Slow Travel: Vietnam by Train

Written by Guia Sciortino, who is part of indigoeight’s network of pr consultants, and has a passion for Asia. Currently living and studying in China, Guia shares her Far Eastern experiences on our blog. Here she writes about her recent trip to Vietnam.

We often forget that a journey counts just as much as the destination; every turn of the road, every change in landscape should not be an interlude between ‘here’ and the next stop, they should be the travel experience itself. This, I believe, is the essence of slow travel.

Despite its 2,140 mile long coast, Vietnam is a country worth slow travelling across. Its green countryside where stretches of jungles and rice fields alternate, remote bamboo-hedged villages, miniature temples and outdoor ancestral shrines would have remained a mystery, had I not decided to visit the country by train.  Starting from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh in the south, the weather became gradually milder and more holiday-friendly.

First stop: Hanoi, the capital

Many visitors to Vietnam seem to overlook Hanoi and use it simply as a stop to head straight to Halong Bay. They could not be more wrong.  The Old and French Quarters, West Lake and Ba Dinh district present a mix of colonial architecture, Vietnamese style modern buildings (tall and peculiarly narrow), temples, pagodas, an old citadel and some of the most exciting street life I’ve seen in South East Asia.

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Entrance to the Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Every alley is peppered with dozens of outdoor coffee shops as Vietnamese people do love their daily caffeine fix. Vietnamese coffee is probably the most strong flavoured I’ve ever tasted and as an espresso lover, it was heaven for my taste buds.

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One of Hanoi’s famous cafés

Come rain or shine – and most of the time it’s rain – locals are sitting outside on the buzzing streets, on those infamous teeny tiny chairs,  drinking their café au lait or enjoying Pho from an impromptu restaurant on the pavement.

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Casual Pho restaurant in the Old Quarter

The French influence is very much felt in Hanoi’s food: bakeries and pastry shops are plentiful and baguettes are now regarded as the ‘national bread’. Some trendy eateries offer delicious takes on this Gallic institution, filled with Vietnamese ingredients to make the perfect Viet-baguette sandwich.

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One of Hanoi’s Catholic churches,  Nhà thò Thai Hà

Nightlife revolves around the districts surrounding West Lake – everything stays open till late and there’s some great 24/7 shopping.  In particular, Hanoi struck me for its variety of local art and craft shops and galleries which, far from being touristy, showed a vital contemporary art scene.

Second stop: Perfume Pagoda

60 km southwest of Hanoi lies the Perfume Pagoda. The complex consists of a collection of temples and shrines hidden among the mountains and only reachable by car, followed by a very slow rowing boat ride and, finally, cable car or foot to reach the top.  One of the most important Buddhist sites in the country, it attracts Vietnamese believers who make a pilgrimage to the Pagoda in hordes every new lunar year.

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Those in need of some action after the morning chicken noodle soup – Vietnam’s typical breakfast – can indulge in some trekking in the woods instead of opting for the lazier cable car.  Due to some heavy rain on the day I visited,  I had to give in to man-made machines to reach the top of the mountain.

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Stairs leading to the dramatic Huong Tich Cave

Travellers with a naughty side, who are up for a real adventure, can have a sip of the local Ruou thuoc in one of the temple’s eateries. Taking the definition of ‘organic’ to a whole new level, this liqueur contains snakes, scorpios, mice and other local wildlife. Mixed with ethanol and left to age for a few months, this beverage makes for a much-loved medicinal drink or your version of a Vietnamese aperitif. Your choice.

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Ruou thuoc or ‘snake wine’

Third Stop: Halong Bay

From Hanoi it’s a 3 and a half hour bus or car journey to Halong Bay’s harbour, where Indochina-inspired boats set off to sail through 1,600 limestone islands and islets.

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Halong Bay

A UNESCO world heritage site featuring a unique geological formation, it is becoming increasingly touristy, but the raw beauty of this part of the Gulf of Tunkin is still worth a visit.

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Halong Bay

You’ll be able to trek on some of the islets, explore primitive karst caves and lakes, kayak across the bay, improve your fishing skills or just relax on the boat deck while staring in awe at Halong’s mind-blowing landscape.

Fourth Stop: Hué

To reach Hue from Halong Bay, I headed back to Hanoi to board an overnight train. Railways in Vietnam are scarily close to residential buildings and shopping roads, which meant that by turning the light offs in the sleeper cabin, I could be a witness to the urban frenzy on Hanoi’s never sleeping streets. In the morning, I woke up to idyllic rural scenes, conical hat wearing farmers and water buffalos on my way to the south.

Hué was the former imperial capital of Vietnam and this is where Chinese cultural influence over Vietnam can be appreciated at its best.

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Forbidden Purple City, Hué

Chinese rule over Vietnam lasted for a millenium and the Nguyen emperors who finally unified the country were based in Hué’s Forbidden Purple City, an architectural nod to its more renowned sister in Beijing.

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Forbidden Purple City, Hué

One day in Hué is sufficient and it will also give you time to explore the royal tombs on the outer districts of the city as well as party in a local bar on one of the village’s vibrant pedestrian roads. It’s a holiday after all!

Fifth stop: Hoi An

A relatively quick train ride took me to what became my favourite spot in Vietnam: Hoi An, where beach meets traditional Vietnamese river port village. I wasn’t surprised to find out that Wanderlust magazine’s readers voted it as ‘The Best City on Earth’ in 2016.

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Exploring Hoi An was like lifting the lid off a treasure chest packed with exotic details. Its magical atmosphere derived from a seamless blend of Japanese and Chinese style mahogany merchant houses, among French colonial mansions and Vietnamese artisan shops.

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Hoi An city centre at night

The town really comes to life at night, when travellers who spend the day on its sandy beaches or exploring temples in the countryside nearby flock to the trendy restaurants, bars and night markets. Hundreds of Chinese-inspired lanterns and fairy lights bring a rainbow of colours to every alley where shops and eateries stay open till the early hours. It felt like I had crashed the hottest al fresco party in the country.  Scoot over Thailand’s full moon parties, this is THE place to be.

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A colonial mansion turned restaurant in Hoi An city centre

The city is famed for its marvellous tailors. They are so popular, expats fly from other Asian cities to get a wardrobe makeover. From business suits to formal frocks, Hoi An tailors can do it all overnight and at a fraction of the price you’d pay in Europe.

Sixth stop: My Son

From Hoi An it’s an easy car ride to My Son sanctuary or a slightly longer bike ride among rice paddies, water buffalos and farmland. Built between the 4th and 13th centuries, this complex of Hindu temples remains were once was the political capital of the Champa Kingdom.

DSC_5650.jpgIt’s definitely an interesting site, which has also been recognised by UNESCO. Yet travellers shouldn’t expect the grandeur and size of the Angkor temples in Cambodia (which you can read all about in this blog). If you are an Angkor virgin though, this is a fantastic starting point to get acquainted with Hindu influence in South East Asia.

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Here, like in many parts of Vietnam, you’ll see craters left by U.S. Army bombs during the infamous war. Sadly, there isn’t a place in Vietnam that doesn’t serve as a reminder of those tragic years.

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Seventh stop: Nha Trang

Another ten-hour long train ride later, I ended up on the coastal city of Nha Trang. A beach resort which is undergoing serious development yet still boasts crystalline waters along powdery sand beaches. Stay as far away as possible from the city itself – which is not the most appealing – and find a secluded resort to retreat and rest up until your next train journey.

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I wasn’t very lucky during my stay because sunny spells didn’t come with the hotel package. If I were to do it again, I’d definitely prefer visiting the untouched southern islands of Phu Quoc and Con Dao. A backpacker’s secret until now, they retain that raw natural landscape that Thailand was blessed with 40 years back, before mass-tourism took over. Worth getting there now before it’s too late.

Eighth stop: Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon)

8 hours from Nha Trang lies the old Saigon, a city that resembles Shanghai or Bangkok in its love for modernity, luxury lifestyle and the latest trends.  Glitzy designers boutiques effortlessly co-exist alongside fake goods markets (Ben Thanh Market is a must) and street food vendors selling pineapple coladas.

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Up and coming Dong Khoi area from a rooftop bar

I was very lucky to visit a few days before Tet – Vietnamese New Year, which is based on the lunar calendar and therefore coincides with the more popular Chinese New Year. The city was covered with floral decorations and thousands of people filled the main streets. The area around Dong Khoi offers the opportunity for a pleasant walk, combining glittering neon-lighted skyscrapers and former colonial architecture.

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Waiting for Tet, Vietnamese new year

Saigon, formerly referred to as the Pearl of the Orient during the 19th century, is Vietnam’s most westernised city and the American and French legacies are not difficult to spot. It’s easy to forget where you are; those bucolic sights that have accompanied you all the way from Hanoi might seem a thing of the past at this point.

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The People’s Committee Building in European style

I particularly loved walking down large boulevards like Dong Khoi, Nguyen Hue and Hai Ba Trung to get glimpses of Vietnamese history: starting off at Paris Square with its Notre Dame Cathedral, heading eastwards toward the People’s Committee Building and Lam Son Square, before passing by the Rex Hotel (where the Americans famously held their press briefings during the war) and ending up at the Majestic Hotel, which conjured up memories of the roaring twenties.

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Vietnamese traditional tall and narrow buildings

‘War tourism’ is a huge draw to visit this country, and many American veterans return to Vietnam to find closure. But the interactions I witnessed between Vietnamese citizens and American tourists were characterised by the utmost kindness.  The Vietnamese show such a dignity and profound willingness to move on that it’s impossible not to feel humbled – a touching lesson in forgiveness. The effects of chemical weapons used by US troops, such as Agent Orange and Napalm, are yet to be fully eradicated.  To understand how the war affected the local population, visit the permanent photography exhibition held at the War Remnants Museum in the city centre.

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An eggshell based artwork created by victims of Agent Orange in a local shop

A journey through Vietnam would not be complete without a day trip to the CuChi Tunnels. A couple of hours outside Saigon, this place is testament to human resilience in the face of adversity. Despite it being a tourist bolthole, it has to be seen to appreciate how peasant warriors managed to defeat the biggest nuclear power the world has ever seen.

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An entry to the tunnels, hand-dug passageways used by Vietnamese guerrillas

CuChi Tunnels is where the Vietcong organised their assaults on US forces: a network of 200 km hand-dug underground passages and chambers that allowed Vietnamese guerrillas to hide and attack the enemy from a secure location. Interestingly, they turned out to be crucial in the outcome of the war.

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Inside the CuChi Tunnels

For those who wish to explore South East Asia, Vietnam is a great place to start. A balance of mesmerising pastoral landscape, fascinating blend of architecture styles and the friendliest of people make for a fantastic introduction to the East. Despite dozens of Western films depicting Vietnam – which make the country seem more familiar than others – it’s easy to forget it opened up to tourism only twenty years ago.

Vietnam offers a profound lesson in modern history and after my travels, I did feel like a different human being.  I shall never forget the dignity and kindness I’ve experienced throughout my 1,726 km journey. The pride and love the Vietnamese people show for their land and culture was equally inspiring and moving. They were conquered countless times and always fought together to free themselves from unwanted foreign powers in search of a better life.

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My advice is go now while Vietnam still feels intact and very, very Vietnamese.

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