Travel: Vietnam by rail and rickshaw!
Travelling by train in Southeast Asia is the very best way to experience its unique richness
Along sliver of a country, Vietnam curves in the shape
of a seahorse tucked around Cambodia and Laos, with 2,000 miles of coastline on the South China Sea. My trip with Great Rail Journeys took me from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Dominated by China for centuries and a former French colony, Vietnam has a rich mix of architecture, and it was fun to see Hanoi’s Old Quarter by cyclo (cyclerickshaw), pedalled by a driver in a traditional coolie hat. Once you experience how people drive on the
roads, you’ll definitely appreciate why the railway is a great alternative.
Whole families travel on one scooter, with toddlers clinging to their mums. Farmers pile sugar cane and cassava so high on their bikes, they look perilously close to toppling over!
Each narrow street is lined with themed shops. In 15th-century tradition, the herbal-medicine vendors bunch up in one road and shoe stores cluster in another. I closed my eyes as we wove through crossroads where nobody actually stops.
The Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius, is a tranquil place, decorated in red and gold, and bordered by stringy banyan trees. The dragon, phoenix, unicorn and turtle are auspicious symbols, and a huge, golden turtle, which stands for longevity, strength and intelligence takes prominence.
Students pose for their graduation photos at this 11th-century university temple, but these days they also like to snap themselves outside Hanoi’s branch of Prada.
Next, we were off to Hue by night train. The carriages are simple and the beds basic, but it’s a wonderful journey through the Vietnamese countryside. We passed
paddy fields, buffalo, flocks
of white geese, small shrines
and fat fronds of banana plantations. The buffet car’s wooden seats are surprisingly comfortable, and we sipped Tiger beer (75p) before being rocked to sleep by the clickety-clack of the train.
At Hue, we boarded a brightly-painted dragon boat on the Perfume River to visit the Buddhist Thien Mu Pagoda, edged with creamy frangipani, lilac jacaranda and neon-pink bougainvillea. The heat and humidity can be wilting, so buy yourself a gorgeous silk fan.
Our hotel, the Indochine Palace, is a cool, airconditioned oasis, and, after gorging on the succulent passion fruit on offer at the breakfast buffet, we moved on to Nha Trang.
Close to the coast, this part of the single-track train route is stunningly scenic, with distant misty hills, silver beaches and azure bays. In the shallows, lobster and clam farms are
tended by fishermen in coracle basket boats.
Nha Trang is a coastal resort, and we explored the amazing market, where a fresh, green coconut water costs 50p. Wear a scarf to cover your shoulders when you visit Po Nagar Cham temple, dedicated to goddess Yan Po Nagar. Then be sure to try pho – Vietnamese rice-noodle soup made with meat broth and herbs. We picked a busy café and joined locals for a delicious meal.
Sobering history Our last stop was Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where we visited the nearby Cu Chi Tunnel Complex, in which the Viet Cong hid from American troops during the Vietnam War. Ventilation shafts were disguised as termite nests and cooking smoke as early morning mist.
Our guide Mr Tien, who himself suffered as a result of exposure to toxic herbicide Agent Orange during the
War, took us through a short tunnel section to experience life underground, but the originals were far narrower and alive with venomous centipedes and scorpions.
I wish I could’ve continued to Cambodia but, sadly, my Vietnam Airlines homewardbound plane awaited.
Po Nagar Cham temple
Ho Chi Minh City