Hop aboard Vietnam’s Re­u­ni­fi­ca­tion Ex­press for an un­for­get­table train trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City


Lonely Planet (UK) - - In this Issue... - WORDS MAR­CEL TH­ER­OUX @Th­er­ou­vian 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, flap 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 fi­nally 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 fine 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. The first south­bound ex­press leaves at 6am. Through the driz­zle, the neon sign spelling out Ga Hanoi flames 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 flavour, as do the red, white and blue liv­ery of the rolling stock, and the smart blue uni­forms of the guards who check the tick­ets. Walk­ing un­steadily from the front to the rear of the train as it rat­tles along the un­even rails, you pass through the var­i­ous strata of so­ci­ety: the air-con­di­tioned, four-berth cab­ins in which tourists and well-off Viet­namese sleep on soft beds; the car­riages of up­hol­stered seats with big tele­vi­sion screens show­ing home­grown mu­sic videos and soap op­eras; and the hard wooden seats of the steer­age sec­tion, where fam­i­lies stretch out on the floor on pieces of card­board. At the very end of the train is a restau­rant car and kitchen. A menu in Viet­namese and English of­fers a range of dishes, though only noo­dles with meat­balls are avail­able. I eat the noo­dles and drink a syrupy cof­fee sweet­ened with con­densed milk. Out the win­dow, the con­crete and stained ma­sonry of the sub­urbs grad­u­ally gives way to ba­nana trees and emer­ald paddy fields worked by soli­tary farm­ers in con­i­cal bam­boo hats. The North-South Rail­way is some­times re­ferred to as the Re­u­ni­fi­ca­tion Ex­press, to com­mem­o­rate the mo­ment in 1975 when North Viet­namese forces fi­nally over­ran the south. The vic­tory of the North Viet­namese con­cluded a 30-year con­flict in which first the French and then the US armies had been hu­mil­i­ated. Three hours beyond Hanoi, I get out at Ga Ninh Binh. I’m headed to Van Long Na­ture Re­serve, one of the coun­try’s fa­mous beauty spots, but I’ve de­cided to make a de­tour to visit tiny Mai Do vil­lage, a place that’s off the usual tourist itin­er­ary, to meet the fa­ther of a friend.

‘YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO FAR TO FIND SEREN­ITY AND EX­TRA­OR­DI­NARY BEAUTY’ A boat tour of Van Long Na­ture Re­serve pro­vides a re­lax­ing way to en­joy the land­scape and a chance to spot one of the world’s most en­dan­gered pri­mates: the black and white Dela­cour’s lan­gur, a mon­key found only in Vietnam

Seated on a ve­randa, shaded by lon­gan and guava trees, are 70-year-old Hoang Van Huan and his friend, Thanh Mai Phan. Dur­ing the war years, both men worked on the rail­way for the North Viet­namese gov­ern­ment. Straight-backed and hand­some, with shiny white teeth, Mr Huan ex­udes a jus­ti­fi­able pride that he helped see off the army of the most pow­er­ful nation on Earth. He tells me his job was to re­pair track and bridges af­ter they had been shat­tered by US bombs. He says the rail­way was a vi­tal part of the war ef­fort, car­ry­ing tanks and heavy weapons to Vinh, one of the line’s ma­jor sta­tions, from where they were trans­ported along the Ho Chi Minh trail to the front­lines. ‘We’d have one night to re­pair a whole bridge,’ says Mr Huan. ‘We’d hear the air raid sirens and than have to get away.’ ‘It was ex­tremely dan­ger­ous,’ Mr Phan adds. ‘The line be­tween life and death was very nar­row.’ I’m half-Amer­i­can and it’s strange to think that th­ese two old men were once on the op­pos­ing side of a war in which mem­bers of my own fam­ily took part, but there seem to be no resid­ual hard feel­ings. They wave farewell as I set off on the 40-minute drive to Van Long. Vietnam has mod­ernised rapidly in the years since the war. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are huge, some­times over­whelm­ing cities, but you don’t have to go far to find seren­ity and ex­tra­or­di­nary beauty. Van Long Na­ture Re­serve pro­tects an area of huge lime­stone cliffs that jut out of tran­quil, lily-choked canals. The high, weath­ered ridges are cloaked with dark-green fo­liage that looks like the habi­tat of some myth­i­cal crea­ture. It’s not sur­pris­ing that it was cho­sen as one of the lo­ca­tions for Kong: Skull Is­land. I’m pad­dled around its wa­ter­ways by 63-year-old Nguyen Thi Thon, who di­vides her day be­tween work­ing in her paddy fields and giv­ing boat rides to tourists. She’s still wear­ing her anti-leech socks af­ter a morn­ing tend­ing the rice. Though she lives so close to the main rail­way, she tells me she’s never been on a train. She says all her fam­ily is nearby and her work in the fields keeps her busy. She guides us deep into the re­serve, where the cliffs climb jaggedly out of the wet­lands. The water has carved tun­nels in the lime­stone and we drift into one, wel­com­ing the dark­ness and si­lence. ‘The cliffs seem beau­ti­ful even to me,’ she says with a sigh. ‘It makes me proud that peo­ple like you come so far to see them.’ That evening I catch the SE19 ex­press south from Ninh Binh. It’s my first night on a Viet­namese train and my over­whelm­ing im­pres­sion is of the jolt­ing phys­i­cal­ity of the jour­ney. The train swerves and jud­ders, bounc­ing me in the bunk. I wake with the strange, but not un­pleas­ant sen­sa­tion of hav­ing been pum­melled with a meat ten­deriser. Out­side, it’s fi­nally light: soupy wa­ter­ways, bright sun­shine and paddy fields an­nounce our ap­proach to Hue. Hue was the cap­i­tal of Vietnam for al­most 150 years. Set along the banks of the Per­fume River, it’s a hot, damp city of im­pe­rial mon­u­ments and low-rise build­ings, which still pre­serves a sense of grandeur and royal calm. At its heart,

‘OVER­LOOK­ING THE RIVER IS THE PALACE COM­PLEX OC­CU­PIED BY THE COUN­TRY’S LAST ROYAL DY­NASTY’ There are 10 main en­trances into the Im­pe­rial City of Hue, one of Vietnam’s seven Unesco World Her­itage sites

over­look­ing the river, is the com­plex of palaces once oc­cu­pied by the Nguyen, the coun­try’s last royal dy­nasty. Hue’s Im­pe­rial City looks like the ci­tadel of an an­cient Chi­nese ruler, but what’s re­ally amaz­ing is how mod­ern it all is: it was built in the 19th cen­tury and oc­cu­pied right up un­til 1945, when the 13th and fi­nal em­peror – Bao Dai – ab­di­cated. He clung on as a pup­pet of the French, but fi­nally died in Paris in 1997. The palace com­plex suf­fered badly dur­ing the Tet Of­fen­sive of 1968, when the North Viet­namese Army launched a sur­prise at­tack against South Vietnam and its Amer­i­can al­lies. But enough has been re­stored or re­mains in­tact to con­vey a sense of its for­mer mag­nif­i­cence: the grand throne rooms, huge ge­o­met­ri­cal court­yards, shady groves and pools of fat carp. Along its columned walk­ways, pho­tographs re­call the last deca­dent years of the feu­dal rulers: a Chi­nese-in­flu­enced court where, even in the 20th cen­tury, of­fi­cials in silk robes kow­towed to a monarch who kept a harem and eu­nuchs. One of those of­fi­cials was a man called Pham Ba Pho. He served both Bao Dai and his pre­de­ces­sor, the flamboyant, Frenched­u­cated, lipstick-wear­ing Khai Dinh. His house, a 10-minute ride from the Im­pe­rial City, has been lov­ingly re­stored by his grand­son and is open to visi­tors. Pham Ba Pho came from a farm­ing fam­ily and won his place at court through the mil­len­nia-year-old sys­tem of com­pet­i­tive ex­ams. To­day, his home re­tains the el­e­gant at­mos­phere that he must have cher­ished. It’s a leafy oa­sis, built ac­cord­ing to the prin­ci­ples of feng shui, com­bin­ing light, shade and water to cre­ate an at­mos­phere of seren­ity. Af­ter a day dis­pens­ing im­pe­rial jus­tice, Pham Ba Pho would pop home to smoke opium from a huge pipe carved out of an ele­phant’s tusk, hang out with his three wives, play chess, lis­ten to mu­sic or drink and paint. ‘He said peo­ple think opium is bad,’ his grand­son tells me, ‘but if you just smoke a lit­tle, it gives you long life.’ Seen as deca­dent and un­just, the last Viet­namese em­per­ors sold out to the French and lost the sup­port of their peo­ple, but the end of the dy­nasty also swept away a cen­turies’ old tra­di­tion of gra­cious­ness and aes­thetic plea­sure. A sense of it clings on in the de­sign of Pham Ba Pho’s gar­den house and its in­ter­play of water, brick, wood, tiles and beams. The fi­nal stretch of rail­way from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City takes 20 hours to travel. Viet­namese friends seem slightly wor­ried when I tell them what I’m do­ing. ‘It’s long,’ they say, with looks of dis­may. It’s night when I board and pitch dark as we make our way through Hai Van Pass, fol­low­ing the sharp con­tours of the hill­sides that over­look the sea. Dawn fi­nally breaks as we draw in to Nha Trang, a pop­u­lar coastal re­sort. There are an­other 12 hours to go and I feel a pang of envy to­wards the visi­tors who are dis­em­bark­ing for the beach. It’s be­come hot­ter as we’ve trav­elled south. The An­na­mite Moun­tains rise up steeply on our western side. Out the win­dow, I watch the land­scape roll se­dately by: palm-thatched houses like is­lands in paddy fields, egrets perched by ir­ri­ga­tion ditches, spiny dragon-fruit trees and co­conut palms. In ev­ery town, bat­tal­ions of scoot­ers are penned be­hind the gates of level cross­ings while we pass. Pe­ri­od­i­cally, ven­dors wheel their trol­leys through the car­riages, mak­ing Viet­namese cof­fee to order from a con­coc­tion in a plas­tic bot­tle, sell­ing bis­cuits, in­stant noo­dles and boiled ears of corn. I break up the jour­ney with naps and unsteady walks along the length of the train. In the cheap, over­crowded car­riages, ex­hausted trav­ellers are doz­ing in the cor­ri­dors, mak­ing it hard to pass. At lunchtime, I visit the din­ing car for noo­dles. On the ta­ble be­side me, two mem­bers of the kitchen staff top and tail an enor­mous pile of green beans. Back in my com­part­ment, I work my way through a bi­og­ra­phy of Ho Chi Minh. Ho – Un­cle Ho – is the most im­por­tant fig­ure in Viet­namese his­tory. The coun­try’s first pres­i­dent and founder of its Com­mu­nist Party, he died in 1969, be­fore the war was con­cluded, but his words and por­trait are vis­i­ble ev­ery­where. He’s even phys­i­cally present. In Hanoi, out­side his vast mausoleum, I’d seen thou­sands of Viet­namese school­child­ren and visi­tors queu­ing pa­tiently in the rain for a glimpse of his em­balmed body. The train pulls into Ga Saigon just af­ter 4pm. More than 20 hours of con­stant

mo­tion have left me feel­ing dis­ori­en­tated and slightly deaf­ened. The faintly de­crepit air of the sta­tion be­lies the fact that it is the gate­way to a city of 10 mil­lion peo­ple, a me­trop­o­lis that blends el­e­ments of its French past with ver­tig­i­nous 21st-cen­tury sky­scrapers and teem­ing street life. At the heart of old Saigon is the for­mer French City Hall, a weird Gal­lic in­ter­loper fea­tur­ing yel­low stucco, wooden shut­ters and smart top­i­ary. Op­po­site the build­ing, in a pretty tree-lined square, a statue of Ho Chi Minh faces down his for­mer colo­nial masters. But even Un­cle Ho is dwarfed by the changes that have taken place in the city that now bears his name. To­day, Ho Chi Minh City seems poised to be­come an Asian mega­lopo­lis to ri­val Seoul or even Tokyo. It’s still home to a lively Chi­na­town, and hawk­ers ped­dle tofu and low-cost snacks for its busy work­force, but lux­ury shops and shop­ping malls are mul­ti­ply­ing. The city’s sub­way is due to be com­pleted in 2019 and from the EON Heli Bar, on the 51st floor of the Bi­texco Fi­nan­cial Tower, you see a city that ap­pears to be grow­ing be­fore your eyes. Against a mother-of-pearl sky, build­ings are sprout­ing up in var­i­ous states of com­ple­tion. Some are framed with scaf­fold­ing, oth­ers ready for oc­cu­pa­tion are dot­ted with yel­low bulbs. The city seems to stretch to the horizon. The streetlevel traf­fic chaos becomes, at this height, har­mo­nious rivers of yel­low head­lamps and red tail­lights. The dark curve of the Saigon River marks the next stage of the hun­gry city’s ex­pan­sion: the lux­ury de­vel­op­ments of Di­a­mond Is­land – promis­ing a fu­ture very far from Un­cle Ho’s dream of aus­tere egal­i­tar­i­an­ism. Be­fore I leave Vietnam, I go back to Ga Saigon. There’s an hour be­fore the next ar­rival and the sta­tion has an off-duty air. Be­hind the ticket desk, a wallchart shows the timetable of the Re­u­ni­fi­ca­tion Ex­press. When I’d stepped off the train the day be­fore, I’d won­dered if I’d ever want to get back on again. Now, how­ever, as I read the sta­tion names – from Hanoi to Ninh Binh, Hue, Saigon, the places I re­mem­ber and the ones I slept through – I feel a sneak­ing re­gret that the jour­ney is over. It’s like look­ing at a book I only skimmed and am now de­ter­mined to read prop­erly.


A view to­wards the beach town of Lang Co from just north of Hai Van Pass – in the 15th cen­tury this marked the south­ern­most point of Vietnam, and the bor­der with the king­dom of Champa

Lonely Planet Trav­eller 63

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