Hanging by the bow-shaped bar, I nurse the last of my mocktail, a liquid rainbow of roselle, lemongrass, mint and passion fruit. The hushed lounge is an unapologetic manifestation of nostalgia for the early 20th century. Rattan blinds and creamy curtains ensconce secluded corners. Dried tropical flowers spring from earthenware vases. As if part of the furniture, two dapper Englishmen perch opposite – though they grumble over laptop screens, not newspapers.
I watch as Tien, the waistcoated bartender, prepares their order: iced milk coffee and hot green tea. After delivering the drinks he pivots to ask if I’d like another Locomotion. I decline the second mocktail, so Tien offers a shoulder treatment instead. “Sure,” I say, and he beckons the masseur.
It may feel like some swanky boutique city hotel, but I’m actually rattling through the countryside on Vietnam’s colonial-era railway network. The Vietage is an uber-luxury train carriage launched by Minor International and affixed to Vietnam’s national line. It’s meant to ease access to Quy Nhon, where the hospitality group has one of its flagship properties: Anantara Quy Nhon Villas. The journey takes around six hours and has two daily departures: Danang to Quy Nhon in the morning (my journey) and Quy Nhon to Danang in the evening.
Quy Nhon – an unhurried beachside city ringed by green hills – is an alluring destination, but accessing it takes patience. Only flights from Vietnam’s major cities serve Phu Cat Airport, which is almost an hour from downtown Quy Nhon. Entering via Highway 1, the undulant tarmac connecting the city to the rest of the country, can churn stomachs. “Travelling a long distance by road in Vietnam is, shall we say, not an ideal experience,” laughs Erik Billgren, general manager of The Vietage.
Train journeys through Vietnam past and present
Perks of the carriage may include coffees, cocktails and a micro massage parlour, but I was drawn to The Vietage because it rekindled my passion for train travel. I moved to Vietnam in 2008, long before budget domestic airlines had taken off. Flights were expensive and buses were cramped, so I moved up and down the country by rail. As it is for many others, this threadbare railway network was my ticket to Vietnam’s cinematic countryside. “Travelling by train can be a bit uncomfortable,” says Nguyen Dang, a Ho Chi Minh City-based trainspotter and fellow railways enthusiast, “but the major advantage is that passengers enjoy the scenery along the way.”
Some of my favourite journeys include Vinh to Dong Hoi, a route etched through mountain-flanked valleys studded with church spires, and Hue to Danang, where the train skirts farmed lagoons before scaling the dizzying Hai Van mountain pass. A provincial anthem would crackle over the speakers when we arrived in a new city. At each station, overloaded families would schlep cumbersome cardboard boxes on and off the train. Some stations (ga in Vietnamese, from the French gare) are pretty, ramshackle colonial remnants, such as those of Hue and Hai Phong. Others, most notably the bombed Hanoi Railway Station, are a bizarre blend of pre- and post-war architecture.
A provincial anthem would crackle over the speakers when we arrived in a new city. At each station, overloaded families would schlep cumbersome cardboard boxes on and off the train
Interactions always left an impression. One middle-aged woman boasted that food was one of the highlights of the journey, and force-fed me rice porridge, steamed buns and cold popcorn. Another time, a ticket inspector shooed me away from the restaurant carriage so that he and his colleagues could down beers away from disapproving eyes. At the time I was living in Hue, a province with expansive flats leading to the Truong Son mountain range. Watching the dawn sun illuminate distant mountains from inside a train carriage still arouses a feeling of homecoming.
The scenery in Quang Nam, Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh, the three provinces that The Vietage clatters through, is not dissimilar. After the shoulder massage, I retire to my private compartment and gaze out the window. While American bombs ripped apart much of central Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, Quang Nam was somewhat spared. Disused whistle-stop stations sit frozen in time. Pretty villages speckled with spindly palm trees emerge like islands in a sea of green rice paddies. I catch glimpses of wrinkled women tending flower gardens in front of centenarian houses.
A (very) brief history of the Reunification Express
While savouring the train experience, it’s all too easy to ignore the railway’s tumultuous beginnings. The French colonial administration began laying tracks in the late 19th century, but funding and engineering issues plagued the project from the outset. Traversing Vietnam’s jungles, rivers and mountains was no small feat.
There are also reports of elephant herds derailing trains and ripping up track. Recruiting labour proved a problem, so the French conscripted poor farmers, many of whom died from overwork and exhaustion. It wasn’t until 1936 that Hanoi and Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) – Vietnam’s two biggest cities – were finally connected by rail.
The link didn’t last long, however. During the fight for independence in the 1940s and 50s, anti-colonial groups like the Viet Minh routinely sabotaged the railway. Vietnam was divided in two in 1954, spurring a messy war that lasted two decades. Unfortunately for the railway infrastructure, the tracks, bridges and stations proved easy targets for American bombers, who supported the South, and Viet Cong explosive teams that fought for the North.
By the time Vietnam emerged from war as a unified country in 1975, the railway was a twisted tangle of steel. “When I give talks on the subject,” says Ho Chi Minh City-based historian Tim Doling, author of The Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam, “I say that it’s a minor miracle anything still exists.”
“I don’t think we can underestimate how powerful the symbolism of restoring the entire North-South line to operation was back in 1976”
A functional railway exists in Vietnam due to the country’s tenacious reconstruction efforts. When the war ended, the Vietnamese began repairing stations, bridges and tunnels across the country. In 1976, little more than a year after the end of the conflict, a train left Hanoi for Ho Chi Minh City – the first such journey in decades. While officially named the North-South Railway, it’s often referred to in English as the Reunification Express. “I don’t think we can underestimate how powerful the symbolism of restoring the entire North-South line to operation was back in 1976,” says Doling.
End of the line: Is Quy Nhon Vietnam’s next big thing?
As I polish off a three-course lunch – Quy Nhon seafood salad, Hoi An chicken rice and Dalat strawberries – a crumbling brick structure comes into view. The centuries-old Cham civilisation built lofty Hindu temple towers like this on hills across central Vietnam. The most impressive towers punctuate the countryside around Quy Nhon, once the site of the ancient Cham capital of Vijaya, so the city must be close.
Traditionally, visitors bypass this corner of Vietnam, opting instead for the broad coastlines and heritage sites of Danang and Hoi An. But as these more popular destinations grapple with mismanagement and overtourism, some have started to look further afield. Quy Nhon, with its overlooked beaches, fishing villages and Cham towers, was poised to become Vietnam’s next big thing, but the Covid-19 pandemic derailed the city’s international popularity. Perhaps now with The Vietage, Quy Nhon’s rising celebrity is back on track.
Things to do in Quy Nhon
Unearth the Cham Towers: It’s possible to spend a full day hunting for the Cham Towers near Quy Nhon. They’re all special in their own way, but the most impressive are the towers of Banh It, Duong Long and Phu Loc.
Relive a rebellion: The Quang Trung Museum recounts the epic tale of Nguyen Hue, who led a successful rebellion against 18th century tyrants, through magnificent wall murals.
Lose yourself in the fishing villages: There are a handful of labyrinthine fishing villages close to Quy Nhon. Bai Xep is one of the closer villages – and it borders a pretty beach.
To learn more about Singapore Airlines’ flights to Da Nang, visit the official website.