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VIETNAM’S REUNIFICATION EXPRESS

Connecting north with south, the Reunification Express is also perhaps the best way to visit Vietnam’s UNESCO-listed sites and depth of culture…

At a glance

Key stops on Vietnam’s North-South Railway

1. Hanoi

Built around a series of lakes and the snaking Red River, the buildings in Vietnam’s capital are a mix of Confucian China, Soviet monumentalist and French colonial. 

2. Ninh Bình

(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

This landscape of lily-covered rivers winding through karst mountains and green paddy fields is Unesco World Heritage listed.

3. Halong Bay

Northern Vietnam’s vast bay of forest-covered islets lies in easy reach of Hanoi and is best visited on an overnight cruise.

4. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Caves honeycomb the mountains of this Unesco-listed national park; including Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest, and glittering Phong Nha Cave.

5. Hue

The imperial capital of the Nguyen emperors, with a crumbling forbidden city and a hinterland dotted with beautiful temples and tombs. 

6. Hoi An

Pearl-white beaches, ochre and egg-yolk-yellow balcony-fronted shop houses and a lantern-lit river, make this little village a great beachside stop.

7. Ho Chi Minh City

(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

Vietnam’s most vibrant city, bristling with skyscrapers, cut with little alleys lined with coffee shops, gin bars and noodle shops and buzzing with a energy.

A typhoon was coming. Duy was waiting, my guide’s engine running in the dark. The wind was already picking-up, sending leaves whirling in the air. I wolfed down my eggs and swigged more coffee, standing up as I did so. The situation seemed so fired up that I couldn’t help thinking back to that sunny, serene summer’s day in London when I’d decided to take the Reunification Express. But would I rather be back there now? No…

“We must go, Mr Alex,” Duy shouted through the open car window. He hooted the horn. I wiped my mouth, grabbed my bags and we sped away. Within moments we were on the edge of Phong Nha village, Vietnamese rock playing on the stereo, Duy focused on the road.

“If we drive straight south to Hue we will just miss the typhoon,’ he said over the music, “but it will be close.”

The car shuddered in the gusts. 

The Reunification Express. Sedate train. A film-reel window of pagodas and paddyfields, wheels clunking over the Red River bridge. That’s how I’d imagined it. And how it pretty much is. Built after the Vietnam War, the North-South Railway is still seen as a shining symbol of a progressive, unified country; one with the energy to build and grow that’s seen it catching up with Korea and even China. Pieced together in a blinding two years, the railway line links northerly Hanoi with Ho Chi Minh City, more than 1,700km, 1,300 bridges and 27 tunnels away in the south. Rumbling through rural fields and glistening new glass cities, past pearl-white beaches and bays of islands, the railway line joins the dots between almost all of Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage Listed sites – from Halong Bay in the north down to Imperial Hue in the country’s thin middle. My plan was to visit as many of them as possible. 

But a journey through Vietnam inevitably brings surprises.

“Ho Chi Minh himself lay embalmed in a glass case, as if he’d fallen asleep and would rise again when his nation needed him”
Alex Robinson

First Stop: The capital

The trip had started soothingly, sleepily even with a train ride from the capital where I’d landed, to Halong Bay. 

This is the most famous of all Vietnam’s World Heritage Sites. You can get there more quickly, but that’s why I was taking the train. For six hours, locals snoozed and snored opposite me until light pinked over the mountains and we drew into the station in Halong. From there, a pre-booked converted junk, which would be my berth for one night, together with 20-or-so fellow-travellers, slowly chugged us out into the bay.

The East China Sea was serene. It was so flat that you felt like you could roll a marble across and bounce it off one of the myriad islands. The air was sub-tropical-warm – a gentle, cooling breeze. That afternoon some of us kayaked through lake-calm water busy with sergeant major fish passing under rock arches cut by the sea into the pinnacle islands. We climbed to the peak of tiny Ti Top island for a view of the sun, sinking orange over a spread of limestone mountains – dripping with forest and pocked with caves.

Back in Hanoi, I decided to lose myself in the backstreets of the old city, just walk where my camera took me, past market traders sitting behind rows of pak choi and mangoes, chayote and Malabar spinach. On a street corner, old men with wispy beards sat on tiny plastic stools, laughed with friends and puffed smoke from huge bamboo hookahs.

I took some pictures and one called me over. He was wearing a faded khaki jacket and had cataracts in his eyes.

“Where you from?”

“England,” I said.

“Lando?”

“Yes. North London.”

“Ho Chi Minh, he live there. He work there…”

He grinned and offered me a drag of his hookah. The tobacco was bonfire-strong. 

I spluttered. The old man laughed. 

“You visit his tomb?”

I hadn’t and the old man flagged down a cab for me and sent me to the mausoleum: a monumental grey building in a huge grey square – a kind of Soviet-brutalist Parthenon with imposing, sombre neo-classical concrete pilasters. I processed inside to where Ho Chi Minh himself lay embalmed like a Catholic saint in a glass case, as if he’d fallen asleep and would rise again when his nation needed him.

I wandered east to the relics of the Hanoi’s Imperial Citadel, another World Heritage site. It was a husk of splendour – almost all of it destroyed by French guns. The imagination has to fill-in the gaps in the walls. I pictured emissaries from Ming China walking down long corridors, to those splendid pavilions embossed with ceramic mosaic, where mandarins sat around the throne of the great Emperor Lê Thánh Tông. I imagined French troops cowering before Japanese guards, in tiny cells inside the egg-yolk-yellow fortified gate. Japan’s annexing of Vietnam and subsequent loss to the Allies left a power gap into which, in August 1945, Ho Chi Minh stepped into, later proclaiming Vietnamese independence in the adjacent square, using words from France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. 

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Deeper into Vietnam

The next day I was back on the train for a long journey south to Dong Hoi, gateway to the Phong Nha caves and my third World Heritage Site. I’d booked a sleeper cabin – and after sunset, guards came around to collapse the couchettes and cover them with sheets. Supper was a bowl of soup and a stir-fry, and I slept easily, to the meditative clack-clunk of the bogeys, waking only when the train horn sounded and we jarred to a stop in Ninh Bình. Morning came with coffee and cold omelette, brought by railway staff just before we reached Dong Hoi. Duy, my guide and future typhoon driver was waiting for me on the platform and we were soon winding up from the coast into the hills where the caves lie.

Duy asked me if I wanted to try light adventure caving, or a proper adventure. I should have realised then that for the Vietnamese, ‘proper adventure’ means Journey to the Centre of the Earth. But I was bleary eyed, which is how I found myself in the pitch dark inside Hang Roc. The cave was aptly named. It was the largest I’ve ever seen.

With me was a tough-as-nails, 60-something opal miner from Coober Pedy called Jake, three Vietnamese cavers and a guide – five-foot tall Tua. With a neat, office-ready haircut, a pink watch and crocs on her feet, she wasn’t exactly Lara Croft. She looked like she’d blow away in the wind. 

“Are you sure that you’re OK with adventure?” she asked, grinning mischievously.

“Sure,” Jake and I mumbled.

“Great!” she said, “Follow me.” And like a cat she clambered up the cave wall, which looked as steep as a church steeple in the beams of our head torches. 

Even Jake was shaken. But somehow, the Vietnamese cajoled us up the slope that was easier than it had looked, using undignified buttock-shoves and indications for where we should put our big feet. As we climbed, the sound of the river faded underneath me. My heart pounded in my chest. I was glad that I couldn’t see how far it was below. 

Then we reached a ledge that led into a cavern and were glad we’d faced our fear. Pools of calcite ran across the floor like steps. Inside them, were marble-sized balls of glittering aragonite – cave pearls. Towering stalagmites stood around us like cathedral columns, and the walls sparkled with jewel-like flowstones. Towards the caves’ exit, Tua had prepared a little picnic for us; coffee, a sandwich. Someone had some whisky. 

Later that afternoon, back in the hotel – exhausted but with that calm that comes after hard exercise and adrenaline – I was sipping a beer and looking out over the balcony. Dark clouds were gathering over the horizon. And Duy approached me. 

“I think we need to leave early tomorrow, Mr Alex,” he said unemotionally.

“Oh yes? What time is the train to Hue?”

“No train. We’ll drive. Maybe leave about 4am…?
A typhoon is coming.”

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Man and woman smiling at camera in Hue

The author’s guide Cong (Alex Robinson)

The author’s guide Cong (Alex Robinson)

Women wearing traditional royal purple Ao Dai dresses (Alex Robinson)

Women wearing traditional royal purple Ao Dai dresses (Alex Robinson)

Woman in purple dress walking through red wooden corridor

A young woman walking through one of the magnificent wooden decorated corridors in the Tu Cam Thanh (Alex Robinson)

A young woman walking through one of the magnificent wooden decorated corridors in the Tu Cam Thanh (Alex Robinson)

Woman with large trays of seafood for sale

A local woman laughs while selling food in Imperial Hue (Alex Robinson)

A local woman laughs while selling food in Imperial Hue (Alex Robinson)

Exploring Imperial Hue

The next morning, we were rushing to escape it. And the night was gradually thinning into turbid grey. Outside the car window, the wind bent the Palmyra palms and tore at their fronds. In the wind the going was painfully slow, but we were heading steadily south. And the storm was whizzing north. Duy assured me we would miss it. 

Half an hour later it didn’t seem so, and the coffee had worked its way through to my bladder. When I stepped outside the car, the wind was literally swirling – hitting me from the front, whirling around my side, lashing me with rain. And I was struggling to answer nature’s call. Then through the murk of flying water and leaves a cyclist wandered past, head down, calm as a walker in a London park, pushing his bike against the wind.

Two hours later we safely reached Hue. The rain was merely drizzle far to the south and the clouds were thinning. I thanked Duy with a large tip. From now on, I determined that my Vietnam journey would be sedate. But I hadn’t met Cong – a constantly laughing barrel of energy with Ray Bans and closely cropped hair, who picked me up by Jeep the next morning for my tour of Imperial Hue. Showing off my knowledge I asked him if the reason so many people in Vietnam were called Nguyen was after the Emperors who had founded the city. 

“No!” he roared, as we whizzed along the river. “It’s not ‘Ner-Goo-Yen’! No! No! No!. ‘Gnu-When’! Say it – a bit like ‘No When’!”

We pulled-up in front of the Ancient Forbidden Purple City, next to a massive, fortified gate topped with terracotta roofs. And Cong led me through – along brick paths, past ruins of buildings razed to the ground by the American invasion, telling me about how the city would have functioned in Imperial times; about the Nguyen emperors. We walked along a cherry-red corridor topped with a procession of decorated gables open only to the close courtiers. A young woman in a beautiful, swirling Ao Dai dress was having her photo taken in the doorway. 

“People come here to do pre-wedding pictures,” Cong told me, “She’s wearing the official colour of Hue – dark purple.”

We reached the heart of the old palace, where pavilions with plunging roofs topped with swirling dragons looked out over
a courtyard dotted with huge copper cauldrons. They were covered with Chinese script.

“Not Chinese,” explained Cong, “Vietnamese. It used to be written like this before the French introduced the European alphabet.”

Then Cong took me through the Imperial tombs that dot the palm-tree and cecropia-filled countryside around Hue – mosaic pagodas, sitting over artificial ponds filled with lotus flowers and lilies; dark temples where statues of long-dead emperors peered from plinths, through air smoky with incense. And along the way Cong guffawed at my cack-handed attempts to pronounce Vietnamese. 

“Try this one,” he’d say, tripping out a few words. I’d repeat them and then he’d bellow with laughter. “Don’t say that in front of the waitress! She will throw the Pho soup over you!” 

Then the next day at the train station, Cong too left me, but with a parcel.

“Open it before you reach Danang!” he said through the window as the train shunted off. “And come back soon!”

Inside was a Vietnamese-English phrase book and a packet of fragrant Hue royal tea.

“Walking Hoi An’s throbbing streets, I chanced on a Chinese gatehouse, topped with jade-green mosaic dragons, claws brandished to guard against intruders”
Alex Robinson

Final stop: Hoi An

The departing train chugged through the centre of the Hue,
past street markets where women in conical hats sold eels from buckets and chickens in rattan cages, past ranks of mopeds swarming around level crossings, engines buzzing. We clattered over the Song An Cu’u river and into rice fields before winding east towards the sea, hugging the coast and, after shrimp-farm-pools, reached the great beach-lined lagoon at Lap An Bay. A guard brought around sandwiches and a drink and then the lights went out in the world beyond the window as we entered the long tunnel under the Annamite mountains.

We emerged in southern Vietnam, near where the Americans had landed in March 1965. Back then Danang was mainly fishing hamlets. Now Vietnam’s fifth-largest city glittered by the sea in lines of glass-fronted skyscrapers and neon-lit dragon bridges. I caught a cab, wound through the streets past the huge industrial fishing-fleet in the marina and started navigating the final 30 kilometres south to Hoi An.

This beautifully preserved, old Asian trading port, sitting next to a winding river behind golden beaches, would be the perfect place to soothe myself after an event-filled journey; small and pretty enough to walk through aimlessly, soaking-up the atmosphere. 

I wandered narrow alleys, lined with ochre-and warm yellow 18th century houses. Many had been converted into galleries, arty cafes and boutiquey shops. I bought beautiful paper lanterns and a made-to-measure jacket, for a Primark price. On one walk down a thronging street near the river I chanced on a Chinese gatehouse, topped with swirling jade-green mosaic dragons, claws brandished to guard against intruders. 

Inside was the peaceful Phuc Kien pagoda, built by merchants from Fujian who made Hoi An their home in the 1690s. A courtyard tinkling with fountains led to a towering teak hall where glittering sea deities and ancestral effigies sat on altars swirling with incense.

I visited the tiny Cham Islands a twenty-minute boat-ride offshore, spending a long lazy morning snorkelling over coral reefs and lazing with a paperback on a pearl-white beach, shaded by coconut palms.

But I loved the Hoi An evenings best, when I’d find a table in a quay-side restaurant overlooking the Thu Bon River and order sizzling prawns and spicy Mi Quang turmeric noodles, as the sun sank low and butter-yellow over the terracotta roofs. Gondolas drifted languidly by, and in the thickening twilight, courting couples set lambent paper lanterns on a drift downstream to the South China Sea.

On my final morning, I took an early taxi ride out of Hoi An – past vendors in conical hats laying out their wares for morning market, through the rice-paddy landscapes that clustered around the sluggish river as it wound inland, and into thick jungle. I was going to My Son, the last World Heritage Site of my journey. Like an Angkor Wat in miniature, this 1,500-year old ruined city – of crumbling brick temples and statues encrusted with vines lies strewn in dense rainforest at the feet of rolling mountains. 

Leaving early, as my hotel had recommended, ensured I would share it only with green magpies and crimson sunbirds, who flitted through the trees and played in the gentle sunlight. A ancient treasure, lost in nature. It was the perfect, tranquil end to a Vietnam trip that, as ever, had been filled with surprises.

Take the trip

Audley Travel has a 15-night tailor-made trip using the railway and visiting Hanoi, Halong Bay, Phong Nha (with a cave trek), Hoi An beach and Ho Chi Minh City.

Riding the Reunification Express

The railway is run by Vietnam Railways. Their website has timetables and prices online in English. The author travelled to Halong City railway station, before taking the Hanoi-Ho Chi Minh City line south, breaking the journey in Dong Hoi (for the Phong Nha caves), Hue and Danang (for Hoi An). Booking can be made in advance at railway stations, local agencies and through tour operators in the UK. 

Continue the journey with our podcast

Listen to the author discuss the highlights and surprises of riding the Vietnam’s Reunification Express.

Photography: Alex Robinson and Shutterstock