Sunday Times

VIET­NAM ALL ABOARD THE RE­UNI­FI­CA­TION EX­PRESS

Forty years af­ter his first visit, Ru­pert Parker re­turns to ride a train across a very changed Viet­nam

- ●L S.

I’m sur­rounded by an ex­tra­or­di­nary col­lec­tion of lime­stone peaks, ris­ing from the emer­ald wa­ters of the Gulf of Tonkin, like giant cathe­drals. The last time I was here, it was on a Viet­namese navy ship, search­ing for refugees try­ing to es­cape the tyranny of the com­mu­nist regime.

That was 40 years ago, when I was mak­ing a TV doc­u­men­tary, and the beauty of Ha­long Bay has haunted me ever since. Now the navy is long gone, re­placed by flotil­las of cruise boats, bring­ing tourists to marvel at these rocky icons, eroded by the wind and waves, and topped with green­ery. I was anx­ious that tourism may have dam­aged this lovely idyll, but once the boats are at an­chor, it seems much as I re­mem­ber it.

I’d flown into Hanoi and, as the plane de­scended through the early morn­ing mist, I thought of the Amer­i­can bombers fly­ing sor­tie af­ter sor­tie over North Viet­nam. On my first visit, I’d found a crum­bling French colo­nial city. It still re­tains much of that charm, al­though, of course, moder­nity has left its mark here, too.

OLD QUAR­TER

The Old Quar­ter re­mains rel­a­tively un­changed, though scoot­ers have re­placed the massed ranks of bi­cy­cles. And what of Ho Chi Minh, still ly­ing em­balmed in his mau­soleum, guarded round the clock? He seems well pre­served — I gather he’s sent to Rus­sia for main­te­nance.

But I am not here sim­ply to relive the past and re­visit old haunts. My main pur­pose is to ex­pe­ri­ence the 1,600km jour­ney by train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, the city I will al­ways think of as Saigon. The sin­gle­track line that runs the length of the coun­try was built when this part of the world was known as French In­dochina, but af­ter it split into North and South Viet­nam, con­tin­u­ous ser­vice ceased in 1954.

Heavy bomb­ing dur­ing the Viet­nam War put much of the track out of ac­tion but, af­ter the fall of Saigon, the line was re­stored. Trains started run­ning again in the late ’70s

and, unof­fi­cially, ser­vices have been known ever since as the Re­uni­fi­ca­tion Ex­press.

PASS OF THE OCEAN CLOUDS

I board the overnight sleeper and the brand­new rolling stock im­presses. Sec­ond class is crammed with fam­i­lies, get­ting ready to bed down for the night. I have a first-class couchette to my­self. I en­joy a de­cent night’s sleep be­fore ar­riv­ing in Hue — al­most half way down the coun­try — for break­fast.

This city was the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal of Viet­nam, from 1802 un­til 1945, and there are still tan­talis­ing glimpses of the grandeur of this time. Al­though there is clear ev­i­dence of wartime dam­age, it still boasts an im­mense Im­pe­rial Ci­tadel on the north bank of the Per­fume River, sur­rounded by al­most 10km of walls, pierced by 10 gate­ways and punc­tu­ated by myr­iad tem­ples.

This jour­ney be­tween Hue and Da Nang fur­ther south is one of the most ex­hil­a­rat­ing stretches of the line. It climbs to the Pass of the Ocean Clouds through a se­ries of tun­nels and reaches the ge­o­log­i­cal di­vide be­tween the for­mer North and South Viet­nam. Beaches lie be­low, with hazy is­lands in front and misty moun­tains on the hori­zon. Paul Th­er­oux, in

The Great Rail­way Bazaar, called it one of the loveli­est places in the world — and it is ob­vi­ous why.

MUD BATHS

Da Nang is one of Viet­nam’s largest cities, but we pass with­out stop­ping as, in­side the car­riage, cheery rail­way staff dis­pense moun­tains of rice and grilled meats from trol­leys. I set­tle for a cou­ple of beers and take in the land­scape — miles and miles of rice pad­dies, farm­ers in straw con­i­cal hats.

Af­ter all that, it is a shock to ar­rive in Nha Trang, with its clus­ters of ho­tels lin­ing the beach. The Viet­namese hol­i­day in earnest and dawn sees the shal­lows packed with pad­dlers and day-trip­pers, here to en­joy ex­cur­sions, snorkellin­g and mud baths.

I forego the plea­sures of the beach for an­other tem­ple — the 8th-cen­tury Po Na­gar tem­ple com­plex. On a low hill just out­side town, it was built by the Cham peo­ple who once ruled this re­gion. Orig­i­nally there were sev­eral tow­ers, but only four re­main, with the high­est ris­ing to 24m.

It is topped with a ter­raced pyra­mi­dal roof and in­side the vaulted main cham­ber there’s a huge, black, stone statue of the 10-armed god­dess Uma. The Hindu tem­ple has been adopted by Bud­dhists and I’m sur­rounded by de­vout wor­ship­pers.

WIDENED TUN­NELS

The last leg of the jour­ney sees me back on the rails and it’s get­ting dark by the time we reach Saigon. Just out­side the sta­tion, look­ing up I see a sky­line that could eas­ily be­long to a boom­ing Asian city. Fur­ther into town, I’m pleased to see that the Cen­tral Post Of­fice and the pink-brick Notre Dame Cathe­dral have sur­vived.

If you’re in­ter­ested in the re­cent past, then the War Rem­nants mu­seum has three floors to tell the grim story of the con­flict. The for­mer Pres­i­den­tial Palace has been left as it was when the North Viet­namese tanks smashed through the gates, and those same tanks still stand guard.

A trip out of town takes me to the Cu Chi un­der­ground tun­nels, where Viet Cong sol­diers hid be­fore launch­ing their fi­nal of­fen­sive on the city. A sec­tion of tun­nel has been widened so that Western­ers can fit in, but it’s still a claus­tro­pho­bic ex­pe­ri­ence.

Back in town in the rooftop bar of the Ma­jes­tic Ho­tel, I watch the sun go down. The lady be­hind the bar is in­trigued to know that I was in here 40 years ago and asks me what has changed. She lis­tens to my re­ply and says I’ve missed some­thing im­por­tant. “Now,” she says, “peo­ple al­ways smile and you’d never see that be­fore.”

 ?? Pic­ture: 123rf.com/quang­praha ?? SOUTH MEETS NORTH The Re­uni­fi­ca­tion Ex­press crosses a bridge on the Hai Van Pass on the sin­gle-track line that runs up the spine of Viet­nam.
Pic­ture: 123rf.com/quang­praha SOUTH MEETS NORTH The Re­uni­fi­ca­tion Ex­press crosses a bridge on the Hai Van Pass on the sin­gle-track line that runs up the spine of Viet­nam.
 ?? Pic­ture: 123rf.com/sikaraha ?? IS­LAND OF PEACE The an­cient tem­ple com­plex of Po Na­gar in touristy Nha Trang.
Pic­ture: 123rf.com/sikaraha IS­LAND OF PEACE The an­cient tem­ple com­plex of Po Na­gar in touristy Nha Trang.
 ?? Pic­ture: 123rf.com/efired ?? SAIGON SPIRES Saigon Notre-Dame Cathe­dral Basil­ica in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet­nam. The city is one of Asia’s most pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tions.
Pic­ture: 123rf.com/efired SAIGON SPIRES Saigon Notre-Dame Cathe­dral Basil­ica in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet­nam. The city is one of Asia’s most pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tions.

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