2011 – Vietnam

Sunday, 24 April
We departed London Heathrow at 12pm yesterday. Twelve hours in the air and we landed at Kuala Lumpur this morning. It was the wrong time to sleep, so I felt a bit like I was sleepwalking through today.

We are travelling with our friends, the same couple we went to Borneo with last year. We got to the hotel too early to check in so we left the luggage and went for a walk around, wearing the same clothes we’ve been wearing since yesterday. Kuala Lumpur is clearly undergoing a lot of development. The place is a building site, and there is a lot of road work going on around the hotel.

The hotel is right next to a massive shopping centre – Pavilion Place. We had dinner there tonight, at a German restaurant. Probably the only place in this Muslim country where bacon, pork and beer were available.

Monday, 25 April

We left Kuala Lumpur this morning and took a flight to Hanoi. We are staying at the Sheraton Hanoi, which is a lovely hotel. We’re only here one night, though, and then we’re off to the junk boat so there’s no point in unpacking.

Hanoi and the 'stinky lake'

We took a cab to the Old Town to have a look around. My first impression of Vietnam is that the roads are terrifying. There are very few cars, but everyone rides mopeds. Those that can’t afford a moped have a bicycle. This is clearly the only means of transportation available to most locals, and they pile all kinds of things onto their mopeds, including families of five. There are absolutely no pedestrian crossings, and no one stops for pedestrians. To cross the road, you have to step off the kerb, walk quickly without looking either way around, and hpe for the best. It’s seriously intimidating.

The centre of the city is dominated by a large lake, in the middle of which sits a temple on an island. The lake smells terrible – like something long dead and rotting. The temple pays homage to the giant turtles, who allegedly live in the lake and protect the city, and are sacred. At least, they used to live in the lake. It’s now so polluted nothing lives in it. We found out later that a few years ago, a couple of turtles were introduced into the lake, in order to protect the city once more. The turtles promptly crawled out of the lake and died. The Hanoi people are currently taking steps to address the problem of their horribly polluted lake, and there is evidence that they are attempting to clean it up.

For dinner tonight we took a walk down the road and ate at a Chinese restaurant called The Mandarin. It was very nice, but very empty – we were the only people in there.

Tuesday, 26 April
We were up early this morning, as we were collected from the hotel at 7:30am for the Halong Bay tour. We did manage to get breakfast at the Sheraton before we left – they had a very impressive spread. They even had soya milk, something I often can’t find when we travel.

It was a three-hour drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay. The junk boat, when we eventually boarded it, is far more luxurious than I imagined. I was picturing bunks and buckets. Instead, Chris and I have a private cabin with a double bed, and ensuite bathroom which includes a shower. The water is calm, and the views in the bay are breathtaking.

Me on the junk boat

We were shuttled off the boat on a couple of occasions to look at caves. Although the caves are beautiful, tourists are hussled through them in an assembly line. I try to remember that Vietnam has only been open to tourists for about 15 years, and they are a communist country. Although they are welcoming this new way of bringing money into the country with enthusiams, they still have a lot to learn about how tourists expect to be treated. One bizarre thing was the presence of penguin-shaped litter bins, every ten feet without fail, in the caves. Someone clearly told them that tourists expect novelty litter bins. Or they were purchased in a job lot from Disneyland.

The food on the junk boat is exclusively sea food, but it’s very fresh and very good. We even tried some Vietnamese wine, and discovered it’s not half bad. We quickly adapted to a most agreeable routine on the junk, relaxing on the deck with drinks and taking in the fabulous scenery. The climate in Vietnam is always hot and humid, but out here in the bay it is very pleasant.

Wednesday, 27 April
A Western breakfast on the boat this morning, and a trip to more caves before an early lunch and disembarking from the boat. Then we had the three-hour drive back to Hanoi. The road quality is abominable, and the suspension on the bus was virtually non-existent, which made for a rather bone-shaking ride. I was glad of my travel bands. There is no reason why they should work, but they do, and they stop me getting travel sick.

Halong Bay

We are back in the luxury of the Hanoi Sheraton tonight. We spent some time lying by the pool before trying one of the many restaurants for dinner – ‘Hemispheres’, the Vietnamese restaurant. Rather posh and very nice.

Thursday, 28 April
I was sad to leave the Sheraton today – I could get used to that level of luxury. We took a flight from Hanoi to Da Nang. The flight was delayed by half an hour but only an hour long. We were met at the other end by our driver, who took us on the three-hour drive to Hue. It’s quite an interesting drive, as going North to South really emphasises the fact that Vietnam is in fact two distinctly different countries. Each has a different ethnic background, different attitude and different lifestyle.

We stopped twice on the journey. Once for drinks at a market stall, where we were harassed to buy things, but there was a fort left over from the war, complete with bullet holes, at this site, and the boys took the opportunity to go exploring. We also stopped for a late lunch, at what appeared to be a very new resort hotel. More evidence of Vietnam’s changing attitude to tourism – there is a great deal of building work going on, and most of it is to build hotels.

War Remnant on the road to Hue

It was after 5pm when we arrived at our hotel – the Park View in Hue. We were rather exhausted after our day of travelling and had dinner in the hotel restaurant, where we all showed weakness and ordered Western food, after days of Vietnamese noodles and sea food.

Friday, 29 April
The Royal Wedding, and even here in the middle of Asia we cannot escape it, as it was shown live on TV. Vietnam is several hours ahead of the UK, though, so it started early. We caught just a few minutes of it before we left for our trip today – I wanted to see Kate’s dress. We tuned in just in time to see the happy couple emerging after the register signing.

We began our day riding in a dragon boat down the Perfume River. This fanciful name apparently comes from the blossom on the trees that line the river on both sides. It’s a somewhat ironic name, as the river is full of rubbish and is in no way fragrant.

Thich Quang Duc's car

The trip ended at the Thien Mu Pagoda, which is seven storeys high and is in the grounds of a still-functioning Buddhist Monastery. Also in the grounds of the monastery is the car that the monk Thich Quay Duch drove from Hue to Saigon in 1963, before setting himself on fire as a protest about the way Buddhist monks were being persecuted by the Vietnamese communist party. There is a very famous picture of this event that I remember seeing as a child, and being affected by it. I couldn’t comprehend the agony he must have endured, or what would drive anyone to do such a thing. In any case, this monk is revered as a martyr at the monastery in Hue, and the car is on display as a shrine to his memory.

After that, we visited the Citadel, which is a massive site and includes the Imperial City. It is in the process of extensive restoration, as it burned down in 1947 and the unrestored parts are still fire-blackened. It was the site of a pretty horrendous battle during the Vietnam War. It’s fair to say there isn’t a lot of love for Americans in Hue.

Dragon Boats on the Perfume River

Saturday, 30 April
We left Hue today to make the long drive back to Da Nang, to fly to Saigon. Although we arrived in good time, the flight was delayed. Not that we were told it was delayed. I was once more reminded of the fact that Vietnam is communist by the attitude that no one’s told anything. After making a fuss we were changed from the 8:50pm flight to the 9:50pm flight, only to eventually learn that the later flight was delayed too. There followed hours of waiting around, in a tiny airport that has no facilities.

Eventually, at 11:55pm, we were all ordered immediately onto the plane and it took off at midnight. Fortunately for us, our driver was still waiting at the other end. But it was 2:00am by the time we arrived at our hotel in Saigon.

Sunday, 1 May
In spite of our late arrival, we still had to get up early this morning, for our tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. These are the tunnels that the Viet Cong lived in for months at a time, to avoid detection by American soldiers. The tunnels are absolutely tiny – designed to fit the diminutive Asian frame, whilst being too small for the larger Western frame to fit in. There is one section of tunnel that has been widened so that tourists can crawl through it, but it’s still pretty claustrophic. In fact, I declined to go down into it, as I do get claustrophobia in small enclosed spaces.

The rest of the tunnel tour involves being told about how the Viet Cong survived for so long in these tiny underground tunnels. Since my only education about the Vietnam war up to now has been from American films (and only the Americans call it the Vietnam war – as Vietnam has had many wars, they refer to it as the American War), it was rather interesting to get a viewpoint from the other side.  It’s hard to see how there were any winners in this war – both sides paid a high price.

A guide demonstrates how to enter a tunnel at Cu Chi

We were back at the hotel in time for lunch, and in the afternoon we went for a walk around. Although the city is officially named Ho Chi Min City, the locals all refer to it as Saigon.  Saigon is much more Westernised than Hanoi, and the American influence is evident. Saigon shop keepers will accept dollars as payment, whereas if you waved a dollar bill at anyone in Hanoi, you would get a decidedly frosty reception. There are big modern Western-style shopping malls, but the layout still reminded us that we in a communist country. Shops are grouped together by function, rather than for maximum commercial opportunity. So all the electrical shops are next to each other, all the coffee shops are next to each other, all the clothing shops are next to each other.

Walking around Saigon is very difficult when you have asthma, because the air quality is appalling. Pollution is terrible, and the hot, humid environment really aggravates the problem. Five minutes in Saigon air and I’m wheezing, even with my inhaler. I understand now why all the locals wear face masks.

It’s also a bit uncomfortable walking around Saigon because we get stared at by the locals. Some of them even touched me as I walked by. Not in any kind of invasive way – just a touch on the arm. It seems the locals find Westerners exotic and exciting, and that’s why attracted so much attention. Another sign that tourism here is in its infancy – the locals are not used to seeing tourists.

Monday 2 May
Chris’s birthday, and we spent the day on a boat trip going down the Mekong Delta. We were collected from the hotel at 8am – a more reasonable start time than other trips – and had another 2-hour bus ride to our destination.

The Mekong Delta is another dirty river. No one seems to care much about where they dump their rubbish, or perhaps it’s because there aren’t many options. In any case, a lot of it ends up in the rivers. There’s a floating market usually operating on the Mekong Delta, with the vendors displaying their wares on poles at the end of their boats – turnips, perhaps, or local fruits.

The Floating Market on the Mekong Delta

We stopped off to watch Vietnamese sweets being made. This starts off with rice being ‘popped’ in a very hot pan, and then it is mixed with condensed milk. They are fond of condensed milk in Vietnam – they have it in their coffee, too. We also got to taste some of the sweets, to entice us to buy some. The popped rice tasted a bit like Sugar Puffs. There was also coconut toffee, andfor the more brave-hearted, snake wine – made with snake blood, and complete with dead pickled snake in the bottle. I passed on that one. Our more courageous friends gave it a try, but reported back it didn’t taste all that great.

After piling back on the bus, we stopped off for a very nice lunch, including a lot of delicious and fresh fish. As we were getting ready to head back to the bus, it started to rain. And when it rains here, it really doesn’t mess about. This was a proper tropical rain storm. We hung around half an hour or so hoping it would stop, but when it didn’t, our guides provided us all with plastic ponchos with pointy hoods (very stylish) and we headed back to the bus in the pouring rain. The plastic ponchos didn’t stop us getting wet, but they did on the whole stop us from getting completely drenched. And because it’s so hot, we did dry out pretty quickly.

Back in Saigon we decided to find a nice restaurant for dinner, as it was a special occasion, and we went to a Japanese place near the hotel. The food was very good, and the place was clearly expensive by Vietnamese standards. But I’ve mentioned before the service industry, for tourists, is clearly in its infancy. If you order something on the menu that’s not available, the staff give you something else. If you complain and say that this isn’t what you ordered, they insist that it is. In the Japanese restaurant we had trouble getting the white wine we wanted, and when it did eventually arrive, it was warm.

Tuesday, 3 May
We had a later start this morning, foregoing the hotel breakfast – which really isn’t very good – and had a decidedly better breakfast at a nearby restauant.

Electrical wiring, Saigon style

After that, we visited Saigon Zoo. In some ways it was a throwback to the 1970s. There were kids feeding the elephants (something no one’s allowed to do in the UK anymore), and a children’s play area with kid’s rides I haven’t seen since I was a kid. We saw no other Westerners in the zoo – all the visitors were locals. I also thought the animals didn’t look very happy – I don’t think they are treated very well.

After walking around the zoo, we’d all had enough of the oppressive heat, so we escaped to the air-conditioned shopping centre for lunch and ended up in Pizza Hut.

In the afternoon, we went to the War Remnants Museum, a sobering place that gives another perspective of how much the Vietnamese people suffered during the war with America. Particularly disturbing is the room full of photographs of the aftermath of Agent Orange, the chemical that American planes dumped on the foliage to remove the Viet Cong’s hiding places. Forty years later, the people in the vicinity are still giving birth to horribly deformed babies. In the museum’s lobby, a band consisting of Agent Orange victims plays. The keyboard player the day we were there was a man with no face – he just had holes where his nose and mouth should have been. This I found particularly disturbing, featureless and deformed faces being a particular fear of mine.

Dinner tonight was at the Ciao Cafe, where we had lunch the first day here, providing an agreeable mix of Western and Vietnamese food.

We leave Vietnam tomorrow. Although it has been a very interesting trip, I have to say I won’t miss it. The country is too dirty, too chaotic and too polluted for me to feel comfortable here. I would,however, say that it is worth a visit. It is so alien to our own way of life in the West, it is a fascinating place, and it does make me appreciate all the more how lucky we are here in the UK, to have so many things deprived to others that we take for granted.

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