Today bad weather is the only hazard likely to detain the Reunification Express on its thousand-mile journey between Saigon in the south of Vietnam and Hanoi in the north. The railway line, constructed by French colonists in the 1930s, was fractured, sabotaged and bombed scores of times during the Vietnam War, and reconstructed afterwards by the communist government as a symbol of unity. Two decades later, the Express limps between the once-warring cities at a convalescent pace, averaging 30 miles an hour. The journey takes longer today than it did when the line was first built over 50 years ago.
I bought a ticket for the overnight Hanoi-bound train at Hue, the ancient Imperial capital of central Vietnam. The ochre-coloured railway station, a left-over from colonial days, looked like it had been preserved in a time capsule, spiced with eastern strangeness and decorated by Liberace. Huge glass chandeliers illuminated elaborately-carved wooden furniture and bronze Buddhas; tropical fish swam around miniature neon pagodas in a fairy-lit tank. One of a bevy of railway staff wearing traditional au dai - floaty silk trousers and tight- fitting shirt - booked me into a three-tiered "hard berth" carriage. The Vietnamese hate climbing up to the top beds, she told me, and so they were cheaper than the rest. "But they are as narrow as war-time tunnels," she added solemnly.
My compartment, overcrowded with people and their possessions in overflowing cardboard boxes around them, looked luxurious compared to the bottom-of- the-scale "half-seat" carriages located further towards the engine. Presumably "half-seat" referred to the half a cheek's worth of space allotted to each passenger on wooden benches running the length of the carriage. The aisle between benches was a wall of knees, on top of which sleeping children perched and caged chickens were hoarded beneath. Seatless passengers squatted in the gaps. There was barely a single inch of spare room, yet a diminutive woman with a steaming soup kitchen slung from a bamboo pole balanced on her shoulder managed somehow to sashay through.
Tien, a fruit plantation worker who lived in the southern highlands, clutched the train ticket to Hanoi that cost him several years' savings as if it was inscribed with the winning lottery numbers. Like many of the other passengers, who were agricultural workers, military or civil servants forced to relocate to the south after the war, Tien was using his 10-day annual leave to go home.
Most of my fellow passengers had boarded the train a day or so earlier in Saigon and the air was perfumed with their pastimes. Cigarette smoke mingled with the pungent reek of dried fish which an old woman, her skin as wrinkled as a tortoise, devoured like popcorn from a plastic bag, and jangled against the sweet, acrid smell of hairspray. Tien's young daughters, pin-thin with cinnamon skin and angle-poised cheekbones, wrapped each other's long hair in curlers, copying styles from a time-worn French magazine which lay open on the PVC seat beside them. Their little brother oozed concentration. "What's your name? Where do you come from?" someone had written in English on the torn-out page of an exercise book, and he was busy copying the sentences out many times over as the train rattled along.
The train snaked through rice fields which extended, like giant snooker tables, from the railway tracks up to jagged mountains. Conical hatted workers plucked the paddies underneath an afternoon sky smudged with clouds like wisps of Ho Chi Minh's beard. There were clumps of bamboo shacks flocked with brightly painted pagodas whose roofs housed marauding serpents and dragons. Children led muddy buffalo by the nostrils down dusty paths; bicycles and Hondas scuttled along pathways that criss-crossed the railway track. But we travelled as if through Harlem or Beirut, iron-grilled windows fragmenting the tranquil landscape into a colourful mosaic. My carriage companions were afraid to open the windows, as rumours of train robbers and children throwing stones at passing trains abounded. We never saw any.
More numerous were the hawkers who sprung from nowhere to ambush the train each time it stopped, brandishing baskets of French loaves, juicy mangoes or chewing gum. "Lucky Strike, Lucky Strike!" one insistent 10- year-old cried, thrusting a packet of fake American cigarettes underneath my nose. Pursued by an iron-faced conductor clutching a bamboo club, he dived through an open window further down the carriage, and climbed on to the train's roof, where a dozen other resourceful entrepreneurs already lurked. All afternoon, like an endless Tom and Jerry cartoon, I watched them scramble back into the train when given the all-clear by an accomplice inside, before being chased back up to the roof again.
Hawking is illegal on the Reunification Express, as is erecting hammocks and travelling without a ticket, but the litany of regulations announced through the train's antiquated loudspeaker system between slices of propaganda, was ignored by the passengers. "No one takes much notice of the rules these days," Quan, an affluent-looking young businessman from Saigon told me. As it got dark the conductors tired of the chase, and the hawkers ventured inside the train, moving between carriages with their cargoes of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves or imported beer. This home-delivery, fast food was infinitely more popular than the tasteless food, queues and laconic service of the train's dining car. Quan proudly pronounced this "a victory for free enterprise".
For 10 years, since do moi - the Vietnamese government's policy of relaxing the trade rules and legalising private enterprise - communism and capitalism have co-existed. You don't have to look further than the railway station to see evidence of this unlikely alliance. Scarlet banners above ticket offices extol employees to "work with care and devotion"; on the platforms there are hoardings advertising soft drinks, fax machines, Baskin Robbins ice-cream and Apple Macs. But, like the care-worn railway officials who are unable to prevent hawkers invading the train, communism seems powerless to resist the energetic capitalism which is engulfing the country. There are thousands of new businessmen like Quan shuttling back and forth on the Reunification Express between meetings and new enterprises, clutching shiny new briefcases and plotting to catapult Vietnam into the 21st century.
Typhoons gatecrash northern Vietnam during the summer, unpredictable but not unexpected. This one began in the early evening with violent thunder snapping at the heels of bolts of lightning which fizzed across the sky like topaz comet tails. Then came gyrating gales and an avalanche of oversized raindrops. Like extras in a disaster movie, we were plunged into darkness and left to marinade in our own sweat by a power failure. I was terrified - everybody else seemed unmoved. There was a minor ripple of concern when Tien's family woke to find their luggage submerged in flood water which had seeped into the carriage, but they just piled the sodden packages on to the bed and slept upright around them, heads resting on each other's shoulders.
At one point, I paddled down the train to see how other passengers were faring. Most appeared to be sleeping, but through a half-open carriage door I glimpsed a band of ancient men in silken pyjamas squatting around a candlelit Mah Jong board, swigging rice wine from doll-sized tumblers and toking on a long bamboo pipe. Unperturbed by the typhoon, they carried on much as I had seen others do on pavements throughout Vietnam.
At around 7am, the train jolted into action. A uniformed woman, efficient as a model Orwellian citizen, grabbed the blankets and pillows from our beds and began swabbing the wet floor. Outside, beneath a sky the greyish- yellow colour of a week-old bruise, palm trees swayed like seaweed and paddy fields had became miniature oceans rippling with windblown waves. The inhabitants of one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam, they were busy picking up the pieces of their lives. Men in jungle-green combat helmets inspected the water-logged crops which were their livelihood from small boats which they poled along the fields. Others were busy repairing caved-in roofs or piling sandbags in the wet streets - some shared a joke as they worked. It was this mixture of stoicism, pragmatism and gentle humour that seemed characteristic of the Vietnamese people. I supposed that this was what had pulled them through centuries of occupation, devastating wars and a crippling communist regime, able, time after time, to recast the clay of their wrecked lives.
We arrived in Hanoi 10 hours later than scheduled. The crowded platform housed patient friends and relatives who looked like they had been camped there for days, cyclo-drivers and porters; everyone looking for a familiar face or a potential customer. Quan advised me not to get off the train immediately: "wait until the human typhoon has blown over".
vietnam fact file
The Reunification Express
Exodus Expeditions (0181 675 5550) organises a 16-day tip-to-toe tour beginning in Hanoi on the express, and travelling by minibus and train thereafter (from pounds 1,590). Other operators offer tailor-made tours to include the express. Try Bales (01306 885991), Silverbird Travel (0181 875 9090) or Regent Holidays (0117921 1711).
When to go
The two monsoons of the year affect the north and south of Vietnam in different ways. The winter monsoon (October-March) brings rain and chills to the north, while the south is warm and dry. From May to October, the south-western monsoon brings warm weather except to the mountainous regions. Typhoons are most ferocious between July and November.
How to get there
There are no direct flights to Vietnam. Stop-offs could include Singapore or Hong Kong. Flights cost around pounds 460 (try Trailfinders on 0171 938 3366). Both Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airlines have deals on tickets bought before the end of April.
Tennyson Travel (0171 229 8612) offers a range of tours, from stopovers to 21-day odysseys (pounds 1,695). Earthwatch (01865 311600) and Frontier (0171 613 1911) both do eco/ conservation holidays throughout the country.
Tourist visas last a month and cost pounds 40. They are available from the Vietnamese Embassy in London (0171 937 1912) and take a week to process. Send an SAE for forms to 12 Victoria Road, London W8 5RD. Anti-malarial tablets, a typhoid vaccine and hepatitis jabs are all recommended. For more detailed information contact the British Airways Travel Clinic on 0171 439 9584.