In the fall of 2010, heavy rains and flooding in central Vietnam caused severe damages and the deaths of several people. Back in China I had heard about it in the news, and I had also heard rumors from other backpackers that all the roads and tracks connecting the north to the south of Vietnam were supposedly not passable. I was a bit worried about it, because my plan was to take the train from Hanoi in the north to Saigon in the south of Vietnam, so I tried to find some information about the floods on the internet. However I couldn’t find anything, except some brief and vague press reports.
Once in Saigon I tried my luck and went to the train station in order to buy a ticket. I wanted to get a ticket for train TN1, which is slower and not in such a good condition as the other Vietnamese trains. But it is cheaper, and another advantage is that its windows open, so it is possible to take pictures out of the train. At the train station it was possible to buy a train ticket, so I thought the floods were already over or at least not a problem for the train anymore, nevertheless I learned that as a tourist it is not that simple to get a ticket for the cheaper trains. It seems that the ticket agents are told to sell only more expensive tickets to tourists. Anyway after asking several agents and causing some confusion I got a ticket for the cheap train TN1.
A 1726 km single track is connecting Hanoi to Saigon and on train TN1 the ride should normally take around 40 hours. The first half of my train ride was quite normal without any complications. Every now and then the train paused for a while because it had to get of the main (single) track and let other trains pass.
I was the only tourist on the train, and as opposed to what I experienced in the center of Hanoi, the Vietnamese I met on this train didn’t speak any English at all. I had a hard sleeper ticket, thus I was in a compartment with six berths. For the same reasons as on the Chinese trains I chose one of the upper berths. This time the space up there was very little. It was hard to get into any other position but lying and one time I almost got stuck in my position and couldn’t move back when I tried to get something out of my bag. Also the AC fan was directed straight to the upper berth, so it was really cold and windy up there, and I was glad to have my snowboard jacket with me, where I wrapped myself in. Having my little Austrian winter experience up there made me almost forget that it was still 30 °C outside the train. To be wrapped in my jacket like an Eskimo with only my nose uncovered had another advantage besides. I realized later on that cockroach-like bugs were crawling everywhere on the ceilings and in my berth. So the jacket kept a healthy distance between the bugs and me.
Sometime during the second night the train stopped again in the middle of nowhere. I thought we were again waiting for another train to pass, but after 5 hours not moving an inch I was getting wary.
The next morning we were still not moving. Then it was clear to me that it was not a scheduled stop. I was trying to find out if other passengers knew what’s going on, but it seemed like they didn’t have a clue either, but then again I couldn’t really understand what they were saying. It came to my mind that it could have something to do with the floodings. Anyway everyone just waited patiently, and so did I. People in my compartment were really nice, showing me pictures from their homes and sharing all their food with me. For example I tried this Vietnamese speciality called Nem (see picture).
While waiting I also started a conversation with a Vietnamese girl. Well, actually I was talking English and she was talking Vietnamese and most of the time I didn’t even have a clue what she was trying to say and I’m not sue if she had a clue about what I was saying. But anyway it was a good way to pass time. After a while she pointed at my ring finger and asked me something. I assumed she wanted to know if I was married. I said no, and returned the question. This made her smile bashfully and by nodding she gave me to understand that she wasn’t. We eventually exchanged phone numbers, and while still on the train she started messaging me in Vietnamese language. She actually kept writing me messages for about two weeks. Eventually I found someone to translate for me. On her messages she asked me how I was doing, told me what she was doing and invited me to her place. I had heard rumors before that some Vietnamese women were looking for men from the west, who could then provide for her and her family, and I was wondering if this was the case here, or if she was just interested in a different culture and wanted to meet foreign people. Anyway, I wrote back a couple times, although the language barrier made it pointless to me, and eventually I received less and less messages.
Back to the train. After waiting for about 15 hours, the train finally started moving again. I am not quite sure, but I think a rock slip had blocked the tracks.
The train kept having several unscheduled stops, but they didn’t last as long as the first one. One time there was a discussion if we should change to a bus in order to bypass a section of the tracks. Another passenger told me so by painting a picture. We already started to pack and were getting ready for the change, but after waiting for another hour the train suddenly continued.
That was the last incident, after which the train, more or less constantly, kept moving. Sometimes I could see that the water was really getting close to the tracks. The shortest distance between water and tracks was maybe half a meter.
But eventually the water was getting less and we made it through the flood. Finally after 70 hours (instead of 40 hours) we reached Saigon. After that train ride, although it was very interesting, I definitely had enough of trains for a while, and I was glad that I planed to have a longterm break in the south of Vietnam and that I didn’t have to travel long distances for a while.
Some days later I heard from other backpackers in the hostel, that they knew of some travelers who got stuck in central Vietnam and who actually had to get of the train for a couple of days, so it seemed like my train just made it.
This time I only stayed in Saigon for a day. The next day (2. Nov 2010) I continued to a nearby town in the Mekong delta called Vinh Long. There I was going to meet Florian, a friend from Austria, and his uncle.