Our journey from the south to the north of Vietnam was made by rail on the Reunification Express – aptly named for joining Saigon to Hanoi, but a misleading indication of its speed. Our “first class” sleeper cabin contained four clean beds and had functioning air conditioning, but travellers must be forgiving of the cleanliness of toilets and tolerant of small cockroaches. We did not sleep well, but enjoyed the opportunity to watch the varying terrain of the country pass us by.
Half way up the country (after 900km in 22 hours), we stopped for a few days in the small city of Hoi An. Once a major trading port drawing in merchants from China, Japan, the Middle East, and Europe, a buildup of silt in the river blocked ships and put an end to trade in the early 20th century. The remaining old city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a pleasure to stroll through given that motorised traffic is banned most of the day.
On our second day, we rose before the sun to catch a van ride to My Son, a Cham temple complex not far from Hoi An. The temples were dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The construction was similar in style to what we saw at Angkor Wat (also originally a Hindu site), but My Son originated several hundred years earlier and used small bricks rather than large sandstone blocks. It seems the Cham people truly mastered brickwork as recent restoration efforts have not been able to match the structural integrity of the original buildings.
We returned to Hoi An by boat and spent the afternoon visiting a handful of the old houses and museums.
Of note, the famous French photographer Réhahn lives in Hoi An and opened a free exhibition space that includes a costume museum showcasing traditional clothing from many of the ethnic groups living in rural Vietnam.
We also visited the Sa Huynh Culture Museum, where we learned about the Sa Huynh people living in the area about 2000 years ago. Some recent archaeological digs have revealed well-preserved ceramic pots and burial jars, iron tools, and even jewellery.
Hoi An was also home to the best banh mi sandwich that we’ve had so far! We visited Banh Mi Phuong daily.