The principal service run by Vietnam Railways, the state-owned operator of Vietnam’s passenger trains, is the North-South line connecting Hà Nội in the North, to Hồ Chí Minh City (HCMC) in the South. The line was built during the French colonial period, and construction of the line started more than 100 years ago ! As a result of heavy damage sustained during World War II, then the First Indochina War and the ensuing partition of the country into North and South states, trains ceased running on the entire North-South line for a period of 30+ years, until in 1976 the line was reopened following the Second Indochina War (aka the Vietnam War) and dubbed the Reunification Express.
We left Vietnam 4 days ago via bus from HCMC, bound for Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We had rode (almost) the entire length of the North-South railway, starting from Ga Hà Nội, and ending at Ga Sài Gòn (ga means station in Vietnamese, taken from the French gare). We say “almost” because of the motorbike detour we took between Huế city and Hội An city - more on that in our next post. In riding the train, we saw a wide swath of Vietnam, observed the varying cultural landscape, and even heard first-hand about the legacy of separation and reunification. We enjoyed Vietnam immensely, and can’t wait to return to this incredibly hospitable and dynamic country in May, when we plan to travel through Sa Pa and the surrounding highlands in Northwestern Vietnam en route to China.
We entered Vietnam on Sunday, March 5 at the Friendship pass border crossing (known in Vietnamese as Hữu Nghị Quan; and in Chinese as Youyi Guan), separating Lạng Sơn province, Vietnam from Guanxi province, China. Our bus was destined for Hải Phòng city, although we were heading 35km up the coast to Hạ Long city. We shared this with our bus driver, and about 2 hours later, he abruptly instructed us to pack our bags and quickly get off the bus at a seemingly random intersection (see if you can find where at ¿Dónde estamos? section). After some motioning and pointing, we understood that this was probably a good place to transfer, and we easily found transportation to Hạ Long city aboard a local bus.
In Hạ Long city, we stayed at the Ginger homestay with Le’s family for 2 nights. We had a nice, spacious private room and balcony. Highlights included the boat ride into Hạ Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring thousands of towering limestone karst peaks that jut out of the water to create forbidding sheer cliff faces visible in every direction. That same evening, we enjoyed a home-cooked meal of fried spring rolls, and local oysters prepared several different ways, including the most local style as insisted by our host Le. We also tried our first bowl of phở in Hạ Long city - more on that can be found in our first Eat & Drink post titled “How many ways are there to phở ?”
From Hạ Long city, we took a very comfortable (and only $7 for 2 of us !) private car to Hà Nội, where we would spend the next 2 nights. Hà Nội, of course, is the capital city of Vietnam, and the country’s second most populous city after HCMC. Hà Nội is also an ancient city, and has been the political center of Vietnam, in it’s many forms, for centuries. The city is built around the Hoàn Kiếm district, which is the old, walled city referred to as the Old Quarter. Hà Nội’s geography on the banks of the Red River is reflected in it’s name, which means “between rivers”. Quốc ngữ is the modern Vietnamese writing system which uses the Latin alphabet. Before it’s advent, Chinese characters called chữ nôm [字喃], analogous to Japanese kanji, were used to write the Vietnamese language, betraying Vietnam’s history in China’s sphere of influence. Using chữ nôm, Hà Nội is written 河内. Fun fact: at one point in it’s history, Hà Nội was referred to as Dong Kinh, meaning Eastern Capital, and would have been written using the same Chinese characters as our current city, Tokyo [東京], which of course also means Eastern Capital. Using quốc ngữ, Vietnam is actually written as Việt Nam which means Southern Viet - Viet referring to the language and people inhabiting the areas around the Red River delta in present day Vietnam and China. Written in chữ nôm, Vietnam would be 南越.
We had one of our best experiences of the trip on our second day in Hà Nội, although to be fair, it was a bit of a splurge (perhaps emboldened by the cheap prices we encountered for most everything else). Months before the trip, we had read about the historic Metropole hotel, opened in 1901 by 2 Frenchmen, and we were excited to experience it ourselves. We stopped short of actually staying at the hotel, instead opting for an afternoon of massages and sauna at Le Spa du Metropole, followed by an incredible dinner at the French restaurant Le Beaulieu. In short, the hotel was impressive in every way, one of the most elegant hotels we have ever visited. We highly recommend you to visit or stay on your travels to Hà Nội.
Another highlight from Hà Nội that we want to share is our dinner at Chim Sao. Located in a quiet neighborhood a short cab ride from the Hoàn Kiếm district, this restaurant is housed in an old colonial style rowhouse. A very refined setting, and delicious food to go with - Chim Sao offers a showcase of regional Vietnamese foods and styles. That evening, after dinner, we headed over to Ga Hà Nội for the first leg of our rail journey South through Vietnam. We boarded Vietnam Railway train SE3 departing at 22:00, and our stop would be Ga Đồng Hới the next morning. The train was clean and comfortable, and we slept well. We shared our compartment with a very nice family, who helped us to lift and store our heavy bags.
Đồng Hới city is the gateway to Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, a massive forest and cave system situated in the Annamite mountain range. Phong Nha is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, and home to the Sơn Đoòng cave, which is perhaps the largest discovered cave in the world. We stayed at the Jungle Boss homestay, located in Bố Trạch village right outside the park and along the Son River. The setting was incredibly peaceful, surrounded by rice paddies and wandering water buffalo.
We spent our first day cycling around town and exploring along the river. We rested up well that night, for the next morning we were to wake up early for an 8km trek through the jungle. Our tour guide was a seasoned local who had grown up hunting birds in the area. He had been a tour guide for the past 8 years and had witnessed the town become a tourism attraction after the Sơn Đoòng cave was discovered in 2009. The hike started from a trailhead alongside a park service road. We hiked down first into the Ma Da Valley, where we found an emerald blue river leading us to a beautiful swimming hole. After a short break, we crested a ridge, then hiked into another valley where we would enjoy a local lunch of BBQ beef spring rolls, seated alongside a small river. The river appeared to flow out of a mountain, until on closer inspection it became apparent the source was a giant cave. Along with the rest of our group, we swam 300m into the cave, aided by life jackets and headlamps in the pitch dark. That night we had dinner prepared at the homestay, before heading to the Easy Tiger bar for some post-trek beers with our new friends from the hike.
The next day was to be relaxing. We had tickets on Vietnam Railways SE7 from Ga Đồng Hới at 16:30, which gave us enough time for lunch in Phong Nha. We’d heard people talking about the “Pub with Cold Beer and Chicken”, a legendary watering hole some 30 minutes outside of town, but we were keen to try it so we rented a motorbike and set off. All was well until we found that the dirt road leading to the restaurant had been swamped by the previous night’s rains. We persevered, and managed to get the motorbike through the obstacle, only to arrive and learn that this would be the freshest chicken we’d ever eaten. Guests are asked to select, then kill their bird. We picked out our lunch, but neither of us could stomach the killing. Our friend Ziko did the dirty work for us. The chicken was delicious, and the beer was very cold. Had that not been the case, the spectacular views of the valley which the restaurant overlooked would have made up for it.
We arrived to Đồng Hới in time for our train to Huế. On this leg of the rail journey, we would cross the Bến Hải River and the 17th parallel, previously the border separating North VIetnam from South Vietnam. Stay tuned for our next post, which will feature our travels through the South.