Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Vietnam surprises

A recent change in business circumstances gave my man the perfect opportunity.  My excuse of “I can’t be away too long and I really need to keep an eye on things was gone”, so he swooped.  How about a holiday to Vietnam?

Asia has never been on my must travel to list.  I love Europe and quite like America.  I am over 6 foot and very fair so no blending in as a local was going to be possible.  The handful of foreign languages I speak include nothing from Asia.

But why not?  Something outside the norm could be just what I needed to regroup.  We researched and came up with a House of Travel organised group tour.  Sounded very safe and organised.  I can do something better said Ramona from House of Travel.  How about a customised tour with Active Asia?  It didn’t cost much more and could be rejigged by us as we went if we needed time out, or wanted more time shopping or exploring a particular area. It also provided a guide meeting us at each airport and checking us into our hotel and then meeting us for the organised bits of the holiday.

My first few hours in Vietnam, were in Saigon.  Officially this is Ho Chi Minh City but mostly only when written down.  We arrived on a flight from Singapore where we had taken an overnight break.  The local guide met us as the airport which still has Vietnam War Era helicopter hangars along the taxi way. 

His first piece of information was that the 7 km drive into the city would take 45 minutes.  In the last 10-15 years the modern world has arrived in Vietnam and this new consumer society is mostly transported by motor scooter.  There are hundreds on them on all the roads and they carry people and boxes and almost anything that needs to go from A to B. So the roads are packed and 40 kmh would be the top speed for a city journey and you never know when a bicycle, motorbike or buffalo may wander out in front of you.  And of course the other obstacle is pedestrians including us who quickly learn to just walk into the traffic and keep walking as it drives around you.  You cannot hire a car if you were feeling brave enough, as a Vietnamese driving licence is required. Our guides came with matching drivers!

This country is taking Ho Chi Minh’s message of progress through education to its heart.  People live and work in their businesses be it a shop, a sand barge, a fishing boat, or a fish farm.  To my eyes it looked slum like.  However Vietnam is not to be underestimated.  Samsung, Canon, Adidas and many other major corporations manufacture much of their product here.  The three guides who shared our time in Vietnam had all grown up subsistence farming and now in their 30s are earning good money guiding people like us. These people are learning their value to the world.

Once Tuang had us checked into our hotel on that first day we bravely learnt how to cross a street and went off to the local market and then later found a yummy and busy restaurant and had our first Vietnamese meal.  Bring on the chilli, coriander and fish sauce!

The following morning Tuang took us to Cu Chi to see the amazing tunnels that foiled America’s stupid war!  We lunched in a local restaurant on a river where the food was grown by local farmers.  A visit to the War Remnants Museum back in Saigon this afternoon added to my anger at 1960s and 70s America and my incredulity that they hadn’t learnt much about interfering in other parts of the world with their own gain in mind!

 The next day we journeyed a couple of hours to the Mekong Delta.  What a huge expanse of water!  We avoided the group tours and a locally owned traditional wooden boat took us across the river to a local orchard and then a coconut candy maker.  These are all small businesses run by 5-8 people.  Development in action is supplementing the traditional Mekong produce of rice and fish.  After a horse and wagon gave us a lift down the road, we then walked into the jungle for 15-20 minutes and again lunched at a hidden local gem of a restaurant.  It was geared up for tourists but the locals also ate there.  Then we rowed down a jungle stream back to our boat, where its Captain was still fiddling with the water pump that had been breaking down on the way across.  The presence of Tuang kept me calm.  If trouble arose he could fix it.

When we arrived back in Saigon we visited an ancient Chinese pagoda and then the wholesale market that the local retailers visit. High end labelled products from clothes and shoes to suitcases and confectionery were all stacked in plastic bags in tiny stalls where people were doing business, or napping or eating.  This was a full on experience.  After a long hot day it was a pleasure to escape back to our hotel for a swim and then a drink at the rooftop bar that was frequented by GIs back in the 60s.

The next day we farewelled Tuan and flew with Vietnam Airlines to Danang about halfway up Viet Nam on the coast.  Our destination was the medieval town of Hoi An and a few days rest based at the Golden Sands beach resort. We spent 4 days in Hoi An with Tuong as our local guide.  The resort had an amazing pool which we did use but it rained and rained and the wind blew in between the fine periods.   One day the river came up and low streets flooded.  During this we took a boat to Red Bridge cooking school along the river and cooked spring rolls, shrimp pancakes and other yummy local food.  The instructor had a great sense of humour and entertained as well as teaching us the local cuisine.

After days of full on Vietnamese food I said thank you to the French colonists.  The people here love to eat baguettes. So I had a baguette sandwich for dinner. I had been eating too much chilli and my upset stomach needed something plainer.

At local tailors Yaly I had a new suit tailor made for me.  Its size is not L or XL it is size Andrew. It all took just 2 days and looks very smart. I loved the personal service and the huge choice of fabrics on offer.

Then it was time for the 3 hour drive to the old imperial city of Hue. En route we visited Marble Mountain where marble sculptures succeeded in tempting us and then on to the museum of Cham culture.  The Cham were dominant in northern Vietnam until around the eleventh century.

We lunched near the GI’s fave spot of China Beach and then drove another 90 minutes to our Hue hotel by the Perfume River.  Hue was a smaller city and helped us to continue to unwind as we experienced more of this startlingly different country.  The next day we visited Tu Doc’s tomb.  He ruled for 35 years and spent his final years here reflecting on the needs of his people while supervising this amazing tomb and its gardens.  Back in Hue we visited the Citadel and the old imperial palace.  It had been an amazing complex but the American’s had bombed most of it, leaving only the main palace rooms.

 Lunch today was at a cafe near the citadel which is rated in Lonely Planet and is certainly rightfully popular for its spring rolls and kebabs.  This evening we found a Hue restaurant called Confetti.  The staff were dressed in starched pink shirts and provided great service.  The food was local and presented beautifully.  Even though we had a few drinks as well as several courses we were pleased to see it on the visa statement when we got home at the grand total of NZ $62.

The last 5 days of our journey beckoned as we flew on to Hanoi.  Again we were in a brash busy city.  Hanoi is attractive with its many lakes and the tradition of its Ancient Quarter.  This area is set up in the traditional layout of streets all specialising in specific merchandise.  Some of the old history is obscured by commercialism but it is an amazing place to wander.  Do take a map so you don’t get too lost. 

A must see in Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  Do wear trousers if you go as this is a sombre and important memorial for all Vietnamese.  Our guide helped us queue jump which would be great on a hot Hanoi day.  Afterwards there is a walk through the Palace grounds to see the simple houses where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked.  There is a well presented museum to him as well.    His messages of education and food for all along with a respect for the environment are being heeded today 40 years after he died.

Next up was Halong Bay.  This is a must visit bay of approximately 1500 limestone islands.  It is a 4 hour crazy drive north west of Hanoi.  We went with our guide and driver.  You can join a coach tour or in 2014 or thereabouts there will be a new Skytrain service from Hanoi.  We boarded a Bhaya Cruise and checked out our cabin with ensuite.  About 30 of us were overnighting on board.  The food was good.  After several days as a couple some social chit chat was quite fun too.  We visited fish farms, oyster pearl farms and a huge cave system and sailed a wide route around the bay before returning late the following morning for our drive back to Hanoi.

Vietnam!  The people are delightfully welcoming.  The country is a land of contrasts.  There is a diverse history of sadness and hope.  There are lots of pagodas and temples which shape the context of Vietnam’s history.  Shopping is fun and bargains are there if you negotiate cleverly.  And tailor-made clothing would be a key reason to head back again!

Travel Tips:

You can withdraw Vietnamese Dong from ATMs.

US Dollars are widely accepted and prices are often quoted in USD as well as in VND.

A guide and driver is an affordable alternative to group tours and using trains and taxis.

Most good hotels provide complimentary bottled water.

There is lots to see so don’t attempt to rush through Vietnam.

 Andrew and Bevan paid their own way to Vietnam.
Since coming back I have read more about Vietnam including an overview of Indochina from Thames and Hudson, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam from Former Secretary of Defense, Robert Mcnamara and the wonderfully optimistic Vietnam, Now from reporter, David Lamb.

No comments:

Post a Comment