A Vietnam Adventure - March 1997
Vietnam - a land of emerald green paddy fields, conical hats and bicycles and so much more. This is a travelogue of my second trip to Vietnam, in 1997, reached after a fourteen hour flight from London Heathrow to Hanoi, via Kuala Lumpur. Arriving at Hanoi's Noi Bai airport at mid-day, immigration and passport control was safely negotiated in less than thirty minutes without any hiccups. I quickly joined a group of a dozen or so travellers that were being herded together by Tim, our Explore Worldwide tour leader, outside the terminal's main doors. At his suggestion, we wasted no time in changing some of our US dollars into dong, the local currency, at a rate of US$1 to 11,000 dong. My $100 netted me a cool 1.1 million dong and a wad of well-thumbed banknotes in a plastic bag!
The group piled into the mini-bus for the half hour ride into central Hanoi and our accomodation, the Chains First Eden, a newish six-storey hotel on the edge of the city's famous old quarter. Brief group introductions were made, I was roomed with John and we both agreed on some immediate exploration of our own, wandering through the bustling old quarter and along the Hoan Kiem Lake, vaguely heading for the Opera Theatre. Disappointingly, an immense tarpaulin covered the whole building, so we made our way back through the myriad of tiny streets, past shops dedicated to bamboo ladders, marble headstone engraving, paper lanterns and herbal medicines as well as the more mundane tinsmiths, silk and cotton items, jewellers and a busy back street fish market. The park opposite the hotel gave me an opportunity to mingle with the local youngsters and show off my lack of skill at football and badminton, before a quick shower and a do's and dont's team meeting with Tim. Our first evening meal, at the Indochine restaurant, was pleasant but quite expensive at $10, as I gorged myself on chicken in lemongrass and beef in bamboo. Afterwards, a couple of us walked to the Hanoi Roxy, a late night bar and disco, which soon filled up with expats and locals determined to enjoy themselves. A midnight walk back to the hotel, through the now deserted and eerily quiet streets of the old quarter was in complete contrast to the noise and hullabaloo of a few hours earlier.
Next day, our city tour of Hanoi kicked off at 8am with our guide, Long, shepherding us to the front of a mile-long queue of patiently-waiting locals, who'd come from far and wide to gaze upon the founding father of their nation, Ho Chi Minh, at rest in his Mausoleum. Talking, taking photographs and hands in pockets were forbidden and in complete silence, we shuffled in two's past the embalmed body of Uncle Ho, before moving onto Ba Dinh Square to take pictures of the Vietnamese having their photos taken, decked out in their best clothes for the occasion. Long guided us on past the Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh's own home on stilts, where hundreds of hushed schoolchildren giggled nervously at the foreigners in their midst and onto the restored One Pillar Pagoda. Next door was the HCM Museum, where we completed a quick tour before being bused to spend a quiet, contemplative half hour at the Temple of Literature and the Quan Thanh Pagoda, on the shore of the West Lake.
Returning to the hotel, we adjourned for lunch to a nearby pho kitchen for chicken noodles for the equivalent of a few cents. For the next three hours, Tim led the group on a meandering tour, on foot, of the fascinating old quarter, mingling with the locals and their narrow tube houses, run-down French colonial buildings and street markets on every corner selling every conceivable animal or fish, dead or alive. While John had a late afternoon snooze, I failed miserably in my feeble attempts to practice my Vietnamese with Hang, our hotel receptionist, whose English was embarrassingly good. Out at 7pm for an evening meal of fried fish in a brazier and noodles at the popular Cha Ca La Vong restaurant, we stopped off at the Emerald bar and the Thuy Ta cafe on the shore of the lake before meeting up with the rest of the group on the steps of the Kim Dong Theatre. For the next hour we were subjected to Hanoi's unique water puppet show - I'd been before so I should've known better - before escaping to the near-empty Hanoi Roxy for a late drink until midnight and our walk home through the back streets and alleyways.
I was up and out at 6.30am the following morning to watch the older generation limber up with their tai chi exercises in the park opposite the hotel. John and myself ventured out after breakfast for a two-hour amble of our own through central Hanoi. The shore of Hoan Kiem Lake was our first stop before we discovered by accident, the facade of the former Hanoi Hilton prison, where captured US airmen were imprisoned during the Vietnam conflict and now a major hotel and office construction site. Returning to the old quarter again, we popped into a couple of small family pagodas, where we were greeted enthusiastically with foul-tasting green tea and warm smiles, before checking out of our hotel and sampling the local brew, bia hoi, at 2,000 dong a glass. At 1pm, we were on our way out of Hanoi, along Highway 5 and then Route 18, heading for the town of Bai Chay and the 3,000 limestone islands, caves and lagoons that make up Halong Bay. After five hours on the road, we arrived at our hotel, Halong Bay II and walked the short distance to a sweet and sour chicken meal at the open-air Van Song restaurant, after declining the local speciality of thit cho (dog meat).
Another early start saw the group boarding a converted fishing boat ready for a five-hour tour of the mist-shrouded bay. Sailing between the towering rocky outcrops and past sailing junks and sampans plying their trade in sea-shells and pieces of coral, we stopped off at Hang Luon, an island lagoon accessible only by a paddle canoe through a half-submerged cave tunnel. The stillness and silence was broken only by birdcalls, reminding me of some lost fantasy paradise, as did the impressive scenery at our next stop at the caves of Dong Me Cung. By 1pm, we were back on dry land and retracing our steps back to Hanoi, taking time out to photograph the locals at work in the paddy fields, before arriving at Hanoi's main railway station at six o'clock. An excellent meal of fried chicken in a noodle shop opposite the station put me in good spirits for our departure on the Reunification Express train and our fifteen-hour journey to the De-Militarised Zone.
Sharing a cramped sleeping compartment with three others, I managed only fitful periods of rest before a bread, cheese and coffee breakfast preceded a brief stop and leg stretch at Dong Hoi station. Crossing the 17th parallel soon after, we arrived at our destination, Dong Ha, at 11am, exactly two hours behind schedule. Lunch was chicken and rice in a street kitchen on the town's main drag and then onto Route 9 to see some of the places which featured prominently in the Vietnam War. We stopped to view the Rockpile, Dakrong Bridge and the start of the Ho Chi Minh trail before a hike up to the Khe Sanh memorial, through a coffee plantation and past live artillery shells and empty casings scattered across the runway of the former combat base. There was little left of the base except bits of barbed wire after US troops destroyed it before pulling out in July 1968. We returned to Dong Ha where we rejoined Highway 1, passing through Quang Tri with its burnt-out Catholic church left as a reminder of the war and carried onto Hue, the cultural heart of the country.
The comfortable Thanh Lich hotel was our base for our two-night stopover in Hue and duly showered and refreshed, we negotiated for a fleet of cyclos to carry us over the river and onto the Lac Thien restaurant. My favourite eatery in all Vietnam and run by a deaf-mute family, it's a popular place for travellers because of the cheap but excellent fare and friendly atmosphere. In the absence of Ngoc and Thu, the waitresses from my previous visits, we were entertained by an inexhaustible supply of young children as we munched our way through a selection of dishes including the local speciality, banh khoai (pancake with shrimp and pork) and excellent pork slices. After a cyclo back to the hotel and a drink in the small cafe next door, I had to kill the mosquitoes lying in wait on my pillow before a restless night's sleep courtesy of a noisy and cold air conditioning unit. Up early for a walk around the block and breakfast, Ky, our new guide, accompanied us to the Royal Citadel, a huge walled area sealed by moats and enclosing the Emperor's Imperial Palace. Although most of the Palace was destroyed in the war, some impressive buildings and enormous ornamental gates have remained almost intact and are in the process of being restored by UNESCO. We completed our tour with a fleeting visit to the Military and Ancient Objects Museum.
As the day hotted up, it was onto the mini-bus for a short drive to the royal tombs of the Emperors, Tu Duc and its tranquil lakeside pavilion used in the film 'Indochine' and Khai Dinh. Back at base, beef noodles for lunch was followed by a walk to the Vietcombank to change some travellers cheques for John and then onto the afternoon boat trip along the coffee-coloured Perfume River. Time seemed to stand still as we chugged slowly upriver to the Thien Mu Pagoda, its seven-tiered tower and the blue Austin car used by monk, Thich Quang Duc to drive to Saigon and the site of his self-immolation that gained world-wide news coverage in 1963. On our return, I had a pepsi in the cafe opposite the hotel, renewing an acquaintance with the female owner, Phuong and three youngsters who found great delight in my supply of balloons.
We returned to Lac Thien for the group's evening meal and their pork spare ribs were delicious. Thu (on right in photo, with Ngoc in centre) re-appeared after being laid low with a stomach upset and seemed pleased to see me and the younger members of her family were great fun, as was dad and his bottle opening routine. Four of us extended the night with a walk across the river to the Apocalypse Now bar, where we played pool until midnight. Up early, John and myself decided to spend our final morning in Hue on a mission of discovery and hired some rickety cycles from the hotel receptionist. Our first stop was the busy Dong Ba market and we continued alongside one of Hue's many canals to Dieu De Pagoda before re-tracing our steps and visiting the peaceful Bao Quoc Pagoda. Leaving the hotel and Hue at noon, we re-joined Highway 1 and after photo-breaks at Lang Co beach and at the top of the impressive Hai Van Pass, we stopped for an hour at Danang's famous open-air Cham Museum, before carrying onto Hoi An.
As most of the activity in the small town of Hoi An centres around the Thu Bon waterfront, we made a bee-line for the market and a game of shuttlecock football with a couple of local youngsters before a mediocre evening meal at Cafe Can. Walking back through narrow streets, it was obvious by their numbers that the town is a magnet for the backpackers and tourists plying the Hanoi-Saigon route, with most of the small cafe's boasting a group of foreigners at their pavement tables. After an early night, I was up at 6am as the sun rose, for a dash to the market and boat dock to photograph a sea of conical hats and the frenetic activity surrounding the landing of that morning's catch of fish. A brief visit to a school on the other side of the river and it was back to the Hoi An hotel, the main tourist accommodation in town, for a snooze before breakfast. Afterwards, I did some solo exploration amongst the town's well-preserved houses, the Japanese covered bridge and the pagodas of Quang Dong and Trieu Chau, as well as a brief boat trip on the Thu Bon River.
After lunch, I made use of the hotel's new swimming pool whilst the majority of the group trooped off to the real China Beach and the cave grottoes of the Marble Mountains after deciding against repeating a visit I'd done the year before. Instead, I wandered down to the riverfront and spent a few lazy hours relaxing in the shade offered by the Hong Fuch cafe, where I dreamily watched the river traffic chug by and suffered friendly hassle from the waitresses, Hoa and Uyen. We returned as a group to the same cafe for our evening meal before wandering the streets haggling for t-shirts and a drink in a hole-in-the-wall bar, frequented by backpackers. The next morning, we were on the road early, stopping enroute to Quang Ngai at the three 10th century Chien Dang Cham towers near Tam Ky. For a dollar, the old curator allowed us in to look closely at the restored towers and then unlocked a store-room that contained a treasure-trove of sandstone statues that he'd dug up in his allotment nearby. After a short detour, our next stop was at Son My and the memorial grounds dedicated to the massacre of the villagers of My Lai in 1968 by American infantry. Our arrival coincided with the 29th anniversary of the atrocity, when over 500 were killed and raped without mercy, and I found the memorial, mass graves and the small museum a very moving experience.
Stopping at a street kitchen in Quang Ngai for chicken and rice, we stretched our legs briefly on the quaint beach at Sa Huynh before a longer break at the Banh It Thap Bac towers, just a few miles outside our overnight stop at Qui Nhon. On top of a steep hill, the four 11th century Cham towers have suffered from the ravages of time but offered great views of the area and were inhabited by a small army of inquisitive children who found great delight in slapping and kicking my butt! The Hai Au hotel, on the beachfront a few miles out of town, was pretty basic and before dinner, John and myself walked along the sandy beach and joined in an impromptu game of football with a group of barefoot teenagers. My meal, a pork cutlet, was pretty foul and without exception, everyone in the group had an early night. Up at sunrise, I walked along the beachfront with John, taking pictures of the fishing fleet in the shallows, the locals at the fish market on the beach and some barefoot street kids without a care in the world (left). Our mini-bus had air conditioning problems which meant a delayed departure at 9am, followed by a noon stop at the unspoiled beach at Dai Lanh - white sands fringed with coconut palms - for a shrimp and noodle lunch. Whilst the group took the opportunity to sunbathe and swim in the South China Sea, I walked along the beach for a few kilometres to watch the local fishermen and women dragging in their nets and catch in the incredible heat of the mid-day sun.
We arrived at the 7th century Po Nagar Cham towers, on the outskirts of Nha Trang, in the late afternoon. After wandering amongst the four surviving structures and taking in the great views of the bay and the fishing fleet at anchor, we moved onto our hotel, the Vien Dong, in the centre of the town. It was over the road to Cafe Thao for a chicken curry after a quick dip in the hotel's swimming pool. We moved onto the Lizard bar next door for drinks and to admire John's pool-playing prowess before I retired early to bed. A 6am walk along the busy beach - crowded with people of all ages, practising their tai chi, badminton or keep-fit exercises - preceded our early departure to spend the day sailing around the nearby off-shore islands. As we arrived at the boat dock, an ocean-liner disgorged two coachloads of tourists in a clear indication of the increasing tourist activity in the country. Most of the group either swam, sunbathed or snorkelled at a couple of stops before a lunch-break just off an isolated beach on Hon Mieu island. Back on land, we returned to the hotel by mid-afternoon, showered and had a last walk along the beachfront before making our way to the train station and the trip to Saigon for the last leg of our tour. It was 5.30pm, we said our goodbyes to Hoang, our driver since Dong Ha, stocked up with provisions of biscuits and candy for the journey and settled into our four-berth sleeping compartment.
With eleven hours to Saigon (now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City) ahead of us, we were each presented with a can of Pepsi and a small box of cakes, as well as a heavy blanket by the carriage attendant as we pulled out of the station. I managed about five hours of fitful sleep as the train rattled along, while John was out like a light and didn't re-awake until our arrival in Saigon at 5am next morning. The short coach trip through the pre-dawn, darkened streets of the city took us to our hotel, the Huong Sen, located on Dong Khoi street, well-known in previous times as the Rue Catinat and Tu Do street. I walked around the block and down to the river to get my bearings before a shower and breakfast. At 8am, the group gathered for a walking tour of some of Saigon's most famous sights, kicking off with the Municipal Theatre, Hotel Rex and Hotel Continental, Hotel de Ville (now the City Hall building), a quick rest from the sun inside the Notre Dame Cathedral (left), across the road to the General Post Office and its cavernous foyer and then onto the former US Embassy building, scene of the famous helicopter evacuation in 1975. We walked to the top of Le Duan Boulevard and the Reunification Hall, spending half an hour meandering through its over-elaborate and tacky rooms and operations bunkers before visiting the War Crimes Museum (they've recently dropped 'American ' from the name) with its collection of rusting hardware and grisly propaganda photographs.
Prior to our 1pm departure for Cholon, Saigon's thriving Chinese quarter, John and I had a noodle lunch at a street kitchen near the hotel and browsed in a couple of bookshops. Dropped off outside Cholon's main indoor market, Binh Tay, we had a quick wander amongst the stalls before passing through the bus station and onto the livestock market where the trade in live chickens, geese and ducks, tied together in bundles, was brisk. Next, we visited the Phuoc An Hoi Quan and Thien Hau temples, resplendent with huge spiral incense coils hanging from the ceiling and to avoid a persistent cyclo driver, darted into a small family pagoda, home to just 25 worshippers we were informed as part of an exhaustive guided tour by the temple's proud guardian, who spoke very little English. The half-hour cyclo ride back to the hotel cost 10,000 dong and is a great way to experience Saigon street life. Our evening meal was a short walk away at the Lemongrass restaurant, where an excellent BBQ pork ribs cost $7. Drinks at Cafe Shadow and Apocalypse Now, complete with taxi-girls and eager expats, followed before a midnight retreat to bed.
Our second day in Saigon began with an early breakfast and an 8.30am departure for the 100 kilometre drive to see the bizarre Cao Dai Cathedral and the Cu Chi tunnels. Out along Route 22, we drove through Cu Chi town and near the Moc Bai border crossing into Cambodia, arriving at the village of Long Hoa, near Tay Ninh, an hour before the mid-day service. Shuffling shoe-less along an overhead balcony, I managed about ten minutes of the ceremony, just long enough to see the colourful robes of the priests and worshippers as they entered the dayglo temple, but the hot, sticky heat and the mass of tourists prompted me to exit quickly. After a brief encounter with Ham, a cheeky and persistent chewing-gum seller, we stopped off in Tay Ninh for a chicken and noodle lunch, arriving at the underground tunnels at Ben Duoc at 3pm. Despite feelings of a 'stage-managed tourist show', it was my second visit and I enjoyed it as much as the first. A crackling video and a walk along a denuded forest trail complete with bomb craters brought us to a series of bunkers and tunnels. The whole group went into the first few but less than half went down into the second level, an arduous 30-metre crouching walk through a narrow and incredibly hot tunnel and then just four attempted the claustrophobic third level. After a quick visit to the AK47 firing range and a drink, we made the return trip to Saigon, arriving back at 6pm in the middle of the rush-hour traffic. The evening meal, a few blocks away at Restaurant 19 and a delicious sweet and sour pork dish, preceded a group drink at a street kitchen and more of the same at Apocalypse Now, Cafe Saigon (where we had to literally fight off the hostesses) and Cafe Shadow.
The briefest of adventures in the Mekong Delta beckoned us the following morning and a 7.30am departure time meant another early start. Two hours later, we arrived at the market town of Mytho and boarded our boat for a trip on a branch of the upper Mekong River, the Tien Giang. Stopping off at Thoi Son island for a fruit-tasting session and a walk through the longan orchards, we also sampled rice whisky in a local homestead before clambering abroad five-man canoes for a twenty minute 'jungle experience' paddling silently along a narrow waterway back to the main boat. Returning to Mytho by noon, John and myself split from the group and walked along a small back-street running parallel to the Bao Dinh canal which cuts the town in two. It proved to be an inspired decision as hordes of locals, especially children, called out their hellos, posed for photos (right) and seemed genuinely pleased to see us, so much so that we doubled back and did it again! We returned to Saigon for 3pm and I walked to the Post Office to ring my wife and visited the Ben Thanh indoor market to haggle for t-shirts (three t-shirts for $7 seemed a good price to me). For our final meal together in Vietnam, the group returned to the Lemongrass restaurant and I splashed out on BBQ pork ribs and chicken in lemongrass at a cost of 148,000 dong! We rounded off the night with a pool competition at the Wild West bar and late drinks and a few drunken dances at the heaving Apocalypse Now until the early hours.
My last morning in Vietnam began at 7.30am and after breakfast and settling my laundry bill, we left a couple of hours later for the twenty minute drive to Saigon's Tan Son Nhat airport. The book-in and goodbyes to Tim, our excellent trip leader and the other group members was all a bit frantic as John had lost his immigration forms and was still in the passport queue when the last call for his flight home was announced over the tannoy system. Meanwhile, I sat down to await the call for my flight to Cambodia and another series of adventures. Vietnam had been a magical experience, even more so second time around. The friendliness of the people is unrivalled, the food awesome and the cultural heritage is a kaleidoscope of influences and history. I recommend you go now before that special charm completely disappears under the tourist stampede.
My tour of Vietnam was with Explore Worldwide. Click to visit their website.
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