My journey: Vietnam
New rolling stock and a highly efficient service make the train the ideal way to explore Vietnam from north to south, discovers
The streets are narrow and congested and lined with noodle stalls and hawkers offering sizzling and smoking baskets of exotic snacks.
The Old Quarter is the historic heart of Hanoi but the city has more modern monuments, such as the monumental marble mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, where the celebrated leader lies in a glass sarcophagus. I file past his pale, frail body, still remarkably well preserved, apparently due to regular maintenance in Russia.
A hundred miles east is Halong Bay, containing an extraordinary collection of limestone peaks, rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The best way of seeing these is from the sea, ideally on an overnight cruise on a luxury junk. There are more than 3000 islands in the bay, eroded by the wind and waves, into startling shapes. As the sun begins to sink below the horizon these limestone peaks assume their true majesty, although in the early morning they’re no less impressive, looming through the early mist.
Back in Hanoi, I take the overnight sleeper train to Hue, the capital of the Nguyen Empire, from 1802 to 1945. A cruise along the Perfume River takes me to the magnificent seven-storied Thien Mu Pagoda before visiting the ruins of the immense Imperial Citadel, or Purple Forbidden City if you prefer, on the north bank. It’s surrounded by six miles of walls, pierced by ten gateways and inside the Imperial Enclosure houses the ruins of the emperor’s residence, temples and palace.
Heading south, the train negotiates 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 North and South Vietnam.
Sandy beaches lie below, with hazy islands in front and misty mountains on the horizon. Paul Theroux called it one of the loveliest places in the world in his railway odyssey, The Great Railway Bazaar, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Below is Da Nang, Vietnam’s fourth largest city and once an important U.S. base, but there’s no time to stop. Inside the carriage the cheery railway staff dispense
mountains of rice and dubious grilled meats from their trolleys. I settle for a couple of beers and soak up the timeless landscape drifting by. Miles and miles of rice paddies, worked by farmers in straw conical hats leading their water buffalo and sloshing through the fields.
It‘s something of a shock to arrive in Nha Trang. Vietnam’s Benidorm has clusters of high-rise hotels lining the long sandy beach. The Vietnamese are earnest holiday makers and dawn sees the shallows already packed with paddlers. Island excursions, snorkelling and mud baths are on offer but I want to explore the 8th century red brick Po Nagar temple complex.
It’s a sort of microscopic Angkor Wat.
Set 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 25m. It’s topped with a terraced pyramidal roof and inside the vaulted main chamber there’s a huge black stone statue of the goddess Uma, sitting cross legged, with ten arms.
The Hindu temple has been adopted by Buddhists and I’m surrounded by devout worshippers.
The last leg of the journey down this long and lean country sees me back on the rails for around eight hours before I arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, as the locals still call it.
Setting sight on the city
At first sight the city’s legendary charm seems to have been replaced by a jumble of high rises, but I still find traces of its colonial past. Buildings from the
French period include the central Post Office, with its counters now dominated by a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and the imposing red brick Notre Dame cathedral.
I’m interested in the more recent past and the War Remnants museum has a clutter of military hardware in its grounds and three floors telling the grim story of the Vietnam War.
The former Presidential Palace has been left as it was when the Viet Cong 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.
The Continental Hotel, where Graham Greene set his novel, The Quiet American, still exists, and the rooftop bar at the Majestic Hotel is another popular spot for a sundowner. At times of war these bars were vantage points for viewing the action, now they’re posing points for rich locals and tourists.
I watch the sun go down on the city and reflect on my journey, one that has covered 1,000 miles. It’s certainly one of the easiest ways of seeing the country.
Expect architecture spanning over 1,000 years and several cultures, sandy beaches, stunning scenery and unique food. The extra bonus is that you get to meet the locals and share it all with them.
Previuous page: chaotic Hanoi; Above, clockwise from top left: Hanoi’s Temple of Literature; train guards waiting to leave the station; Ho Chi Minh’s austere mausoleum; Nha Trang Beach
Above: Halong Bay. Right: the gate into Hue’s Imperial City