|7 March 2021||15 nights
|Yes||$6890 pp||add $1600|
I became fascinated with an engineering project conceived by the French in the early 1900s to build a railway line from Haiphong in Vietnam to Kunming in southern China. Construction began in 1904 and was completed in 1910 - over 800 kilometres through mountains and ravines, with 400 bridges and 300 tunnels. At the time, it was hailed as an engineering feat rivalling the Suez Canal. The railway flourished until war brought its short but illustrious life to an end, and by 1945 the line was forgotten as new China emerged and Vietnam plunged further into conflict.
I began my research in Kunming heading south and soon discovered a treasure of ethnic diversity and stunning countryside. The railway was there with its old French stations and marvellous stone bridges, but due to its frailty and lack of upkeep no passengers were allowed on the Chinese side. This outcome provided an opportunity to build a journey around the railway and include destinations like the World Cultural Heritage Hani rice terraces and the pristine wilderness of Cat Ba National Park. We do finally board the train on the Vietnamese side travelling to Hanoi then further to Hai Phong.
This is a journey that was lost in time. Goddard & Howse have brought the Sino-French railway back to life in the 21st century.
Our journey commences in Kunming in southern China where the Sino-French Railway line finished its 835 kilometre journey from Haiphong in Vietnam. Since the Yuan dynasty (12th century), Kunming has been the capital of Yunnan province and the weather is said to be ‘spring-like’ all year round. We pay a visit to the Sino-French Railway Museum where the history of this grand engineering feat is displayed, along with the first carriages and engines that were used on the journey.
Near Kunming, a geological marvel reveals itself from the rolling hills where giant stones have been exposed through years of erosion and weathering to form what the Chinese call ‘the stone forest’. You will quickly understand the analogy as we wander through small canyons of towering stones and clamber to vantage points with panoramic views.
Yunnan has a rich history and was once called the ‘wild lands’ by the Chinese dynasties. Over 1000 years ago the area became populated by Chinese from the north, mixing with the local tribes of Ye and Miaou. In the town of Jianshui we find many examples of late Qing dynasty architecture, including the Double Dragon Bridge and the village of Tongli with its mud brick houses and winding alleys. The area was also known for its deposits of tin and zinc, and many became wealthy during the 19th century trading these commodities. We will visit the Zhu family mansion, wander the old streets and see the biggest Confucius temple in China.
We continue in a southerly direction and cross the Red River in its upper reaches. Later on in our journey we will cross the Red River again by the Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi, but for now we climb over 1000 metres to the top of Ailao Mountain to see the World Heritage Hani Rice Terraces. With views all around we see terracing that covers every available piece of land, rising from the valley floor to the rim of the mountain. For over 1500 years the local people (Hani) have been cultivating their rice, following animist traditions and living quietly in their mushroom-style huts. We can walk amongst the terraces, meet the locals and marvel at the ingenuity and agricultural architecture of the area.
We retrace our steps slightly to the small city of Mengzi and the Sino-French Railway. In the early 20th century Mengzi became an entry point for foreigners into China and boasted the consulates of six countries. It was the railway that encouraged adventurism from would-be entrepreneurs and governments who sensed the collapse of the Qing dynasty. As the railway made its way through mountain country from Vietnam, the first flat area it reached was around Mengzi so a major station was built with outbuildings, a goal and even a hotel. Most of these structures remain, built in the French architectural style of the day. The town itself is now a modern Chinese city with pleasant streetscapes and a delightful lake near our hotel where locals take their birds for a walk.
We are now in the most southerly point of China and the country is mountainous and sparsely populated – a rarity for China. The Sino-French Railway has over 300 tunnels and 400 bridges on its journey from Haiphong to Kunming, and the jewel in the crown is the Man Bridge. Spanning 70 metres and 90 metres from the ground between two sheer rock faces, it was designed by French architects who assembled the bridge in sections then transferred it all the way from Haiphong to this remote and remarkable place. Few foreign tourists have seen this engineering marvel and it is guaranteed to take your breath away. We are close to the Vietnamese border and by the end of the day we have reached the Vietnamese town of Sapa near Mt Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest mountain.
The French had established themselves as colonial rulers in Vietnam by 1880 and looked for high country to escape the Hanoi summers, which can by oppressively hot and humid. In Sapa they found the perfect location, and construction of the Sino-French Railway line (1904 to 1910) allowed easy access for the French living in Hanoi. The town flourished until 1954 when the retreating French destroyed many fine colonial buildings. A few remnants remain, including the Catholic Church in the town square.
The surrounding countryside is spectacular with views and vistas. We have a chance to walk down to villages from the valley rim, visit the local market and take in the view from the lookout at Ham Rong Mountain.
Finally our chance to travel on the Sino-French Railway as we board the Sapaly train service at the town of Lao Cai for our overnight trip to Hanoi. We have comfortable private cabins with air conditioning and fresh linen. The train wobbles and shakes on the old one metre gauge railway line as we travel along. We finally cross the Long Bien Bridge on the Red River – this bridge was designed by Eiffel and built by the French in 1901, and arrive into Hanoi early in the morning.
Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam and its history dates to the 10th century. Set by the banks of the Red River the old town was protected by a series of dykes that were constructed in the 15th century. The French made Hanoi their colonial capital and it was once called the ‘Paris of the East’ during the 1920s. Hanoi has a sophisticated air about it and really is the epicentre of Vietnamese culture. We will visit the highlights, including Ba Dinh Square where Ho Chi Minh declared independence for Vietnam in 1945, Vietnam’s first university (the Temple of Literature) and wander the 36 streets of the Old Quarter.
We are back on the Sino-French Railway travelling from Long Bien Station in Hanoi to Haiphong. After the French had occupied Vietnam from 1880 Haiphong became a major seaport, and to this day remains as the most important trading port in northern Vietnam. There are some fine examples of colonial architecture and also vestiges of Vietnamese history that date to the 1st century BC. We have now completed our rediscovery of the Sino-French Railway in its entirety from Kunming in China to Haiphong in Vietnam. We explore the local market before boarding our ferry service to the National Park on Cat Ba Island.
Set in the Gulf of Tonkin near Halong Bay, Cat Ba displays distinctive seascapes of limestone karsts dipping into the sea. The waters are calm and the town itself of Cat Ba is sleepy and rustic. We will take a private cruise on Lan Ha Bay which is similar to Halong Bay, however, the area is less frequented by foreign travellers. You may feel you have the whole place to yourself.
A few days on Cat Ba is a perfect way to conclude our journey from China in the footsteps of intrepid colonialists. We take the ferry service back to Haiphong and meet our bus for the two hour drive back to Hanoi. There is time for some last minute sightseeing or relaxation before our farewell dinner and flight home.
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Fog covered the road as we headed towards Vietnam from the small town of Pingbian in southern China, just 100 kilometres to the border. Around here the country is mountainous, very little farming and a feeling of remoteness. There is excitement amongst our group this morning as we track the route of the Sino-French railway into a large valley that runs north from Vietnam near the Chinese village of Wujiazhai.
Taking 6 years to build, the French began construction of the railway in 1904 to link land-locked Kunming in southern China to the sea port of Hai Phong in Vietnam. Our prize today is the ‘Man Bridge’, so named because its shape mimics the Chinese character for man. Made from steel girders that were shipped from France it spans just 68 metres and is suspended 100 metres above the Sicha River between two sheer rock faces. Designed by Mr Paul Bodin, the bridge was an integral part of the Sino-French railway line, an ambitious and controversial project from the beginning. Completed in 1910 it was hailed as one of the greatest engineering feats of its time. more
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