Be careful what you wish for. We wanted to experience the infamous Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. And now this is the experience we will never forget: flooded train tracks, landslides, leaking train cabins, rescue boat, and patiently waiting in the never-ending storm.
The 20:10 train was due to arrive at Hue at 09:50. By 16:00 we had lost all hopes of reaching the destination any time soon. The train was moving slowly, stopping at random spots for hours on end. The rain continued to pour and to our surprise the train started moving backwards. Everyone thought this was to let another train pass by, because a lot of the rail is just a single track. However, no trains passed by.
The storm didn’t stop, and the train slowly clickety-clacked a mile or so backwards one more time where it was safe to stop for an extended period of time. The clouds got darker and the rain got heavier. People were getting worried and wandered from carriage to carriage trying to get any updates from the surprisingly relaxed young train guards enjoying candy crush sessions in their booths.
Through the train windows we could see nothing but lonely trees sticking out of brown waters, which were supposed to be rice fields. There wasn’t a single vehicle in sight, and we could see a lone farmer walking his buffalo through flooded roads, and some locals paddling a canoe in the distance.
Sadly the English level of train guards was limited to “Soup?” and “Beer?”, so we couldn’t expect much of an explanation from them. It’s funny how the language barrier didn’t stop them from trying to make extra cash from foreigners the night before. They were offering to reserve the whole cabin and were very keen to explain their offer precisely using Google translate on their phones. Luckily, there were two Vietnamese students who were on their way home from an English language competition in Hanoi. They were the heroes on the train, well, at least for the foreign tourists. They translated for everyone and advised that there was a landslide one kilometre further down the tracks, so we couldn’t go forward and the tracks were flooded behind us, so we couldn’t move back either. We had to wait for the landslide to be cleared.
The train stayed stationary for another two hours followed by another announcement that it is impossible to move forward and the train will stay here overnight. It was a bit scary at times when we could see vast amounts of muddy waters streaming underneath the railroad tracks. Some cabins were leaking and people were moved elsewhere and were given blankets to keep warm at night.
We had intrusive thoughts of how there may be a landslide nearby, or how the flooding water may collapse a part of tracks underneath us. The rain and thunders continued into late hours of the night, but luckily we still had electricity and we were safe and dry. However odd the situation was, we had an amazing view of green hills through our cabin window.
The last announcement of the night was informal. The English-speaking passengers spread the word to lock the cabin doors and keep all valuables close to you as we’re close to the station so somebody could walk in. Another concern was that the train guards were completely wasted by 8pm. As Auste was waiting to get to the toilet one of them grabbed her arm as he was walking past so she slapped him. When it comes to treating tourists, the Vietnamese are not too reluctant of taking advantage of them. We all have friends who have been scammed or had money stolen at some point in Vietnam. We couldn’t fall asleep for a while as every minute it felt as if someone was going to try and open our cabin doors. We were woken up in the middle of the night by a strange noise. Luckily, it was just a mouse sniffing through the empty cups on our table.
The night was surprisingly calm and even though it had stopped pouring, the dawn brought another spell of rain. The surrounding rice fields looked like a high current river with motorboats in the distance. The now-sober adventurous train guards went outside to help a local man get his pig out of the flooded fields, which for a moment we though was going to be a Vietnamese lunch for passengers. Our Chinese neighbours were singing songs and didn’t seem to be bothered with the whole situation. At some point one of the attendants walked around the carriages playing his ukulele. The train had been standing still for too long.
It’s evident why visitors complain about side road rubbish everywhere – the train guards dumped the smelly bags right outside the train next to the tiny station. While the same attendants had a chat with the locals, the passengers were let outside to stretch their legs. No shops, no roads, no communication. Next thing we saw was a small local family shaving the now slaughtered pig and two huge pots being heated for cooking. The pig was later served as a free meal for the passengers. We are vegetarians – how ironic is that?
As funny as it was, we overheard that our Chinese neighbours cooked the pig themselves. It was actually true, they had bought some pig parts from the locals and cooked it at the train station. When I saw them, the woman was pouring the remainder of the stock into a plastic bottle, to keep for later, I guess. We, on the other hand, were happy to stick to the complementary plain boiled rice. When I was taking my plate of rice I think I saw a shadow of pity in the train guard’s eyes. It was the first time during this 40 hour journey that the guards stopped looking at us as just bags of money.
Things didn’t stop there. While everyone was enjoying the odd lunch, passengers from other carriages were transferred to rescue boats! The national media crews were taking interviews and conducting reports on the matter. Credits to the Vietnamese rescue teams, as everyone was given bottled water, life jackets (that doesn’t happen everywhere in Asia!) and were safely taken across the flooded river. Well, the other passengers said their boat nearly caught fire in the middle of the river, but they did make it to the other side.
We were all shuffled to a sleeper bus, with no explanation of what was happening. We could see the other people being moved to a school nearby for shelter and later a military truck loading something that looked like boxes of food. I wonder how long the other passengers stayed at that school. We sat on the bus for hours without knowing anything. As we’ve learned living in Thailand, lack of communication, language barrier, and organisational issues are an inevitable part of Asian culture.
After 4 hours of sitting around the bus we started moving. We still weren’t sure where we were going. The floods looked severe: through the bus window we could see military trucks parked on side roads, the same roads leading into infinite waters, locals paddling boats, pushing motorbikes and passing food supplies to those in need. The driver was so into observing the surroundings that we actually crashed into the military truck in front of us! Luckily, it wasn’t serious and we kept going. A few hours wait later 12 passengers were picked up by another bus and taken to a hotel, but only because they had booked through a tour agency. Independent travellers were taken to the nearest train station – Hue. From there we had the option to continue on another bus to Danang.
For us it was a dilemma. Our original itinerary was to change trains in Hue and continue to Ho Chi Minh City, but by this time we had missed our connection by a day. The two Vietnamese students helped us with translation and we were told that if we show our tickets to the station staff at either Hue or Danang they will put us on the next train heading to HCMC. But the staff on the bus couldn’t answer whether the tracks going south had any flooded areas, which was worrying. We didn’t want to get on a train and then get stranded in another random village for days. So we decided to go to Danang as it’s bigger of the two cities and has an airport.
Upon arriving at Danang train station past midnight we managed to understand that the next train leaves at 6.30 and arrives 19 hours later at Ho Chi Minh City at 01.30 the next day! Or does it..? That would make us 3 days late to HCMC leaving us with 1 day before catching our flight back to Bangkok. Do we want to risk it? We have been eating cardboard rice crackers and flavourless noodles the whole time, maybe it was time to part ways with Vietnam Railways. Is it ok to go on a plane not having showered for 3 days? Apparently so.
The motorcycle taxi drivers asked for 200,000 Vietnamese dong each for a 3-minute ride to the airport, and tried to block our way of getting into a proper taxi. There was no way we were getting onto 2 separate bikes with these guys in the middle of the night. We managed to get into the taxi and the driver didn’t want to use the meter, but eventually gave up since we were the only customers at that time. As we got off, the meter showed just over 40,000 dong, or roughly one pound. Very cheap, but that’s why backpackers feel scammed when asked for 5 times the actual fare.
Luckily all these mishaps were turning into something more enjoyable. Even though the airport was closed and we spent a couple of hours sitting around with a stray cat keeping us company, we eventually got on a plane and safely landed in HCMC that same morning.
If you read the news, some areas were submerged under nearly 3 metres of water. When you think of the damage the floods had done to the locals and their homes, it`s not the end of the world for the people on this train. We’re safe and sound, and we’re all getting back to our warm dry homes at some point. However it was a major hit for everyone’s wallets as flights, hotels, and pre-arranged tours have been missed. Most of these services have unfavourable refund policies and many insurance companies do not cover floods or other natural disasters. Some of these unplanned things can pile up and swipe as much as a few months’ rent.