aerial view of Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon in Ho Chi Minh City

What a Beautiful Hue

8th March 2019

Olivia Greenway visits Vietnam – a compelling mixture of stunning beaches, bustling cities, traditional village life and volatile political history – and lets the train take the strain…

The ribbon of land that comprises Vietnam stretches about 1,000 miles from north to south, yet only 30 miles from west to east. Travelling by road is not easy, nor particularly safe. A single-track railway, connecting north with south, was started by the colonial French in the 1890s and finally completed almost forty years later. Over the years since, apart from track improvements and new locomotives, the so-called Reunification Express has remained pretty much unchanged. For a first-timer, travelling by train along this route is a wonderful way to see the country and its people.

I’m joining a small group as part of a longer tour. After two days in Hanoi in the north – resting, exploring and getting used to the heat and humidity – we prepare to take the night train to Hue (pronounced ‘Hwey’), halfway down the coast. Thankfully, our cabins are air-conditioned. There are two bunkbeds, a silk sleeping bag, a table and a small snack hamper. Washing is at a sink a few yards along the train, reserved for our sleeping carriage. The refreshment car has convivial booth seating for six groups of four, and good local beer at around £1 a bottle. Back in my cabin, I slide the lock and slip into a peaceful sleep, the gentle movement of the train rocking me like a baby. Awoken by the morning sunlight, I open the curtains and watch the world passing by in a series of iconic images: paddy fields with farmers in their conical hats already bent over, working; lakes, rivers, a heron, groups of brown cows; simple houses right next to the track, with purple bougainvillea tumbling off their roofs; and a long funeral procession of peasants walking slowly in single file across the fields.

We arrive at Hue station and the heat assaults us again. Thankfully, porters take our bags and we make our way out of the station, where our guide is waiting beside the coach waving a Union Jack. Just like the country, Mr Tien is smiley and welcoming.

Our first sightseeing trip is on a magnificent carved wooden ‘dragon’ boat on the Perfume River: allegedly so called because in the past, its waters were perfumed by flowers falling into it upstream. Today, it’s a swirling deep brown body of water and I can’t vouch for any pleasant smells. Our destination, the Thien Mu pagoda, is a towering structure, shaped like a wedding cake, with six tiers. Built in the early 17th century during the Nguyen dynasty, it’s the city’s most enduring landmark. During the 1960s it became a meeting centre for unrest against dictator Diem, especially among Buddhists. On show here is the car driven by Vietnam’s first self-immolation protestor. The photograph of the monk burning to death in June 1963 went around the world and won the photographer a Pulitzer prize. Diem was eventually assassinated in December 1963. The peaceful grounds with water, shady trees and planted borders offer time for quiet reflection.

Back in Hue city centre, we head to one of dozens of pho (pronounced ‘fur’) cafes. With trestle-style long metal tables and low plastic picnic chairs (I’m becoming accustomed to these), the menu is small. It’s basically pho served with beer, cola or sparkling orange juice. Fortunately, pho is absolutely delicious. Steaming bowls of this soupy noodle concoction arrive with fresh herbs in a basket to add to taste as you wish: pungent coriander, spearmint, fragrant tarragon and parsley. The indistinguishable meat is boiled for hours and then cut into tiny pieces, but everything else is freshly assembled to order. Our whole table goes quiet when the feast arrives and, apart from occasional slurping noises, we eat in silence.

Not far away is the Imperial Citadel, built in the 12th century and the home of the Vietnamese court until 1810. Many of the original buildings have been destroyed, but there are large water bodies with goldfish and lily pads, long covered outdoor walkways with ornate doorways, painted in regal red and gold, and small temples complete with Buddhas. Time here is time well spent.

The next morning, we are off to Nha Trang, a coastal holiday resort due south. Once again, we enjoy air-conditioned comfort and sea views from our spot on the train as we follow the coast: sheltered bays with ribbons of sand, wild white flowers covering the bushes like tablecloths, golden beaches, palm trees and fishing boats bobbing on the shallow waters near to shore. Eventually, it’s time for lunch and our picnic arrives – cold noodles and fresh salad vegetables. There follows a trolley loaded with freshly cooked assorted roast meats, including small whole birds the size of sparrows, as well as kebabs, sausages and spring rolls, all available at a small extra cost. Well-fed, we continue to enjoy the views outside. We’ve now swung away from the coast and have green fields, a few tractors, workers, paddy fields of rice and brown cows in our sight. Gradually, we notice more and more houses built a few yards from the railway track; soon, they are an endless line. After a few miles of this, as night has sneaked up on us, we slowly rumble into the neon world of Nha Trang.

The next morning, our first stop is the bustling indoor market. The shady covered sales area, a welcome respite from the sun, is a huge football-pitch-sized emporium – the first sound you hear is the rhythmic dull thump… thump… of knives on wood as meat and fish are prepared for sale. The fishmongers (all women) wear gloves and have some of their wares in water; those with basic refrigeration use ice, but mostly the raw food is stored at ambient temperature in round wicker or plastic baskets. The fish has been caught today and will be sold today; there is nowhere to keep it overnight. Larger stalls offer a selection, but the one-woman operators seem to specialise: tuna steaks, small crabs, mussels or prawns. The whole food area is wet underfoot, aisles are narrow, and some vendors sit at floor level on plastic stools. Away from the meat and fish are more stalls with eggs – hen’s, duck, goose and the infamous preserved ‘hundred-year-old’ egg, the latter displayed on soil. Fresh herbs are popular, sold in bundles, and then further away still are the household items, all displayed in tiny stalls with the vendor sitting in the middle of all their stock. Outside the building more stalls spill on to the street, with makeshift tarpaulin to keep the products shaded, with more unusual vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers. I am surprised how quiet the market is: no shouting or hassling to buy, making visiting a fascinating experience. A friendly vendor helps me select a large cook’s knife. Once outside, you have to dodge the ubiquitous scooters, weaving their way down the crowded streets, some with their recent purchases dangling from the handlebars.

We move on to Po Nagar Cham Towers (a short climb), built some time before the 12th century: a collection of handsome red brick temple structures with particularly good views to the harbour from the summit. Originally there were seven towers but only four remain. They are in surprisingly good condition, in attractive grounds with shady and fragrant frangipani trees. Near here is a spa facility with mud baths and swimming pool… You can spend the day for the price of two coffees.

Back down on the promenade, with its sweeping bay and palm trees, I am reminded of Nice. At nightfall, locals wander around the nearby open-air market and fly their kites on the beach in the cooler evening breeze. Not just children, but adults too come to enjoy the pastime.

Ho Chi Minh City is our final destination, taking us about seven hours. Here the mood drops a little as we explore the Cu Chi tunnels, a stronghold of the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, not far from the city. Our guide tells us his grandfather fought here. Some of the labyrinth of underground passageways are accessible for visitors, although they have had to widen them to cope with Westerners. As well as the humidity and heat in the jungle, fighters had to contend with poisonous spiders, biting insects and malaria. It’s a fascinating complex with a comprehensive museum.

Our trip concludes with a driving tour of Ho Chi Minh City’s old colonial quarter with its heavy French influence. It’s been raining, but through the steamy coach windows we see green parks, the Notre Dame cathedral (a smaller scale replica of the original), the General Post Office, designed by Eiffel, and the City Hall with the statue of Ho Chi Minh himself in front.

I take my last few pictures here before leaving for the airport, including my favourite: a girl on a scooter. It’s an iconic image of a country that warrants closer inspection – and it’s all the better for discovering it by rail.

Olivia Greenway travelled with GRJ Independent, who can create tailor-made holidays to Vietnam: www.greatrail.com/grj-independent

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