Ha Noi Ho Guom

Sai Gon to Hanoi


Vietnam travel package is very different again from Cambodia and Laos. The war here finished over 30 years ago and you can really see the difference, the economy is far more buoyant and whilst there are still poor people, the poverty does not seem as rife as it is in the other countries.

One thing that all three places have in common is that although they are ostensibly communist states, private business is rife. In fact, there are so many traders around I'm really not sure how everyone makes a living. Rather conveniently for the shopper (but perhaps not the best thing for healthy competition) in most towns everything is organised by area so if you want fabric you go to the fabric street, if you want bags you go to bag street, if you want watches, you go to watch street and so on. I am sure that the end result is a number of little monopolies as they price fix up and down the street. Another interesting aspect of life in Vietnam is the dual pricing policy. There is one price for locals and another price for everyone else! I have to say I don't mind, as visitors here I think we should pay more, but sometimes it does seem to get a little bit out of hand.

So my trip through Vietnam started in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City). A smaller version of Bangkok really. The first challenge was to learn how to cross the road. It sounds daft but it really is an acquired skill here. The traffic stops for no one and rarely for lights. Nor are one way systems or the right side of the road adhered to, the two wheeled traffic (which is by far the largest portion) seems to come from any and all directions. You just have to launch yourself into the street and let the bikes and motorcycles steer their way around you. Fortunately, for the most part, the cyclists are really quite skilled, as long as you walk resolutely across you are usually fine. The only thing to remember is not to walk out in front of a car or a bus because they don't stop!! Thankfully, the majority of people use bikes here as their mode of transport so buses and cars are easily avoided.

Anything goes where transport is involved and it is not unusual to see the most unlikely things being carried around on bikes. The next photo is a case in point!

Likewise you often see a whole family of four on a bike, it most be one of the motivating factors in family size. If you have more than two children you have to buy a car, or two bikes so the expense of getting around goes up considerably. Needless to say it is unusual to see people wearing helmets and road deaths and casualties are by all accounts quite high.

Associated with the complete lack of respect for the western idea of rules of the road is the use of the horn, I find I am quite deaf after just a morning walking around town. Oh and the fact that pavements are used for the safe parking of the multitude of bikes so pedestrians have no choice but to walk down the road anyway! Anyhow, after two weeks here I am a dab hand at it now and cross with the confidence of a local. No fear of being stuck walking around the block because I can't cross the road! Something I did consider a distinct possibility when I first arrived.

In Saigon I started with a day out to the Cao Dai Temple. Cao Dai is a new religion which was started in Vietnam only about 50 years ago. It is a curious mix of Buddhism and Catholicism with a few other things added in for good measure. Their high temple is an absolute delight, a confection of colour, murals, paintings, frescoes and ornaments. I felt like I was in Charlie's Chocolate factory, you really do feel like you could be inside a bag of sweets (an odd description maybe but it is the one thing that comes to mind). They worship four times a day at midnight, 6am, noon and 6pm and we went to see one of the noon ceremonies. They dress in different robes and sing hymns, a very interesting experience.

After the temple we went to the Cu Chi tunnels. Over 200 kms of tunnels were dug underground on three levels and used during the Vietnam War (or the American War as they call it here). The Cu Chi people were very successful in resisting the Americans using the network and part of the tunnels even went under an American base. The Americans had no idea they were there and it took them a long time to figure out how the Vietnamese were managing to infiltrate their base at night. The people of Cu Chi also lived in the tunnels for much of the time, not a feat to be underestimated.

There is a very good visitor center where you are given the opportunity to go down the tunnels. A very claustrophobic experience I have to say, one section was enough for me. The tunnels have been expanded so that westerners can fit in and are now lit but they must have been quite an experience in their original narrow state and a scary place for the American soldiers who were ultimately sent down there for hand to hand combat. Our Vietnamese guide kindly demonstrated the original tunnels and the following photos give you an idea of just how narrow they are.

The visitor center also gives you an insight into the horrible traps, weapons and tricks used by both sides in the war. It really must have been a terrible experience for all concerned.

The following day in Saigon I visited the War Remnants Museum, a very good (if at times disturbing) insight into the impact that the wars against first the French and then the Americans had on the country. For me the most interesting bit was a building dedicated to the photo journalists who covered the conflicts. Many of the pictures taken by such journalists found their way onto the front covers of the world's press and were awarding winning pictures. There was a high price to pay though as lots of the journalists (from both sides of the conflict) lost their lives in pursuit of their profession. I was already aware of that and knew some of the names (thanks to River of Time the book I have been reading) but it was really very interesting to actually put names to faces and see some of their photos. I was also fascinated to learn of the front line role that a lot of Vietnamese women played. They got very involved as ordinary soldiers and many are now revered as heroines of the cause. The rest of my time in Saigon was spent wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere.

For the first part of the tour we took a trip down to the Mekong Delta and stayed with a family. It is a very scenic part of Vietnam where life revolves around the water and cottage industries. We visited a number of small "factories" (often nothing more than a hut) where they made things such as rice paper, coconut sweets and rice crispies! Late afternoon we took a Sampan ride.

Our accommodation for the night was a homestay. A lovely old gentleman who has French as a second language owns the home we stayed in. A wonderfully peaceful place with bullet holes in the dining room ceiling - a hang over from the war. We all slept in ex army cots in a dorm type room at a homestay. What with the mosquito nets that kept coming undone and the dogs that howled all night, not the most comfortable night's sleep but what a great location.

Next on the itinerary was an overnight train to Na Trang, a seaside resort and my least favorite place in Vietnam. Unless you are a beachy person it didn't have much to offer. We did go out on a day's boat trip which was fun but nothing spectacular. Perhaps if I had, had time to do some diving it would have been different.

Next on the agenda was another overnight train to Danang (immortalised in the movie Good Morning Vietnam) we didn't stay in Danang but got a bus to Hoi An. A beautiful little town and another World Heritage Site. It had the same sort of charm as Luang Prabang in Laos and I really liked it.

Hoi An has a multitude of small temples, museums, family chapels and ancient architecture so I spent a lovely few hours wandering around those. Hoi An is also a shoppers paradise with amazing art galleries and tailors at every turn. Almost everyone, including me I have to say, succumbed to some tailored made clothes so I now have a couple of pretty things in my rucksack and not just practical traveller clothes! I also did a cooking course in Hoi An which once again was great fun (especially eating our efforts of course) and took some time out to enjoy the café culture. Like Laos, the French influence is still strong in Vietnam. Great coffee, baguettes and pasties are readily available. Interestingly dairy products aren't though and they are not a regular part of the local diet which means that coffee is drunk with sweet condensed milk (yuk) and tea is usually drunk black.

One abiding memory of Hoi An is the hour I spent talking to the tailor's niece while waiting for my new clothes. The house she and her family live is the place that their business is run from and is a perfect example of the ancient architecture that Hoi An is renowned for. I was provided with a wonderful explanation of the Ying and Yang (balance) of the house which had been in her family for eight generations.

From Hoi An we took a bus ride to Hue the ancient imperial capital of Vietnam. It has a very pretty palace with lovely buildings and gardens. The remainder of the royal family now live in France but the palace was used until fairly recently. While in Hue we also visited some of the tombs of the Kings. Very grand places where the Kings often worked and studied in the years up until their deaths. Once the King died he was buried in his tomb and all his concubines had to stay in the compound and look after the complex. Ancestor worship is very important to the Vietnamese and their dead are often buried in the backyard or one of the family fields so that they can be cared for. Some of the tombs are not very old at all and it is interesting to see such ornate tombs being built in modern times (i.e. in the latter part of the last century). The last king to be buried near Hue raised taxes by 25% to build his impressive tomb so needless to say he was not too popular with the locals.

We also took a ride up the Perfume River, so named because of the beautiful flowering Lotus' that bloom every summer.

From Hue we caught our last overnight train to Hanoi. The trains aren't too bad but I have to say it takes a bit of time to get used to them! Hanoi is a charming town with a lake in the center. We arrived at 5am and so had the pleasure of seeing everyone taking their morning exercise. It is a really big thing here with organised street side aerobics and Tai Chi. We dropped our stuff off at the hotel and headed off for a wander around the lake straight away. We were lucky enough to see sword routines and fan dances (all as part of the daily exercise regime). There is a real sense of community at that time in the morning with everyone maximising their leisure time.

After breakfast we visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. HCM is affectionately known as Uncle Ho here and is greatly revered. The queues to go and see his embalmed body are enormous and it is a place of pilgrimage for all Vietnamese. He is seen as the liberator of the Vietnamese from the French and Americans. It is bizarre seeing his body, it was all a bit Madame Tussauds for me. A not to be missed event in Hanoi but perhaps a once in a lifetime experience! I found the museum dedicated to his life and works far more interesting.

Another trip was to the first university in Vietnam, a very ancient institution which taught the Confucius principle for ages. Scholars were tested in exams given directly by the King and were highly respected individuals. We also went to see the "Hanoi Hilton" the prison where lots of American POW's were interred during the war. They seemed to be treated fairly well there (perhaps they were the lucky ones) and all of them made it home alive. Interestingly, one of them went on to become the first US ambassador to Vietnam.

From Hanoi we took a day trip out to Halong Bay which is absolutely stunning, I would really have like to spend a night there but never mind, no time. The day was a bit overcast and misty but the Karst mountains coming up out of the sea are amazing nonetheless and the mist added a certain ethreal feel to the trip. We visited some spectacular caves on one island. It would have been tempting to go for a swim in the lovely green waters of the bay but it really was just that bit too cold (well compared to the temperatures to date!).

All in all, I've spent a lovely few days here in Hanoi wandering around and enjoying the sites. I have even pushed the boat out and done a bit of souvenir shopping because one of the guys on the tour lives only five minutes from my sister and so volunteered to take some things home for me. A very nice surprise and I'm very grateful to him but it means that Vietnam has proved more expensive than I anticipated! Back to no shopping for a while I think, especially now that it is just me and my rucksack again!

Over the last couple of days I have also had the first rain of my trip so my raincoat has finally made its way out of my rucksack, I think I have managed to use everything at least once now. The tropical downpours are so much easier to bear than the cold drizzle of home and it has been a really refreshing change to the sweltering heat we've had so far.

Source: travel pod