Saturday, 5.30am, I am in Gia Lam train station. I follow the controllers and porters pushing my bike in the darkness of the night. We need four people to lift the bike onto the train.
5.50am and Anh is late — the train leaves in 10 minutes. The controller knows I have two train tickets, we try to communicate, I call her and they talk, she jumps on someone’s motorbike, the controller goes to her, they are running. I am already on the last wagon, the train is going to leave. They jump in, as the train starts moving.
6am. We sit down in a booth, the seats in our coach are hard wood. It’s still dark outside and very cold. The windows covered in a wire mesh are closed. I am hoping to find a seat without the wire mesh-covered windows, but the train is already pretty full and there aren’t any options for the moment. Anh starts pulling out some bread, condensed milk and popcorn to share for our breakfast. In my bag I only have a clean pair of underwear, three lenses, two cameras, a notebook and some money. I buy two bottles of water. Looking out the window through the mesh, the sun rises slowly as we leave Hanoi’s suburbs.
In April 1895 my great-great-grandfather Vézin was awarded the contract from the French administration to build a railroad from Phu Lang Thuong (56km from Hanoi) to Lang Son. His daughter married the son of an engineer, whose surname was Vola. My grandfather was born and raised in Hanoi until he returned to France to study medicine. He came back in 1951 as a chief surgeon and served three years at Quang Tri Hospital, 67km north of Hue. After he passed away my family rediscovered photo albums from the colonial era.
Sitting on this train I am retracing the steps, or more aptly, the tracks of my great-great-grandfather. During my time in Vietnam I’ve talked about him a lot. Too much. Yet I still feel nostalgic. There is an odd fascination with the train to Lang Son, the legacy of my ancestors.
The train ride is photographic eye candy: the light, the contrast, the people. After breakfast I pull the camera out of my bag. Our neighbours, who are already looking at me with stupefaction, are starting to ask questions. Anh is a great companion and she answers them all for me. I decide to take a stroll to other wagons to find a mesh-free window to take pictures of the scenery we are travelling through. We stop at every station and more people and goods fill the train. It’s cold, people sleep, talk, eat and occupy themselves. Time goes by slowly and we relax.
There is a certain sadness to the countryside we are passing through. The colours of the winter landscapes are muted with earthy dark green and brown intermixed with shades of grey. There are a few patches of brightness, some vegetable gardens along the tracks or some colourful jackets that catch my eye, but everywhere the gloom remains.
Once we arrive in the border village of Dong Dang, just 10km north of Lang Son, we are overwhelmed by all the porters and the goods being loaded on the train for China. The province of Lang Son is the city gateway to Trung Quoc or the Middle Country, as Vietnam refers to their northern neighbour. Anh’s family lives in Dong Dang. So we stop by to visit them and I get my first taste of the delicious honey roasted pork that Lang Son is famed for — thit lon quay. Since we are so close to the border we pay a quick visit. Anh negotiates with the armed guards — I am able to take photos. There are a few electric carts for people with luggage, but most people crossing the border by foot pull their suitcase behind them. I have a photo of the border gate at the time of Vézin and I was hoping to see it there. From the distance we thought maybe there was something to see on the Chinese side, but I guess we went to the wrong border gate. There are about five or six border gates in Lang Son Province.
By the time we arrive in Lang Son, it is well into the afternoon. We meet up with Xuan, an English teaching assistant, and the three of us head to the Mac Dynasty Citadel before the light disappears. It’s Saturday and the place is full of groups finishing their picnics, leaving their trash lying in their wake. They sing and laugh as loud as they are drinking. The main area is surrounded by four karstic limestone hills, which offer a great view of Lang Son. On the right side you can access what remains of the old citadel.
Nguyen Dinh Long, who has been working here for seven years as a security guard, tells me the citadel was built in the 16th century by a king from the Mac Dynasty to establish his power in the region over the Le Dynasty. It was destroyed over time by war and conflict, but he tells me most of the place was still standing when the French left. In 1962 the citadel was established as a national vestige to help protect it. Only two walls remain. While the north gate was renovated in 2010, the south gate has been reclaimed by nature.
After that the priority for me is to get hold of a pair of motorbike gloves I spotted earlier. They have a hole next to the index finger so you can put your motorbike handle bar inside. They’re waterproof and lined with warm synthetic fur, perfect for the way back to Hanoi. Next winter someone will have to introduce these to the capital.
Xuan has to leave and drops us at Bac Son, famed for its Lang Son specialties: pho chua (sweet and sour pho), roasted pork and roasted duck. It’s around 5.30pm and I am exhausted.
The Lake and the Cave
Sunday morning. Maybe because it’s so cold in the room, we wake up a bit late and have a very slow start. We go back to Bac Son, buy some pho chua and then head to the cafe next to the New Dynasty Restaurant situated on a small island in the lake. With a great view of the lake and the surrounding karstic hills, the spot is the perfect visual complement to our breakfast.
I am busy preparing the food for a photo shoot while Anh is already eating hers. Pho chua is a complex dish with many ingredients — vegetables finely chopped, pork marinated in oyster sauce, pho noodles, roasted peanuts and onions, aromatic herbs and sesame seeds. But the best part is the cold soup, made sour with vinegar, sugar, tomatoes, ginger, garlic and herbs. It’s a fine balance between dry and wet, Vietnamese and Chinese. It’s perfect and I wonder where I can find it in Hanoi.
I take a small tour around the lake — it’s my favourite spot in the city — but I linger too long and when I am back at the cafe it’s already late. We only have time to check out Tam Thanh Cave.
It’s the bigger of the two caves to visit and is busy; people are gathering around the lotus flower basin trying to catch a drop of lucky water from the ceiling. Anh is waiting for her turn, and when she finally gets to hold out her hand the drop of water just happens.
Back to Hanoi
It’s time to get on the road back to Hanoi, 160km due south. With nobody else on the road, we get on my bike, put on some music and share the headphones. About 15km from Lang Son and for around the next 45km, we go through a beautiful landscape of rice paddies and karstic mountains. It slows us down as I have to stop to capture the scenery with my camera. The rest of the road trip is tiring, especially the last 50km that slowly replaces the idyllic natural landscape with one more befitting of an urbanised industrial nation. I am glad to arrive back in the capital.
There is a great potential to see beauty in Lang Son, you just need to go in the right season — the weather while I am there is overcast and the area is covered in a low mist. The city is often dismissed as a border town and does not have a reputation that attracts tourists. Lonely Planet writes that most visitors just pass through to cross the border to China. And while Lang Son was mostly destroyed in 1979 during the Sino-Vietnamese war; the city of old is visible at the market. The pursuit of economic prosperity has begun to mend the wounds between this forgotten border town and its neighbours to the north.
As for my ancestors, it’s the train that matters, the tracks that they built to connect Hanoi with the border. Lang Son has its own very separate history, rich with stories of dynasties, citadels, economic development and war. It’s a history that, despite undergoing so much destruction, somehow remains very much alive.