Eastern adventure

Darren Calpin climbs aboard Vietnam’s Reunification Express – a 1,000-mile train route between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City

Leaving Da Nang’s contemporary landmarks and high-rise hotels behind without fuss, the train points south once again. In the distance are the Marble Mountains, five sacred limestone hills named after the five natural elements: fire, water, earth, wood and gold.

Nha Trang: Vietnam’s answer to Atlantic City

The vibe in the carriage is more subdued now. Passengers are still taking in the scenery, but the endless parade of waterlogged plains and rice paddies seems to be a signal that this is the part of the journey where a nap is in order.

Even the surreal Vietnamese pop videos on the ceiling-hung TV screens and the clinking of the oft returning refreshment trolley fail to keep the general air of lethargy at bay. The photographers, still grinning as they apply digital enhancements to their shot reels, seem to be the only ones full of beans.

It is dark when the engine crawls, gratefully it feels, into Nha Trang. Like Hué and Hanoi before it, the station here has a modest buzz of activity, but isn’t in any way hectic or overwhelming. After a long day on the rails, that in itself feels like a warm welcome.

THE WOW FACTOR

The fleeting transfer from the station to one of the city’s many upscale beachfront hotels suggests Nha Trang may, on initial impressions, be something of a party town. With its late-night bars, flashy nightclubs and illuminated seafront, it feels like Vietnam’s answer to Surfers’ Paradise, Atlantic City or even, at a stretch, Blackpool. Tonight though, even at midnight, things are pretty quiet on the seafront, with only the odd disco pub or rustic beach bar still open.

Say what you like about luxury high-rise beachfront hotels, they don’t skimp on views. The one from the tenth floor of the swish Novotel Nha Trang the following morning is testament to this, for here, laid out like a poster from a travel agent’s window is Nha Trang Bay, a four-mile crescent of pure white sand and high, lazy palms lapped by turquoise waters dotted with lush, tropical islands.

You can almost here the collective “wow” uttered by the multitudes of (mostly Russian and Chinese) holidaymakers as they pull back their curtains at the start of each day.

A casual stroll along the long, neat and thankfully quite shady promenade reveals there’s much more to Nha Trang than foot-roasting sands and rolling waves. Walk north and then east for a short while and it’s giant white Buddhas rather than upscale hotels which dominate the skyline. The 14m high statue of the Enlightened One stands (or sits, to be precise) on a hilltop behind the Long Son Pagoda, drawing in reverential glances from all around the city.

The temple is far more peaceful and empty than one would assume, affording plenty of opportunities to meditate, take photos or simply retreat from the relentless sun. The viewing platform around the Buddha offers some terrific views of the city and countryside too.

THE STREETS OF NHA TRANG

Strolling around Nha Trang’s lively backstreets and bustling main arteries is, thanks to the clearly visible signposts, a very manageable treat. Working life plays out very much at street level here, with workers and artisans carrying out their duties on the pavement all throughout the day. Everyone, from the scooter mechanics and food vendors to the furniture makers and clothes sellers seems to have stools and seats set up on ‘their’ patch of sidewalk where they can work in the fresh air and, if they’re really lucky, catch a light breeze.

Vietnam: where pink train stations are all the rage!

Nearby is Dam market, a perennially popular three-storey indoor marketplace. Surrounding the main building’s tatty perimeter is a ramshackle collection of shaded food stalls sporting large, exotic-looking goods tended by tired-looking women under conical hats. Inside, things are neat, tidy and ordered, with souvenir outlets of every kind and food stalls adorned with beautifully presented spices.

The relaxed vendors: nearly all ladies, many of them dozing, are very laid-back in their approach to haggling. Even when visitors walk away rather than meet the 100,000 Dong (less than £4) asked to seal a deal, they don’t seem to get the hump.

TOWERING INTO VIEW

A stroll across the nearby Cai River, with its scenic mountain backdrop and islet-based shrines, brings the magnificent Po Nagar Cham Towers into view. Now used as a mainly Vietnamese/Chinese place of worship, this small, exquisitely preserved complex set on a granite knoll was built between the 7th and 12th centuries, the Hindu period when the Kingdom of Champa flourished.

Only four of the original eight Cham towers still stand – the 28m-high North Tower, with its terraced pyramid-style roof and intricate carvings being the most impressive. It is, however, the gentle and really rather intimate acts of worship, typically carried out by small groups of fussing middle-aged ladies, that make the strongest impression. Sitting on the floor, tinkling their bells and chanting almost half-heartedly, they are delightfully oblivious to the hordes of smartphone wielding tourists buzzing around them. It’s like watching someone break out an impromptu picnic on Oxford Street during rush hour.

Boulder-strewn Hong Chong beach is a short distance away. Watching the sun set here as locals snorkel for super-fresh seafood and families paddle in the super-shallow surf, it’s hard to believe this stretch of coast was effectively one big American military base for much of the 1960s and early 70s. It’s also clear to see that Nha Tra, twinkling and pulsing a few miles away, is far more than a mere party town.

BOUND FOR HO CHI MINH CITY

The 08.39 southbound train for Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) leaves a few minutes behind schedule the next morning. Despite the rather low, moody-looking grey clouds hovering over the now fleeting green landscape, the mood in the seating car is genial, sociable even. The carriage is full and the refreshment trolley, when it eventually comes buffeting down the aisle, is in great demand. Crisps and beers are popular, as are meal tickets for the bargain hot chicken and rice dishes, cooked in the kicthen car and brought down later.

The clouds turn darker, and before long the windows are being lashed with lateral rain and lightning silhouettes the undulating forested hills. A Vietnamese man travelling with his sleeping young son hints it’s no big deal, then smiles conspiratorially at a cheeky Westerner taking a photo of his fellow tour group companions dozing with their mouths open. Another group of travelling companions, British by the sound of them, begin an impromptu game of something resembling seat-based charades with a smartphone. The Vietnamese passengers in surrounding seats look amused and bemused in equal measure.

By mid-afternoon, the inclement weather has passed and the train and its passengers, most well fed and suitably rested, are nearing the journey’s end. Towering glass office buildings shadowed by a hundred-and-one cranes slide into view as the train slows to a canter, clacking past suburban, scooter-packed train crossings, most which seem to regard barriers as superfluous additions. Disembarking at Gar Sai Gon, one is immediately excited by the prospect of discovering an elegant city of gallic charm, where leafy boulevards and grandiose buildings provide a backdrop of mystery and intrigue. Understandably, the artful prose of Graham Greene’s 1955 classic The Quiet American has a lot to answer for here.

Rush hour, Ho Chi Minh City style

COLONIAL CHARISMA
The short drive from the train station to the city centre reveals that, though much has changed since Greene was here in the early 1950s, Ho Chi Minh City has managed to retain a great deal of its colonial charisma and period character. Indeed, the regal old hotels, colonnaded streets, grand municipal buildings, lofty cathedrals and refined parks still characterise the old centre ville, despite the best efforts of the increasingly ubiquitous shopping malls and skyscrapers.

Even Greene’s favourite haunt, the Continental Hotel, is still here, just a short stroll from Notre Dame Cathedral and overlooking the splendid Opera House. Sadly, there are now notably fewer tables and chairs outside where visiting writers can sit out and enjoy ‘the cool wind from the Sài Gòn River’ of an evening. That being said, a lavish meal on one of the grand pleasure vessels which cruise the river around sunset makes a very good substitute.

Within an easy ten-minute walk of the colonial city centre is a more recent site of historical significance, Independence Palace. This landmark building, once home to the President of South Vietnam, is famed for being the place where, courtesy of a tank smashing through the front gates, the Vietnam War came to an end in 1975. Two of the tanks used in the capture of the palace can still be seen parked in the grounds.

A BITTER CONFLICT

A block away from the palace is the War Remnants Museum. This internationally acclaimed and very moving museum uses a large collection of artefacts, including jets and helicopters, along with a vast array of audio/visual exhibits to tell the story of both the First Indo-China War and the Vietnam War.

It is, in every sense, a real eye-opener, with the exhibitions devoted to the use of Agent Orange and Napalm delivering particularly strong counter-narratives to those proffered by Hollywood over the past 30 years.

This ‘alternative’ look at a conflict which feels strangely familiar gets ramped up to a whole different level at the famed Cu Chi tunnels, 30 miles north of the city. This sprawling tunnel complex, replete with hospitals, kitchens, living quarters and munitions stores was used to keep Viet Cong soldiers safe and hidden from the Americans during the Vietnam War.

After watching a video detailing how ‘the ruthless American bombs descended to mercilessly kill the gentle people of the peaceful countryside’, visitors get to see how dastardly pit traps with revolving spikes and poisoned stakes were used to counter American military might by demoralising already disillusioned GIs. Visitors who are willing to get on their hands and knees can explore the laboriously dug tunnels for themselves; those with modest claustrophobia tend to discover their limitations pretty quickly.

As in Hué, there are people working here who are willing to speak frankly about the Vietnam War. And, once again, the recollections are punctuated with messages of forgiveness and hopes for a peaceful future. It seems that, much like the Reunification Express, rebirth and reconciliation are now part of the national psyche of modern Vietnam.

Get me there:

  • GRJ Independent tailor make holidays to Vietnam for group tour organisers who are developing itineraries for small and/or large groups. This trip is a sample trip of eight days, which included return air travel with Vietnam Airlines, hotel stays in Hanoi, Hue, Nah Trang and Saigon, excursions and selected meals. Flight upgrades available to premium economy or business class on request and price subject to date of travel.
  • The team at GRJi can create itineraries to suit group interests including a guest speaker for groups interested in the History of Vietnam railways, see www.greatrail.com/grj-independent or call 01904 527181.