A vital lifeline in war and peace, Vietnam’s 1000-mile long North-South Railway provides an all-in encounter with the country’s incredible beauty, people and history.
The Reunification Express runs by the South China Sea just north of Hai Van Pass, between Hue and Hoi An – this country-spanning train line took nearly 40 years to complete © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
Just before noon each day, the southbound train from Hai Phong to Hanoi rumbles past Mrs Bay’s front room, missing her porch by no more than inches. To me, the scene looks like something from a disaster movie. With its horn blaring like the last trumpet, the huge locomotive barely squeezes through the tiny space where the railway track runs between two rows of dwellings. It’s close enough to block all the light from the windows, flap the drying laundry and silence our conversation.
Mrs Bay, a well-preserved 64-year-old, whom I’ve bumped into on a stroll, bats away my concerns. ‘I hardly notice it,’ she says as the last carriage finally disappears, continuing to massage black hair dye into her scalp with plastic-gloved hands. Mrs Bay is a retired railway worker. Space in this teeming city is at such a premium that she counts herself lucky to have a centrally located home, despite its obvious hazards. ‘It’s fine for the kids, too,’ she says. ‘We just call them inside when the bell rings.’
A tight squeeze as the Reunification Express edges through the backstreets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
A few hundred metres from Mrs Bay’s house stands Hanoi’s central station, Ga Hanoi. Ga, the word for station, is like the tracks themselves: a legacy of French rule. From here, the railway line runs 1000 miles down the long stalk of this narrow country to Ho Chi Minh City – formerly Saigon. Four express trains a day make the 34-hour southbound journey. Aeroplanes and a rapidly modernising highway system now rival the railway for speed and convenience, but travelling slowly by train is an incomparable way of plunging into the heart of the country, and the beauty and history that make it unique.
The first southbound express leaves at 6am. Through the drizzle, the neon sign spelling out Ga Hanoi flames red above the central entrance. Propaganda posters remind you that, in spite of its astonishing commercial energy, this is still a communist country. The station has a Soviet flavour, as do the red, white and blue livery of the rolling stock, and the smart blue uniforms of the guards who check the tickets.
The blue uniforms of the guards – and the red, white and blue colour scheme of the carriages – have a communist flavour © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
Walking unsteadily from the front to the rear of the train as it rattles along the uneven rails, you pass through the various strata of society: the air-conditioned, four-berth cabins in which tourists and well-off Vietnamese sleep on soft beds; the carriages of upholstered seats with big television screens showing homegrown music videos and soap operas; and the hard wooden seats of the steerage section, where families stretch out on the floor on pieces of cardboard. At the very end of the train is a restaurant car and kitchen. A menu in Vietnamese and English offers a range of dishes, though only noodles with meatballs are available.
I eat the noodles and drink a syrupy coffee sweetened with condensed milk. Out the window, the concrete and stained masonry of the suburbs gradually gives way to banana trees and emerald paddy fields worked by solitary farmers in conical bamboo hats.
The Reunification Express speeding past the emerald-green rice paddies between Hue and Hoi An © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
The North-South Railway is sometimes referred to as the Reunification Express, to commemorate the moment in 1975 when North Vietnamese forces finally overran the south. The victory of the North Vietnamese concluded a 30-year conflict in which first the French and then the US armies had been humiliated.
Three hours beyond Hanoi, I get out at Ga Ninh Binh. I’m headed to Van Long Nature Reserve, one of the country’s famous beauty spots, but I’ve decided to make a detour to visit tiny Mai Do village, a place that’s off the usual tourist itinerary, to meet the father of a friend.
Former railway workers Hoang Van Huan, left, and his friend, Thanh Mai Phan © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
Seated on a veranda, shaded by longan and guava trees, are 70-year-old Hoang Van Huan and his friend, Thanh Mai Phan. During the war years, both men worked on the railway for the North Vietnamese government. Straight-backed and handsome, with shiny white teeth, Mr Huan exudes a justifiable pride that he helped see off the army of the most powerful nation on Earth. He tells me his job was to repair track and bridges after they had been shattered by US bombs. He says the railway was a vital part of the war effort, carrying tanks and heavy weapons to Vinh, one of the line’s major stations, from where they were transported along the Ho Chi Minh trail to the frontlines. ‘We’d have one night to repair a whole bridge,’ says Mr Huan. ‘We’d hear the air raid sirens and than have to get away.’
‘It was extremely dangerous,’ Mr Phan adds. ‘The line between life and death was very narrow.’
I’m half-American and it’s strange to think that these two old men were once on the opposing side of a war in which members of my own family took part, but there seem to be no residual hard feelings. They wave farewell as I set off on the 40-minute drive to Van Long.
Vietnam has modernised rapidly in the years since the war. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are huge, sometimes overwhelming cities, but you don’t have to go far to find serenity and extraordinary beauty. Van Long Nature Reserve protects an area of huge limestone cliffs that jut out of tranquil, lily-choked canals. The high, weathered ridges are cloaked with dark-green foliage that looks like the habitat of some mythical creature. It’s not surprising that it was chosen as one of the locations for Kong: Skull Island.
A boat tour of Van Long Nature Reserve provides a relaxing way to enjoy the landscape and a chance to spot one of the world’s most endangered primates: the black and white Delacour’s langur, a monkey found only in Vietnam © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
I’m paddled around its waterways by 63-year-old Nguyen Thi Thon, who divides her day between working in her paddy fields and giving boat rides to tourists. She’s still wearing her anti-leech socks after a morning tending the rice. Though she lives so close to the main railway, she tells me she’s never been on a train. She says all her family is nearby and her work in the fields keeps her busy. She guides us deep into the reserve, where the cliffs climb jaggedly out of the wetlands. The water has carved tunnels in the limestone and we drift into one, welcoming the darkness and silence. ‘The cliffs seem beautiful even to me,’ she says with a sigh. ‘It makes me proud that people like you come so far to see them.’
That evening I catch the SE19 express south from Ninh Binh. It’s my first night on a Vietnamese train and my overwhelming impression is of the jolting physicality of the journey. The train swerves and judders, bouncing me in the bunk. I wake with the strange, but not unpleasant sensation of having been pummelled with a meat tenderiser. Outside, it’s finally light: soupy waterways, bright sunshine and paddy fields announce our approach to Hue.
There are 10 main entrances into the Imperial City of Hue, one of Vietnam’s seven Unesco World Heritage sites © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
Hue was the capital of Vietnam for almost 150 years. Set along the banks of the Perfume River, it’s a hot, damp city of imperial monuments and low-rise buildings, which still preserves a sense of grandeur and royal calm. At its heart, overlooking the river, is the complex of palaces once occupied by the Nguyen, the country’s last royal dynasty. Hue’s Imperial City looks like the citadel of an ancient Chinese ruler, but what’s really amazing is how modern it all is: it was built in the 19th century and occupied right up until 1945, when the 13th and final emperor – Bao Dai – abdicated. He clung on as a puppet of the French, but finally died in Paris in 1997.
The palace complex suffered badly during the Tet Offensive of 1968, when the North Vietnamese Army launched a surprise attack against South Vietnam and its American allies. But enough has been restored or remains intact to convey a sense of its former magnificence: the grand throne rooms, huge geometrical courtyards, shady groves and pools of fat carp. Along its columned walkways, photographs recall the last decadent years of the feudal rulers: a Chinese-influenced court where, even in the 20th century, officials in silk robes kowtowed to a monarch who kept a harem and eunuchs.
One of those officials was a man called Pham Ba Pho. He served both Bao Dai and his predecessor, the flamboyant, French-educated, lipstick-wearing Khai Dinh. His house, a 10-minute ride from the Imperial City, has been lovingly restored by his grandson and is open to visitors.
The calm gardens of Hue's 200-year-old Dong Thuyen Convent © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
Pham Ba Pho came from a farming family and won his place at court through the millennia-year-old system of competitive exams. Today, his home retains the elegant atmosphere that he must have cherished. It’s a leafy oasis, built according to the principles of feng shui, combining light, shade and water to create an atmosphere of serenity.
After a day dispensing imperial justice, Pham Ba Pho would pop home to smoke opium from a huge pipe carved out of an elephant’s tusk, hang out with his three wives, play chess, listen to music or drink and paint. ‘He said people think opium is bad,’ his grandson tells me, ‘but if you just smoke a little, it gives you long life.’
Seen as decadent and unjust, the last Vietnamese emperors sold out to the French and lost the support of their people, but the end of the dynasty also swept away a centuries’ old tradition of graciousness and aesthetic pleasure. A sense of it clings on in the design of Pham Ba Pho’s garden house and its interplay of water, brick, wood, tiles and beams.
A view towards the beach town of Lang Co from just north of Hai Van Pass – in the 15th century this marked the southernmost point of Vietnam, and the border with the kingdom of Champa © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
The final stretch of railway from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City takes 20 hours to travel. Vietnamese friends seem slightly worried when I tell them what I’m doing. ‘It’s long,’ they say, with looks of dismay.
It’s night when I board and pitch dark as we make our way through Hai Van Pass, following the sharp contours of the hillsides that overlook the sea. Dawn finally breaks as we draw in to Nha Trang, a popular coastal resort. There are another 12 hours to go and I feel a pang of envy towards the visitors who are disembarking for the beach. It’s become hotter as we’ve travelled south. The Annamite Mountains rise up steeply on our western side. Out the window, I watch the landscape roll sedately by: palm-thatched houses like islands in paddy fields, egrets perched by irrigation ditches, spiny dragon-fruit trees and coconut palms. In every town, battalions of scooters are penned behind the gates of level crossings while we pass.
Periodically, vendors wheel their trolleys through the carriages, making Vietnamese coffee to order from a concoction in a plastic bottle, selling biscuits, instant noodles and boiled ears of corn. I break up the journey with naps and unsteady walks along the length of the train. In the cheap, overcrowded carriages, exhausted travellers are dozing in the corridors, making it hard to pass. At lunchtime, I visit the dining car for noodles. On the table beside me, two members of the kitchen staff top and tail an enormous pile of green beans.
The portraits of Ho Chi Minh - aka Uncle Ho - are everywhere in Vietnam © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
Back in my compartment, I work my way through a biography of Ho Chi Minh. Ho – Uncle Ho – is the most important figure in Vietnamese history. The country’s first president and founder of its Communist Party, he died in 1969, before the war was concluded, but his words and portrait are visible everywhere. He’s even physically present. In Hanoi, outside his vast mausoleum, I’d seen thousands of Vietnamese schoolchildren and visitors queuing patiently in the rain for a glimpse of his embalmed body.
The train pulls into Ga Saigon just after 4pm. More than 20 hours of constant motion have left me feeling disorientated and slightly deafened. The faintly decrepit air of the station belies the fact that it is the gateway to a city of 10 million people, a metropolis that blends elements of its French past with vertiginous 21st-century skyscrapers and teeming street life.
Saigon’s City Hall was based on Paris’s Hôtel de Ville when building began in 1902 © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
At the heart of old Saigon is the former French City Hall, a weird Gallic interloper featuring yellow stucco, wooden shutters and smart topiary. Opposite the building, in a pretty tree-lined square, a statue of Ho Chi Minh faces down his former colonial masters. But even Uncle Ho is dwarfed by the changes that have taken place in the city that now bears his name.
Today, Ho Chi Minh City seems poised to become an Asian megalopolis to rival Seoul or even Tokyo. It’s still home to a lively Chinatown, and hawkers peddle tofu and low-cost snacks for its busy workforce, but luxury shops and shopping malls are multiplying. The city’s subway is due to be completed in 2019 and from the EON Heli Bar, on the 51st floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, you see a city that appears to be growing before your eyes.
Against a mother-of-pearl sky, buildings are sprouting up in various states of completion. Some are framed with scaffolding, others ready for occupation are dotted with yellow bulbs. The city seems to stretch to the horizon. The street-level traffic chaos becomes, at this height, harmonious rivers of yellow headlamps and red taillights. The dark curve of the Saigon River marks the next stage of the hungry city’s expansion: the luxury developments of Diamond Island – promising a future very far from Uncle Ho’s dream of austere egalitarianism.
Before I leave Vietnam, I go back to Ga Saigon. There’s an hour before the next arrival and the station has an off-duty air. Behind the ticket desk, a wallchart shows the timetable of the Reunification Express. When I’d stepped off the train the day before, I’d wondered if I’d ever want to get back on again. Now, however, as I read the station names – from Hanoi to Ninh Binh, Hue, Saigon, the places I remember and the ones I slept through – I feel a sneaking regret that the journey is over. It’s like looking at a book I only skimmed and am now determined to read properly.
This article appeared in the October 2017 edition of Lonely Planet Traveller magazine. Marcel Theroux travelled to Vietnam with support from Buffalo Tours. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.