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

Selling Travel - - Contents - Ru­pert Parker

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.

Old em­pire

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.

Chang­ing land­scapes

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

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