Travel: Viet­nam by rail and rick­shaw!

Trav­el­ling by train in South­east Asia is the very best way to ex­pe­ri­ence its unique rich­ness

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - News -

Along sliver of a coun­try, Viet­nam curves in the shape

of a sea­horse tucked around Cam­bo­dia and Laos, with 2,000 miles of coast­line on the South China Sea. My trip with Great Rail Jour­neys took me from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Dom­i­nated by China for cen­turies and a for­mer French colony, Viet­nam has a rich mix of ar­chi­tec­ture, and it was fun to see Hanoi’s Old Quar­ter by cy­clo (cy­cl­er­ick­shaw), ped­alled by a driver in a tra­di­tional coolie hat. Once you ex­pe­ri­ence how peo­ple drive on the

roads, you’ll def­i­nitely ap­pre­ci­ate why the rail­way is a great al­ter­na­tive.

Whole fam­i­lies travel on one scooter, with tod­dlers cling­ing to their mums. Farm­ers pile sugar cane and cas­sava so high on their bikes, they look per­ilously close to top­pling over!

Each nar­row street is lined with themed shops. In 15th-cen­tury tra­di­tion, the herbal-medicine ven­dors bunch up in one road and shoe stores clus­ter in an­other. I closed my eyes as we wove through cross­roads where no­body ac­tu­ally stops.

The Tem­ple of Lit­er­a­ture, ded­i­cated to Con­fu­cius, is a tran­quil place, dec­o­rated in red and gold, and bor­dered by stringy banyan trees. The dragon, phoenix, uni­corn and tur­tle are aus­pi­cious sym­bols, and a huge, golden tur­tle, which stands for longevity, strength and in­tel­li­gence takes promi­nence.

Stu­dents pose for their grad­u­a­tion pho­tos at this 11th-cen­tury univer­sity tem­ple, but these days they also like to snap them­selves out­side Hanoi’s branch of Prada.

Overnight odyssey

Next, we were off to Hue by night train. The car­riages are sim­ple and the beds ba­sic, but it’s a won­der­ful jour­ney through the Viet­namese coun­try­side. We passed

paddy fields, buf­falo, flocks

of white geese, small shrines

and fat fronds of ba­nana plan­ta­tions. The buf­fet car’s wooden seats are sur­pris­ingly com­fort­able, and we sipped Tiger beer (75p) be­fore be­ing rocked to sleep by the click­ety-clack of the train.

At Hue, we boarded a brightly-painted dragon boat on the Per­fume River to visit the Bud­dhist Thien Mu Pagoda, edged with creamy frangi­pani, lilac jacaranda and neon-pink bougainvil­lea. The heat and hu­mid­ity can be wilt­ing, so buy your­self a gor­geous silk fan.

Our ho­tel, the In­do­chine Palace, is a cool, air­con­di­tioned oa­sis, and, af­ter gorg­ing on the suc­cu­lent pas­sion fruit on of­fer at the break­fast buf­fet, we moved on to Nha Trang.

Coastal de­lights

Close to the coast, this part of the sin­gle-track train route is stun­ningly scenic, with dis­tant misty hills, sil­ver beaches and azure bays. In the shal­lows, lob­ster and clam farms are

tended by fish­er­men in cor­a­cle bas­ket boats.

Nha Trang is a coastal re­sort, and we ex­plored the amaz­ing mar­ket, where a fresh, green co­conut wa­ter costs 50p. Wear a scarf to cover your shoul­ders when you visit Po Na­gar Cham tem­ple, ded­i­cated to god­dess Yan Po Na­gar. Then be sure to try pho – Viet­namese rice-noo­dle soup made with meat broth and herbs. We picked a busy café and joined lo­cals for a de­li­cious meal.

Sober­ing his­tory Our last stop was Ho Chi Minh City (for­merly Saigon), where we vis­ited the nearby Cu Chi Tun­nel Com­plex, in which the Viet Cong hid from Amer­i­can troops dur­ing the Viet­nam War. Ven­ti­la­tion shafts were dis­guised as ter­mite nests and cook­ing smoke as early morn­ing mist.

Our guide Mr Tien, who him­self suf­fered as a re­sult of ex­po­sure to toxic her­bi­cide Agent Or­ange dur­ing the

War, took us through a short tun­nel sec­tion to ex­pe­ri­ence life un­der­ground, but the orig­i­nals were far nar­rower and alive with ven­omous cen­tipedes and scor­pi­ons.

I wish I could’ve con­tin­ued to Cam­bo­dia but, sadly, my Viet­nam Air­lines home­ward­bound plane awaited.

Po Na­gar Cham tem­ple

Ho Chi Minh City

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