Nam Dinh is one of the lesser cities of Vietnam, but lesser only in size. Origin of one of the world’s most famous national dishes, pho bo, as well as home town of one of the mightiest of Vietnamese heroes, Tran Hung Dao, there is plenty to see and do here, even if you only visit for a day.
Around 80km southeast of Hanoi and reachable in just over an hour and a half, it’s easier to get to than Halong, Haiphong or Ninh Binh, yet remains less popular with foreign tourists than all of them; a situation which needs correcting.
No Freight Train Blues
Despite the proximity to the capital, we left our motorbikes at home and placed our faith in Vietnam’s rail system.
The website makes booking tickets a piece of cake. The tickets are paid for and printed in advance, so the only thing to do at the station is find a coffee before the 9am departure.
With air-con, plug sockets, soft reclining seats, a dining carriage and enough legroom for a hefty foreign bloke, the journey is 100 minutes of surprising comfort and convenience.
The only complaint was that certain individuals decided the ‘No Smoking’ signs didn’t apply to them.
Arriving in Nam Dinh at 10.40am, a few wobbly Vietnamese sentences exchanged with a taxi driver were all it took to procure the use of his mate’s motorbike for the day.
Once, Twice, Three Times a Victor
The first sites demanding a visit both relate to Nam Dinh’s most famous son, General Tran Hung Dao.
After outwitting the legendary Kublai Khan and repelling three 13th Century Mongol invasions, Prince Tran Quoc Tuan, as he was born, continued his illustrious career in the military and in politics, whilst pursuing his greatest passion, poetry.
From Aug. 18 to Aug. 20 each year, the Co Trach festival honours Tran Hung Dao and his achievements. The Co Trach temple is one of three located in the Den Tran complex, a peaceful and beautiful site in the northernmost section of the city.
After wandering around Den Tran, bemused by the fluorescent life-sized paper horses being prepared for the bonfire, we headed to Vi Xuyen Park, a square surrounded by greenery, flanked by a small lake, and the site of a gargantuan statue of Tran Hung Dao.
Land of Milk and Honey
Even though the city and surrounding area is home to dozens of churches all competing for the title of Most-Over-The-Top Cathedral in Vietnam, we decided to have an excursion from our excursion.
About 25km southeast of Nam Dinh, in Thai Binh Province, the 1,000-year-old Keo Pagoda is as devoid of tourists as it is breathtaking.
Fragrant blossoms fall from the abundant trees spread around the grounds, and mingle with the aroma of the aged wooden beams and ancient rooftop ceramics.
Every corner of this site feels like a fantasy, from the imposing main tower to the thickset wooden gates, which guard the entrance to a labyrinth of paths and crevices between covered walkways and holy structures. Almost worth a visit on its own.
Get on to dsvn.vn, the Vietnam Railways online booking website, which is viewable in English. The two morning departures from Hanoi to Nam Dinh are at 6am and 9am, while the return journey is either at 1.50pm or 6.03pm. Journey time is one hour and 40 minutes.
This is the Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City train, so be sure to book tickets ahead of time to ensure seats. A soft seat in an air-conditioned carriage is VND57,000.
Payment can be made online or at the station (120 Le Duan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi). Tickets can be printed at home, or collected at the station at an automatic machine or ticket kiosk.
Photos by Julie Vola