2004 - Vietnam
Monday 12th July
Arriving in Bangkok at about 5.30 am, we were met by a Kuoni rep who walked us to the Amari Airport hotel where we had a dayroom booked until our flight at 5.50 pm. So a sleep and a meal in the hotel were all we saw of Thailand at this stage,
2 hours later we arrived in Hanoi, North Vietnam, and again were met by a guide: Zang. We looked for the others in the group but found there were none, Escorted by taxi, Zang gave us the background to the tour including, when we asked him, information on the others on the trip - just a father and son from London!
The journey was interesting! It was already dark so we could not see the paddy fields that are apparently there but we could see (just!) the traffic - often unlit, comprising bikes, pedestrians, motorbikes (by the hundred) cars and a few carts. All this with no obvious rules of the road. Apparently, until a few years ago, it was all bicycles and now people drive motorbikes etc in the same way as they rode bikes - with total disregard for others.
The hotel was quite small but of reasonable standard and had a restaurant, bar, business centre and gym,
We slept erratically and briefly but survived the following day:
Tuesday 13th July
After breakfast we were left to our own devices till 12.00 and attempted to walk to Hoan Kiem Lake. We saw many roads with similar names, some on our map and some not. Where we went, we don't quite know - but we did find our way back with just 25 minutes to wash and change before meeting for lunch. Jill was somewhat worried that we wouldn't make it and indeed we wouldn't have done but for the fact that a motorbike 'taxi' driver, who had hoped for a fare, pointed out that we were walking in the wrong direction for our hotel!
John and his 16 year old son from East London were the mystery guests - also waiting for Zang to take them to lunch!
We had a very good meal before visiting the evasive Lake Hoan Kiem - one of 18 lakes in Hanoi. This one dates from the 15th century.
In the northern part of the lake and reached by a red wooden bridge is the Ngoc Son Temple, dedicated to the scholar Van Xuong, the General Tran Hung Dao (defeated the Mongols in 13th century) and Lao To (patron saint of physicians). A truly multi-purpose religious building.
Zang told us that Vietnam has, since 1989, been in transition from communism (with much Russian influence) to socialism - No welfare state here - provide for yourself and your family or go hungry - no pensions either!
Nearby was the Temple of Literature, billed as Vietnam's first university and dating from 1076. Founded 6 years earlier for the Emperor to honour Confucius, it was used to educate people of all backgrounds to become the mandarins who were entrusted with local government.
The five courtyards and buildings, many from the 11th century, were strongly reminiscent of China in style and colours (red for happiness and yellow for royalty).
We then walked around the narrow alleys and roads of the old quarter with its myriad of small lock up shops similar to what we have seen in so many developing countries. From these and the pavement are sold vegetables, beaten metal goods, TVs, books, shoes etc.
We saw them at closer quarters in an hour long ride on a bicycle taxi. The traffic is unbelievable. It seems that the only accepted principle is to go in a determined fashion ignoring everyone else, sounding your horn to tell others you are there and then a sufficient number will give way so that you don't crash. This principle holds good for all vehicles and also for pedestrians. This is somewhat disconcerting to the more legalistic westerner but works a treat - don't wait for the road to be clear - just go and people mysteriously avoid you.
Our ride over, we spent about 45 minutes at a water puppet show. This dates back to the 11th century apparently and is very unusual, albeit not riveting enough to totally drive away jetlag induced sleep! It is accompanied by traditional music and song, bringing back memories of Chinese Opera. We had in fact enjoyed a musical interlude in Ngoc Son Temple, where a group performed on traditional instruments but to much greater melodic effect (so far as the author of this account is concerned!). We bought a CD from this group.
A delicious 9 course meal ended our evening before returning to the hotel for a quick e-mail to family and the inevitable diary writing!!
Meal: potato and milk soup; large shrimp; fried fish with chilli; shrimps with sauce; meat balls, vermicelli and a delicate sauce; squid, rice, greens; water melon.
Wednesday 14th July
I write this in a good grade hotel that looks over Ha Long Bay to islands similar to the conical hills of Guilin. I am serenaded by 'Silent Night' on the music programme from the room control panel. They do seem fixated with Christmas music as we have heard it on mobile phones. Now the music has changed to Greensleeves!
It has been a rather odd day. We started with a trip across Hanoi to visit Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. I have to confess to finding mausoleums of limited entertainment value. The queue appeared of remarkable length to someone from a culture where mausoleums currently enjoy little public appeal. After notices about leaving weapons and explosives outside (we had none to leave ourselves, but handed cameras to our guide) we were put through an electronic scanner. The queue then moved at a steady pace ending in the great granite building in the shape of a lotus flower (we were told). The authoritarianism of communism dies hard. Guards indicated to John that he must stop talking, another pulled me gently to one side so that I could walk another 2 paces forward and thus hasten the queue's movement. We were not the only ones chosen for such a welcome from these stern faced army personnel although they did seem to single out westerners for most of their attention. Ho Chi Minh himself took little notice as he stared up at the roof - apparently he had wanted a simple funeral in his village. Having had his wishes ignored, he is now despatched to Russia for three months of each year to ensure his preservation!
The large road at the front is used for parades from time to time - other communist ideas also die hard - We later saw huge posters of stylised people (usually a family) still at the roadside - staring into the middle distance of the glorious communist future. Apparently Russia had been very influential in the 80s. Now relations with China are particularly good - after centuries of Chinese rule, French rule and indeed little independence in the last 2000 years.
We walked around buildings built by the French for government purposes but spurned by Ho Chi Minh in favour of much more modest buildings in which he lived, worked and died. These remain furnished in 1950s style as he left them and they too constitute a further shrine to a hero who clearly remains highly regarded by many of his countrymen.
We then travelled by road 80 km to Hai Phong. The road began as a 3 lane dual carriageway and in many places was still 2 lane before reducing to a single. It made little difference because of the unique approach to driving of the Vietnamese. Drive in the outside lane or preferably straddle 2 lanes and only move in when someone hoots. Add many motorbikes, some pedestrians, the odd lorry and remember that the only rule of the road is that there are no rules.
Near Hanoi there were many newly constructed factories gradually taking over the paddy fields but still interspersed by such fields. Gradually the fields became more dominant, still worked by women (mainly) up to their thighs in water, planting out rice by hand. Some water buffalo pulled the typical simple wooden ploughs we have seen in other countries, most recently Morocco.
The ribbon development eventually ceased and was replaced by small towns with the typical lock up units that serve as shops or workshops. The more rural landscape showed less progress than Hanoi - more traditional dress, bicycles, the Chinese-type "lawnmower" vehicles that provide the most basic motorised transport, the hand carts and the horse drawn carts.
The roads themselves were in excellent condition except that every level crossing failed to live up to its name.
We stopped in Haiphong for lunch. They observe a siesta and the streets were fairly deserted. The lunch itself followed a similar pattern to that of yesterday and was good but seemingly less so than its predecessor. The view was magnificent however from the 12th floor of a 4 star hotel.
We then visited a pagoda before setting out for another 2 hour road journey to Ha Long Bay. Zang left us at our fairly impressive Halong Plaza Hotel with its huge atrium and its lovely views over the bay to the islands. We went for a walk into town, but as it was growing dark we headed back along the coastal road to the hotel. Dinner was reasonable rather than exceptional but with a main course at $3 US one can't complain. However, Jill was caught out by her sweet and sour crab still being in its shell. Adrian's pork and ginger with rice was much easier to manage!
Thursday 15th July
After a reasonable choice of breakfast we left the hotel by minibus with our guide Zang and boarded a boat in an extremely crowded harbour at Bai Chay. The boat catered for perhaps 30 but we were the only passengers to be waited on by the 5 staff! We headed out for the 3000 islands of Halong Bay. At first little boats approached seeking to sell us lychees, rambutans and bananas. After perhaps 15 minutes we joined numerous other boats at another crowded wharf where we disembarked to join a great throng climbing 100 steps up into a large cave with fantastic stalagmites and stalactites. It was very beautiful but we had seen even larger in Guilin and the sheer press of people rendered this example less attractive at least to Adrian.
Fortunately our captain also seemed to prefer solitude as for the next couple of hours we cruised slowly between the unusual limestone islands clad with forest and echoing cicadas. We sat on the prow to escape the higher temperature of the cabin and chatted with John and Jack.
In true Vietnamese style we were then treated to a series of dishes for lunch - soup, prawns with lime juice, salt and chillies as a dip, crab in their shells (we gave this a miss because of the effort involved); squid with vegetables and then rice with fish and vegetables (again with chillies)and then fresh bananas.
Inevitably the staff wanted to sell us items but they deserved a sale and the embroidery pictures and the postcards were worth the $16 we paid.
Whereas in the night there had been thunder and torrential rain, we had
escaped with overcast skies with the occasional break in the clouds for the
entire trip, rain spotting the windscreen as we set off by road for the
return to Hanoi.
For the first part, the road was the same as that on which we had come but we soon entered another that would take us for most of the distance to Hanoi. This was more rural and we saw intensive labour mile after mile in the paddy fields. We learned the sequence of ploughing, irrigating, planting, planting out, ripening, harvesting, and then burning off the stubble before repeating the cycle about 4 months later. There is no machinery save for a hand pushed plough or a water buffalo drawing a traditional pointed stick plough.
200 sq metre plots are leased from the government, and worked by families, the women planting and the men ploughing. Often this is done in isolation but sometimes groups of 3 or 4 women work together, each with their conical hat, as they stoop over, knee deep in water - little wonder that educated youngsters will probably choose not to follow their parents in subsistence farming. Education is from 12 to 18 with some going on to what are really technical colleges and 20 to university. Vietnam remains a poor country but is clearly setting its sights on emulating its more prosperous neighbours (China and, for tourism, Thailand). It has 81m people and a policy of no more than 2 children - any more and you pay for everything for that child including education and health. Interestingly, since 1986 there are no pensions or unemployment benefit. Yet in fairness we have seen virtually no begging and whilst clearly not wealthy, the people generally seem reasonably dressed and well fed. There is about 5% unemployment and an average wage is about £300 per month.
Most "Workers" do a six day week whilst office workers do 5 (our guide made this interesting distinction of "human resources" despite being resident of a communist country!). They get 15 days holiday plus a little extra as their time with the company increases.
Motorbikes are everywhere - they will need to change their driving habits when there are more cars. These bikes are used to carry straw, plumbing, live piglets, ducks, chickens in baskets, boxes and I even saw a pillion passenger carrying a sheet of glass about 2 ft by 3 ft between him and the driver - health and safety - what's that?
We declined a stop at some pottery shops but did stop a little later at a disabled workshop selling embroidery pictures and clothes they had made together with other items such as silk ties and books. We were very happy to buy here but only found 2 ties as Jill could not find clothing to suit.
Returning to the hotel at a little after 4 we are now watching the rain that has since rolled in and writing the diary and editing pictures!
Friday 16th July
An early start with an alarm call at 4 am! Adrian had not slept more than 3-4 hours each night and both of us were awake from 1.15.
We set off for the airport at 4.50. Whilst the immediate roads were quieter, they were far from empty with all forms of transport, largely unlit, and particularly there were many pedestrians and even the odd jogger. We entered the main dual carriageway that covers most of the distance to the airport, only to hit a major traffic jam. There were people everywhere - right in the middle of this road was the fruit and vegetable market that sold to the traders!
We turned round amidst the chaos of stuck traffic, endless motor bikes and pedestrians and headed off down the back streets.
Having checked in, there was a quick panic as Jill had left her leatherman in her handbag and it had been picked up by x-ray. She elected to run it back to Checkin for it to go in the hold as a separate parcel.
Our new guide was named Trieux and we quickly found that whilst he had good knowledge, he was not good on people relations. He would not explain much about the mechanics of the day or timings or facilities. When it was time to move, we often found ourselves chasing to keep up so as not to lose him.
By 8.10 we had had 2 breakfasts, flown from Hanoi to Da Nang and were at our first museum. This was housed in an open sided building and exhibited statues, carvings and pictures etc of historic sites of the Cham people. In particular were sites of tower houses built from 8-16th centuries. To our untutored eye these seemed similar to Ankor Watt which would be on our visit to Cambodia. Certainly it is not very far west of here. Apparently they date from around the 12-13th century.
From there, we moved on to a marble factory - where a few people were chipping and dozens were seeking to sell. Staff are never a problem here. How much it costs to ship 12 foot high lions to California I don't know but some people were buying for shipping. We were given our own individual minder who, by the end, would have been willing to sell us the smallest possible plastic item, but we resisted all attempts.
We then returned to the minibus to get off a short distance later in the middle of a row of shops selling marble, for a walk up Marble Mountain. This is done by means of many high marble covered steps leading up the mountain side to a temple, three caves and a pagoda. We tackled one cave that was entered by climbing a number of steep, narrow natural rock steps - really just mountain scrambling in the semi-dark. This led into a cave where high above part of the roof had collapsed to let in a good amount of day light. Apart from a modest amount of name carving there was nothing to see other than a statue of a buddha in the middle of the cave.
The pagoda was only a few yards away, past a few drink sellers, and, set amongst the trees, enjoyed stunning views over the hillside to the sea.
Trieux had not done his guiding well - we learned from John after we had set off that he had not come with us because of a bad knee. What we did not learn was a return time nor place! Having waited at the entrance about 20 minutes the van returned and the driver indicated we should have been at the other entrance. When we arrived, it was about another 20 minutes before John and Jack appeared. It had taken them longer than they had anticipated, but they had reached the top.
The guide made no comment on any of this but we moved on to a silk factory where we were shown the processes, bought shirts, tie, suit and blouses. These were all made to measure with the silk shirts costing about £8 and the tie about £2.
Lunch was a pleasant meal overlooking the little yard and animals of the owners. Again it was a multi course meal and very good too.
Our next stop was the old village of Hoi An once regarded as old and ripe for destruction but now as a tourist attraction. There we saw another temple, a 15th century Japanese bridge, and a 200 year old house. We were shown this by a girl/young lady whose family had occupied it for 3 generations. The wooden internal walls reminded us very much of Tudor ones, such as at the dining hall at Christ's College Cambridge. We succumbed as usual and bought a tablecloth and napkins that were beautifully embroidered. We moved on to a small market, taking a photo of an old lady with the scale type baskets (for the obligatory $1)
Rejoining the bus we faced a 3 hour journey approximately an hour of which was spent ascending the pass of Hai Van - a very long steep and winding road where kamikaze drivers simply hoot and then overtake on blind corners - the usual rule applies = look out only for yourself and hoot so that others know that you are there. Several times our driver overtook lorries with blind bends just ahead! This must be the most heart stopping country we have ever travelled in so far as the roads are concerned - I wonder if the planes and trains adopt a similar policy. We stopped near the top where we were totally besieged by young women seeking to sell us postcards. Adrian succumbed despite our guide's previous warning not to. We were then able to take our photo of the view and beat a hasty retreat.
We arrived at our hotel at 6.00 p.m. This was particularly attractive large room with elaborate silk curtains and furnishings, and bamboo furniture. Adrian was especially exhausted and really only wanted to sleep but we stirred ourselves and went to the hotel restaurant for a really good meal spoilt by meat in the last course. - never have we known such fat and gristle on chicken!
Saturday 17th July
Having fallen into bed totally exhausted at least Adrian enjoyed a good 8 hours sleep - bliss!
At 8.00 a.m. we were ready for a short walk to meet our "Dragon Boat". Based on traditional working craft but painted and adorned in garish colours, dozens of these ply the tourist trade. We were on board about 3 hours stopping first at a national pagoda (Dieu de National Pagoda, built 1841-7) and then at the mausoleum of Emperor Minh Mang built in the 1840s.
The river is beautiful, surrounded by lush tropical vegetation and with mountains in the distance - hard to think that just 36 years ago Hue was the centre of one of the worst battles of the war with 10,000 dying, mainly civilians.
The pagoda is Buddhist and Trieux explained to us the basics of Buddhism. The pagoda was unscathed in the war but time has made restoration necessary. The site was the focus of a campaign for religious freedom in 1963 that spread out from here and a monk set fire to himself outside the presidential palace in Saigon. This led to similar protests and to the eventual overthrow of the president.
The mausoleum of Emperor Minh Mang (1820 -1840) followed a Chinese style with the gateways, large courtyards and long low buildings with sweeping roof lines, decorated with dragons. It is located on a hill with mountains in view in each direction and water running through the site - all essential elements for a Buddhist Emperor's tomb.
It was exceedingly hot. Trieux had told us it was 36 C today. I could believe it!
Lunch was in the approved tourist restaurant sitting next to the group of 3 French people whom we had seen in several hotels, restaurants and the airport. Nevertheless the meal contained some new elements and was delicious. Jillie - remind me that when eating shrimps they always serve salt and lime juice.
We returned to find our silk items had arrived so we had considerable satisfaction trying them on and telling ourselves what a bargain we had. £80: 3 piece silk suit and 3 blouses for Jill, 2 shirts and tie for Adrian.
After the break at the hotel we went to the citadel built in the early 19th century and following the general pattern of the Forbidden City at Beijing. Like that, it is huge - 8 villages were moved to accommodate it. As well as the accommodation of the Emperor, his 500 concubines and his mother there were a myriad of other buildings, courts, paths and gateways. The vast majority of the site was levelled by bombing in 1968 but some buildings have been restored or rebuilt.
Another break at the hotel and then we set off with John and Jack to the Tropical Restaurant! We had asked Trieux to book this for us on his mobile after it had received his recommendation. We walked in slightly the wrong direction to hear him calling frantically to us from the other side of the road! Apparently he had been called by them twice to say he would have to pay if we did not turn up. This seemed odd to say the least when we discovered that we were virtually the only people there! Despite this, it was a good meal with some unusual dishes such as a form of spring rolls served on a flaming pineapple.
Sunday 18th July
Today we left at 7.00 for Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The airport was at the end of a lane and not really visible till we entered the car park. The guide kindly arranged our check in which was fortunate as the Vietnamese appear to check in in the same way as they drive.
At HCM City we were met by Quee(?) a guide with remarkably little knowledge of English. He was very pleasant and helpful and arranged the itinerary to suit our wishes. First we called at the Novotel Garden Plaza where we were to stay and then visited China Town. This is large with 20,000 people but then the city is 8 million. We visited a 200 year old temple. All that we could discover was that it was not Buddhist as otherwise it would be a pagoda. This was a distinction that had been made to us before.
We were asked if we wanted to go to the market in a modern very large building. It was packed with minute units stacked with clothes or shoes, cosmetics, pots and pans, meat and vegetables. Jack was a source of wonderment as he is perhaps 6'3'' or so.
Our lunch was in a small restaurant offering a good spread of slightly different food, attractively served - such as shrimps in flavoured hot water served in a coconut shell set fire to in a dish.
There was nothing planned for the afternoon, but the guide offered the War Remnants Museum (10,000 dong each entry fee - about 40p). To look at the tanks, plane etc was one thing but to see photos of the suffering and to read of atrocities was more than we felt able to take.
We then returned to the hotel at about 3.00 and used this first substantial break of the holiday to...catch up on some sleep!
We ate in the hotel in the evening. It was a buffet that was OK rather than special and cost around £20 for the 2 of us. With a bottle of water costing $4.50 in the hotel I supposed that it was not bad value. It was made of more interest by virtue of a large wedding reception taking place in the hotel lobby. The bride was dressed in western style, a video of the post ceremony photo opportunities played on a loop throughout the reception and karaoke took place for much of the evening.
Monday 19th July
We headed out about 70 km into the north west to the Cu Chi tunnels used by the guerrilla soldiers against the American and southern troops as they sought to attack Saigon. This was clearly the centre of jungle warfare with numerous booby traps and over 200 km of underground tunnels. We saw a very propagandist and low grade video of the brave heroes fighting the enemy who had chosen to kill peaceful women and children. Of course that is entirely true but one also has to accept that this was presented by the communist government that had invaded the south and was certainly not universally accepted by the people of the south - half a million fled as boat people.
We entered a section of tunnel which Jill and I could pass through stooping but Jack and his dad had to crawl through. It was hot and dark and claustrophobic. The people had constructed these on as many as 3 levels, going down to a depth of 30 feet. They included living areas, kitchens, weapon manufacturing and storage areas. This was a wooded area with much groundcover to hide the booby traps, the air holes for the tunnels and smoke outlets which were a considerable distance from the tunnels themselves.
We had some tapioca slices with peanuts and sugar and some jasmine tea out in the jungle.
We returned to Saigon for a very good lunch in a restaurant next to the Sheraton. It offered some new dishes such as rice paper into which one puts a mini spring roll, carrot, onion and mini cucumber for dipping into the usual chilli sauce. We had seen the making of rice paper at the Cu Chi tunnels.
We saw the outside of the Catholic brick cathedral (it was closed) and the inside of the extremely large and elaborate 1890's French built post office. Our guide pointed out the gentleman who always sat there. Surrounded by dictionaries he would translate, for a fee, correspondents' letters into a whole range of languages. We took several photos inside the post office - including of the large bowl of paste for sealing envelopes.
Returning to the hotel, we used the business centre on the 10th floor and enjoyed a panoramic view of the city. Adrian spotted in the paper that it was proposed to raise the pay of public sector workers from $33.1 (US) to $43.5 per month (!) in October. We found out earlier that morning that a Chinese motor bike costs $500 and a Japanese $2000. Apparently there are 2m motor bikes in Saigon - a city of 8m people. Cars are much rarer but certainly there are far more here than we have seen before. All are fairly new and in good condition.
Impressions as we near the end of our time in Vietnam:
A country undergoing very rapid change. Life is tough in rural areas and probably not much better in the factory. Hours for office workers are not dis-similar to ours, but many are self employed and work much longer. No signs of real object poverty but no doubt it exists and no overt presence of beggars. People generally are well dressed. No great sign of high rise ugly flats so dominant in eastern Europe but very large scale development evident both industrial and residential areas. Friendly people but not outstandingly different to what we have encountered in many countries. Countryside that we have seen has been largely flat and rice growing (Vietnam is the 2nd exporter in the world after Thailand) but we know that much of the west is mountainous - it would have been interesting to see this. The coast was beautiful and we also saw many distant views of hills and mountains. The country is overwhelmingly green.