Back Travel » Vignette: On the North-South Train, a Pastiche of the Human Condition

Vignette: On the North-South Train, a Pastiche of the Human Condition

“Heavy with the thick smell of misery and before even leaving the station, the odor of urine would be palpable throughout the car,” writes author Dạ Ngân of the North-South Train in 1989. Back then, a hard seat berth cost nearly a month’s salary and one had to be wary of thieves and sexual assault for the entirety of the jostling journey.

Much has changed in the 35 years since then: train tickets demand a much smaller percentage of one’s salary and the rides are safer and generally cleaner, even though the stench of piss still wafts in from the toilets to mingle with the throngs of people, the assortment of foods they carry, as well as the cigarettes surreptitiously smoked between cabins.

Perhaps, thanks to these improvements, I relish an opportunity to ride the train. Stretched out on a soft bed somewhere between Quy Nhơn and Saigon, I witness verdant fields teeming with a trillion full bowls of rice and the sun leaving its fingerprints in each flooded paddy. Small towns make brief appearances and disappear behind hills like backup dancers slipping behind the stage’s curtain. Nightfall polishes the patina off the mountainscapes.

The views outside the train are only matched by the views within. Families contort atop seats and beds beside luggage stuffed with clothes, gifts and food. Somewhere, a family warms a cooked chicken in a plastic bag filled with hot water provided by the kitchen car; spices and cutlery given gratis. The people are weary, anxious, exuberant, fussy, fearful, excited and bored. It is a skilled pastiche of the human condition crammed into a manifestation of modern ingenuity slithering down the spine of the country like a slow shiver.

The train is good for more than mere observing, however. It’s ideal for idling: chatting, sleeping, writing or reading. I page through Hikmet, and arrive at the perfect poem. While sitting beside the window on the Prague-Berlin train as night fell he wrote: “I never knew I liked night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain. I don’t like comparing nightfall to a tired bird. I didn’t know I loved the earth. Can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it? I’ve never worked the earth, it must be my only platonic love.” 

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