Ruislip & Eastcote & Northwood Gazette - - Getaway -

IT WAS some­where I never thought about go­ing to, but now it’s a place I’ll al­ways dream of go­ing back to. Be­cause from the mo­ment I stepped foot in Viet­nam – I was hooked. After a com­fort­able night’s stay at the new Ho­tel Novo­tel Heathrow and a re­laxed flight with Viet­nam Air­lines – I ar­rived in Hanoi.

The cap­i­tal city was my first of four des­ti­na­tions on a Great Rail Jour­neys tour tak­ing me from the north to the south of the coun­try.

I was com­pletely awe-struck as I walked down the nar­row side streets packed with shops – their wares spilling out onto the pave­ment.

Smil­ing lo­cals sat crossed legged among the colour­ful chaos, en­joy­ing their break­fast on the road side – the Hanoi way of life.

In the streets sur­round­ing the iconic Hoan Kiem Lake, si­t­u­ated in the Old Quar­ter, lay a vast ar­ray of food stalls.

I en­joyed a cup of home-brewed Jas­mine tea – served from the cart of a friendly lo­cal, it was a taste of tran­quil­lity against the roar­ing back­drop of the scooter-filled streets.

After a day packed with ex­plor­ing it was on to the sec­ond city – Hue, 400 miles South of Hanoi – and my first first ex­pe­ri­ence of Viet­nam rail.

It was an overnight jour­ney and the train was bustling with lo­cal fam­i­lies; some in com­part­ments with beds, oth­ers on sim­ple wooden benches.

I was in a first class pri­vate com­part­ment which although small, had two bunk beds and a lit­tle bed­side ta­ble and a win­dow from which I watched the the night­time glow of the city zip past.

After a slightly bumpy, but rest­ful night I bade farewell to my cabin, now on Hue soil.

The cap­i­tal of Viet­nam for al­most 150 years, Hue has many at­trac­tions in­clud­ing The Pagoda of the Ce­les­tial Lady and Dai Noi Citadel, which en­com­passes the Im­pe­rial City – once the home to Nguyen Dy­nasty em­per­ors.

I took a cruise on the Per­fume River – named after the or­chard petals which fall into the wa­ter, giv­ing it its sweet aroma.

Our next stop was Nha Trang and this was eas­ily the most scenic route. We trav­elled through the moun­tain­ous Hai Vân Pass and port city of Da Nang, pass­ing idyl­lic beaches be­low, and vast fields filled with work­ers – their con­i­cal hats known as Non La – mak­ing a pic­ture post­card scene.

On my first day in Nha Trang, I headed straight to Dam Mar­ket which is the largest and most pop­u­lar one of all. With three floors full of stalls and shops to ex­plore, sell­ing ev­ery­thing from live stock to beauty prod­ucts, it was cer­tainly an eye opener.

The city is a coastal re­sort with a long stretch of beach which spans Tran Phu Street, vis­i­ble from my ho­tel win­dow.

I was sad to leave as I set off for the last leg of the Great Rail Tour – Ho Chi Min City – best known by its for­mer name Saigon.

On this train jour­ney I got chat­ting to a friendly lo­cal and I ex­plained that be­fore vis­it­ing Viet­nam its war torn his­tory de­fined the coun­try for me.

But it should be known for so much more, a sen­ti­ment summed up per­fectly when the young gen­tle­man told me “we re­mem­ber the past but we close the door on it and look to the fu­ture”.

And what a bright fu­ture it has. Bustling Ho Chi Min City is known for its French colo­nial land­marks in­clud­ing Notre Dam Cathe­dral, the 19th Cen­tury Post Of­fice and Re­u­ni­fi­ca­tion Square – all of which I ex­plored.

The evening was spent on a sun­set cruise along the Saigon River, quite a con­trast to my visit the next day to the Cu Chi tun­nels.

They were used as hid­ing spots and sup­ply lines by the Viet Cong dur­ing the Viet­nam War. A 100m sec­tion of the elab­o­rate tun­nels has been pre­served, although made wider, to al­low tourists to gain some per­spec­tive into the harsh con­di­tions en­dured. It was hard to com­pre­hend as I crawled along the ex­tremely nar­row, dark and sti­flingly hot tun­nels, that orig­i­nally they were just 70cm wide by 60cm high.

Back above ground, a guide told us about the var­i­ous traps used by the Viet Cong – one con­trap­tion is a san­dal, the tread of which is pat­terned to al­lude that the wearer is walk­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. An­other is a hid­ing hole in the ground, the en­trance of which is per­fectly cam­ou­flaged by the fallen bam­boo leaves.

Our guide told us “thank­fully the free­dom we have now means we don’t have to use these tun­nels again”.

It was in­cred­i­ble to learn, as I set­tled down for a talk with rail­way his­to­rian Tim Dowl­ing, how the Great Rail Tour jour­ney I have now com­pleted – could have been im­pos­si­ble due to the

years of sus­tained bomb­ing and sab­o­tage Viet­nam and its rail­ways en­dured from lo­cal guer­rilla sol­diers.

Tim said: “Given the cat­a­strophic dam­age over a pe­riod of three decades, it’s a won­der any­thing’s work­ing at all, frankly.”

There were many failed at­tempts to get the net­work back up and run­ning un­til it be­came a po­lit­i­cal pri­or­ity in a bid re­unite the North and South.

The mis­sion was com­pleted in 1976 and line, first fin­ished in 1936, be­came op­er­a­tional once more – nick­named the Re­u­ni­fi­ca­tion Ex­press.

I will be for­ever thank­ful for its re-birth – be­cause it al­lowed me to travel around, in the best pos­si­ble way, on The Great Rail Jour­neys Tour and ex­plore a re­mark­able coun­try.

The Cu Chi tun­nels tour is one of the most pop­u­lar tourist to-dos in Viet­nam and is a mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence Rice fields, Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai, Viet­nam A nar­row side street in Hanoi, packed with shops – their wares spilling out onto the pave­ment Nha Trang Bay is an idyl­lic lo­ca­tion and boasts beau­ti­ful scenery The Pagoda of the Ce­les­tial Lady is a his­toric tem­ple in the city of Hue

The sights on the train, as you travel through the moun­tain­ous Hai Vân Pass and port city of Da Nang, are sen­sa­tional

The Great Rail Jour­neys Tour takes you 1,000 miles North to South, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min City

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