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All Aboard! Play It Safe. Take a Train in Vietnam

5 minute read
KAY JOHNSON

There are no plastic seat trays, no cramped leg muscles and, most of all, no fear-of-flying tremors. Instead, passengers are cocooned within wood-paneled cabins lit with brass lamps. A plush dining car with red-cushioned seats serves grilled steaks and French wine. And, best of all, a fluffy cotton comforter awaits weary travelers at the end of the day. Lulled by the rhythmic, rattling sway, even the most insecure voyager would find worries melting into a dreamless sleep in almost no time.

After all, what could be more relaxing than taking a luxury train ride in the newly proclaimed safest country in Asia? In these troubled times, few want to leave home. And many of those who do are avoiding the punishing, extreme adventure packages so popular in recent years. Instead, traumatized travelers are looking for the holiday equivalent of comfort food. And in Vietnam’s overnight train from Hanoi to the northern town of Sapa, they’ve found it. The express, launched two years ago by the Paris-based Victoria hotel chain, is really three specially outfitted carriages added to the regular night train from Hanoi to the northern border town of Lao Cai. The journey is such a pleasure that, contrary to most train rides, passengers complain that the 10-hour trip is too short. The experience is mashed potatoes, fried rice and your mother’s chicken noodle soup all rolled into one. With its combination of opulenceuniformed waiters, linen tableclothsand the back-in-time feeling of train travel, it’s also a near-perfect antidote to the on-the-road chaos and rush more common today. Call it the inner-peace train. For more information and reservations, call (844) 933-0318 or e-mail victoriasapa@fpt.vn.

Peace is exactly the image Vietnam has been itching to capitalize on. After all, it’s a country that in many people’s minds is still indelibly linked to war. So in early October when foreign executives in a poll by the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy ranked it the region’s safest haven out of 14 Asia-Pacific nationssafer even than Singapore, Hong Kong and Australiathe nation’s travel industry was euphoric. “Whenever people talk about Vietnam, they talk about the war,” says Lucien Blanchard, general manager of Hanoi’s Sunway Hotel. “We want to change that view and help people to realize how safe it really is here.”

For a haven within a haven, 1,600-m-high Sapa, the express’s northern destination, couldn’t be more ideal. A former French-colonial hill station near the northern border with China, it has in recent years gone from a nearly forgotten outpost to a popular weekend getaway, partly due to the success of the luxury train. But Sapa still has almost no nightlife and hasn’t even gotten around to assigning names to its streets. Surrounded by mountains, bamboo forests and dramatic rice terraces, the town is just as enticing as the journeyif you can tear yourself away from the sofas, open-hearth fireplaces and board games at the Victoria Sapa Hotel (a three-day train-and-hotel package, priced from $188, includes one night’s hotel stay).

The area is home to many of Vietnam’s 54 colorful minority hill tribes, and ethnic crafts are a bargain. A toothless old woman with a tasseled scarlet head wrap and shaved eyebrows walked up to us selling woven blankets and silver jewelry. “Joli, tres joli,” she crooned persistently in French. We smiled politely and walked past. She followed. “Very pretty for you,” she tried again. Soon, we were surrounded by women with huge earrings, tiny hands and absolutely unshakable sales determination. A few minutes’ worth of sign-language barter later, we had somehow acquired four blankets.

In colonial days, the mountains surrounding Sapa were referred to as the Tonkinese Alps for the quasi-European climate of the region and the exquisite views. Vietnam’s highest peak, Mount Fansipan, towers above the town at a height of 3,143 m, lofty enough that it’s often shrouded in mist and sometimes sprinkled with snow. Four-day climbing excursions to the summit include tents, porters and sleeping bags, and start at a reasonable $50 per person. Most hikers make the climb in late fall and spring, as the altitude makes it too cold to trek in January and February. Then again, if mountain climbing sounds too dangerous, try a more sedate walk to Cat Cat village, where a gaggle of Black Hmong children will lead you to a nearby waterfall.

But safety is relative. Vietnam won its safest country status based on post-Sept. 11 concerns. The country’s authoritarian security measures and lack of visible economic targets make it an unlikely candidate for terror attacks. Still, it might be a good idea to stick to the trains: Vietnam has one of the world’s highest road-fatality rates. And, of course, most people have to fly in the first place to get to the comparative tranquillity of Vietnam. But for those who can muster the courageor find a Valiumfor a flight to Hanoi, the inner-peace train awaits.

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