taxis) when there are no customers. They are just so relaxed.