Nguyen Van Dau had just completed a postgraduate course in Australia.
After landing at Phu Bai airport in Hue, he stayed the night to catch the train so he could savor a dish of the famous My Chanh chicken rice--a dish he's come to crave and love after ten years of faithful eating.
Dau said he ate the rice every week while riding the train as a college student and continued to eat it every once in a while while working as a teacher in Hue
It was nothing special then.
“But after several years in Australia, I wanted it so bad, I became obsessed with the idea of eating it.”
Le Thi Thu, better known as Vo among her customers, cook right on the train with ingredients she prepares at home.
Her chicken rice carries the famous My Chanh brand name, as she's one of several members of the namesake Quang Tri village that hugs the center of this contested train route.
For decades now, short train routes - of a couple hundred kilometers each and running through mountainous towns of the north and central regions - have come to support the livelihoods of many people like Thu by providing a venue for them to sell their goods or transport cargo at dirt cheap prices, according to a recent feature published by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
Those livelihoods came under threat when the state-run Vietnam Railways announced plans to shut down the routes due to spiraling losses, which hit VND83 billion (US$3.94 million) in 2011 and VND103 billion ($4.9 million) in 2012.
Residents in remote areas in Thua Thien-Hue, Quang Binh, Ha Tinh, and the northern provinces of Lang Son, Quang Ninh, Thai Nguyen and Bac Giang protested the plans, by petitioning the company to keep the routes open.
No one knows how long their appeals will hold out. In the meantime, the routes remain the lifeblood of people like Thu.
Her recipe seems rather simple. She boils the heads, necks, and legs of the chicken while she stirs together fish sauce, salt, sugar, garlic, chili and turmeric powder.
She fries onions, garlic, chili and turmeric powder until fragrant, adds in the chicken , then returns it all to the broth when it’s just about the done.
She keeps a pot of warm rice and a small fire going to stir-fry pickles, on the spot, for her customers.
She keeps everything arranged in a basket which she carries through the train on her head.
She says everyone in her village cooks the same way. The only way to improve the recipe is to choose the best chicken possible.
She charges VND10,000-50,000 (US$0.47-2.37) a dish, depending on how much chicken her customers want.
Some folks can only afford to pay VND5,000 for a meal of rice, sauce and unlimited pickles. Thu can afford it; she grows the vegetables herself.
“I don’t know how many travelers we've fed over the decades. Many customers have become this and that boss, and when they see me again, they say they miss me and my chicken rice,” Thu said.
But it's not just a piece of nostalgia or a cooking show.
It's been a struggle to make ends meet.
Another threatened train route, from Quang Binh Province north to Nghe An Province, is famous for another chicken rice called Lac Son also named for a struggling village.
Lac Son station is famous for the 20 or so women who line up with a basket of chicken rice on their heads waiting to go aboard. Around half of them get off halfway through the route to sell in the busier towns in Quang Binh Province.
Nguyen Thi Hai says there's little arable land in Lac Son and many families have relied on chicken rice for years now.
Hai said most families of five were allocated 1,000 square meters to farm. But only about half of that land proved suitable to wet rice cultivation.
“We choose short train journeys as tickets are very cheap, around VND10,000 both ways. Sometimes we have a slow day and the conductors refuse to take our money.”
Quang Binh Province once paid tribute to Vietnam's kings by sending them Lac Son chicken rice; today, the village's wayward gourmands hover just above poverty.
Nguyen Thi Long, 46 has sold chicken rice on train for 30 years and she goes through four or five chickens on busy days--like festivals or the first day of university.
On a typical day, its usually only two or three.
Her eldest daughter is working as accountant for a private company in nearby Da Nang; her son is waiting for her to send ransom to a labor trafficker in Russia.
Long said her son will have to wait a long time as she only earns some VND100,000 ($4.47) a day from selling rice, just enough for her and her husband to make ends meet.
The short-haul trains have been dubbed “market trains” as they carry everything you can find at a wet market: livestock, fresh fish, green vegetables, and crafts.
Most of the retailers aren't middle men; they sell what they grow and forage in the wild.
Vu Quang of Ha Tinh Province loaded 300 kilograms of firewood and 50 kilograms of crab onto a train bound for Vinh, the capital of the north central province of Nghe An, and paid VND30,000 for his ticket.
A station employee said it’s just a token fare; locals couldn't afford to ride for any more. He expected the firewood would sell for VND150,000 when in Vinh.
Nguyen Thanh Binh, a train manager, said these vendors sell whatever they can carry and use the proceeds to buy what they need at the next station.
Binh said people living along the railways are all poor and the chance of making a US$1 profit is enough motivation for them to make a voyage.
He said most live between mountains and deep rivers in communities that lack roads; the trains are their only connection to the rest of the world.
Tan Son village, home to 15 families along a pass in Quang Binh Province, has earned the name “train waiting village” as the whole village economy hinges on two daily stops from a trains carrying basic necessities like rice, salt and fuel.
“People here have to wait for the train if they need to cook,” a station employee said.
The village usually sends Ha Thi Xuyen to sell the village's catch of paddy crabs at the next station stop.
Pointing to her 30 kilogram sack of crabs, Xuyen said it took her village two days to gather them all. “They don’t bring in much money, but we wouldn't know who to sell them to without the train.”
She said many people have considered moving after hearing about plans to stop the trains.
Local officials said suspending train service would mean bankrupting the local population.
Nguyen Ngoc Le, director of the Quang Binh Railway Factory, said it’s easy to decide to shut down these routes if you only look at the numbers, but the benefit the trains have brought to poor communities along the railways are hard to measure.
Le said the authorities need to think of an alternative solution for these communities before considering any stoppage of service.
Vietnam Railways is still awaiting response from the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Society before it submits its shutdown plan to the government and the transport ministry.
A company representatives said they have been considerate by keeping the fares unchanged.
Tran Ngoc Thanh, the board chairman, said: “This is a very hard puzzle for Vietnam Railways.”
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