It was Apr. 3, 1975, Dalat had been liberated, and a steam powered locomotive rolled into the town with a solitary Vietnamese flag attached to its roof. A day of celebration was also a day of sadness, as it would be the final time the Dalat-Thap Cham route would be used. It was the train’s death march and last hurrah.
The Dalat-Thap Cham railroad was constructed by the French to transport both goods and people from the coast to the mountains. It took about 30 years to complete. The first 41km stretch from Thap Cham to Song Pha was opened in 1919, with a second section, from Song Pha to Dalat opening in 1932.
Anyone who has visited the area will know what an impressive feat building a rail network that weaves through the rolling mountains that dominate the landscape must have been, and the French took measures to ensure a respectful relationship with gravity by implementing a unique cog system. This meant an extra wheel underneath the train which allowed for extra grip and traction as the trains went up and down some steep inclines and descents.
Most of the line is gone, now. But it’s still possible to trace its route all the way to Thap Cham on the coast.
The End of the Line
My day starts where the old line ends at Trai Mat Station. The 7km section of the track from Dalat to Trai Mat was reopened for tourists in 1991, and the diesel-powered train rolls in at a leisurely pace before letting out a large group of Japanese tourists. The bullet train it is not. It is, however, reassuringly quaint, giving off the pleasant sensation of a bygone era. The train line that once continued down the line has been replaced by a washing line, and is today fully stocked with various colourful items of clothing.
Mr. Vien was the man in charge of driving the train on its final trip. He has recently celebrated his 96th Christmas and to mark the occasion a tree stands resplendent in his front room. He began working on the trains in 1947, and drove them on the line up until regular service was halted in 1968 due to the war. During the conflict, service was sporadic, and he was in charge of driving the train on its final swansong on Dalat’s liberation day in 1975. His memories are still vivid when he recalls the emotion of the day.
“I remember feeling sad because the train line was something very close to me for many years,” he says. “It was a way to feed my wife and children — we had 10!”
He is animated as he explains how independence was an uncertain time for many in the country, least of all for those who had manned the soon to be scrapped Dalat-Thap Cham line for most of their working lives.
“Everyone was poor and nobody could afford to take the train anymore,” he explains. “The new government recycled much of the line to help rebuild the Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City Reunification Express.”
Using a hand-drawn map created for me by local businessman and train enthusiast, Curtis King, I visit an old station Da Tho (or “Le Bosquet” in French) that has stood still since the line was closed.
Hidden from the roadside, it has been bathed in half a century of sunlight. Its yellow paint peeling in the heat makes it look like a piece of glistening gold jewellery that has been neglected and left in a drawer. Many of the fittings are still intact, and a beautiful fireplace still sits proudly in the corner. The tracks are long gone, with perhaps the only clue that this shell of a building was once a train station is the shelter to guard waiting passengers from the rain.
There is something almost whimsical when you see the tourist train happily chug down the small part of the line that was reopened from Dalat to Trai Mat. It’s a vision which downplays how dangerous and perilous the line actually was. Mr Vien shows a picture of the men who worked on the train and points out those co-workers who met their end on the landmines which littered the landscape during wartime.
Despite the uncertain times, Vien remained admirably steadfast, and concentrated on the job at hand.
“I told my co-workers to just focus on what you need to do in the job. If you have a gun, shoot it. If you need to fix the road, fix it! My job was to drive the train. So that’s what I did.”
He adds: “I knew I could die, but all I was focused on was bringing a salary home to my wife and kids.”
In the Face of Danger
Beauty and danger sat closely together on the Dalat-Thap Cham line, and it wasn’t just the menace of landmines that posed a mortal threat to those working and travelling on the route. The physicality of the mountains was demanding on the steam locomotives, and as Vien explains, this could lead to accidents.
“The most beautiful and most dangerous section of the route was between Song Pha, which is the base of the mountain, up the Belle Vue Pass,” he says. “It is incredibly steep, with lots of turns.”
“There was an accident on this path in 1940; the train didn’t have the power to climb it,” says Vien. “So it reversed 2km backwards down the tracks before it fell into a huge valley. All the passengers and the driver died.”
Sadly, it was one of many accidents that befell travel on the line.
There are five tunnels that serviced the line going up and down the mountains. The first tunnel as the trains began their descent down from Dalat can be reached via road just a few kilometres away from Da Tho Station. On the day I visit it is inhabited by an army of frogs in the deep puddles of water that fill about half of the tunnel. They make a real racket, so if you are walking past in search of the hidden tunnel you just might hear them and know you have reached the spot. For Vien, the tunnels offered a welcome respite from concentrating on the route.
“When we went through the tunnel I would look back into the carriage and could see the passengers smiling and being happy. It was a good feeling,” he says.
A New Line
But could we see trains appearing out of the tunnels again? Dalat-based business owner Curtis King has lofty ambitions for the line. A lifelong train enthusiast, he is developing plans to restore the whole route — and hopes that 2017 will bring further progress. But hasn’t the line had its day?
“It’s for the children in all of us,” says Curtis. “The thrill of riding a steam train from Dalat all the way to Thap Cham would be a once in a lifetime experience for any rider. This could be a major boost for tourism, especially in Lam Dong and Ninh Thuan Provinces.”
Vien is cautiously optimistic for the line — but at 96 years old, he says he won’t be tempted out of retirement to man the control room once more. He is content with the memories he has.
“The only thing I miss was the feeling of satisfaction I got when the passengers safely reached the station. Mission complete!”
You can visit the remnants of the line yourself by taking the diesel train from Dalat to Trai Mat. From there you will need to either walk 10km down Highway 20 or take a xe om or taxi to the next station, Da Tho. The ruins lie about 20m away from the main road.
By following a path that sits where there were once rails, walk another 3km past Organik farm and through an alpine forest, and you’ll get to the first of the tunnels (tunnel 5 on the map).
The train station in Cau Dat Village is also still standing. Head a further 3km down Highway 20 past tunnel 4. The station is in the centre of the village close to the market.
All the old stations except K’Beu are still accessible, although many of them have been repurposed and have been turned into private accommodation. Just head to the village with the same name as the station. The stations are in town, close to the road.
Photos by Thomas Barrett / January 2017