Riding The Reunification Express | Sunday Mail | April 2015

From the outside, there is nothing remarkable about the Pho Binh noodle bar on 7 Ly Chinh Thang street in Saigon’s third district.

With its faded sign and open storefront, it looks much like any other restaurant in this bustling Vietnamese neighbourhood.

Behind its nondescript exterior, however, Pho Binh hides history.

In 1960s, as the Vietnam War intensified, it served as the VietCong’s secret headquarters in the south of the country, then controlled by the Washington-backed military regime of Nguyen Van Thieu.

In a small room just above the cafeteria, while US soldiers and South Vietnamese police dined obliviously below, Communist agents helped plan the 1968 Tet Offensive – a series of surprise attacks by northern forces that helped turn the conflict decisively in their favour.

“This is where the order for the Tet Offensive to begin was given,” says Ngoc, a diminutive 64 year old former VietCong fighter, as he shows me a dusty set of chairs in the middle of the meeting room.

Ngoc’s late uncle, Ngo Toai, was the Communists’ commanding officer and patron of Pho Binh. Ngoc has kept everything in the room, from the vintage cabinets to the grubby linoleum decking, almost exactly as it was all those years ago.

“[The fighting] was very hard,” Ngoc told me of his own experiences on the front-line. “So many friends died. But we had to fight. It was necessary. I have Vietnam in my heart.”


This spring marks 50 years since the beginning of the war in Vietnam and 40 years since its end.

In March 1965, the first official deployment of American combat troops landed on a beach near the port city of Da Nang. In April 1975, Communist tanks crashed through the gates of Independence Palace in Saigon, prompting the final surrender of the Thieu government.

In the decade between these two historic flashpoints, three million Vietnamese, including two million civilians, died, alongside 58,000 US servicemen, many of whom had been drafted into a conflict they opposed and knew from the outset would be a disaster.

I arrive in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, on a hot Saturday afternoon. I’ve come to find out how the country has changed since the war – and to ride the Reunification Express, a magnificent, 1700km trainline binding north Vietnam to south.

During the conflict, Hanoi bore the brunt of a sustained US bombing campaign. Over Christmas 1972 alone, B-52 aircraft dropped nearly 20,000 tons of explosives on the city, killing more than 1000 people.

Evidence of the raid is still visible today.

After checking into my hotel – a tiny building on a narrow alley lined with makeshift noodle stalls – I walk out to the Huu Tiep residential lake, where the wreckage of a downed US fighter plane lies rusting in the water.

At a nearby museum, another eviscerated B-52 sits among some of the artillery weapons used to defend north Vietnamese skies from American attack.

The war may cast a long shadow over modern Vietnam, but few people I meet want to discuss it, at least not with a foreign journalist. For younger Hanoians in particular, the conflict belongs to another era.

Living standards in Vietnam have risen steadily since the 1980s, following the introduction of wide-ranging economic reforms.

In Hanoi, I encounter a thriving professional middle-class wielding laptops, iPhones and tablets. The city is jammed with boutique coffee shops and upmarket Italian cafes. Given this new-found prosperity, why spend time excavating past national traumas?

From Hanoi, I board the train south to Hue, the former imperial capital of Indochina. This is the first stage of my journey on the Reunification Express.

Construction on the railway began in the late 19th century, when Vietnam was still under French colonial control, and the track became a key strategic target for both sides during the US conflict.

Skirting the length of Vietnam’s coast along the South China Sea, it’s a defining feature of the country’s national infrastructure and symbol of its post-war unity. There are few train-lines like it anywhere in the world.

My stop-over in Hue – a small city situated almost exactly halfway between Hanoi and Saigon – is brief.

After a bowl of beef noodle soup (Vietnam’s national dish), I head to the Imperial Citadel, a striking collection of brightly-coloured palaces and pagodas once home to the Nguyen Dynasty.

It was here in 1945 that a delegation sent by the revolutionary left-wing leader Ho Chi Minh informed the last Nguyen emperor, Bao Dai, that his time was up. Boa Dai abdicated without protest.

23 years later, Hue was also the site of a brutal war-time massacre. VietCong troops killed up to 6000 civilians over four weeks as part of a fevered attempt to purge the area of “reactionary elements.”

There are no plaques or memorials commemorating the atrocity and the Communist government is yet to publicly acknowledge it. I make a few enquiries, but again no-one wants to talk.

The next morning I climb back on to the Reunification Express to complete the final part of my voyage.

For 19 hours the train rolls slowly across the Vietnamese landscape – past dense jungles, deep green rice fields, and muddy industrial parks – before arriving, at dawn, in Saigon.

With more than 8 million residents – just under ten per cent of Vietnam’s 90 million strong population – Saigon is the country’s largest city.

When it fell in 1975, there was widespread looting. For a short period between the collapse of the southern authorities and the arrival of the North Vietnamese Army, people lifted furniture and television sets from the abandoned homes of southern officials.

Much of that anarchic energy remains.

Downtown Saigon is a riot of commerce, with ramshackle family stalls trading alongside huge international financial institutions.

Crossing the road is a dizzying experience. In order to get from one side of the street to the next, you have to navigate a thicket of speeding vehicles, many of them expensive Western cars and mopeds.

If this is socialism, it is socialism pitched through the neon lights of the global free market.

On the last day of my trip I visit Independence Palace, or, as it is now known, Reunification Palace, an impressive white structure in central Saigon once occupied by President Thieu.

Thieu fled the grounds eight days before the Communist tanks arrived, but the distinctive seventies decor hasn’t been altered since, nor has the underground bunker from which the former president and his generals coordinated their doomed southern military campaign.

Strolling around the building’s air conditioned corridors, a thought crosses my mind.

With two booming cities and a rapidly expanding economy, Vietnam is a nation on the rise, hurtling headfirst into the globalised 21st century.

But like Reunification Palace – and the perfectly preserved meeting room at Pho Binh noodle restaurant – part of it will always remain frozen; stuck, unchanged, at a unique juncture in history.

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