WHAM, BAM, THANK YOU ‘NAM...
KATE McMULLIN FALLS IN LOVE WITH THE SIGHTS AND SOUNDS OF VIETNAM
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