Vietnam by Rail, Part 2: South Vietnam
Da Nang sits alongside the South China Sea, halfway between the northern and southern parts of Vietnam. This modern port city is known for its firework shows and for its ornate dragon bridge. It’s a nice place to walk around, although outdoor activities can be interrupted at a moment’s notice due to sudden rain storms. With a train station along Vietnam’s main rail line, Da Nang is also a convenient stopping point for travel between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon).
About forty-three miles southwest of Da Nang is Mỹ Sơn, a collection of ancient Hindu temples dating back to the fourth century. Unfortunately, the site suffered serious damage during the Vietnam War. One of the guides explains that the Viet Cong was using some of the structures as an army barracks, which were targeted by the US in the late 1960s. Thankfully, a large portion of Mỹ Sơn is still standing, and there is now a cooperative effort between India and Vietnam to restore the temples as part of the two nations’ collective heritage.
Leaving Da Nang, the sleeper train arrives in Nha Trang, the first leg of the train and bus trip to Dalat. The three-hour bus ride takes us into Vietnam’s coffee country. The coffee plants have no ripe cherries, as they are currently out of season, but people still visit the plantations. One of the tours goes to a weasel coffee farm, where they feed raw coffee cherries to weasels and allow the aggressive little animals to digest them. They then collect the digested coffee beans, and clean them before roasting. Thankfully they don’t force anyone to try this unique roast, and the fresh (non-weasel) beans make a good strong cup of Vietnamese style coffee to be enjoyed without any lingering doubts.
Heading south from Nha Trang, the train arrives in Ho Chi Minh, also called Saigon. The walk from the rail station feels oddly peaceful, it turns out the Saigonese commuters use their horns significantly less than drivers in the north, something that I never did get used to.
Visiting the War Remnants Museum, it can be difficult to take in. In addition to memorializing the conflict, the museum has an exhibit to honor the international journalists of the war, several of whom died in the field. I end up taking a few breaks, as the museum is not shy about showing some of the most lamentable aspects of the war. Seeing everything on display, it’s difficult to rationalize the human costs of the conflict as the means to any achieved end.
While in Ho Chi Minh, I’m able to connect with a local Vietnamese family. We only briefly met last year in France, but they kindly welcome me into their guest bedroom. The family household has three generations spending most days under the couple’s roof, and I’m grateful and humbled by everyone’s hospitality. The couple has four grown daughters, three of which live nearby (the fourth lives in France with her husband), two of them also have children of their own. The second generation speaks English well enough for us to communicate, and I do my best to teach their three young children some English using animal images. It’s a pleasant break from being a wandering nomad.
Near Ho Chi Minh, there is a half-day trip to the Vietnamese war tunnels in Cu Chi. The trip is surprisingly visited as a casual tourist excursion, considering it’s a former war zone. The tour of the tunnels doubles as a explanation of Vietnamese military tactics and resourcefulness, complete with demonstrations of how scrapped US tanks and unexploded ordinance were harvested for metal and turned into crude weapons. They have some diorama-like display boards showing the elaborate tunnels systems, including ventilation, storage, booby traps, and amphibious entrances at the river. We crawl into some of the tunnels, which they mention were built to be too narrow for Americans to fit through (except for me). At the end, they show us a 1967 video of how the tunnels were used. Some of the language is a bit direct, but given that the film was made during wartime, it’s understandable. The woman presenting concludes by saying that the people of the Cu Chi region are proud of their tunnels, but they hope to never use them again, as Vietnam wants peace with all nations of the world.
After a few weeks in Vietnam, it’s time to move on, and I say goodbye to my host family before heading to the airport. It was an experience to see this beautiful nation first-hand, as we more often see it referenced in history books and movies. Looking forward rather than dwelling on the past, modern Vietnam is a welcoming country that is a pleasure to visit, and very accommodating to international guests. I am grateful for the connections I made with people in Vietnam; maybe we even played a small part in continuing to improve the relationship between our two nations.