Rupert Parker makes an emo­tional re­turn for a train jour­ney through his­tory that runs the length of the coun­try – and re­vis­its old haunts, lovely idylls and a boom­ing-city sky­line where moder­nity’s left its mark

Friday - - CONTENTS -

Old haunts and mod­ern sky­lines, a train jour­ney through the length of Viet­nam of­fers all sorts of won­drous views.

II'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 re­mem­bered 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.

The Old Quar­ter re­mains rel­a­tively un­changed, though scoot­ers have re­placed the massed ranks of bi­cy­cles. And what of Ho Chi Minh him­self, still ly­ing em­balmed in his mau­soleum, guarded round the clock? He seems well pre­served – but then 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 or the city I will al­ways think of as Saigon. The sin­gle track 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 Seven­ties and un­of­fi­cially ser­vices have been known ever since as the Re­uni­fi­ca­tion Ex­press.

I board the overnight sleeper and the brand new 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 six miles 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.

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 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, Viet­nam's an­swer to Benidorm with its clus­ters of ho­tels lin­ing the beach. The Viet­namese are earnest hol­i­day mak­ers and dawn sees the shal­lows packed with pad­dlers and day-trip­pers here to en­joy ex­cur­sions, snorkelling and mud baths.

I forgo the plea­sures of the beach for an­other tem­ple – the eighth-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 80ft.

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 de­ity Uma. The Hindu tem­ple has been adopted by Bud­dhists and I'm sur­rounded by de­vout wor­ship­pers.

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 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

The for­mer Pres­i­den­tial Palace has been left as it was when the North Viet­namese tanks smashed through the gates; those tanks still stand guard

Fly Emi­rates Dubai to Hanoi for about Dh3,000 re­turn.

FROM TOP: Cham tow­ers, Nha Trang. The eighth-cen­tury Po Na­gar tem­ple com­plex. A florist in a mar­ket in Hanoi. Da Nang rail­way sta­tion

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