She glanced my way, reaching to the little table by the window and taking the last bottle of water. We both knew it was mine. She tore off the plastic seal, twisted the cap and drank with long, deep gulps. Thus ended a minor series of squabbles that had consumed our entire journey.
I’d arrived at Hanoi Station deep in the night – 0420. Hot, sweaty, unwashed, with no plans until the night train at 2200. Nothing to do except find somewhere to shower and sleep.
In Europe they give you a chance to rest – pull into a siding until seven or eight, give you a little breakfast before they send you on your way. Not so here, Comrade.
I checked into the local knocking shop: it’s expensive, but sometimes you need to sleep. I’m not the only living thing in the room; probably not even the biggest. There’s a TV that’s newer than any I’ve ever owned and, curiously, a whiteboard.
I can’t sleep, so I write until it’s time to walk the city.
Hanoi feels like it was built 400 years ago and just had the finishing touches put on last week – part damp-mottled plaster, part Norman Foster glass and steel. It’s one of those places that ought not to work – a Pauli “that’s not right, it’s not even wrong” kind of capital. But somehow it pulls itself together and gets on with things.
I walk towards the Hoa Lo prison. Past a half-dozen judicious, stern-looking young men in starched uniforms – the type that punctuate city centres in communist states. They smile and straighten up as I walk past. Christ, it’s hot.
Their grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought in holes. Generations of civil strife and now there’s a coffee shop on every corner – lattes and A.C. I’m not complaining; I stop in for a latte.
Why isn’t this place an economic powerhouse? Where did that grit all go? Even excluding the obvious ones (Brunei, Singapore, christ – Malaysia) Vietnam is hovering down with Laos and Myanmar in World Bank $ GDP figures for ASEAN member states.
I brave the dry heat and walk the three blocks to Hoa Lo – the Hanoi Hilton. The Vietnamese and the States both refer to the USAF POWs’ renaming as “ironic”, but for very different reasons. There are pictures of captured pilots being given medical care and playing basketball – apparently having the time of their lives – but we know that’s a lie. The victors ought to write the history but they really fucked it up – the lie they told was too big.
Except that little one about the Gulf of Tonkin – the tale of two North Vietnamese raids on the USS Tonkin, initially used by LBJ as a pretext for strong retaliation against the Viet Cong and later revealed to be part shady reporting and part utter bullshit.
I’m having a beer and checking my notes for tonights journey – a two-night rail extravaganza down to Saigon, along what’s known as the “reunification line”.
First built by the French, bombed by Viet Minh and Americans against the invading Japanese, repaired, partially destroyed and partially stolen(?!) in the first Indochina war by the Viet Minh against the French, partially destroyed by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regular army and the South and the US forces during the Vietnam war.
It comprises just less than half of the whole country’s rail network. There are 27 tunnels (“some inadequately drained”), and 278 of its bridges require “major rehabilitation”, according to Wikipedia. This railway ought not to exist.
You know that story about the guy that measured Everest, found the result to be a little too pleasantly round, and added two feet to the number? Well, 278 is also the number of stations in the whole Vietnam railway network. I’m not saying someone’s eyeballing dangerous bridges, I just wish the British had kicked the whole thing off, and not the French.
I’m going to spend the journey reading up on a bit of Indochine history, but I’ll leave with this that I overheard in Sapa:
It was good to learn of their history kinda thing but I feel bad about how badly they got fucked over.