Wednesday August 18th - Monday September 13th
The Friendship Pass
We took the train from Nanning, China to the town of Pingxiang then a tuk tuk to the border. Our driver exchanged our remaining Chinese Yuan for Vietnamese Dong. Hey, we’re instant millionaires! (£1.00 = 28,000 Dong). After completing the Chinese exit procedures we walked the 600m across the border to the Vietnam side. Given how busy the train had been we were expecting a mad crush of people but we were alone on the small mountain road between the checkpoints. On the Vietnam side things were equally relaxed. It wasn’t clear which of the three windows we were meant to go to but a man at the “Health Check” window motioned us over and took our passports. He had a heat sensing camera to check our temperature. Two seconds later he held up a sign saying “Please pay 2000 Dong for the health check”. WHAT! We don’t think he even turned the machine on but he had our passports hostage so we paid. After all, 2000 Dong is only about 7p but it was rather cheeky of him.
We passed through the border and were immediately approached by taxi drivers. They said the cost of the ride to the border town of Lang Son would be 200,000 Dong. Fortunately, our Chinese tuk tuk driver had told us what we should pay (50,000) so we were armed with the knowledge. We soon learned that the Vietnamese will normally try to charge about four times the correct price and one has to bargain hard. In the taxi, the driver told us about an express bus to Hanoi that would be much faster than the train. Again, his starting price was four times the going rate. This is a practise that, among other things, would eventually lead us to a feeling of general distrust of the Vietnamese.
After a three-hour bus ride we arrived in Hanoi. The bus drove all over the place dropping locals off then stopped in front of a hotel and said, “Get off here, this is your hotel”. But we hadn’t told him the name of our hotel. The Vietnamese tourist industry has a complex arrangement of commissions and kickbacks and the bus drivers get paid to deliver customers to hotels. The hotel representative came out and said, “Yes, this is your hotel”. We said, “No, we are staying at the Stars Hotel”. She said, “Yes, this is it, there are many hotels called Stars Hotel”. Rubbish! Anyway, we eventually figured out where we were, grabbed our bags and walked a few blocks to our hotel.
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and its second largest city with 3.5 million people. We stayed in the Old Quarter where narrow streets are filled with the hustle and bustle of busy people. It’s incredible to watch the people, motorbikes, bicycles, and little conical hat wearing ladies carrying their quang ganh (two baskets hung from a bamboo pole) navigating an intersection. About a thousand years ago guilds established themselves in the Old Quarter, each taking a different street. Nowadays tourists still walk around Silk Street, Onion Street, Paper Street etc. Our hotel was on China Bowls Street. Some of the old shops have been replaced with trendy bars, cafes, restaurants and craft shops. There’s old, ochre coloured, crumbling French buildings with wooden carved shutters & elaborate ironwork. All very atmospheric.
In the centre of the old quarter is Lake Hoan Kiem with Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower) on a small island. There is an old legend that in the 15th century Heaven gave Emperor Ly Thai To a magical sword which he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day after the war was over the emperor was boating on the lake and a giant tortoise grabbed the sword and disappeared into the lake. Since that time the lake has been known as Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword) because the tortoise returned the sword to its divine owners. Supposedly there are tortoises in the lake. A specimen that died in 1968 weighed 250kg! There are occasionally sightings but it may be a bit like the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland. At the north end of the lake the Rising Sun Bridge took us to the Ngoc Son Temple. The stuffed huge tortoise that died in 1968 is there.
We visited the Temple of Literature, founded in 1070. It became Vietnam’s first university in 1076. We also visited the Fine Arts Museum and the excellent Museum of Ethnology. It contains history, artefacts, art and day-to-day items used by some of the over 54 minority cultures that live in Vietnam. We also saw the Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.
August 19th was our 4th wedding anniversary so we treated ourselves to a posh dinner at a restaurant called Club Opera. The dinner was delicious but, because we had a bottle of South African wine, it cost over £40. We have become used to meals costing £2 or £3 so it was a bit of a shock. In London we wouldn’t have thought twice about paying £40 for a meal out, it’s interesting how ones attitudes towards money changes after living in cheap countries for a time.
On our last night in Hanoi we went out to see the famous Water Puppet show. It is, literally, a puppet show on water. The puppeteers stand in the water behind a bamboo curtain and control the articulated puppets with bamboo sticks and wires that are hidden under the water. The musicians and voices are to the side of the watery stage. This bizarre form of entertainment started in the flooded rice paddies during the rainy season as a way to keep the kids occupied. They don’t know exactly where or when the tradition started but it can be traced back at least 1000 years. Most of the performances are of legends (like the tortoise and the sword) or of daily life such as fishing and farming. There are also fire breathing dragons (with fireworks) and slapstick routines. It was all very entertaining.
Halong Bay is the most beautiful place we visited in Vietnam. In fact, we would have to say it is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen (and we have seen a lot of beautiful places). We booked a tour to Halong Bay from Hanoi with a small group - there were 15 of us. It’s only a three-hour bus journey to Halong City where we boarded our ‘sailboat’. It looked a little like a traditional junk but, if they even had sails, they never raised them.
We headed out into the bay and saw the first of hundreds of incredible karst peaks rising straight up out of the water. It looks just like a Yangshuo in China but here the valleys are covered with water. Our first stop was at Sung Sot Cave. It’s an impressive cave that has been nicely lit. As all of the islands here are made of limestone, the water has created some fabulous caves with amazing features. We then motored through the islands to a protected area and went for a swim. The water here is nice and warm but not particularly clear and there was a fair bit of floating garbage. We even saw a hypodermic needle (capped, fortunately) floating by - scary. That evening we pulled our mattresses out of our stuffy cabins and laid them on the deck. Sleeping under the stars with a gentle breeze to cool us was wonderful.
The next day we motored through the islands and passed floating villages. People who did not have land took to living on the water and it has become more and more popular. Of course, this high population means high levels of pollution, as they have no reliable garbage disposal or sanitation. (Yuck, and we were swimming not too far away). We headed for Cat Ba Island and the town of the same name. Here we checked into our hotel then went on a tour to the prawn farms and to see another small cave. There wasn’t much activity at the prawn farms but the boat trip through the mangroves was pleasant enough. In the afternoon we headed to Monkey Island to laze on the beach and see a few monkeys.
That evening we had a fabulous and inexpensive meal at a local restaurant. Fortunately, we took our dining advice from Lonely Planet, not from our local guide. The guide, of course, was directing us to a kickback paying restaurant (some of our group had a disappointing meal at the restaurant the guide recommended).
Many Cat Ba residents joined the Vietnamese “boat people” of the 1970s & 80s. Although the island lost much of its fishing fleet this way, overseas Vietnamese have sent back large amounts of money to relatives on the island, thus financing lots of the new hotels & restaurants.
The next morning we transferred back to the boat and motored back to Halong City with a chance for one last swim (it seemed a little cleaner here). Then it is was a bus to Hanoi and on to an overnight train to Hue. We couldn’t get ‘soft sleeper’ class but we had felt that Chinese ‘hard sleeper’ class was fine so we had booked it. Unfortunately, in Vietnam, hard sleeper really is hard and trains are not as tall as in China so the upper bunk only has 2 feet of headroom.
Hue is an ancient capital, with many historic sites along the Perfume River. We took a boat trip up the river that stopped at a variety of places. The Thien Mu Pagoda is one of the most famous pagodas in Vietnam. Unfortunately for us, its 21 metre high octagonal tower was wrapped in scaffolding when we were there. The Tomb of Tu Duc is a pretty park like place with small lakes and tall trees. Tu Duc lived in true imperial luxury and, even though he had 104 wives and countless concubines, he had no offspring. The tomb was built at enormous expense and with the use of forced labour. Our tour then took us to the Hon Chen Temple. Each of these temples and tombs have entrance fees. Peter decided to save the 75p (US$1.35), sit outside and enjoy the breeze off the river. Jackie later agreed that the temple wasn't worth the 75p. We then went to the tomb of Khai Dinh. Emperor Khai Dinh ruled Vietnam from 1916 to 1925. The tomb was begun in 1920 and completed in 1931. The grandiose concrete structure is unlike Hue's other tombs being a combination of Vietnamese and European styles. The elaborate designs inside are made from colourful bits of broken porcelain and glass embedded in cement. Our last stop of the day was at the majestic Tomb of Minh Mang. He ruled from 1820 to 1840 and the tomb area is a harmonious blend of architecture, symmetry and the natural environment. Although the tombs, temples and pagodas are nice, we find the daily lives of the people more interesting. On the river we saw people dredging the river by hand and taking the silt to trucks. We assume it was being used a fertilizer for farms. We also saw water buffalo and houseboats. At a couple of the sites we had to take motorbike taxis and by the roadside lay rice, maize and incense sticks drying in the sun. Once dry, the incense sticks are sold in colourful bunches that look almost like bouquets of flowers.
From Hue we took a (long) daytrip up to Dong Ha and the DMZ, the former Demilitarised Zone. The DMZ was established in 1954 by France, Britain and Russia to temporarily separate North and South Vietnam to give time for elections to take place in 1956. They never did and the DMZ became the main battleground when the fighting resumed. The tour took us to see the Hien Luong Bridge over the Ben Hai River that marks the DMZ. From there it was a short journey to the Vinh Moc tunnels near the coast. Villagers and fighters lived underground in these tunnels for 5 years to avoid American bombs. There were 17 children born in those tunnels during the time. The tunnels are long, dark, damp, muddy and built for Hobbit-height people. The only part of the experience that the organisers (thankfully) left out was the smell. They showed us where the toilet had been. After that we headed west along Highway 9. The Ho Chi Minh Trail (a series of roads, trails & paths) ran between north and south Vietnam (perpendicular to Hwy 9). It was used by the Viet Cong (VC) to transport troops & equipment. To disrupt the flow along the trails the Americans established a line of bases along Hwy 9. We saw an American observation post called The Rock Pile, a bit of The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the location of the famous American combat base at Khe Sanh. Not far away is Hamburger Hill and other fierce battle sites. There wasn't much left at Khe Sanh as the Americans tried to destroy everything before they evacuated (so there'd be nothing to use for propaganda photos). At Khe Sanh there is a small museum with some old American equipment and some photos that showed a distinctly one sided view of the war. It showed photos of "consternated" American soldiers crying over their dead buddies and worried commanders trying to figure out how to hold back the heroic North Vietnamese army. There were also a few photos of brave "liberators" happily carrying supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The next day we wandered over to the Citadel and the Imperial Enclosure. The huge moated Citadel has a 10 km perimeter with walls that are 2 metres thick and inside that is the Imperial Enclosure with 6 metre high walls that are 2.5 km in length. Building began in 1804. The emperor’s official functions were carried out in the Imperial Enclosure. Inside this was the Forbidden Purple City which served as the private residence of the emperor. The only servants allowed in here were eunuchs, who would pose no threat to the royal concubines. Unfortunately, the Forbidden City was almost entirely destroyed during the Tet Offensive in 1968. However, there are lots of other great buildings to see – Ngo Mon Gate, the Hall of the Mandarins, palaces, temples etc.
A short (4 hour) bus journey brought us to the small town of Hoi An. Hoi An was one of Southeast Asia's major international ports in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In its heyday it was a contemporary of Macau & Melaka and was an important port of call for Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese and other trading vessels. Now, it’s a small tourist town with lots of old wooden buildings – museums, merchant’s houses, temples, pagodas, French colonial buildings etc. There’s lots of crafts – silk production, cotton, reed mats, bamboo, wood carving, ceramics, embroidery. This is also the place to come to get clothes made. Other than wander around the streets, we rented a motorbike one day (2 dollars for the day) and drove up to the ruins at My Son. My Son was the most important site of the ancient kingdom of Champa. It became a religious centre in the 4th century and was continuously occupied until the 13th century (compared with only 3 centuries of occupation for the huge complex at Angkor in Cambodia). Unfortunately, this region was devasted during the American war and, what pillaging by the Chinese, Khmer and Vietnamese didn't destroy, American bombs did. Of 68 traces of structures only 20 remain and many of these sustained extensive damage. Restoration work is going on. My Son was a disappointment but the motorbike ride to get there was fun.
Nha Trang is a seaside city that is very popular with Vietnamese tourists. It has a lovely beach and clear turquoise waters (fortunately, no needles or jobbies). We did the touristy thing and took a boat trip out into the bay. We had a swim and snorkel and saw them bring up live sea urchins to make soup for lunch. After lunch it was time for another swim and a drink of mulberry wine at the floating bar. We stopped at a beach but were so busy yakking with other travellers that we didn’t bother going ashore. Later we went to a floating fish market and Jackie went for a ride in a round bamboo boat (a bit unstable but fun).
The next day we went to see to the Po Nagar Cham Towers and then to the Long Son Pagoda and Buddhist monastery. The Cham towers were built between the 7th and 12th centuries but the site was used for Hindu worship as early as the 2nd century. The Long Son Pagoda is an active Buddhist monastery with a 14 metre high seated Buddha at the top of a hill which can be seen from all over Nha Trang.
Finally it was time to get out of the sweltering coastal heat and head up into the highlands and the city of Dalat. This is a region of lakes, waterfalls, evergreen forests & gardens and more importantly that a cool climate. Wow – what a difference. All through China & Vietnam it’s been hot & humid, this was a welcome relief. We found a great hotel and the nicest woman in Vietnam (that we met, anyway) ran it.
We toured pagodas, temples, waterfalls, lakes and the last emperor’s summer palace. We saw terraced fields everywhere, growing not rice but garden vegetables. Out of town we visited Lat village where 9 minority groups live. The people are poor and eke out a living growing coffee, black beans and sweet potatoes. We met an old man who told us of their way of life and showed us traditional musical instruments, weaving etc. He also let us try some of his homemade rice wine – potent stuff. He was a nurse and had worked with the French and then the Americans, now he is a farmer. The ethnic groups got together and raised a stink over protecting their culture. The government has now set them up with what is almost an autonomos region (non-Lat people can't go into the area without permission). We had a great guide on this tour. Dalat is a popular honeymoon spot for young Vietnamese but our tour guide was wise enough to know we wouldn't be interested in seeing the tacky "Valley of Love" so we skipped it.
Ho Chi Minh City
HCMC (formerly Saigon) was the capital of South Vietnam and is, today, the business and financial capital. The North may have won the war but, with the recent liberalisation of foreign investment laws and other economic reforms, the South is now in control. HCMC is Vietnam’s biggest city with nearly 7 million people.
We headed out on a city tour and visited pagodas, temples, China town and it’s market, Notre Dame Cathedral and the General Post Office. Then the tour got more interesting with the Reunification Palace. It was towards this building that the first communist tanks to arrive in Saigon charged on the morning of 30th April 1975. After crashing through the wrought-iron gates, a soldier ran into the building and up the stairs to unfurl a VC flag from the 4th floor balcony. This dramatic scene was recorded and shown across the world. Today, these tanks can be seen in the grounds of the palace. The building itself was built in the mid 1960s, after the original 1868 French building was bombed in 1962. The style & décor inside is very 60s. We saw conference and reception rooms, private rooms for the head of state, a cinema, bar & recreation room, dance hall, helipad and in the basement a network of tunnels, telecommunication rooms and war rooms. We next visited the War Remnants Museum. This was once known as the Museum of Chinese & American War Crimes but the name was changed to avoid offending Chinese & American tourists. On display are US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs (including a 7 ton one!) and infantry weapons. There are many photographs illustrating US atrocities, many of which are from US sources. Photos show massacres, children mangaled by US bombs & napalming, US soldiers dragging VC soldiers behind vehicles, US soldiers holding the heads of beheaded VC soldiers, US soldiers sitting and waiting for the next battle and injured soldiers helping each other out. There’s also photos (and two specimans in jars) of deformed babies that they claim are a result of the USA’s widespread use of chemical herbicides such as Agent Orange to defoliate trees. The US dropped 7.5 million tons on Vietnam compared with 2.35 million tons in WWII. The museum is certainly a bit one-sided and we don’t see anything on what the VC did or how they treated POWs. In our group was an American Navy veteran. He trained US soldiers on how to survive and, if possible, escape a VC POW camp. He said it was an interesting experience coming back to visit Vietnam.
(Vietnam has had so many wars with so many people they cannot, of course, call them all "The Vietnam War". So, in Vietnam, the war from 1959 to 1975 is called "The American War").
From HCMC we headed south for a three day trip through the Mekong Delta. This huge area was formed by sediment deposited by the Mekong River, a process which continues today. Silt deposits extend the delta's shoreline at the mouth of the river by up to 79m a year. The land of the Mekong Delta is renowned for its richness and almost half of it is under cultivation. The area produces enough rice to feed the entire country, with a sizable surplus. (In 1980 Vietnam needed food aid, now it's the world's second largest rice exporter after Thailand). Coconut, sugar cane and fruit are also produced.
Over the three days we used bus and boat to visit floating markets, where the vendors on their boats indicate what they are selling by hanging their wares from a bamboo pole e.g. carrots, pineapples, cauliflowers. (Although the T.V. anntenna on the top of the pole does not indicate they are selling T.V. anntennas). We also visited many small cottage industries where they make rice paper, rice crispies, coconut candy and rice noodles. We also visited a rice husking workshop and fish farms which were underneath people's floating homes. (The fish farms raise a type of catfish and the main market is America & Europe - we don't want to alarm anyone but these farms are next to their toilets which, of course, just drop straight into the water).
The food throughout Vietnam has been quite good but the most interesting delicacy we tried was here in the Mekong Delta - snake. It was actually pretty good - a bit like beef or pork (it was in little strips) and very tender. Not like chicken or chewy.
So from the town of Chau Doc we headed on a small boat (there was only 7 of us) to the Cambodian border. At the border all was very relaxed and with the formalities done, we walked across a wooden plank and dirt track into the Kingdom of Cambodia.
So, cheerio Vietnam and thanks for all the spring rolls.
Peter & Jackie
Our impression of the Vietnamese people is one of insincerity and dishonesty. It is, of course, inappropriate to categorise an entire country's population based on the few people we met, but that is our impression. From the ceasless sales pitches by touts and mototaxi drivers to the unending "Hello, where are you from?" attempts to open a conversation so they could try to sell us something, we felt that everyone wanted money from us. The habit of starting the haggling by asking four times the going rate for something (rather than two times like most places on the plant) smacks of fraud. The hoteliers who would tell us anything, even bald faced lies, just to get us to stay at their hotels was outright dishonesty. Even the smiles on people's faces looked painted on and false. Vietnam has some nice places and interesting history but we didn't like the people very much. (On the plus side, every restaurant bill we got was correct. Several sources had warned us about the habit of adding items or overcharging.)
In these episodes, we normally like to include a bit of history about the countries we visit. However, Vietnamese history is such a long, convoluted series of occupation, rebellion, repression, overthrow, alliances, deceipt, colonisation, revolution, intervention, re-education and war, war, war that we'd have to write a book. So, here's a quick point form version:
- Chinese rule from about 200 BCE to 938 CE
- A major rebellion to overthrow the Chinese
- A series of dynasties with each transition a bloody affair
- War with Mongols who wanted to go through the country to fight the Khmers.
- Contact with the west involved many conflicts
- French occupation from 1859 to 1954
- The French allowed the Japanese to enter (and essentially run) Vietnam during WWII. Japanese food demands resulted in 2 million Vietnamese people starving to death.
- Franco - Viet Minh war 1946 to 1954
- American War 1959 to 1975
- Communists force many Southern Vietnamese into "re-education camps"
- Vietnam attacks Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Chinese attack north Vietnam in 1979 in response
- A guerrilla war ensues until 1989
- Since then, peace (of a sort) under the communists.
In the 1990s Vietnam began to open the door to foreign investment and freer markets. There is definitely a growing prosperity. We hope, for the sake of this war-torn nation, the peace and prosperity will continue.
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