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Vietnam Journey

Author: Riche
Date of Trip: August 2009

20 July HoChiMinhCity (Though most locals still call it Sai Gon)
Hi all The flight on Vietnam Airlines from SYD SGN is day time 8.5 hours and an eventless day. The aircraft had a distant movie screen hung from the ceiling and only a terribly romantic Vietnam movie on offer-Girl meets boy, girl feels betrayed, girl goes into relapse, girl realizes she was wrong, bloke still hanging around, happy ending. But the crew were reasonably attentive and meals/drinks were okay. Arrival in SaiGon HCMC was something different. What an energetic city, small motor bikes by the thousand zooming along every street, congealing at intersections, bursting out when the light turns green. The first information given to me by my guide, Djien, ‘when you cross the road, walk slowly, don’t stop, don’t run, don’t turn back, just walk straight’. And, hey presto, the motor cyclists and cars open around you, allowing you just enough space to cross, and close up behind. It’s a bit like Moses parting the Red Sea, closing it again for the Egyptians.

My hotel, the 5* Caravelle is fantastic. A very historic hotel, home, during the 1950-1960’s of several consulates, and of most reporters during the war until 1976. From the rooftop bar journalists were filming the arrival in Saigon of the VietCong, and the helicopter departure of the South VN president and cabinet. One journalist is claimed to have said that he covered the entire war from the rooftop bar of the Caravelle Hotel. The hotel is in the very centre of the city, across the road from the French built Opera House (performances every Saturday), a few minutes walk from the Notre Dame Cathedral and most other colonial buildings, and from the busy road that provided the r&r facilities for USA soldiers (still filled with crowded bars), and from the street and covered markets of the city.

After checking in at the hotel my guide walked me towards the market, giving me ‘road crossing information’, but heavy rain disrupted the planned ‘City Tour by foot’, so we settled into an ice-cream café instead and enjoyed both the treat and the passing parade. Two sundae style bowls: cost 72,000 Dong ($4.00).

In the heavy rain during this walk, and later on another, I was soaked thru- twice- while exploring. Both pairs of jeans-my entire wardrobe, wet. So I returned to the market to buy 2 more pairs, US$10 each. I slipped behind the low counter-come-display shelf, slipped off my wet jeans, tried on multiple pairs until we found I needed 40 in denim and 42 in cotton. Countless people passing by but it seemed acceptable to stand there pantless while others searched for size and color around me. Fitted, measured and shortened on the spot at extra cost one dollar. As my shirt was also soaked through the sales girl at the matchbox sized stall suggested a shirt, so I pulled off soggy top as well, dried off a bit with a towel someone passed me and, now just in underpants, bought a polo shirt and t-shirt as well. As it was now 5.45pm and the market closed at 6pm, the girls started packing away the displays while I waited for the jean shortening to complete, then as these were handed over to me, I put the dry, new pair on and, resplendent in new jeans and a dark red polo shirt, invited the young sales cutie to dinner at a street cafe next door. She smiled, said yes but for one hour only. I had fresh pawpaw juice and grilled chicken with pink rice, she had beef noodles and a coke, and we had a great conversation for an hour. She liked pop music, western songs but sung in the Vietnamese translation by local bands, Michael Jackson, Gloria Jeans coffee, pizza and only wore traditional Vietnam clothes when she visited her grandmother in the village. Then she hopped on her Chinese-made Landsin motorbike and disappeared into the maze of traffic. Turned out she was 28 but looked 18. It is hard to tell age here. Cost of the meal for two? $5.20. Cheapest date I’ve ever had.

22 July Guided tour impossible to do this morning. Rain stops play. Apparently the downpour averaged 100mm per hour over a four hour period, resulting in road flooding, traffic congestion, the total disappearance of motor bikes from the streets. Apparently the cities drainage system was designed, by the French, to cope with rain of 36mm per hour. But across the road was the inviting Paradise Coffee Shop so I took the chance, got soaked through again, but read my book over a reasonably good cappuccino for an hour. Then I had Noodle Soup at a nearby, white-tile-white-walled, concrete-floored ‘restaurant’ called ‘Noodle Soup for the President’, as Bill Clinton stopped here mid street-walk and had a bowl during his visit. (Noodle soup: 36,000 Dong- $2.00, and a great meal) The afternoon filled with a long meeting at the office with my business partner, Son and Mai Thi, putting together cycle bike tours, 125cc motorbike tours, a cooking class, etc. Now I am heavily laden with brochures and maps.

23 July I had a good day today: no rain, sunny, 36 degrees with 97% humidity, went to the CuChi tunnels, dug and used by VietCong to infiltrate up to 60km of SaiGon-a very impressive visit. The tunnels are, in fact, an engineering masterpiece, down 3 levels with storage and meeting rooms, kitchen areas. CuChi includes about 200km of tunnels with small, concealed entrances. There are also examples of the ‘hole-in-the-ground’ style traps that seriously wounded and distracted American soldiers. The traps were probably not capable of killing immediately (though some had bamboo spikes dipped in snake poison), but must have resulted in lots of painful screaming from the victim. Meant to terrify and distract the enemy who, henceforth, would be more carefully inspecting the ground in front of the next footfall, rather than the surrounding jungle where snipers might be hiding. Good day out, well, for me at any rate, I did not fancy the chances of those Americans. Though only 60Km each way, traffic results in 2.5 hours each way.

I talked politics with my young male guide, Djien, on the drive back to HCMC. He is 29 years old, married, a daughter age 4. So he is very much a child of the ‘new’ Vietnam. My opening question is, ‘What do you think? Was HoChiMinh more a Communist or more a Liberator?’ The answer, immediately, is ‘Liberator’.

Perhaps few young people in VN today know the meaning of ‘communist’. Market stalls are filled with both big and small entrepreneurs, every Honda motorcyclist is an unofficial taxi, even the HCMC government is considering charging pedlars for the use of pavement space. There is little evidence of ‘communism’. ‘But maybe, my guide continues, he was communist too. Mr Ling, after HoChiMinh dead, he maybe is the hero and Liberator. With Gorbachev he make the economy free, that why Vietnam today so good. So I think, HoChiMinh is communist, Ling is liberator.’

8.30pm now, had a G+T during happy hour, now pooped and going to bed. So far (3 days) and excluding jeans, I have not yet spent all of the $40 I changed into Dong. Very cheap here.

24 July Hi Had a good day yesterday. The 70km drive to the Mekong Delta took about 2.5 hours, poor roads, traffic, local villages where the people spread the rice harvest across the road to dry, so that traffic then needs to slowly weave around the rice or drive in the slush on the roadside. Great local tradition. I saw one young boy on a Yamaha race across a patch of drying rice. He was stopped by other locals who gave him what appeared to be a very stern verbal lecture. The roads are obviously meant for drying rice!. In the Delta I boarded a boat to cross the river, very big and wide and flowing quite swiftly because of all the rain, to several islands. Here we walked through local reed-hut villages, saw the locals distilling ‘rice wine’ -alcohol content 40% I was told as I sampled it. A variation is rice wine with added ‘medicine’. This could include any combination of leaves, roots, snakes, frogs, scorpions- and these are only the recognizable ingredients. Then I boarded a small canoe style boat paddled by 2 women -one in front, one at the back, paddling. The younger, toothless one in front thought I was very handsome-I love this place. We paddled through narrow canals with coconut fronds forming an arch above. All very pretty.

On the way home rain pelted down again and traffic stopped so we pulled into a restaurant for lunch- balls of deep fried sticky rice, spring rolls and rice pancakes. Very strong, black coffee is the more popular drink, but green tea is sold both hot and with ice. Many of the tea-shops in the villages have tables and stools, and a hammock beside each table. Great Idea! I could sometimes do with a kip during my coffee breaks from the office. Apparently, with so much traffic on small motorbikes, time for a snooze midway to the destination is welcomed. Got back to the fabulous Caravelle Hotel at about 5pm, a long day, to shower etc before meeting Son and Mai Thi for dinner and music on a floating restaurant on the SaiGon River. 25 July The cruise-dinner was fantastic. The boat, to a traditional Dragon-boat design, was recently built by a man from Austria. His daughter, trained in hospitality, now manages it. They do a 2-hour Dinner Cruise every night. Big buffet style dinner, local entertainment with dancers for first 30 minutes, then modern jazz, a great wine selection including some superb South African varieties. Over dinner we shared a bottle of Nederburg Sav Blanc from South Africa (Cape Town), beautifully dry and crisp the way an excellent Sav Blanc should be, and a more fruity Pinotage. Wine US$5 per bottle! Tomorrow? Transfer to the airport for the short flight north to DaNang.

27 July Hoi An
The flight HCMC to DaNang was a short 70 minutes and, on arrival, I was met on arrival in DaNang by Nguyen, my guide with a serious bout of flu, and shown the Cham Museum (built by the French, of course), and the greatly over-rated ‘Marble Mountain’, Then we drove along the famous (or notorias) China Beach, used extensively for USA r&r until 1976, and now filled with super deluxe beach hotels offering r&r to the hordes of French tourists who apparently enjoy visiting one of the final vestiges of French colonial influence. 30km further we were in Hoi An, a delightful small ex fishing village of some 100,000 people, now mostly involved in selling goodies to tourists. The process is the same so the locals have easily adapted- the hook, now a pretty young VN girl, is placed at the shop entry, and the tourists bite. The beautiful, 200+ year old buildings have become art and coffee shops, bars and restaurants, cars are not permitted in the narrow streets of the town centre, but small motorbikes are (perhaps they should rename this town Hon Da?) with riders skilled in avoiding a collision at the final moment. The three nights spent there were one too many, but as I had the tummy runs on day 3 the rest day was appreciated. This town is very pretty and tourist friendly. I am housed in a fantastic resort style hotel located on the banks of a wide river. I sit on the Balinese-style stoop of my room and watch the river traffic- small fishing boats, larger, traditional-style boats transferring goods, the ferry to the village across the river. Palm trees sway in the light breeze, someone brings me a ‘no-charge’ bowl of diced dragon-fruit, mango and pawpaw. This is the life!

My guide and driver will be here in 5 minutes so just a quick mail. Weather is hot and steamy but no more rain. This morning we follow some mountain roads to a town called Hue (pronounced ‘Way’) for a night. Then its the overnight train to Hanoi.

28 July Hue

Hi all Another sticky day. My tummy wobbles have disappeared but my guide for the past 4 days, Nguyen, has the flu so now I am sniffling. Bought some Panadol which seems to have limited effect. This morning we drove- 5 hours to do 135km, across the mountain pass-the only road joining north and south Vietnam. The road ascends the mountain in a series of switchbacks with dense vegetation all the way from the ocean below us to the summit above. On the summit the concrete USA bunkers, with cannon pointing north, still dominate the scene. This mountainous, coastal road is the only land connection between south and north but, since 6 years ago, the higher part of the pass has been diverted through a 6.5km tunnel. As the US military controlled the pass, so the VietCong developed the HoChiMinh trail through Cambodia and Laos, and were thus able to take arms and men to within 60km of SaiGon. After the pass the coastal plain is flat with rice paddies and ancient villages where the population appear to still specialize in a single craft. ‘This town a woodmaking village’, says Nguyen, ‘this one for incense sticks, this one make gong from brass for the temple’. And so on to the town of Hue where I spend tonight. Actually a city. Population, I am told, of maybe 1 million, and certainly the surprise of this tour, young backpackers fill every bar and cranny. But more about that later. En-route to my very flashy resort-style hotel, located on the banks of the Perfume River, we visited the burial sites of past emperors-those of the 19th century, tombs and temples paid for by their French colonial masters. We visit ‘The Citadel’, a very imposing palace complex of the early 19th C, entirely paid for by the French taxpayer and an incredible example of early concrete construction. Here the VietCong hid (it’s only 60km from the USA base at DaNang) so the gallant American’s obliterated large sections of the palace. This is now being re-constructed using UNESCO funds (read USA taxpayers) and, a large sign says, the Mercedes Benz company of Germany. At one of the temples at MySon, possibly constructed by the Cham people about 1000 years ago-perhaps the same civilization that constructed Angor-wat in Cambodia, I photographed two young girls who approached and wanted to practice their English- both just graduated from Teaching School in Hanoi and now hoping to find work.

8.00pm Hue seems to be the place to party if you are young. I’ve just returned from a 60 minute cyclo-rickshaw tour and the bars and cafes are filled to the brim with backpackers from Canada, France, Germany, some English and a few straggling Australians who, already at 7pm, look as though they will not find their way home tonight. What is it with Australians?

On my walk back to my hotel I came across Nguyen, drinking tea at a pavement ‘tea shop’ with three of his friends-all guides. I asked if I could join and they called for more tea. ‘So, tell me, was HoChiMinh more of a communist, or more of a Liberator?’ DaNang is the most northern city of what was South Vietnam, and a major base for the USA- China Beach their major recreation site. Hue is the first town in what was North Vietnam. The two towns are separated by the mountain pass. ‘A communist’, replies one of Nguyen’s friends. ‘We were already liberated from communism when the Americans were here.’ ‘I was 12 when the Americans left’, adds Nguyen. ‘We were so frightened of the northern people. They are different to us. You know, they speak very nice, but what they do is different. You understand what I mean? For ten years we hide away, don’t argue, don’t talk, just do what they say. It is better now.’

If I were less sniffly I might still be out there, discussing politics, partying tonight, but instead, it’s another Panadol and beddi-byes. Tomorrow at 5pm I board the overnight train to HaNoi.

Email message from two teenage students I chatted to at the temple of MySon ‘Hi Riche Yes, I wish you have a good trip to Hue and Ha Noi. And if you have time , send me a photo you take us in My Son temple because it is souvenir between you and us by accident. Thank you for that. And tell me your experience in Hue and Ha Noi if you don’t mind! Thuy’

29 July HaNoi
Hi all The train! I’ll be positive. So much better than the overnight trains in India. But not even close to that in Egypt. The VN train has carriages with close-door compartments of 4 bunks each, bottom sheet, pillow and doona provided, cleanliness a question. It’s best not to mention the loo. A man comes round- actually several do- they sell food that, I think has been cooked by their wives at home, served in styrofoam boxes-like McDonalds used to use. I bought a pack for 25,000 Dong ($1.50). It had a very generous portion of sticky rice, some boiled cabbage, thin slices of (I think) three different meats-chicken??? pork??? sausage??? with a few beans mixed in, chopsticks and a cup of hot green tea. My guide had told me not to buy food for the train as ‘full service on train, beer also’, so I was desperate in the absence of these services. I ate some of the rice, all of the cabbage, sampled two bites of the unidentifiable meat, finished I suppose 1/3rd of total in container, and placed the remainder in the nearby bin- 30 secs later someone else on the train was finishing my meal. Certainly not much is wasted in Vietnam! I shared the compartment with a young couple from Boston USA, and a VN man in the bunk above me, but he must have disembarked during the night as a young VN woman emerged from the bunk this morning. There was also a large group, about 20, of English budget travellers of mixed age but travelling as a group, in the next carriage. I think VN families must book a 4-bunk compartment, then pile in a family of up to 10, babies, kids, adults, grandmothers, (I did not see any chickens but….!). I had such a family group on each side of our quiet little compartment, and they talk into the night. Then, the carriage security man brings out small plastic stools for those left standing in the corridors. If the train is licensed to carry x passengers, then there could have been xsquare plus at least on the train. And the single toilet, located at the end of each carriage, pays the price and suffers the burden. My itinerary shows I have this morning at leisure but, on arrival early morning, my guide says some things I must see are only open in the morning, so he meets me at 9.30am and we drive to the HoChiMinh mausoleum.

Email received from the young girl met in MySon ‘Dear Riche, I think you and your wife are a very happy couple. I read your letter to your wife today, I felt emotional. Because I realized that the most happiness is when we can stay at close people. I must live far from my home to look for a job, it can be better for me in the future. I feel homesick. I miss father, mother, and brother. And I also hope that you are always happy and healthy so as to travel more, especially travel with your wife. See you! Good luck! All best Thuy.’

29 July HaNoi What a busy day! And, in addition, its been a 2-shower-three shirt day’ with high humidity. My guide in HaNoi is a 27 year old man named Ha. My driver is also named Ha. So we have agreed that the guide will be called Ha, and the driver Noi. Problem solved. Our first stop this morning is the concrete-block-heavy, soviet-style mausoleum of HoChiMinh. At the ‘security gate’ several items are removed from the well-ordered queue of visitors. Sunglasses are not permitted as they show disrespect, cameras are not allowed as photos show disrespect, hands may not be held behind one’s back, or in or near pockets, as this shows disrespect, heads must be held raised, looking forward only, except at the moment of passing the tomb when one may look to the left (of course, it has to be to the Left), as any other position shows disrespect. So I joined the queue of perhaps 20,000 other curious people, 90% local, and slowly we edged our way forward in a straight, well ordered, military-style line, with ‘security police’ placed at regular intervals to ensure that heads are held high and hands are straight at one’s side. To see what? The mummified body of HCM, lying in state on a marble bed, freshly re-filled with formaldehyde each year by Russian specialists flown in to do the job.

Nearby is the Presidential Palace, a beautiful French-built mansion in green park-land that HCM refused to live in, preferring, at first the small 2-roomed GateMan’s House, and later the 2-roomed ‘House-on-Stilts, built for him so he could reminisce about the village architecture of his childhood. Two rooms, one holding a bed, the other a desk, no kitchen, food brought in, entry to an underground bunker nearby.

There was no need to ask Ha the question. ‘HoChiMinh was very well educated’, says Ha. ‘He spoke many languages, Chinese the best, then French, German, English and Viet. He had the best teachers. Marx Karl, you know him?, and Lenin both taught him. He was good communist.’

‘Then why,’ I ask, ‘Is SaiGon, HCMC, so busy and new with much business, while HaNoi still so poor with not many new buildings.’ He smiles. ‘Easy answer. The people of South Vietnam, they were traitors to their country. When we win the war, they escape with the Americans, some to USA, many you know to Australia. Now, they get rich there and send money back to family in SaiGon. Maybe drug also. That why HCMC so rich.’ I have no intent to argue the point. What happens in Vietnam stays in Vietnam.

We continue into the heart of the Old Quarter, the medieval heart of HaNoi, crowded, narrow streets and bazaars, happy, colorful people, shops spilling their wares out onto the pavements, impossibly tangled webs of telephone, electrical and cable tv wires drooping from pole to pole. Love this place! At 5pm we reach a water-puppet theatre-what a fantastic show with brilliantly made puppets and stories telling of the mythical heroes of Vietnam. I am seated in a row next to three French male tourists. All holding our cameras at ready, we realize we are four Canon EOS 40D’s all in a row. At 7pm we reach the International Press Club where I am booked in for dinner. Exclusive, dark-wood panels separate ‘private cubicles’. The wine steward and waiter, both dressed in tails, approach. I choose a chardonnay from Chile, and ‘salade niconnaise’, ‘roasted pork medallions over spice-smash potato’, and ‘legume froix’. It all arrives and is served with great formality. In the back ground I hear Frank Sinatra crooning, ‘You’d be so nice to come home to’ and I don’t think Frankie boy is singing about HoChiMinh.

30 July HaNoi.

We depart at eight. Noi is driving our 4WD Ford Territory, I take the passenger seat, camera at the ready, Ha is on the back seat. HaLong Bay, only 170km but 3.5 hours away, our destination. Traffic ebbs and flows around us, approaching busses defy road rules and continuous white lines as, horns blaring, they challenge the legitimacy of all other traffic. Around us small motorbikes carry up to four riders, adult pigs tied across the pillion, baskets of chickens and ducks with heads protruding through the basket weave, huge bundles tied in plastic hide their contents. A cyclist is attempting to cross impossible traffic conditions while he straddles a 4 meter sheet of corrugated iron tied across the handle bars and saddle. A woman motor cyclist losses her load just ahead of us. The huge plastic parcel tied on behind her bursts open and hundreds of coconuts spill across the road. Many motorbikes seem to have broken down and are parked at roadside. ‘They are broken,’ says Ha. ‘All Chinese Landsin, no good.’ Apparently a Chinese 125cc Landsin bike can be purchased new for US$360, while a Japanese Honda or Yamaha costs upwards of $1600, and a Vespa over $2000. The difference is that a Japanese bike comes with a one year warranty, while a new Chinese made Landsin is covered for one week after purchase. It seems ironic to me that a people who won a war fighting with the Chinese built version of the AK47, now despise the Chinese made motorbike.

We stop half way and enter a ‘protected place’. Here young people who are either disabled or orphaned are taught crafts. A huge warehouse exhibits lacquer artwork, brass castings, ceramics, embroidering, and a welcome coffee shop. Then, at last HaLong Bay appears in the distance. This huge bay of some 162 square kilometers is filled with over 600 pinnacle shaped islands. We board a timber ship which, until 1990, fished these waters but has now been converted to 6 cabins each with own bathroom, a viewing deck, a bar. Fishing for tourists, again, is more profitable than fishing for fish. We sail into the day, lunch en-route, disembark on one island to explore a huge cave system with as many stalactites as there are stalagmites. Ha points out features, a lion here, a turtle there, the emperor’s sword. He again tells the mythical story of the defeat by the Viet over the Chinese a thousand years ago but now told in calcium dripping from the cave’s ceiling. Then we again face the traffic, and several downpours, and a flooded road, and an overturned truck, and arrive in HaNoi at 6.

31July Ha and Noi meet me after breakfast and we visit the Temple of Literature, a 10th century school based on the philosophies of Confucius and a truly beautiful place. We then continue to a 6th century Buddhist Temple which is equally beautiful. After this short tour I ask to be dropped off in the Old Quarter and say good bye to my very good driver and guide. I first head through a narrow market street, sellers with fruit, fish, a butcher, assorted vegetables. Obviously this street is a ‘farmer’s market’, peasants coming in from the country so sell their products. I find a small café/restaurant and take an outside seat so I can candidly photograph the passing parade. The Vietnamese couple at the next table start a conversation and, later, invite me to their home for tea. Their home is in the heart of the Old Quarter. The building has three levels. The ground floor is rented out as a shop, they live on level 1, Level 2 is rented out to a different family. My new friends own the building, and their home on level one includes an area of about 4metre by 6 meter which includes bath area, kitchen, living and sleeping for the extended family of seven people. The building, they tell me, is their ancestral home and they are the 8th generation of the family to live here.

This ‘ancestor worship’ is a philosophy I have come across several times in Vietnam. Though the people may be Buddhist, Catholic, Islamic or Taoist, all regard themselves first and foremost as ‘ancestral’. Most rice paddies have a tomb of ancestors, they celebrate Death Day’ rather than ‘birthday’ as this is the important day on which a person becomes an ancestor. Extended families meet on Death Day to thank the ancestor.

As they are very aware of the history of their family, through the ancestors, and of the land because the ancestors are buried there, I consider again the impossibility of the Americans, or any invading force, to take over a country such as this. The VN would not only fight for country, more important is that they fight for their ancestors as well.

After gratefully receiving another gift I say good bye and wander through the ancient streets of HaNoi again. The ‘new’ city is very green with mature trees and shaded avenues. At a lake-side café beneath the trees I stop for a bowl of icecream. This is my last day and I want to both celebrate and reminisce. As I sit there, ice cream half gone, the waitress, approaches and says, ‘you pay now please, soon it rain.’ Quicker than I could pull my wallet from my pocket, the skies close and torrents fall. I told the waitress to keep the change- it was only 5000 dong, and raced to the nearest intersection where a taxi had stopped at a red light. Drenched again, I jumped in, said the name of my hotel, and sat back. Ten minutes later, in rain so heavy visibility was reduced to 3 or 4 metres, we were once again stuck in traffic and, in words and hand movements, the driver indicates that he has no idea where we are. Lost and Wet! We slowly drive on until I recognize a landmark, jump from the taxi into about 200mm of rain water covering the road, sandals sogged through again, and run across the 6-lane road to my hotel. Tomorrow I have a 1.00pm transfer to the airport with luggage wet, and flight home.

Vietnam during the monsoon season- certainly something to write home about.

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