Coming to the end of the alphabet now, and V is for Vietnam, a country we visited as part of an Indochina tour in March 2013. We visited too many places to put them all in one armchair travel blog, so I’ve concentrated on Hanoi, the capital of the north, and with a very different vibe from most of the rest of the country. So when you think of Vietnam (or Hanoi), what do you think of? Maybe something to do with this:
The mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh dominates the city as does his legacy. But let’s start off with something a little gentler. The first thing we saw in Hanoi was an out-of-town water puppet theatre, in the village of Dao Thuc.
Puppeteers work behind the stage and under the water to bring their stories to life.
It all feels like the product of a very innocent age. The puppeteers are all local farm workers, who put the shows on in order to keep the tradition alive. At the end of the show we give them a round of applause.
And they applaud us back. After the show we were invited to go “backstage” (as it were) to see the puppets for ourselves. And, as always, they take on a sinister appearance when they’re not on stage.
Back in the city, we visited the 900 year old Temple of Literature, a Confucian sanctuary and historical centre of learning.
We also visited the Museum of Ethnology, a park containing replica buildings, textiles, musical instruments, etc, showing the diversity of people who make up the country of Vietnam.
At night, everyone seems to gather around the Hoan Kiem Lake, to engage in all sorts of pastimes. Tai Chi, exercise classes, rollerblading and breakdancing, all to a Michael Jackson soundtrack! Not what I would have expected from Communist Vietnam.
The following morning we were ready for The Big Sight. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. There’s a museum devoted to him of course, but the queue was too long for us to join.
The same applied to the mausoleum! These people are queueing to get in.
There’s no doubt it’s architecturally outstanding – in a very Soviet way.
It’s located on a vast, but otherwise empty, square, just to make it stand out. And you can’t stand too close to the building. Come back you two, you’ll get into trouble with the police!
Nearby is the more modest, and more classically attractive, Presidential Palace.
You can’t linger here either. But you can at the One Pillar Pagoda, an attractive wooden pagoda originally constructed in the 11th century, standing in an elegant lotus pond.
Before we say goodbye to Hanoi, let’s just meet some of the people. Boys will be boys, right? You just know they’re up to no good.
Everyone relies on motorbikes.
And dining is informal, taken wherever you can.
The mausoleum is patrolled by men in smart uniforms.
But farming is the heart of the country.
Much to our guide’s horror, I took a photo of a protest. He was furious, saying the police would rip the camera from me and we’d all get into terrible trouble.
We didn’t. But it was a fine example of how Hanoi had a very anxious and tense feel that the rest of the country didn’t. Instead, envy the children, who aren’t yet too worried about things!
If you’d like to read about our visit in greater detail, I wrote a blog post at the time that you can find here. Now that lockdowns are (hopefully) a thing of the past, it makes sense for this to be my last Lockdown Armchair Travel post. However, if we’re all confined to barracks again, I expect I’ll go back to the letter A and start all over again!
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, hereafter referred to as HCMC) quite late in the evening and were met by our guide Hai. From the moment we met him, till the moment he left us in the southern Vietnamese town of Chau Doc, we barely understood a word he said. All our other guides in Indochina, although they were local, had good, understandable, English accents. Sadly, not Hai. I’m sure he had lots of interesting observations and he was a very nice man but his voice was just like that of Kim Jong-il in South Park.
Our hotel for our two nights in HCMC was the Caravelle, and ever so swanky it is too. Built in 1959, it was a communications hub during the Vietnam War and was also home to the Australian and New Zealand embassies. Very sweetly they had left a chocolate dessert in our bedroom with “Happy Wedding Anniversary” written in dark chocolate on a while chocolate slab. So kind. It still wasn’t our anniversary yet, but at least it was easier to manage (and tastier) than the huge bouquet Mrs Chrisparkle was given in Hué. After unpacking, we went for a walk around the block, but for simplicity’s sake, that night we ate in the hotel’s restaurant and for the life of me I can’t remember anything about it. Must have been ok, then.
The next morning we were all bound for our first excursion of the day, to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Cu Chi is about 25 miles out of HCMC, and is famous for its network of tunnels built by the Viet Cong, where they hid from American forces during the war. This intricate network has tiny entrance holes, many invisible as they are covered over by leaves and other natural vegetation. The majority of them were far too small for me to squeeze into, although Mrs C has more of a Viet Cong physique and was able to slide in and out of a few trapdoors. The advice to visitors includes forbidding them to enter the tunnels if they are of “old age (70 years or more)” (a bit cheeky) or “visitors got drunk on alcohol or beer”. Clearly Vietnamese beer doesn’t count as alcohol.
Not only does the area have this network of tunnels, it’s also littered with mantraps, and it’s also an area that was heavily mined, so you have to be careful where you walk, and keep alert. There are some contraptions that if you step on them the surface swings down – the earth effectively gives way – and spears the unfortunate person on grisly looking spikes. This was not a nice war. There are also displays of a captured American tank, some cluster bombs, an underground camp hospital, and waxwork models of prisoners. It’s a sobering, serious place; fascinating to visit, but you come away horrified at the miseries that war puts everyone through. On a more mundane level, I’ve never seen this before – but they have an ingenious way of making sure the Gents’ urinals are kept clean: each bowl is filled as far as possible with hundreds of gin-and-tonic-sized blocks of ice. Gentlemen will understand when I say it made for an entertaining, potentially artistic and sometimes unpredictable visit to the loo.
After the visit, we returned to HCMC, stopping briefly to admire a forest full of seemingly identical rubber trees, planted at regular intervals. Hai showed us the incisions made in the tree bark and how the sap drips out and gets collected in primitive little bowls. Apparently the trees belong to none other than the Michelin Company – I’m guessing its tyre division as opposed to the haute cuisine. You could have a great game of hide and seek here – especially if you’re quite thin.
These long roads between towns in Vietnam don’t have much in the way of service stations or accommodation for long distance lorry drivers, so enterprising café owners and farmers have come up with a lucrative solution to this problem – rows upon rows of hammocks, tied between the trees, perfect for a few hours’ rest – or indeed an overnight stay – before completing your journey. Let’s face it – it doesn’t get cold overnight, in fact I don’t think I’d been anywhere that humid. As we approached HCMC the roadsides were littered with hammocks, with drivers loafing on them enjoying a well-earned rest. As you get closer to the city centre, the numbers of bikes increase – as you might expect – and there were the usual amazingly ambitious achievements of balance on a bike to be gawped at. Massive bags of laundry, a mobile greengrocer stall, pet shop puppies, and charred lumps of wood were all being carried by various riders on their tiny bikes. The best one though was the guy who was carrying six boxes of goods and three massive pots of paint on his bike. An incredible feat of engineering! Whilst we watched these testimonies to commerce go by, Hai decided to put on his easy-listening cassette. The softest jazz covers of Killing Me Softly and Sealed with a Kiss were enough to give you a mild headache but it was We Wish You a Merry Christmas (in March) that really made me want to puke.
For lunch we went to Monsoon – good quality food in a very nice setting. Our menu included a Sweet and Sour fish soup, some mixed Vietnamese appetizers, braised pork and eggs in caramel sauce (that’s just the kind of taste mix that I really don’t need to revisit), stir-fried beef with pumpkin flowers, and (no tittering please) stir-fried morning glory with garlic. Unfortunately the restaurant continued with the gloopy western easy-listening sounds, that they obviously assume we tourists love to hear, so it didn’t encourage us to linger.
After lunch we had a trip to the Presidential Palace. This is a fascinating building, combining grand state rooms for visiting dignitaries, lecture theatres, posh drawing rooms, and amazing art work; while in the basement you can discover the military communication centre during the war, including the President’s war room (one of those places with lots of charts on the walls and a severe looking desk with just a green telephone on top) and the emergency kitchens. I had quite a lot of fun pretending to be the President taking urgent calls on the phone when no one was looking (and ignoring the sign next to the phone that says “do not touch”). It was just too tempting.
We went on to the War Remnants Museum. This, by contrast, isn’t a place for levity. There were various exhibitions of different aspects of the war, and there’s no holding back on the plentiful illustrations that cannot fail to upset you. We endured some of the images of gruesome deformities brought about by Agent Orange, but it was all very sad and distressing, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to go upstairs to look at the (apparently even worse) images up there. We’re all different, and people deal with the repercussions of war in many ways; but I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing a middle-aged American man posing victoriously in front of some of these exhibits, accompanied by his children (aged about 10?) whilst his wife took pictures of them all smiling and looking delighted alongside images of dead and deformed Vietnamese. Outside are some wartime US Army aircraft, tanks and a helicopter which you can wander around; they are genuinely interesting and evocative to see.
It was getting late in the day but we still had a couple of sights left on the list. We visited the 19th century Notre Dame cathedral just as they were closing but snuck in long enough to take a couple of photos – very imposing, but seeming bizarrely out of place in this Buddhist land with a violent past. It’s a very charming building though, with its spires and rose window and French colonial style. Even livelier and grander, we visited the old Post Office, still used as such today as well as being a tourist information centre. It was designed by M. Gustav Eiffel, of the Tower fame.
After a much needed nap, we went out to explore the night time streets and to forage for food. We discovered a very quirky and upmarket shop which I think was called Mainan (or something similar). It was next door to the Parkson department store on Le Thanh Ton. Whilst Mrs C and our co-travellers were browsing the goods, I thought I’d take a couple of photos of their amusing décor. At that point, their security guard (who looked about 19) stepped forward and told me loudly “NO!” Well, I’m sorry, no one tells me “NO” when we’re considering buying things from their shop. Briefly explaining what had happened to Mrs C, I marched out making it clear to the security guard (whose jaw had fallen to the floor in astonishment) that he’d definitely lost any custom I might have brought to the shop. So rather than blogging about what an enjoyable experience you can have at Mainan, I will instead tell you it’s full of absurdly overpriced unwearable rubbish (800 dollars for a shirt, are you serious?) and not to waste your time there. After I’d left, I sulked around Parkson until the others joined me.
We were out to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and we’d noticed this nice-looking restaurant on a brief round-tour the previous night. It was Colonial French rather than authentic Asian, and we fancied a change. It was the Brasserie of Saigon. We had a lovely French meal in its elegant and refined surroundings – the Chateaubriand, and a fantastic bottle of Saint Emilion to accompany. You really felt like you were in Paris. Sadly, according to Trip Advisor, it looks like it’s now a Starbucks. That’s a real pity. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel because we wanted to try the Saigon Saigon rooftop bar atop the Caravelle. I have to say – it was amazing. The night time views are stunning, and you feel so spoilt and cosmopolitan up there. It’s a real privilege.
The next morning we left HCMC for a long day’s travelling down to the Mekong Delta and the city of Can Tho. The journey was divided up into different segments to make it more interesting! First, we drove to Ben Tre to pick up a motorboat (courtesy of mientaytourist.com) to take us on the Mekong to one of the four islands there – Unicorn Island (the others being Dragon, Turtle and Phoenix Islands). The water is very brown and muddy as you drive past the stilt houses and the fish farms on the wide stretch of the Mekong, but turn off down a tributary and it gets narrower and narrower as you approach Unicorn Island – so much so that you can almost touch land either side of the boat with your outstretched arms. Once we got off we were met by a donkey cart to take us to this little place where we sampled some local fruits, drank traditional tea with honey and lime, and heard a local folksong performance. Then it was back on the boat again to travel past the backs of the little villages, where people spill out off the land and on to rowing boats moored up against the jungle to live a life on water. We visited Tan Thach Market where they showed us how they made the traditional coconut candy. That was yummy.
Lunch was taken at My Tho – I can’t remember anything about the restaurant or the meal, as the only photograph I took was of the bizarre illustrations above the urinals (yes I know it’s the second mention of urinals in this blog post) where images of attractive young Vietnamese women look down upon you as you’re doing your duty and pour scorn on the beefiness of your manhood. Then it’s back on Road Number 1 all the way to Can Tho, with only Hai’s easy-listening torture music to keep you awake.
Our hotel at Can Tho was the lovely Victoria Can Tho, splendidly located by the water’s edge which was perfect for a late evening stroll to the sound of the Mekong. The hotel has lush gardens and is a haven for geckos, hence the warning in your room that geckos might invade at any time. Dinner was delish, and we had a particularly helpful waitress called Dung.
The next morning we were off on yet another boat trip, this time to visit the floating markets at Cai Rang. Four miles out into the river, it’s the largest floating market in Indochina. Boats of all sizes and colours vie for position selling their wares – fruit and vegetables, flowers, fish, in fact everything you would expect from a typical Asian market. Some boats approach you rather than wait for you to come to them – these tended to be the ones selling tourist trinkets and hot food and drink to take away. Yes, there’s even Fast Food on the waters of the Mekong. We clambered off our boat and on to another one where a lady was preparing fresh pineapples for snacking. They tasted fantastic. The market area is not limited to the water of course; your little tourist boat moors up and you get out in the middle of a very extensive market, not only full of the usual fruit, vegetables and fish, but also clothes, toys, and other household equipment. One stall sold what looked like gargantuan sized pieces of Crystal Meth – but we were advised it was sugar.
After we’d had enough market to last a lifetime, it was time to head back to Can Tho by boat for the onward journey. We were happily chugging on the crest of a wave when the sound of the boat’s engine started to get a bit panicky. It slowed down; the skipper looked concerned. We pretended that we weren’t remotely worried about being on a little boat that was about to sink in the middle of the Mekong. He started lifting up the floorboards to reveal the engine beneath, where he stared, prodded and poked, with a bemused expression and looking all the world like the legendary boy sent in to do a man’s job. After a quarter of an hour or so of discussion with the skipper of an adjacent boat, it finally occurred to them that we were simply out of fuel. A watering can of fuel was therefore procured from another vessel, and we limped our way back to the bank.
It was all aboard the minibus for the next leg of the journey, aiming for the Crocodile Farm at Trai Ca Sau Long Xuyen. It wasn’t a very big minibus to accommodate us five passengers, plus all our cases, as well as the driver and the guide, and things started to get a little fractious as we tried to sort out the best configuration of seating to make it as spacious as possible. Inevitably, if one person ended up with sufficient leg room, someone else was being squeezed in a corner. Still, we tried to make the best of it. The Crocodile Farm was quite interesting – there were hundreds of them, all flopped over each other in that unusual crocodily way they have of looking like they’ve just been toppled out of some gigantic bucket and just left where they landed. We ended up having lunch with the crocs; or at least at the Farm tea room.
We continued our minibus journey up to the border town (with Cambodia) of Chau Doc. We’d noticed a particularly bizarre affectation of the local menfolk en route – their way of keeping cool. It’s a very hot and humid country. But what the guys do is to roll up their shirt from the bottom upwards, so that it clings round the top of their chest. It may make them cool but it certainly doesn’t look it. I couldn’t work out why they didn’t simply take them off. The journey carried on. We were all a bit uncomfortable because the bus wasn’t quite big enough. Hai put on his gloopy easy listening cassette again. This time, a horrendous version of Those Were The Days; honestly, words cannot describe how execrably bad it was. Suddenly, one of our fellow passengers snapped. “TURN THAT AWFUL MUSIC OFF!!! PLEASE!!! NO MORE MUSIC!!! I CAN’T STAND ITTTTTTT” Whilst we were surprised at her outburst, we were definitely in agreement and it did the trick. Muttering with surprise, Hai ejected his cassette and we drove on towards Chau Doc in blissful silence.
We checked into our hotel, the beautiful Victoria Chau Doc (the Victoria chain have got the monopoly on these quality southern Vietnamese hotels!) Still slightly frazzled from our fellow passenger’s outburst on the minibus we headed straight for the bar and knocked back two Harvey Wallbangers and some chilli nuts for lunch. Thus fortified, we headed out again for yet another water adventure, this time to visit a fish farm in a floating village. It was enormous fun. Our boat moored us up against this structure on stilts, and, once inside, it felt like a genuine farmhouse – kind of barren but grand, but with big square gaps in the floorboards which were actually fish tanks and in which you could see dozens of very big fish all swimming around contentedly. How to stir them up? Chuck some fish food in. They went berserk! Flapping and sloshing around in their water pen, fighting each other for the tiniest morsel, cascades of water being splashed out into the air – it was a very amusing – and noisy – sight.
A precarious walkway – with ominously loose floorboards barely protecting you from a sudden dunking into the Mekong – took us back on land to a small village. It had a bright, but modest little mosque into which the locals welcomed me, but wouldn’t let Mrs C in, so I just had a quick look around and took a few pictures whilst she pretended not to be offended at the sexism. Then it was back to the boat via the terrifying walkway, and a return to the hotel. On our way back, watching out for the next collection of weirdly overloaded bikes – as you do – we saw one of the sadder sights of our holiday – a man, riding a motorbike, and carrying on the seat behind him a very large cage containing two, equally large, live, pigs. They were squeezed in for all they were worth, with their little legs dangling out of the holes in the cage over the side. One can only assume this was to be an uncomfortable final journey before the slaughterhouse.
In the evening, we went out into Chau Doc to see what the nightlife was like, having already taken dinner in the hotel. There were lots of lively night markets, a little town centre fountain that was lit up with coloured lights, some groovy civic art; and many Tai Chi classes. Tomorrow we would be continuing our journey up the Mekong and into Cambodia, so we fancied an early night and a good sleep. We hadn’t, though, bargained on spending half the night playing Hunt the Gecko.
Our flight from Hanoi reached Da Nang pretty late and it was another 45 minute drive before we could get to our hotel, the Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort and Spa. We had a garden facing view, it was spacious and luxurious, and we slept the sleep of the righteous. Breakfast the following morning was taken by the pool and it was full of really healthy ingredients – nevertheless it was lovely! We even had time for a stroll along the beach, as the hotel is pitched right up against the sea front. It felt just like being on holiday. Travel’s a tough life though, and it wasn’t long before all five of us were whisked away by our very ebullient guide Hanh (but we could call her Hannah) for a morning visit to My Son.
It’s so hard to look at those two words and not pronounce it as in “go on, my son”. But in fact it’s “mi sern” (or something like that), and a visit has nothing to do with popping in on your heir, but it’s actually the ruins of an imperial city during the Cham dynasty, active between the 4th and 12th centuries. It was only rediscovered by French archaeologists in the 1890s. In a slightly confusing twist of geography, the temples are dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, and there’s a notable linga still in good condition. The “tourist” visit starts rather unpromisingly with a “cultural show” of musicians and dancers, that is skilful but goes on too long. Mind you, I was very impressed with the way the young ladies balanced their water pots on their heads.
The real appeal of the site is simply wandering around all the ruins, admiring the artistic carvings, the fascinating Sanskrit inscriptions, and imagining how grand it must have been in its heyday. Its redbrick construction brings to mind how Keble College Oxford might look in about a thousand years. It’s a very exposed site, so if you go, do make sure you’ve got your sun hat on! It’s popular with the local kids too, and while we were there, a big bunch of them were having fun in the sun and splashing around in the river that runs alongside. For all the world it looks like you have stumbled upon King Louis’ ruined fortress in Disney’s Jungle Book.
After a lengthy and enjoyable exploration, we took the minibus back to Hoi An, driving along Route 1 – or as Hanh described it: “The Number 1 road in Vietnam”. It’s the main coastal road that links Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south. Why is it called Road Number 1, we asked. “Because they haven’t built Number 2 yet” came her ironic reply. You get to see all sorts of extraordinary fellow travellers on the Number 1 road. For example, we saw a lady riding a motorbike whilst precariously balancing two big bags of laundry and 7 (yes seven) birdcages, each with a feathered friend inside. That’s ambition for you. On reaching Hoi An, it was time for lunch and yet another of these restaurants that provides a training programme for street children. This was The Market Restaurant, immaculately clean, and with all the food prepared very openly so you could inspect everything you were going to eat at invasively close quarters. We had Cao Lau, Banana Flower Salad with Duck, Tomato Soup with meat, Caramel Fish in a clay pot, Stuffed squid, Stir fried green beans, plus rice and a dessert. It was all good stuff, but by now we had gone off Vietnamese food (the Pho24 in Hanoi just ruined it for us), so I think we just enjoyed the beans and rice. However, the other members of our party rated it very highly.
After lunch it was time to investigate downtown Hoi An. If Luang Prabang was the most beautiful place we saw in Laos, Hoi An is definitely the most beautiful place we saw in Vietnam. Its setting is gorgeous, on the banks of the river, with charming little shops, old buildings, pretty temples, lots of cutesy colourful lanterns and a great holiday feel. It was like a Vietnamese Stratford upon Avon but without the Royal Shakespeare Company.
We had a lovely walk down by the Old Quarter. There are so many little things that take your interest here. The main stand out sight you notice is the Japanese Covered Bridge, built in 1593 to link the Japanese community to the Chinese community from either side of the river. There is a little temple halfway across, added at a later date. Unsurprisingly, it’s usually thronging with tourists. Staying on the “town centre” side, very close by is the Cantonese Assembly Hall, containing not only a meeting hall but also a beautiful temple and elegant gardens. A little further down the street you come to the House of Quan Thang, an 18th century “shophouse”, with walls of dark teak and concealing a charming little courtyard. Worryingly, the walls are littered with painted lines revealing how high the flood waters have risen in recent years.
Intersecting the street is another road called Le Loi whose shops offer the speciality service of Very Fast Tailoring. Mrs Chrisparkle and I quite fancied having something nice made, but with only four hours for them to make it we didn’t think we’d stand much chance. Not a problem. Sadly (for her) Mrs C couldn’t really find anything she wanted to have made to measure, but I did – a dashing red silk shirt with such vivid colour it would knock your eyes out at twenty paces. We went into Hoi An 41 Silk, and they promised us for sure my shirt would be made to measure and ready to collect that evening. True to their word, we went back later on and it was ready. No problem with the timing. Size-wise, however… it is a little on the large side. I could grow into it, but that probably wouldn’t be wise on health grounds. Nevertheless, it’s good to wear on hot days. And it’s a very striking red.
Doubling back on ourselves, we visited the House of Kan Ty, yet another of these dark old shophouses, and then crossed the modern An Hoi footbridge, brightly decorated with lanterns, mythical beasts, and the ubiquitous lovers’ padlocks. Then it was back to the hotel for a much needed kip, another walk along the beach and some cocktails by the pool. I confess, we had it tough. We tore ourselves away from this ordeal to come back into town to see it illuminated by night. It really is a stunning sight. There’s a tradition that you buy a tiny paper floating basket from one of the little boats moored up on the water’s edge, place a lighted candle inside then push it off into the water whilst saying a prayer, or remembering someone. Every night loads of people do it, so the water surface is strewn with literally hundreds of these little candlelit baskets and it’s utterly beautiful.
Apart from that, at night-time the town is alive and well and full of restaurants and bars. We went to Restaurant 69 – the meal was good, but the wine was a shocker – avoid the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc at all costs. The night we were there it was “Earth Day” – and the whole town had decided it would switch off its electric lights for one hour, from 8.30 -9.30pm. To be honest, we didn’t really believe it would happen. But at the stroke of 8.30pm all the lights went out in restaurants and bars, and candles went on. They were a really compliant little town. We were slightly irked by the timing – it coincided with us stumbling back from the shirt shop in the dark, with hardly any light to guide us. One has to thank one’s lucky stars for one’s iPhone Torch facility.
The next morning we had to say goodbye to Hoi An (very sad, because it really was a terrific little place) and we were on the road again in the direction of Hué. But first stop was the Cham Sculpture Museum at Da Nang. This is a most impressive place. The exhibits are in great condition, some of them are really big and imposing too; others smaller and intricate. Cham sculpture can be summed up in two words – Hinduism, and breasts. Most of the monuments are dedicated to the Hindu gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesh, and there are also many to the goddesses Bhagavati, Uma and Devi. But they were really into breasts, in a big way. The more breasts the merrier if you were a Cham in those days. Breasts were always full and pert; and if they didn’t have a female body to stick them on, they would use them as a decorative motif at the base of a pedestal or on an altar. It’s really one of those places where the breasts follow you around the room. Chams are, of course, still flourishing in Vietnam, and their ancient kingdom and artistic legacy dates from the 2nd century AD right up to 1832. I’d definitely recommend this museum, because the exhibits really are extraordinary.
Travelling on towards Hué, we had to negotiate the Hai Van Pass (the Pass of the Ocean Clouds), cutting through the centre of the Truong Son mountain range. Its twisty and bendy road takes you through 21 km of scary cliff edges and massive drops. They’ve built a tunnel now, so you can get from Da Nang to Hué much more quickly – but there’s nothing quite like some scenic terror to excite a bunch of tourists. At the absolute tip-top of the pass there’s a place you can get out and have a good look round – including some rather grotty stalls and a lot of souvenir tat. There’s also a very old watch tower – a cross between a sentry box and some old Victorian railway architecture – that Mrs C decided to scale. You can imagine it saw some horror during Vietnam’s turbulent history.
Lunch was at the Lang Co Beach Resort – and was a seafood extravaganza, so our three co-travellers revelled in it, whilst Mrs C and I pushed bits of floppy tentacle and scaly gills around our plates. We weren’t hungry anyway. It takes three hours in all to get from Hoi An to Hué, so by the time we got to our hotel we were pretty knackered. Hué was beautiful but incredibly humid. Turning up sweaty and disgusting somewhere as lovely as La Residence Hotel and Spa ought to be a crime against humanity – but we did it anyway.
We made ourselves presentable and then joined the rest of the group to visit the Tu Duc tomb. It’s one of the splendid Royal Mausoleums that are a must-see in Hué. Emperor Tu Duc was the fourth ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty, reigning from 1848 to 1883. The tomb itself was constructed over three years in the 1860s, whilst the Emperor was still alive – indeed, he designed it. It is said that when he died, he was buried along with a great treasure, and, all those involved in his burial were later executed to keep his final resting place a secret. That’s some tough working conditions; that would never have happened if they’d been in the EU. Today it’s noted for beautiful artwork, classical architecture, and, with its idyllic lake close by, it’s a favourite spot for wedding photography. We saw a young couple being photographed, her in stunning scarlet, him in vivid yellow, posing with parasols and fans. They were having a great time, and larking around not inconsiderably, like the happy young lovers they were, thereby not always responding to the photographer’s requests, much to his obvious annoyance. At one point the photographer threw his wicker umbrella down in a hissy fit because the groom was giggling so much. We spent a long time at Tu Duc’s tomb – Hanh had an awful lot to say, and by the time she’d finished, it was nightfall and we were the last there.
There wasn’t a lot of time for a nap, so pretty soon after returning to the hotel we went out to find something for dinner – hopefully something that didn’t contain seafood. We found a vegetarian restaurant – Bo De – just around the corner from the hotel in what appeared to be a huge municipal car park with lots of restaurants and bars adjoining it by the side of the river. We had simple soup with vegetables and mushrooms and some mixed fried rice. Perfect. Afterwards we went for a walk by the water’s edge, and saw that they had lit up the road bridge over the river with bright colourful, constantly changing lights. It looked like the Forth Road Bridge on speed. Talking of which, one guy was definitely on drugs because we saw him running along the top edge of the bridge – not the road surface but actually on top of the cantilevers. That must have been pretty dangerous. We also saw a lad having a tattoo done, in a market stall in the street; so much for health and safety. Apparently it was 36 years to the day that Hué was liberated after the Vietnamese War – or as they call it, the American War – and I think that added to the general party spirit in the night-time streets.
The next morning it was time for something we’d been looking forward for ages. We were all to take a cyclo ride through the streets of Hué, starting at the hotel and ending up at the Imperial City. It’s a really fun experience. The cyclo is a weird thing. Imagine something that combines the seat of a baby’s pushchair, the front wheels of a wheelchair, the back wheel of a bike, and the footrest of a chair lift, and you’re part way there. You get into your contraption – to be honest you fall in – encouraged by your driver, then he gets on the saddle behind you so you can’t see him, and starts to pedal so you get propelled through the streets only a few feet higher than the road surface. It’s not long before you realise how physically strong these drivers must be to wheel a fat oaf like me around the streets – it’s not as though they’re big guys – and he deserved his generous tip at the end! But you do get a really unique perspective of the townscape, as you’re so much lower than if you were in a car – and much more exposed too, without the comfort of a car framework around you. Fortunately the roads of Hué don’t have loads of potholes.
We cycled through the streets, and over the road bridge, which was a bit scary, as we were competing for space with all the usual cars, lorries, bikes and mopeds that throng through any Asian city centre. You also experience a different kind of scary when you’re at the centre of a very large empty intersection – almost a sense of agoraphobia as there’s so much space around you that you feel vulnerable. Anyway, an hour later, we cyclo’d over the bridge that crosses the moat at the Citadel, through the long arch that acts as a sentry to the City, to our final destination alongside some ominous looking ancient cannons. The Citadel was established by Emperor Gia Long in 1805 and comprises three enclosures – the Civic, Imperial and Forbidden Purple Cities. The whole area is filled with palaces, pavilions and temples, protected by ramparts, moats and bastions. It’s a very evocative sight, and really works on your imagination. We spent a very enjoyable time there just looking round the temples and the palaces, admiring the colours and the artwork.There’s lots of restoration work going on at the moment; when it’s finished it will be extraordinary. Mind you, they’re still discovering and unearthing fresh ruins, so it could take some time.
We took a little drive out to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda, apparently the tallest religious building in Vietnam. It’s a wonderful sight, seven storeys high, founded in 1601, and many consider it to be the iconic symbol of Hué. Perhaps even more astonishing was the incredible noise of the crickets when we got out of the bus. Deafening! There’s a little museum of Buddhism within the complex, which features some very unusual and amusing images of Buddha; and also a huge bronze bell, dating from 1710, whose ding-a-dong can apparently be heard six miles away. But perhaps the most fascinating – and thought-provoking – exhibit is the blue Austin car that drove monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon in June 1963, where he immolated himself in protest against the Diem regime. It was a very brave and significant act of protest that horrified the entire world. Back in the peace of today, nearby are the monks’ quarters – we were told we might get to meet some monks but none was available for a chat. We did hear lots of tittering from their bathroom though.
Lunch was at Moc Vien – a very classy affair, with delicious food and simply beautiful toilets. They were so beautiful, we all kept going back to admire them. You can’t say fairer than that. The food was incredibly ornately presented; and, very kindly, they presented Mrs C with a beautiful, large bouquet for our wedding anniversary. Pity they were one day early, but it was a lovely thought. Then it was off to the airport for our Vietnam Airlines flight to Ho Chi Minh City, laden down with all our luggage, and a beautiful, large bouquet, which required its own overhead locker. In retrospect, not the most practical of parting gifts.
You may remember, gentle reader, that back in July I was telling you about our trip to Indochina, starting off with Laos. We’d had a very peaceful few days in beautiful Luang Prabang, a place I’d return to like a shot. So the hustle, bustle and distinct sense of danger that we felt in Hanoi came as something of a shock. We arrived in the evening and went straight to our hotel, the Sofitel Metropole. It’s a stunner. Very elegant and grand, with excellent service, a wonderful breakfast (including – I am advised – really tasty gluten free bread and cereal), beautiful public lounges and a happening bar – Le Club. There’s nothing oriental about this place at all – it’s very much a relic of the city’s French heritage. Our bedroom was a “standard” room and was a trifle small, but still very nice, and it took us ages to work out how to turn the lights off on the first night – but then we are getting on a bit. We had a wander round the area – just long enough to find somewhere suitable for dinner – and we decided on the Club Opera, just around the corner from the hotel. It had a very nice vibe and was quite friendly, but the food was surprisingly bland. I had the spring rolls followed by the Beef in Oyster Sauce. Given how much I was going to dislike quite a lot of the Vietnamese food to come, in retrospect I probably should have enjoyed it more.
The next day we met our guide Van and our driver Hoong, and drove out to the village of Dao Thuc to see a Water Puppet show. This is a fascinating tradition that sadly appears to be dying out. A group of villagers broke off from working in the fields to perform for us. The curtain is at the far end of a small lake in the outskirts of the village, and we sat on benches opposite to watch the show. A kind of wide, green vertical blind masks us from the puppeteers working behind. The puppets are made of water-resistant wood and are fixed to the ends of long rods which move about underwater thereby making the puppet appear to act on the water surface, which becomes the stage. I would imagine you would have to be extremely strong to operate some of these puppets. All in all, it’s a very charming experience. Our story involved farmers, water buffalo, ducks, maidens, and, naturally, a dragon; all played out to traditional (although recorded) music. After the show was over we went “backstage” to meet the “cast” – by then the puppeteers had all returned to the fields, but it was very interesting nevertheless to get up close and personal with the puppets themselves, many of which were extremely old and full of character.
Then we headed back into the city. We had thought there were a lot of bikes in Laos, but that was nothing in comparison with Vietnam. You cannot imagine the numbers of pushbikes, motorbikes, mopeds and all the other variations of two wheeled vehicles that litter the streets. It’s illegal to ride one without a safety helmet; but proper safety helmets are very expensive so the majority are flimsy, just-for-show helmets that wouldn’t save your life in an accident, but do avoid the more acute danger of coughing up a fine to the traffic police. We first visited the 900 year old Temple of Literature, a Confucian sanctuary and historical centre of learning. There are a beautiful temple and altar, immaculate gardens, and the famous tortoise stelae, which look like headstones but in fact bear the names of the scholars who passed the exams there from the 15th to 18th centuries. They’re all mounted on the backs of stone tortoises, and they’ve got quite cute faces. (The tortoises, that is. The scholars, we can only speculate.)
Driving around the centre of Hanoi, you can’t help notice the massive mosaic mural that was erected in 2010 as part of the millennial celebrations of the founding of the city. In parts it’s very lively and vibrant, and runs approximately 4 km though the city, giving you something additional to admire as your car jostles for position with all the bikes. We were en route to Koto (Know One Teach One) for lunch, another of these restaurants that provides training for underprivileged youth. It was an excellent choice, several storeys high, so you can easily find a comfortable table at which to relax. To drink, I thought I’d try a Hanoi beer (or Bia Ha Noi). It’s perfect for lunchtime as it basically tastes like shandy. The food was good though and the young people working there are really keen. Of course, many of the Vietnamese simply eat on the streets, pitching up their little stools and cooking stoves wherever they like, so there’s always a great feeling of al fresco about the place. For our sensitive Western tummies though, restaurants like Koto are A Very Good Idea.
After lunch we visited the Museum of Ethnology. This is a great way to discover more about Vietnam’s 54 different ethnic minority groups, and the museum houses a collection of clothes, textiles, musical instruments and many other items of daily life. Outside, in the grounds, are a number of typical buildings that would be used as houses or other meeting areas by different ethnic groups. Mainly thatched roofs were on display, many were on stilts, and one – which was meant to be a sign of good reproductive fortune – had several wooden carvings of men with erections decorating its picket fence. Whilst we were there a group of young people from Koto were also visiting – it looked like they were having a celebratory day out as they were all bedecked with badges and certificates, and were having a whale of a time.
Back at the hotel, and after our much needed nap, we had asked Van for advice on somewhere local to eat. He suggested Pho24, a chain restaurant specialising in Vietnamese noodle soups – he said they were good quality, good value and very authentic. So our little troop of five gallant tourists made our way there for our evening meal. “Pho” is pronounced “poo”, and it wasn’t hard to see why. It was, we all agreed, absolutely disgusting. Sloppy, cold, thin, cheap, and utterly grotty. All of us only ate tiny bits of our meals, whilst making grimacing looks and puking noises. My stomach was upset that night and never really regained its equilibrium until we got back to Blighty. So we all slunk off, leaving the remnants of the meal on the table, and decided to go back to “Le Bar” at the hotel, where I had a very unadventurous Metropole Pizza and Mrs Chrisparkle dared a grilled chicken breast and they were both like manna from heaven.
Too early for bed, and with the night time sights and sounds of Hanoi to explore, we went for one more walk around the town. Close to the hotel is Hoan Kiem Lake, which is the Vietnamese watery equivalent of Trafalgar Square, being a place where people come to congregate, especially at times of celebration. It was bounding with energy. There were groups doing Tai Chi, others learning ballroom dancing, yet more doing Tums and Bums exercises. Over toward the statue of Ly Thai To, the founding father of the original city, there were proper bunches of youth rollerblading and breakdancing to the tunes of Michael Jackson. You may be in the capital city of a Far Eastern communist country, but it reminded me forcibly of the precinct by Sheffield City Hall (but just a bit livelier).
The next day we were up reasonably bright and early to visit what is probably the most notable building in Hanoi, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Our previously happy, sunny, jolly guide Van suddenly became serious, concerned, anxious Van. He instructed us how we must behave with absolute dignity and dress with decorum. Not necessary really – we were hardly going to wear tutus and plant a false nose on HCM’s tomb. Anyway, when we got there, all plans were changed. The queue to pay one’s respects was enormous – much more enormous than usual apparently. We felt Van’s anxiety levels rise. He tried to sweet-talk some guards into letting us queue-jump as we only had the one half-day left in Hanoi, but they clearly weren’t impressed. If we’d joined the queue, which was approximately 2 km long, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything else that day – including getting to our next destination, Halong Bay, at a reasonable time. We all agreed we didn’t want to spend the day just slowly shuffling to see an old bloke embalmed. So instead, Van snuck us through to a good vantage point where we could see – at a distance – the queue slowly entering the mausoleum then slowly coming out again. We also got a good look at the One Pillar Pagoda, an attractive wooden pagoda originally constructed in the 11th century, standing in an elegant lotus pond.
We were just taking a leisurely stroll past the Mausoleum and some other grand looking government buildings, including the Presidential Palace, when we noticed a small group of people – about a dozen or so – walking towards us carrying a banner (the words naturally were all in Vietnamese) and accompanied by some police officers. We asked Van what it was all about. “It’s a protest” he said, extremely sotto voce, “they’re farmers and landowners who have had their property taken off them due to government corruption”. “Great!”, I said, somewhat insensitively, “let’s take some pictures!” “NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!” bellowed Van, “DO NOT TAKE PICTURES!!!!!!!” panicking like a madman. “If the police see you take pictures they will rip the camera out of your hand and destroy it! We will all get into trouble and be questioned!” “Why would they do that?” we asked innocently. “Because you would be recording and showing an aspect of society that the government don’t want you to see and don’t want you to publicise”. It was too late. I’d already snapped my shot, but I didn’t tell Van that. He was already sweating buckets. Still, I’ll let you see the picture I took. By the way, because I don’t want to get him into any trouble, even several months after the event, I’ve changed Van’s name. Just in case they hold him responsible. Which he wasn’t.
After that awful Pho the night before, none of us were in the mood for lunch. Van took us to a place where we could have the usual run of Vietnamese meals – but none of us really wanted anything. Lunch for me was some cashew nuts, a Snickers bar and some ginger tea – more than enough. Then we had one of those “shopping” moments you always get on a tour – a visit to a lacquer emporium where they not only sell lacquered items but manufacture them too. We were hosted by a very jolly lady who enjoyed practising her English on us. She was so cute I bought six coasters off her for a stupid amount of money. Very happy with them though – a quality souvenir.
It was a much happier Van that took us back on to the coach for the 3.5 hour drive to Halong Bay. Once we were away from the Big Brother pressure of the whole Mausoleum area he was able to relax again; and as a result, so did we. “So,” Van sat back in the bus, looking at the view, “have you all seen the episode of Top Gear where they drive to Halong Bay?” Sigh; we come halfway round the world and still can’t escape from Jeremy Clarkson. “No,” we admitted. “Really??” Van seemed astounded. “Everyone who comes to Halong Bay now comes because they saw the episode of Top Gear where they drove to Halong Bay”. “Everyone except us” we quietly asserted. Frankly, we wouldn’t even go to Chipping Norton lest he appear. So, if you’re a Top Gear fan, remember, they’re going to love you in this part of Vietnam.
The journey to Halong Bay was relatively unremarkable; although we did note the lack of EU Health and Safety legislation in the highways maintenance. One poor man was struggling to do some road repair all by himself, on his haunches tending to a manhole in the middle of the carriageway, with no “Look Out Man at Work” sign, nervously dodging vehicles as they swept by him on either side. Hope he survived the experience. We stopped en route by some paddy fields and watched the people working hard, with all their old-fashioned tools and equipment. Right by the side of a modern road with top quality modern cars, they looked incongruous. The workers looked back, probably thinking the same about us.
We reached Halong Bay late in the afternoon, and it reminded me of a slightly gone to seed English seaside town out of season. There’s the grandly named “Royal Amusement Park” on a rather attractive promenade alongside a wide beach, but precious little that could be described as “amusing” apart from that. The beach was, though, very sandy and welcoming and we went for a little walk with our socks off – I know, how daring are we. We were staying at the Novotel, a good quality hotel with amazing views from the bedroom and a nice restaurant – although perhaps the whole place was a trifle soulless. However, we did enjoy a couple of really refreshing glasses of cold white wine by the pool when we got back from our little walk, and we got talking to the friendly manager who had just started working there two days previously. He was originally from Korea and had joined the Novotel from another hotel in Australia. I’m sure you wanted to know that.
After breakfast the next morning the five of us gathered together for our Halong Bay boat trip. It was all aboard at about 10.30am, and one of the “highlights” of the day was to be a fresh seafood lunch whilst cruising. If you say the words “fresh seafood” to Mrs C or me our stomachs start to twitch nervously and our gorges lightly rise. Nevertheless, we’re always game for a laugh, and were quite sure the quality of the seafood would be great. And so it was. But at 11am? Did we really have to have that lunch at 11am? Apparently yes, in order to see Halong Bay in the allotted half-day slot and then give us enough time to drive back to Hanoi later that afternoon for the next flight. As it was barely an hour and a half after breakfast we really did not fancy it – and it was a shame, as an awful lot of decent food went to waste. Elephant Clams, squid, prawns and everything in between. A seafood freak’s delight.
There’s no doubt that the islands of Halong Bay make an extraordinary sight. There are 1,969 islands in all, made from limestone or schist, which gives rise to a spectacular array of grottoes and caves. Unsurprisingly, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We chugged around, surveying all we could see from the top deck of our little boat. The view is mesmerising. I really enjoyed stopping off at one island to see the Thien Cung Grotto. This means “Celestial Palace” and it’s utterly beautiful, softly lit with hundreds of coloured lights that make the place a real fairyland. Amazingly, it was only discovered in the 1990s. Elsewhere, it was just fun to observe the fishermen at work and to sit back, relax and let the islands go by. It was a shame that it wasn’t a sunny day – it was quite overcast – but I believe that’s common in that neck of the woods. With a bit of imagination, you could certainly believe that you were at the furthest point away from everything in the world you know; incredibly remote, peaceful and uninhabited. Apart from the millions of tourists who come here every year. I blame Jeremy Clarkson.