We’re no longer a country of war — we’ve moved on,” says my guide, Mr Tien, and I believe him. Hanoi is a city on the move; all around us, hundreds of commuters are hunched over their scooter handlebars, raring to go. Following the throng into the heart of the capital, we pass elderly couples waltzing in the park, a lady and her poodle with matching multicoloured hairdos, and high-school girls sporting slogan T-shirts and flashes of red lipstick.
The bus halts and I step into a fog of frying chillies and fuel. Passengers tug suitcases behind them like unruly dogs, as they approach Hanoi railway station, Vietnam’s oldest, dating back to 1902. This canary-yellow pile of bricks and mortar has witnessed several conflicts, but a B-52 carpet-bombing during the Vietnam War hit it hardest, obliterating the central hall. It was rebuilt in 1976 — the same year the formerly communist north and democratic south were reunified following the North’s victory and 20 years of civil war. A historic moment consolidated by parallel metal lines.
Some structures come to define a nation. For Vietnam, that is the North-South railway, also known as the Reunification Express: a 1,072-mile steel spinal cord that curves the length of the country from Hanoi in the far north to the southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by locals). Its formation and history mirror the fluctuating fortunes of the country, and to ride these rails is to traverse not only timelines of major events but also religious and cultural divides between the Catholic north, with its French history, and the Buddhist south, which bears American influences.
The first tracks were laid in 1899 under French colonial rule, with the (unsuccessful) aim of stealing the lucrative Indochina rice market away from shipping companies. It took another 30 years to piece together the separately constructed sections, during which time steady jobs with good salaries were flowing and the proverb on everyone’s lips was: ‘If you want a good life, marry a railway man’.
In 1936, a locomotive travelled the entire length of the Transindochinois line — as it was then known — for the first time. The journey took 60 hours, but passengers had a cinema car and a hairdressing salon on board to help pass the time.
Two decades later, the railway was to play a key role in the conflict that raged between north and south for almost 20 years. “The railway tracks became the rope in the tug of war for power during the Vietnam War,” says Tim Doling, a railway historian and author who lives near Saigon.
In the centre of Hanoi sits another squat yellow building. As I walk towards Hoa Lo Prison, the humidity and high sun slow-cook me until I’m a gravy of sweat and sunscreen. Prisoners incarcerated here during the Vietnam War nicknamed it the Hanoi Hilton — an ironic reference to the appalling living conditions inside. At its peak, 3,600 captives were squeezed into a space made for 300. I wander the shadowy corridors, noticing the iron bars in the envelope-sized windows that had been strained apart by desperate fingers. And in the solitary confinement cells — where the floor was set at an angle so shackled prisoners couldn’t lie back without the blood rushing to their head — oedema and scabies were rampant.
When the war ended, in April 1975, the north-south line was a fragmented mass of twisted steel. An estimated 1,334 bridges, 158 stations and 27 tunnels had to be repaired, and yet, just 20 months later, a train left Hanoi bound for Saigon, where it arrived to great fanfare — lauded as a symbol of Vietnamese unity.
That night, I board the train, the bagpipe-style horn signalling our departure. I sit on the slim couchette as we crawl at snail’s pace through the city, catching glimpses of residents going about their evening routines: a young man admiring his new cut in the hairdresser’s mirror; an old lady watching TV in bed; and a barrage of bikes — their headlights bright as moons — waiting to cross the tracks.
I seek out Mr Tien and find him lying on a bottom bunk. He offers me a seat on the bed opposite and, with the train rocking rhythmically beneath us, tells me his story. “I was 17 when I joined the war. Eight of my friends and I cut our fingers and made a blood pact to sign up early. It made the local radio — our families were so proud.” He looks out the window and starts to smile at a memory. “You had to weigh 45 kilos to pass the medical, but I was only 43 kilos, so I put stones in my pockets.
“We were part of the anti-aircraft unit, defending crossroads and T-junctions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail from American planes,” Mr Tien continues. “We had no huts, only hammocks, and the food was terrible. We could only hunt with traps because gunfire might reveal our location. We foraged for mushrooms, but it was dangerous — they’d often leave us vomiting. We’d have to eat fish floating dead in the river — we had no choice.”
“What killed the fish?” I ask.
“Agent Orange,” he replies. “I don’t know why they called it that — it was white: a herbicide used to decimate the forests. Every time we saw helicopters, we ran away, against the wind, as fast as possible with handkerchiefs over our mouths. It would make us cough and scratch. A few days later, all the leaves would fall off and the fish in the stream died. It was really hard, really difficult.” Mr Tien pauses. “More died of malaria than bombs,” he adds. “We’d call from hammock to hammock in the morning, waiting with dread if there was no answer.”
I ask if all his friends made it. “Three of us came back,” he replies, staring at the floor and stroking his nose as if comforting himself. “At night, I still dream of burying my friends in the forest. We hoped their families could find the place after the war, but the bombs obliterated everything.”
We sit in silence for a long while. “How do you feel about Americans now?” I venture. “When American journalists came to conduct interviews at the end of the war, I saw we’d both been victims,” he says. “I realise now it was a stupid war — completely avoidable.” I return to my cabin and lie, eyes open, in the dark, comforted by the swaying.
Polyester & pagodas
I awake as we’re nearing Hue to see pops of pink lotus flowers floating in ponds, and farmers manoeuvring water buffalo through rice paddies. Winding through town, the coffee-coloured Perfume River is so-called because scented flowers from the forest fall into it as it runs westwards to Laos. Off the train and on the river, I find boats with snarling dragon heads, stacked with tourist souvenirs: fridge magnets, kimonos, chopsticks. But away from the shimmer of polyester and plastic are glimpses of a more traditional way of life: a boatman dredging the alluvial build-up has hung his laundry out to dry on deck, and I can see his wife washing up in the cabin. On the roof of our own boat I find a small altar of yellow flowers with incense smoke curling into the sticky air.
On the northern bank is Thien Mu Pagoda, a seven-tier, 17th-century Buddhist tower flanked by frangipani trees and purple-flowering jacaranda. The scene is serene, but in 1963 it was the site of Buddhist hunger strikes and other protests at alleged discrimination by the government of Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem. Parked at the back is the Austin Westminster sedan that drove Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc to the scene of his self-immolation in Saigon on 11 June 1963. It’s a moving sight, even if the flashy aqua-blue paint seems at odds with the man of quiet resolve it carried.
We return to the train station bound for the beach city of Nha Trang, 400 miles to the south. The 10-hour stretch is considered the most scenic section of the rail route, tunnelling through the Annamite Range, hugging the sandy half-moon bays of the Pacific Ocean coastline. I cautiously poke my head out of a half-open window between two carriages, and see thickets of white trumpet flowers trailing down to the sapphire shallows, where the wooden rings of prawn farms stand sentinel.
Before long, the lunch cart trundles through, laden with skewers of meat and deep-fried songbirds, their heads and scrawny wings still intact. A fellow traveller dips into his wallet and hands over a few dong. “Dip them in the salt,” the seller advises, handing over one of the crispy birds. Locals lean into the aisles to see what the verdict is as the traveller bites into the head and winces when the eyeballs pop.
As the hours pass, the carriage quietens down and we’re rocked briskly back and forth. Occasionally, a cockroach scuttles across the windowsill and a rumbling snore escapes the lips of the man behind me. At each stop, ladies board the train hawking clear plastic bags of boiled eggs, rice cakes and jackfruit; leaping off when the departure alarm sounds.
En route to the canteen, I meet Thièu Pham Manh (captain of carriage number five) lazing on his side in the porters’ cabin, sipping green tea. He waves me into the little nook and we sit cross-legged on the low bed. As he pours me a thimble-size cup, I notice the calluses on Manh’s feet and his tobacco-stained teeth. He’s travelled the north-south route — four days on, four days off — for 24 years, he tells me, pointing to his homemade sign stuck on the corridor wall. ‘Here to help’, it reads, with his mobile number penned below. Manh and then I show each other the family photos on our phones, but hit a language barrier, so he dials his 18-year-old daughter, Ky Dieu, to translate over the phone, and our three-way chat continues until Nha Trang’s towering high-rises loom into view across the water.
On arrival, I shun the crowds heading to the city’s world-class beach and make a beeline instead for the local market. Beneath the high roof, the air hums with high-pitched bartering and the heady pong of fish. Smashed palm leaves litter the wet floor where eels, octopuses and frogs writhe in buckets and bags. Women sitting on their haunches use cleavers to hack the legs off blue crabs with a clean thwack-thwack.
I can’t stay long, though; the final leg to Saigon awaits. On board the train, everyone settles quickly and sits chuckling at the Tom and Jerry cartoons being screened in the aisle. A father and son sitting opposite me tuck into their packed lunch of rice and boiled eggs. Rain lashes the windows and sodden passengers clamber aboard at each stop looking relieved. The father and son fall asleep, mouths agape. I make my way to second class, passing men squatting between carriages smoking, and snoozing kids coiled up on raffia mats. Here, the seats are wooden and a bucket is propped beneath the air conditioning to catch the drips.
A girl smiles shyly and motions for me to sit next to her. Her name is Thao Nguyên and she’s returning to university. “I go home every weekend to help my father at our durian farm,” she says. “My friends take the bus, but the train is cheaper. Plus, it’s much better than five years ago when there was no air-con or TV and the windows were jammed open so you’d be covered in dirt,” she adds, turning to take in the scenery. Flooded rice paddies shine like shattered mirrors and skinny cows graze the fields. I ask about the differences between the north and south. “People from the south always tease that people from Hanoi are so stingy they’d even steal the railway lines to sell,” she says, holding her hands over her mouth to hide her giggle.
On the streets of Saigon, shopkeepers huddle under awnings, ladling steaming pho into bowls and handing over cups of rocket-fuel coffee. We don’t linger, though; instead driving an hour north to the Cù Chi Tunnels, a 150-mile network created by the Viet Cong as a hiding place during the war. The soldiers were often forced to spend weeks here during attacks, shuffling through spaces 60cm high and 50cm wide, infested with poisonous spiders, snakes, millipedes and — worst of all — malarial mosquitos.
The Viet Cong’s combat methods ranged from the ingenious — wearing car-tyre shoes with the tread reversed so the enemy were led to believe they were travelling in the opposite direction, using water buffalo to pull the railway tracks off course, and training wasps to attack Americans — to the brutal — creating fiendishly ingenious, bamboo-spiked pits with names like ‘the Clipping Armpit Trap’ and ‘the Folding Chair’.
Lined up behind glass in the gift shop is a display of grenades and AK47s. “During the war, I used this one,” says Mr Tien, matter-of-factly, pointing to a handheld grenade launcher. We head out the back of the shop and enter a newly planted forest of acacia and eucalyptus, where the screech of cicadas is matched only by the unnerving crack of gunfire from tourists who’ve paid 500,000 dong (£20) to practice firing an AK47 in the nearby range.
Here at Ben Dinh, sections of the tunnel have been reconstructed, and our khaki-dressed guide, Thuân, leads us below ground. They’re almost double the height and width of the original structures, but my knees are tucked into my chest. After 10 minutes, my calves are burning; my lungs tight from the thin air. “My parents fought in these tunnels,” says Thuân. “They don’t talk about it much.” They, like the rest of Vietnam, are putting the past behind them.
Change is also afoot for the railway route. By 2021, the wooden benches will have been replaced by upholstered seats, and there are plans to bring in high-speed trains. “Cockroaches will probably still be a feature, though,” jokes railway historian Tim. But speeding up isn’t always the answer. Time is said to heal all wounds, and the Reunification Express provides just that: hour upon hour, when life is put on hold and the landscape spools by. Creating time for a dad to talk to his son, for a student to daydream without interruption, for a writer to drink tea with a carriage manager with no talk of the war.
Vietnam Airlines offers nonstop flights from Heathrow to Hanoi four times a week, and indirect options daily. Numerous other airlines offer one-stop services from the UK.
Average flight time: 11h20m.
Vietnam is synonymous with the cyclo (bicycle rickshaw). Fares are cheap, with bartering expected. Alternatively, taxis are equally plentiful, if slightly more expensive, and a better option on very hot days. The two most trusted operators are Mai Linh and Vinasun. In the largest cities, Uber is also available. Buses, plane and train travel can be planned online via Baolau.
When to go
Vietnam’s climate varies significantly. The north is dry and cool (around 20C) from November-April, but summer sees humid highs over 30C with heavy rainfall. Central Vietnam is dry and warm (low 30Cs) from January-August, with rainfall increasing in the winter months. Seasons in the south are clearer-cut: the wet season is from May-November, and the dry season from November-May. Temperatures across the region average between 25C and 35C throughout the year.
How to do it
GRJ Independent offers an eight-day trip to Vietnam, including return flights with Vietnam Airlines, four-star hotel accommodation in Hanoi, Hue, Nha Trang and Saigon, rail travel, excursions and selected meals, from £2,195 per person.
Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)