Escorted Tour - Coach
A visit to Vietnam
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A Grand Tour of Indochina Part 1: Vietnam. November 2014
“You’re a fat Buddha” said the lady guide when I complained about the number of steps we had to climb to get into some caves. At least I think she said Buddha. The stone steps were cut into the rock face on an island. It was eventually worth the climb, once we arrived we followed a one way path through several large and well lit caverns with displays of stalagmites and stalactites. The island we were on was one of thousands in the world famous Halong Bay, off the Gulf of Tonkin, a few hours drive from Hanoi. I guess virtually all visitors to Vietnam come here, or so it seemed from the number of tourist boats we saw that day. In all the tourist pictures you see of this bay, the sun is shining and Vietnamese boats with coloured sails are set against the islands. It’s very charming. The day we visited, the weather was overcast, there was a lot of mist to obscure the views for most of the morning, and we saw no sailing boats. Like many sites, Halong Bay has become a victim of its own popularity. It’s full of tourist boats, small cruise ships with accommodation and tenders transferring passengers from ship to shore. Never the less, it was worth the visit during the hour or so of sunshine that we did get.
Most famous for its 20th century war, Vietnam is now a major tourist destination both for backpackers and those who prefer the comforts of good hotels. My wife and I most definitely fall into the latter category. We spent 10 days of our three week Grand Tour of Indo China, in Vietnam, just long enough to get a flavour of the highlights in the south, middle and north of the country.
We started in the south, based in what is now called Ho Chi Minh City, but is commonly referred to by the guides as Saigon. And that’s certainly how I know it. The roads are crowded with small motorbikes, far more bikes than cars, each bike legally carrying up to 2 adults and 2 children. They’ll do anything to avoid stopping. When you’re crossing the road at a crossing point they’ll weave in front and behind you to keep going. My frequent shouts of “Hey, I’m walking here” had no impact at all.
Whilst based in Saigon we made trips further south for a boat ride on the Mekong Delta and visits to various temples. But the most interesting excursion was to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a concealed military base where hundreds of Viet Cong soldiers hid and lived underground during the American war. At maximum, there were more than 250 kilometers of tunnels linking underground dormitories, kitchens, and meeting rooms, A local guide showed us around, demonstrating how many ways the Viet Cong could set traps to kill or maim the American soldier searching for them. Most involved the enemy soldier falling into a pit and being impaled on sharpened bamboo poles or steel pins.
There were several exhibits of the kind of “rooms” that existed underground, set out in a wooded area including concealed entrances. We were invited to go through one of the tunnels to see what living underground might have been like. When I saw the fellow in front of me drop to his knees to crawl through, I turned around and came out. This one metre high tunnel had been built for visitors. The originals, heavily bombed by the Americans, were only 0.8 metres high.
One of the highlights of Saigon for me was the former Presidential Palace. The previous palace was destroyed by rebels when they dropped bombs on it. This palace, built in the mid 20th century of concrete and glass, has big rooms, wide corridors, and modern furniture. We’ve seen lots of palaces in many places around the world, but perhaps this is the first one we’ve seen built in the 20th century. I liked it a lot. There are two tank parked on the lawn outside, one of Chinese manufacture, the other Russian. These represent the 9 Viet Cong tanks which arrived in anger outside the palace in 1975, a couple of years after the Americans had left. Their arrival confirmed the end of South Vietnam.
Da Nang in the middle of this country was the location of the largest American air base during the war, servicemen came to the beach here when off duty. Since it’s on the South China Sea, they called it China Beach. We had a picnic lunch here in pleasant sunshine before driving south east down the coast to Hoi An. There’s an old town centre here which happily wasn’t damaged during the conflict, it’s now another of Vietnam’s eight World Heritage site. Our guide took us on an interesting walking tour, which included a merchant’s house and the 400 year old covered Japanese Bridge. At the end of the afternoon the tour ended up at the local silk factory. By then I was tired, and like most of the men in the party, I could definitely have done without it. Most of us retired to a bar.
One of the main attractions in this region is My Son, the historic temples of the Cham people. I didn’t think they were very awe inspiring or photogenic. We visited three or four groups of temples but weren’t overly impressed. This site is no doubt important to the cultural history of the Cham race, but it doesn’t have the “wow” factor we’ve come to expect of World Heritage sites. For lunch our guide took us to a restaurant in a nearby town, a genuine local place. I can attest to its authenticity, I visited the toilet out back. It was a squalid affair adjoining the filthy kitchen. There were two or three birds in individual rusty cages perhaps waiting for someone to order them for dinner. It was clearly unhygienic. I was pleased I hadn’t eaten much and astonished that, as far as I know, no-one from our party suffered any ill effects.
The next day we transferred to Hue where we did a walking tour around the Citadel, the home of one of the former Emperors, his wives, mandarins and servants. It was the Vietnamese equivalent of the Forbidden City in Bejing, but nowhere near in such good condition. I remembered that China had spent a lot of money on renovating its prime visitor sites in Beijing before the Olympic Games in 2008. Vietnam clearly didn’t have this money to spend. There was an outer wall 7 miles long, luckily we didn’t have to walk around it. Most of our time was spent within the inner wall. The tour was lengthy but interesting, we stopped frequently for detailed explanations. Half as many would have been sufficient, it was dark by the time we finished.
All the other historic sites we visited in Hue related to the time when Hue was the capital city of Vietnam and the Emperor lived here. One was a mini version of the Citadel we’d visited previously, with different rooms for the king to live in, meet guests, meet his mandarins, and relax. Another was the mausoleum of the last king, buried in 1923, less than 100 years ago. It was very grand with four or five flights of stone steps to get up to the top where the coffin was entombed. There are many good photographs on display of the burial procession and ceremony. It involved 2 elephants. I guess the elephants didn’t have to climb the steps.
Hue is located on the Perfume River. In between visiting the ancient monuments, we had a boat ride on it. With such a name I was expecting it to smell awful, but in fact I smelt nothing at all. I was pleased about that because our lovely old colonial hotel hotel looked out over it.
Our tight schedule gave us only one day’s sightseeing in Hanoi in the north of the country, starting in the Garden of Literature. It’s the site of Hanoi’s first University and today it was being used as the meeting point for a degree ceremony for this year’s graduates. All of the slim young women (22 years old, looking more like 17) were dressed in traditional Vietnamese costume, trousers with a long dress split to the waist. They looked great, either wearing flowers in their hair or carrying posies. The young men too had scrubbed up well, most wore suits, spoiled only by white trainers in a few cases. I moved amongst the professional photographers snapping happily the class groups or small parties until I was beckoned by one of them to pose with a group of 5 girls for a photo. Of course I obliged. After a couple of shots with me in the group, the photographer put aside his professional camera and took a couple of shots with mine. I was delighted. This must rank as one of my highlights of the trip, firstly because coming across a degree ceremony was an unexpected pleasure, and secondly because a photo of me might end up on a mantelpiece somewhere in Vietnam!
Our next stop was much less exciting, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and garden behind. We couldn’t see his preserved body because it was that time of year when it’s taken to Moscow for “maintenance”. Minh, our guide in central Vietnam, had earlier told us that many people think the body on display now is not the one they saw years ago. Anyway we walked around the outside of the mausoleum and into the garden. Ho Chi Minh didn’t live in the former Governor General’s big house, but as a good communist lived (it is said) in a 3 room bungalow on the estate. It’s pretty basic. But he did have three cars which were on display in a nearby garage, 2 of which were gifts from the USSR. It was pleasant to walk around the lake in the sunshine and warmth. The last port of call in this estate was to the one pillar pagoda, originally built in the 10th century. There were many local people here, it was the first day of the new lunar month so followers of Confucianism came to the temples to pray.
The plan for the afternoon was to visit the History Museum but we dropped out and joined four others from our group to take a bicycle rickshaw ride through the old town and back to our hotel, instead. Our guide fixed this for us, it cost £3 each for individual bikes, plus another £1 tip. It was excellent value for a 50 minute trip through narrow old streets where locals were going about their business. From low down in a bicycle rickshaw, you get a completely different view of the world than you do from high up in a coach. Since your bum is only about 6 inches above the ground, everyone else looks down on you.
Our early return to the hotel meant we could have a short rest before the evening entertainment which featured a water puppet show. This was performed at a specialist theatre, the stage being a water tank about 18 inches deep. I enjoyed the performance but fear I might have been one of a minority. The puppets standing a couple of feet high, perform in water and are operated by a team of 9 puppeteers behind a bamboo curtain. They act out scenes from Vietnamese legend and the countryside featuring fishing and rice growing. Puppets included the four sacred animals, dragons, unicorns, tortoises and the phoenix. Six musicians provided the traditional Vietnamese music, reminiscent of Bejing Opera. The performance lasted only 45 minutes, and this certainly contributed to my enjoyment of the event. Had it lasted 3 hours, I might have gone missing halfway through. Most of the others in our group just didn’t like it, probably because of the discordant music. But I stick with my opinion. It was something different and I can tolerate and even look favorably on most entertainments lasting less than an hour.
The next day we left Hanoi to travel to Laos. Our visit to Vietnam had been fast and furious, we’d seen a lot and learned something about ancient religions and modern history. As we waited for our flight to Vientiane, I wondered if I could keep up this pace through Laos and Cambodia.
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