Fully recovered from the war, Vietnam is a long thin country, crammed with colonial architecture, sandy beaches, stunning scenery and unique food. A rail journey from North to South is an easy way to take in the highlights.
It’s an emotional moment as I descend through the early morning mist to land in Hanoi. As a student I protested against the US bombing of the city, but that era is long gone. On my way into town the streets are clogged with thousands of scooters, some containing entire families, and I pass colonial buildings, constructed by the French.
The Old Quarter is the city’s historic heart, with the streets, narrow and congested, lined with noodle stalls. Hawkers offer sizzling and smoking baskets of exotic snacks and I wander the labyrinth soaking up the sights sounds and smells. Nearby is 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.
This is a city of lakes and a trip around Tay Ho, the largest, makes for a great 10 mile cycle ride visiting the Tay Ho and Tran Quoc pagodas on the way. There’s no danger of getting hungry as its shores are lines with seafood restaurants and smart cafes.
Next day I take a 100 mile trip east to Halong Bay, containing an extraordinary collection of limestone peaks, rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Of course 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, 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. In the early morning they’re no less impressive, looming through the early morning mist.
I travel back to Hanoi and 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 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. I catch a cultural show at the Royal Theatre, 30 minutes to rest my weary legs.
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, in The Great Railway Bazaar, called it one of the loveliest places in the world and it doesn’t disappoint.
Below is Da Nang, Vietnam’s fourth largest city and once an important US base, but there’s no time to stop. Inside the carriage the cheery railway staff dispense mountains of rice and dubious grilled meats from trolleys. I settle for a couple of beers instead and soak up the timeless landscape drifting by. Miles and miles of rice paddies, worked by farmers, in straw conical hats, with their water buffalo.
It‘s therefore something of a shock to arrive in Nha Trang, Vietnam’s Benidorm with 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.
This is a sort of microscopic Angkor Wat, on a low hill just outside town, and 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.
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon)
The last leg of the 1000 mile journey sees me back on the rails and it’s around eight hours to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, as the locals still call it. At first sight the city’s legendary charm seems to have been replaced by a cluster of high rises, but I still find traces of its colonial past.
The Continental Hotel, where Graham Greene set his novel, The Quiet American, still exists, and the rooftop bar at the Majestic Hotel is perfect for my sundowner. 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 recent past and the War Remnants museum has a clutter of military hardware in its grounds and three floors tell the grim story of the 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.
They’ve actually widened a section of tunnel so Westerners can fit in, but it’s still an unpleasantly claustrophobic experience. To make it feel more authentic, the guides dress in Viet Cong uniform, but they’re all far too young to have taken part. Apparently old soldiers still come back to tell their war stories but there are not many of them left.
Back at the Majestic Hotel’s rooftop bar, one of Graham Greene’s favourites, I watch the sun go down over Saigon. Travelling by rail is an easy way to see the country and porters are always on hand to take care of the baggage. Vietnamese food is well worth sampling. Hanoi’s speciality is Pho Bo, wide rice noodles in beef broth, flavoured with ginger, black pepper, lemon, and shallots, topped with thin slices of beef. In Ho Chi Minh City you must try Banh Mi, French baguettes stuffed with roast pork, cucumber, coriander, pickled carrots and radishes. And don’t forget to wash it down with a Saigon beer.
Great Rail Journeys includes this itinerary in their 18-day escorted group tour Experience Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong Delta. It includes flights, 4-star hotel accommodation, all rail and excursions and selected meals from £2,995pp. 01904 527 180.
GRJ Independent tailor make holidays to Vietnam for those travelling on an individual basis. They have an 8-day trip including return flights with Vietnam Airlines, 4-star hotel accommodation in Hanoi, Hue, Nha Trang and Saigon, excursions and selected meals, from £2,195pp. 01904 527 181.
Flight upgrades available to premium economy or business class on request and price subject to date of travel.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Great Rail Journeys.