Christmas Eve in Hanoi was always going to be a noisy affair. The Vietnamese have a great love of fireworks, and as I made my way through the narrow streets of the Old Town there was the continual crackle of small arms fire as strings of bangers sparked and jumped around on the pavements, filling the air with blue smoke. By 6pm it seemed as if the entire city was on the move, as an endless buzzing ribbon of two-wheeled traffic unfurled around Hoan Kiem Lake. Crossing the road in Vietnam requires a certain technique – you need to adopt a zen-like fatalism and shuffle out into the stream of oncoming traffic which will then flow around you. I was halfway across a teeming intersection when my nerve failed, and I stood there helplessly as motorbikes zoomed around me, many carrying enormous loads. I saw one with a huge basket of ducks on the back, and another had a Christmas tree attached to it. Most bikes carried two or more people, and occasionally one passed with an entire family aboard. As I gawped at the traffic I was rescued by two girls in silk gowns who glided elegantly across, and I followed in their wake as the tide of Hondas parted around them.
Hanoi is rich in French colonial architecture, with the elegant facades of government buildings overlooking wide, tree-lined boulevards, and you can sit in a café over croissants and superb Vietnamese coffee as you watch the world go by. As the capital city it has a reputation for being sleepier and more austere than Ho Chi Minh City in the south, which everyone still calls Saigon, and indeed the Socialist iconography is more abundant in Hanoi; this is after all still a Communist country, complete with Hammer and Sickle flags and stirring billboards depicting an heroic workforce building the country together. You can visit the Hoa Loa Prison, known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, where captured US pilots were held during the Vietnam War, and a trip to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is a popular excursion for locals and tourists alike – each weekend crowds of Vietnamese queue up to shuffle past the embalmed figure of the former Viet Cong leader and founding father of modern Vietnam. Despite this tangible history, Vietnam has moved on, and with a booming economy and a large section of the population born since the war ended in 1975, the past, as the saying goes, is another country.
The station was in turmoil. Families were heading home for the holidays and people were milling around the concourse in response to a series of incomprehensible announcements broadcast over the tannoy. A light rain fell as we stood on the platform watching the triangular lights of the Reunification Express appear in the distance. Named to commemorate the unification of South and North Vietnam in 1976, the Reunification Express provides a lifeline which flows the length of this long, narrow country, taking around 40 hours to cover the 1,750km between Hanoi and Saigon. I wasn’t going the whole way – or at least not yet – and would be getting off in Hue, the former imperial capital.
Suddenly there were three deafening blasts of the hooter, the train slid slowly into the station and everyone rushed to board. The carriage for ‘Soft Sleeper’ had four berths per compartment, and there was a samovar at the end of the corridor with hot water to make tea or noodles. As I was settling in to my upper berth, which was almost exactly ten centimetres longer than I was, two Viet girls arrived in the doorway of the compartment, deposited a large suitcase in the middle of the floor and daintily clopped their way down the corridor to the bathroom in high heels. They returned dressed in matching pyjamas decorated with kittens, sat on the lower berth and started to unpack a picnic. The train began to move, and soon we were rattling through the night, heading south. From another compartment came the sound of Christmas carols, as a tour group sang ‘Silent Night’ in German. I stood in the corridor looking out of the window as we passed small shacks that lined the edge of the tracks, and the moon hung low in the sky, reflecting off the distant paddy fields and silvering the water.
Hue saw some of the bitterest fighting in the Vietnam War – which the Vietnamese call the American War – and the Imperial City still bears the scars. Bullet holes pockmark the walls of ancient pagodas and there are large sections of clear ground where you can discern fragments of masonry and sometimes shrapnel lying amongst the undergrowth. The North Vietnamese hung on to the citadel for four long weeks in 1968, fending off repeated assaults by US troops, in a battle which was later portrayed in Kubrick’s film ‘Full Metal Jacket’. Today, nearly 40 years later, tourists from all over the world amble round the site, past ornate courtyards and reconstructed temples, clutching guidebooks and ice creams.
Later that evening, after a drink in the DMZ bar, named for the Demilitarized Zone that was the front line for much of the war, I flagged down a passing cyclo, a kind of bicycle rickshaw, to take me to a restaurant to sample a speciality of Hue, a kind of pancake called Banh Khoai. At Lac Thien Restaurant every surface of the walls was decorated with messages from previous diners from around the world, and the owner, who was deaf and mute, used sign language to demonstrate a new kind of bottle opener he had invented which opened five bottles at once, while his seven daughters flitted around the table bringing a selection of different dishes. The Banh Khoai itself was the consistency of a French crepe, but with a filling of seafood and beansprouts. Vietnamese food is famously good, with fresh, citrussy flavours and delicate spices, and this was no exception.
To the south of Hue lie the tombs of the Imperial Emperors, and the best way to see them is to take a dragonboat along the Perfume River. Down by the jetty a family was waiting on a park bench, not sitting on it, as Westerners would, but all crouching on their haunches upon the seat. We set off into the misty morning, gliding past jungle-clad hills serrated like a dragon’s spine, along the slow, green river. Our guide Jasmine, who was studying Travel and Tourism at university, was in many ways a perfect example of the contradictions abounding in modern Vietnam. Fluent in several languages, with a couple of history degrees to her name, she was clad in jeans and high heels which did not look entirely suitable for walking along muddy trails round pagodas, and would periodically take calls on her mobile phone which had the theme tune from a popular US sitcom as its ringtone. Jasmine explained that despite their ancient appearance, the tombs mostly dated from the 19th century, a time when the French colonial administrators had largely stripped the emperors of their powers, leaving them to hope for greater reward in the afterlife.
At the Thien Mu pagoda there is the slightly incongruous sight of a small Austin car parked in a garage with offerings of flowers and incense laid before it. The car belonged to Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who committed suicide by setting himself alight in an act of self-immolation in 1963. There was a photograph of the event, showing the car in the background, which became an iconic association with the Vietnam War, but in reality Thich Quang Duc was protesting about the Diem regime’s suppression of Buddhism. When his body was recovered, Jasmine told us solemnly, they found that his heart was intact and still beating, unscathed by the flames. As we left the pagoda she turned to face the car, pressed her hands together and bowed her head in prayer.
The railway runs south alongside Highway One, the route that became known as ‘The Street Without Joy’ after successive battles were fought along its length during the war. Hue lies near the old DMZ but little evidence remains – the foliage has swallowed up the hilltop landing strips and grown over the bunkers. The trees here are all saplings, none more than 30 years old, a legacy of the Agent Orange that was used as a defoliant. Small figures waded knee-deep in mud behind water buffalo in scenes from a Chinese watercolour, and a man stood fishing in a pond that was perfectly circular, formed by a bomb crater. At times the railway comes within sight of the coast, and in the distance the ocean rolled away into an amnesiac expanse of blankness. This region is the border between the old North and South Vietnam and yet feels part of neither; a bizarre mountain hinterland swallowed up in the mist.
The landscape began to change as we descended, becoming more tropical. Palm trees grew alongside the tracks and we passed a long line of people wearing conical straw hats stooped over rice plants in a paddy field. Soon there were more signs of habitation – at the level crossings instead of bicycles and water buffalo there were people on motorbikes and sometimes cars. We were coming in to Da Nang, where I was leaving the train. The railway ran alongside a row of small houses, and scenes of everyday life unfurled before us: people squatted on the floor of small workshops, hammering things. A mother was feeding a baby, and would dance in a little circle until the baby gurgled in delight and then pop a spoonful of indecipherable mush into its mouth. An old man lay in a hammock and slowly turned his head to watch the train as we passed. In the road outside, flocks of girls cycled primly along wearing white ao dai pyjamas, gliding across teeming intersections like exotic birds of paradise.
South of Da Nang the railway turns inland and runs through the scrubland of Quang Nam province. I was heading for the historic trading town of Hoi An, and found a bus to take me the two hours down the coast. In the 16th century Hoi An was a major port in the region, and in the Old Town narrow streets are overlooked by traditional Chinese architecture, with layered pagoda roofs decorated with kitsch dragons. The Old Town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there are several historical sites to visit, such as the Japanese Covered Bridge or the Chinese Meeting Halls, entry to which is done by a coupon system, with one ticket giving access to five sites. Hoi An is famed for the number of clothes shops, with tailors offering made-to-measure clothes. In one the owner proudly showed me a photocopy of the 1997 summer range catalogue from a major British high street chain, and offered to make me anything in it within 24 hours. At a shoe shop I went in search of sandals and the shoemaker made them for me as I waited. His daughter was despatched to fetch her homework for my perusal and I was plied with green tea and sesame cakes as the child stood there and chanted: “My name is Thanh, I am eleven years old and English is my favourite subject”, while the family looked on approvingly.
At night on the waterfront the heady scent of incense drifts from a small shrine. Boats moored beneath the palm trees have eyes painted on the prows, and sway like gently nodding dragons. During the full moon, small candles are placed in paper lanterns and are floated down the Thu Bon river, their reflections spilling outwards in ripples of light across the water as they are carried along. I sat in a café overlooking the river and watched as one by one they became smaller, some overturning and sinking abruptly as a wave caught them, some being swept serenely downstream, spinning in the current until they were no bigger than a firefly winking in the darkness, and then they were gone.