In the popular cable TV show, The Deadliest Catch, outdoorsy big-bearded men in heavy knitwear and galoshes routinely take on the elements as they attempt to harvest King Crabs in one of the world’s harshest environments. Reeling from side to side as their boat is pounded by massive waves in the Bering Sea, the drenched fishermen try futilely to steady themselves on deck while simultaneously trying to grasp and secure wildly swinging nets crammed with large gangly crabs. As water gushes and sloshes from left to right and back again, they try to remain upright on the dramatically heaving vessel calling out loudly to each other over the din, barking terse instructions and tactical safety advice.
These are the scenes that flashed through my mind as I looked down nervously at a big menacing aluminum pot of swirling pish in the bathroom of the Hanoi-Saigon Reunification Express Train. It was circling ominously in a near-regular clockwise manner threatening to deluge seemingly more and more with each revolution. All the while the floor gleamed lucidly like the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial on a solemn overcast October evening. As the old French colonial train clattered forward on the 1930s era tracks, the lateral rhythm of the carriages drove the synchronicity of the oscillating privy, achieving some sinister state of restroom resonance. My first thought was to step on the flush control, which filled it up even more. Aaaargh! My second idea was to try that again, but that was interrupted and superseded by my immediate third thought which was to leave it alone and try to work with the harrowing situation.
I was hoping there was another powder room somewhere for the ladies as this one would’ve been a bit of a smoocher. There was a Belgian woman in my sleeper cabin who made a trip out at one point, presumably to the bathroom, but she didn’t say squat or make eye contact when she came back. I think she was traumatized. But for men, you could stand well back and just fire right into the middle of it, or for dart enthusiasts, aim just above the bull’s-eye on the triple ring for the optimum shot. The experience overall was quite hypnotic, like some aquatic introduction to the Twilight Zone—I found that before long I was swaying my hips to the tempo of the soaker cycle. When I got back a Spanish guy in my compartment asked where the toilet was–I told him just to follow my footprints.
Notwithstanding the plumbing, physically getting to and from the John was quite a challenge. It was at the far end of the carriage: There were actually two lavatories there—a western style commode and an oriental squatter. But there were Vietnamese folks camped out everywhere in the corridors, especially at the ends of the carriages, sleeping on plastic boxes and other regional bric a brac. The squat toilet was completely blocked by itinerants leaving only an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom form of access to the head from hell. You had to pick your way through the snoozing squatters one careful step at a time over their luggage and legs and so on, all the while the old wagons rattled from side to side in sheer darkness, adding a comical layer of difficulty to the process. I was, of course, in one of the few first class coaches, where they advertise “soft” beds, with four couchettes to a compartment. But out on the corridors anything goes on the set of Blade Runner.
From my experience, there were three distinct, sequential phases of the night train—noisy natives, drunken dudes, and snoozing squatters, the latter described heretofore. The noisy native segment commenced as soon as the train had left Hanoi at 7:30 PM. In our compartment, over the loud aging rattle and rolling stock we could hear a piercing, continuing cacophony of commotion right outside our door. But it wasn’t a fight or anything like that—the locals were yelling oriental overtures at each other in order to communicate from far corners of corridors and coach ends where they had settled for the night.
Then, at just about midnight, the racket from the rambler encampment died down as the next phase began. Two doors or so down, we could hear the clickety clackety unlocking of the first of several ill-fitting compartment slide doors. “Dude, whatever happens on the train stays on the train,” said some emerging American extra from The Hangover. We couldn’t see this fellow but didn’t need to; it was now time for a little French Indo China railroad frat party in compartment 15.
Nevertheless, the details of this colorful account are not intended to convey criticism but to depict the memorable uniqueness and adventure that can be found even in the day-to-day minutia of what is nothing less than a fabulous journey throughout a beautiful, engaging country. Should I want merely to complain about trains I’ve got numerous British Rail stories. No, for I will never complain about voluntarily inserting myself directly into the fabric and context of a friendly, striving, vying nation with such a rich and troubled heritage. The train trip was all that I wanted and more and for that reason I’ll give it five stars on TripAdvisor should they care to publish my pish.