Sunday, 7 April 2013

... Indochina: A Phoenix From The Flames

The state-owned Vietnam Railways operates the Vietnamese railway system, which serves a large swathe of the country bar the Mekong Delta and Central Highlands. There are seven rail lines but only three are usually of interest to travelers. The single track North-South Railway is the principal line serving the country and connects Hanoi with Ho Chi Minh City 1,726km away. It was on this line that I was going to be traveling for around 13hrs on the Reunification Express from Hanoi to Hué, in Central Vietnam.

Post-Vietnam War, much of the infrastructure of the line is outdated or in poor condition. It sustained major damage from bombings and sabotage yet rehabilitation of rail transport only became a national priority in the mid-1990's. It probably doesn't help to read "usually an accident occurs every day" in regards to safety issues with level crossings when you're about to ride a line with 3650 of them. However, the infrastructure is improving meaning an increase in speed limits, a reduction in running hours and a reduction in accidents. And it is still one of the best ways to travel in Vietnam.

A mind-boggling plethora of trains run on the North-South line from express to local trains. The main classes are hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper with a few subdivisions for things like air-con and lets just say you get what you pay for. The cheapest class is hard seat, a wooden bench to be exact, and it is may be some what surprisingly the first to fill up. Soft sleeper is the most comfortable class, in theory anyway, with beds in a 4-bed configuration and a door with which you can secure the room. I suspect though that unless your compartment co-traveler is a serial killer the trains are safe enough and well if he is then a door isn't going to be of much use either.

After re-enacting a scene from the Krypton Factor, I was able to make it onto the top bunk. Lets just say that this was perhaps not the best choice. The air-con was on all night and I nearly froze. My sleep was more broken than during my overnight train in Thailand where I was suffering from jetlag. The undercarriage, I suspect, was poorly maintained and the sound of screeching metal was truly deafening at times. I will never ever leave without ear plugs again. I was also jolted back and forth throughout the night. Still, I've been told the train beats a hairy overnight bus journey along Hwy 1. The scenery that I saw this morning prior to arriving in Hué was pretty spectacular too.

Hué, Vietnam's former Imperial capital of the Nguyen Emperors, is a World Heritage Site. It is also infamous for the Tet Offensive where the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army perpetrated mass killings and summary executions. The Battle of Hué began on 31st January 1968 at 3am and is considered one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. It lasted four weeks. It is also considered to be the turning point of the War. Both sides suffered heavy losses and 3/4 of the city was destroyed in the process. The US public support began to decline at an even more rapid rate followed by US forces and funding. Hué has seen much sorrow and heartache.

So I was pleasantly surprised to arrive in a place where the smiles are genuine and everyone wants to know if you'd like to go for a motorcycle ride (albeit for a fee of course). My digs for my stay were in the South Quarter, so once I'd had breakfast and freshened up it was time to go and explore.

The Perfume River crosses the city. It gets its name from the fact that in the autumn flowers from upriver orchards fall into the water, giving it a perfume-esque aroma. I can't say I was graced with that smell but walking along the waterfront watching the boats was very peaceful. Some of you may have heard of this river from the 1987 movie "Full Metal Jacket". You can take dragon boat trips along the river but I was happy to use my legs on solid ground.

On the banks of the river there are several Royal tombs. The tomb of Tu Duc built from 1864 - 1867 was for the 4th Emperor whom had the longest reign of all in the Nguyen dynasty. It is set in some beautiful serene grounds including mounts and lakes with the fragrance of frangipani following you wherever you walk.

The guard of elephants, horses and mandarins are interesting to look at as is finding out that this is likely not the last resting place of the emperor. He was apparently a bit of a playboy with many many wives and many concubines. Perhaps the reason no-one has actually found him buried here was because he requested not to be found by any scorned women?

Thien Mu pagoda was built along the Perfume River and translates into "Heavenly Lady". The pagoda is gorgeous and each of the seven storeys is dedicated to a manushi-Buddha, a Buddha that appeared in human form. It is also a working Buddhist temple so has monks around that live and work there. I was able to watch some prayer and chanting as well as see the children who have already dedicated themselves to becoming a monk. There's an old Austin car here too that was driven to Saigon by Thich Quang Duc, a monk who performed self-immolation in protest of the then-President Diem's repressive regime against Buddhists. There's also photograph of him in flames, which was widely circulated across the world bringing attention to the policies of the Diem government. After his death, his body was re-cremated but his heart remained intact.

Interesting tidbit I learnt about Hué: you know those pointy conical hats (Non La), the one that you're dying to buy but know you would never ever have a use for? Hué produces the finest in the whole of Vietnam! I'm open to requests should anyone be looking to add to their hat collection, providing you wear it of course.....

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