Don’t rush and enjoy the slow ride

One of the beautiful things about traveling by train in Vietnam is the opportunity to sit and gaze out at gorgeous landscapes, all at a leisurely pace. Trains in Europe are designed to get you from one place to another as quickly as possible, the countryside going by in a blur, but to travel by rail in Vietnam fulfils the Chinese proverb, “The journey is the reward.”

Departing from ga Saigon (from the French for railway station, gare) on a recent trip north, I was amazed at how close people live, work, play, eat and sleep to the single track that carves a narrow corridor through the tightly packed neighborhoods of north western Saigon. One more meter to the left or right and we would have been traveling through their living rooms, barber shops and drink stands. After a while, the scenery opens out and we are in a watery landscape of rice paddies, lakes and small towns. Our train starts to climb to higher ground and the scenery and the light changes. This region reminds me of the Highlands of Scotland in many ways. The hills rise steeply on both sides of the train and the lush green of the lowlands has given way to a starker landscape with fewer trees and villages, and dusty roads that are less travelled on. But the best is yet to come.

From the comfort of my sleeper carriage, the landscape gently rolls past the window like a documentary film. In this seemingly idyllic land every view is worth painting and the fields and villages themselves seem to have been touched by an artist’s brush. If you take the midnight train from Saigon, you will arrive at the coastal town of Nha Trang at dawn. From here the single train track hugs the beautiful coastline which is dotted with romantic islands and purple peninsulas backlit by the rising sun. The views of the East Sea shimmering in the low light of a fresh morning are breathtaking. On one of my journeys, this hour was marked by the arrival of the breakfast trolley carrying a large bucket of fresh, hard boiled eggs. These delicious treats are served with a pinch of the ubiquitous chilli salt presented in a little recycled paper wrapper. Mine was part of a page of an old train timetable – how apt!

As Vietnam wakes to another day, you can see people tending their gardens and allotments beside the train track. A cowherd takes his cattle and calves to pasture. A lone motorcyclist spins down a country road easily keeping pace with the train. Workers make an early start in the green and gold fields at the coolest time of day. Teams of women in their conical hats are gathering in the hay to make haystacks reminiscent of those in Monet’s paintings of rural France in the late 1800s. Traveling along the single track railway that runs the length of Vietnam is truly one of this country’s hidden delights. It may be slow but I cannot think of any good reason to rush through this fascinating and varied landscape.

A professional artist and author of “A Week in Hoi An”, Bridget March specializes in urban landscapes and aims to reveal the hidden treasures of city life and small town cultures through her illustrations. Bridget holds drawing classes for beginners and improvers in Saigon. For more of Bridget’s work including her new book, see BrushWithAsia.blogspot.com