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ALL ABOARD THE REUNIFICATION EXPRESS

A vital lifeline in war and peace, Vietnam’s 1,000-mile long North-South Railway provides an all-in encounter with the country’s incredible beauty, people and history
The Reunifcation Express runs by the South China Sea just north of Hai Van Pass, between Hue and Hoi An – this country-spanning train line took nearly 40 years to complete
PHOTOGRAPHS MATT MUNRO

Just before noon each day, the southbound train from Hai Phong to Hanoi rumbles past Mrs Bay’s front room, missing her porch by no more than inches. To me, the scene looks like something from a disaster movie. With its horn blaring like the last trumpet, the huge locomotive barely squeezes through the tiny space where the railway track runs between two rows of dwellings. It’s close enough to block all the light from the windows, fap the drying laundry and silence our conversation. Mrs Bay, a well-preserved 64-year-old, whom I’ve bumped into on a stroll, bats away my concerns. ‘I hardly notice it,’ she says as the last carriage fnally disappears, continuing to massage black hair dye into her scalp with plastic-gloved hands. Mrs Bay is a retired railway worker. Space in this teeming city is at such a premium that she counts herself lucky to have a centrally located home, despite its obvious hazards. ‘It’s fne for the kids, too,’ she says. ‘We just call them inside when the bell rings.’

A few hundred metres from Mrs Bay’s house stands Hanoi’s central station, Ga Hanoi. Ga, the word for station, is like the tracks themselves: a legacy of French rule. From here, the railway line runs 1,000 miles down the long stalk of this narrow country to Ho Chi Minh City – formerly Saigon. Four express trains a day make the 34-hour southbound journey. Aeroplanes and a rapidly modernising highway system now rival the railway for speed and convenience, but travelling slowly by train is an incomparable way of plunging into the heart of the country, and the beauty and history that make it unique.

ILLUSTRATIONS: ANISA MAKOUL

The frst southbound express leaves at 6am. Through the drizzle, the neon sign spelling out Ga Hanoi fames red above the central entrance. Propaganda posters remind you that, in spite of its astonishing commercial energy, this is still a communist country. The station has a Soviet favour, as do the red, white and blue livery of the rolling stock, and the smart blue uniforms of the guards who check the tickets.

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