The most free twenty four hours I ever experienced in my life were spent on a cramped train barreling along the coast of Vietnam. I, and fourteen other teenagers, slept 4 to a car with our luggage as pillows. Well, some people slept. I went to bed at one in the morning and woke up at four in the morning to stretch, because in an hour we would all have to jump from that moving train as it slowed down just enough to ensure minimal injury.
We had come to Vietnam, the fifteen of us, for a five week service and travel program. We taught children English and hauled home-made cement for the first fourteen days of our trip, training our patience and our muscles alike. Then, we were to embark on a three week itinerary that would take us to every last attraction the sunbaked country had to offer, under the guidance of our translator Yen.
The twenty four hour train would take us from the southern half of Vietnam to the north, making minimal full stops along the way. We had packed snacks, instant noodles, and a good number of card games. I remember two very specific sights out the train window that I still dream about today:
The first was a village that looked like a painting. You see, most villages in Vietnam grow rice. Great expanses of knee-high, bright green grasses, with thin canals dug through them. The canals end up looking like the perspective lines Masaccio used to paint the apostles. In the center of that great green expanse, cut with perspective lines, stood four patched huts. It seemed like an illustration from a Doctor Seuss book, some ridiculous imaginarium meant to create a fantasy for the reader. But instead of “The Places You’ll Go,” it seemed to say “you’re here. Enjoy it.” I had the privilege of visiting a village much like that in the north of Vietnam a few days after. I stood in the rice fields, and I felt much like an astronaut on the face of some Crayon-colored moon.
The second sight was the sunrise. At 4:53 in the morning, the sun crested over the ocean while the train burst out of a tunnel and began barreling along the edge of a cliffside, overlooking scattered fishing villages. I was the only one awake. I knelt down in front of the one small window that our cabin had, and I saw massive purple streaks begin to fire along the ocean’s surface, illuminating hundreds of tiny fishing boats. I swear that the whole spectacle seemed staged by some all-powerful director. I looked down, and saw people beginning to exit their huts looking like miniature figures in a big theater production, and for an instant I wondered if they were going to break into a Disney song.
Since this trip took place two summers ago, and the exact itinerary wasn’t given to me, I can only offer a short summary of the trip: We began by landing in Ho Chi Minh City, (former Saigon), and stayed there for the first two weeks. A nine hour train then took us to Phú Yên, the most popular tourism province in south Vietnam. That was where we caught the 24 hour train to Hanoi, but it runs all the way to Ho Chi Minh city. If I may make a final suggestion, though, I would say in lieu of tourist attractions, simply find a high place and look out over the mystical spread of that wonderful country.
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