The tracks were bombed to smithereens during the war, but were rebuilt with help from the Russians in the late 70s. India donated some hand-me-down trains, some of which are still on the rails. Today, the train is packed with both western tourists and Vietnamese, poking along at around 40 mph.
Here are some of
the sights you see along the way:
-- Vietnam is the place to go for Australians, a nation of 20 million fearless people who are madly in love with traveling the world, especially to cheap, Third World countries. Its raining Aussies here.
-- And no wonder, because a three-star hotel will set you back $25. But the cheap thrills wont last. Colossal hotels are being built along the coast, as Vietnam evolves into one of the top tourist destinations in the world. In the beach town of Nha Trang, theres a new $500 million resort built by (I kid you not) Ukrainium uranium miners. Its reached by an aerial gondola system that stretches for two miles over the bay.
-- Have you tried the roast frog with chili sauce at the little cafe across from the train station in Danang? They also offer steamed goat with ginger, BBQ pigeon, and the intriguing Inside of Duck with Lemon Juice. The Viets love their duck innards.
-- The charming old town of Hoi An has 300 silk shops and tailors who can whip up anything your heart desires for a fraction of the price back home. I had a blue cashmere pinstripe suit hand-tailored for $70. It was finished by the next day, including alterations. Thousands of tourists swarm the tailor shops here, getting fabulous bargains.
-- I befriend a woman named Nan, 42, who runs a snack cart outside my hotel. When she was a one-year-old baby, Nans mother and four members of her family were killed by American bombs.
Nan gets up at 5 a.m. to cook breakfast for her children, ages 5 and 16. Then shes on the job from 6:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night, seven days a week, even in the cold, drizzling rain. I find her late at night, exhausted and sleeping by her cart on the street.
She lives with her father, who is 86 and insane from Alzheimers. Hers is one of the many sad stories you hear everywhere in Asia.
But Nan has a brilliant smile thats bright enough to rouse the dead. When I see her taking her baby girl to school the next morning on her motorbike, I realize that despite her hardship, there is still much love in her life.
-- The Vietnamese fishermen never carry lifejackets or safety equipment when they are out on the wild sea, because that of course, would bring bad luck. But they do take
one safety precaution:
they paint eyes on the prows of their boats so the watercraft will know where
-- Dont put your hand in the basket cage holding a fighting cock. These scruffy, scrappy roosters are raised on steroids. Then, razor blades are fitted to their claws and theyre injected with adrenalin and tossed in the ring for a fight to the death. Cock-fighting is serious business here -- some of the boys bet the only thing they own -- their motorbikes.
-- Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is an exciting town with an ocean of motorbikes making an endless roar. You can shop til you drop here, or sit at a sidewalk cafe in plastic chairs designed for preschoolers, and watch the millions pass by. And theres nothing like a hair-raising ride on the back of a motorbike taxi with half-flat tires, zig-zagging in and out of traffic and running red
lights to put the zest back in your life. A fun town.
-- The old Viet Cong stronghold of Cu Chi is a museum now, and you can crawl through some of the 35 miles of tunnels where 16,000 guerrillas hid out during the war. For $6 you can shoot five rounds of an AK-47. They used to let you shoot a chicken for your dinner, but animal rights activists put the kibosh on the fun.
Hmmm... where to next? Down south to the Equator, I suppose. Beastly hot down there, I hear. But fear not, because after a week in Malaysia, Ill be headed to a place where its chillin, with many familiar faces -- wrapping up a trip around the world... Xin cam on!