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Vietnam

sunny 35 °C
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Thumping down onto the tarmac at Hanoi International airport was a relief for all involved after what can only be described as a bumpy flight on the shaky looking Vietnam Airways AT-7 plane from northern Laos. Most of the passengers were in for a new surprise however, when the trademark camp steward announced that the outside temperature was currently sitting on a mild thirty-six degrees. It was 6:05pm. But despite being greeted with the breathtaking heat as we descended the steps, we were also welcomed with the beautiful scene of the sun-setting over the western runway.

It was as our taxi-driver calmly drove us into a city centre which looked like it could have been on fire thanks to the smog which enveloped it, that the full scale of Vietnamese traffic conditions settled upon us. As a nation of motorbike owners, the streets are filled to bursting point with purring mopeds, and there were a few occasions where we actually thought that we weren't even going to make it to our accommodation. Road rules do not seem to apply, as bikes and the odd car or van battle through the streets to get to their destination, ignoring red lights, crossings and junctions alike.

Arriving safely in Hanoi, we were pleased to find ourselves once more in a hostel, and out of the boring guesthouses which seem to be the going trend for most of south-east Asia. Within minutes we got chatting to the lads in our room, and then took ourselves out to dinner, arranging to meet them later at a bar they were quick to recommend. After a nice meal, we traipsed over to the bar only to find it without air-con due to an earlier power-cut, and hence, like a human oven. While we dripped pleasantly into our semi-warm beers, Jan seemed to find the atmosphere suitably steamy, and spent most of the night blanking us while she got herself razzled by an American fella called Kyle, who had used his best line (anyone got a guidebook for Vietnam I could borrow?) to wheedle his way into our little gang on the flight over. She obviously fell hook, line and sinker for it though, as within just a few hours of waking up the next morning, she told us that they'd decided to take a holiday together over to Halong Bay. Speedy work from both parties... and worth a cheeky high five!

Leaving us to our own devices, we took ourselves off to some of the cities more interesting sights. In the same tradition as Lenin and Stalin, the body of much revered communist leader Ho Chi Minh can be viewed as he lies peacefully embalmed in a glass sarcophagus deep within his own grand monument building. Although the queue stretches to over an hour every morning, the crowds keeps coming to be ushered through the chamber in single file for their thirty second gawping opportunity. We were surprised to note that despite having been here for near-on three decades, the russian embalmers who receive him every winter are doing a great job at keeping Uncle Ho looking sharp. We were still a little miffed at the history behind the public enamour, but would make a point of finding out more about this as we travelled through the country. Whilst on our tour of the complex, we also took in the presidential palace and the museum, which although visually interesting, did little to satisfy our curiosity about their former leader. Whilst wandering the old quarter, we took a stroll around the lake, and went for a quick peek at the medieval-like St Joseph Cathedral to round off our day of sightseeing.

After a couple of pleasant evenings in the rooftop bar, and a few nights out to local venues, we felt it was time to take the trip to Halong Bay ourselves. This Unesco World Heritage site in the gulf of Tonkin, about one hundred kilometres east of the capital, comprises of over 3000 islands, and is a popular spot for most travellers to the region due to its emerald green waters, innumerable caves and idyllic beach-island getaways. Luckily, we managed to get a really nice group, and spent the voyage out to our 'Paradise Island' base getting to know everyone. After a whopping eight course meal on the first evening, the three american/canadian lads got everyone going with some Karaoke, not something we'd usually participate in, but with only the gecko's to hear us all there was only a smidgen of the usual amount of shame involved.

For the second day, we were left to our own devices, and around lunchtime were joined on the island by a group of four girls from just down the road in Dartford. It's a small world, but we found it gave us plenty to chat about, and after a sunset game of volleyball (in which the girl's team cheated considerably to beat an outstanding men's team performance) we all settled down for a night of drinking games! This meant that hangovers were in full effect on the journey back to Hanoi the following day, but spirits were still high, especially once we'd all spruced ourselves up with a quick dip in the waters by jumping off the top of the thirty-foot-tall boat.

In Hanoi, Jan was back from her trip and we had a few beers with her, saw the Dartford girls off, and then hung around the next day waiting for our southbound train, another experience in itself. The overnight part wasn't too bad as we found ourselves in a cabin of four bunks with a nice Norwegian couple, and the train was smooth enough to actually get some sleep. It was the morning section of the journey which bought the real entertainment. The nice couple abandoned us in Hue, and taking their place was an old Vietnamese woman, her two sons (we presume) and what must have been most of the possessions from her house. As the two boys frantically tried to jam boxes and cases under beds and into overhead compartments, their mother settled down to munch contentedly on a tupperware pot full of chicken bones. We were quite pleased two hours later when the conductor informed us that we'd made up some time and had arrived early at our station, meaning we could finally leave the woman who, after a short nap, was now crunching menacingly on her lunch which had been delivered just moments before.

Arriving at China Beach, a small section of the wider expanse of sand which spans thirty kilometres between Danang and Hoi An, we jumped out of our taxi to be greeted by Moninne and Dave, an Irish couple we'd met in Halong Bay. Like us, they'd been directed here by the hostel in Hanoi, and it turned out to be a little gem. Hoa (the owner of our accommodation) was a humorous little fella who'd picked up a good english vocabulary (from American's judging by the accent) and spent most of his time swearing good-humouredly about whatever topic came up. His guesthouse sat just back from the beach which would become our home for the next few days. The Irish couple however had other ideas and were heading into Hoi An to take a look at the towns offerings of tailored clothes, and being the curious type, we decided to tag along. Despite going without any intention to actually buy, we ended up walking out four fittings later with a selection of tailor-made garments weighing just over eight kilograms. At the time of writing, these still hadn't actually made it home however, so either our box is a little delayed, or some of the Vietnamese postal staff are walking around town looking exceedingly swish.

Nha Trang was our next destination, and this time we were accompanied by Dave and Moninne, and Jo and Andrew (another Irish couple who we'd been in Halong Bay with). This town proved to be the complete opposite of Hoi An, a bustling seaside resort with the usual overload of tourists and street sellers. For alternative entertainment purposes we took ourselves off to the mud baths, a local complex where you can benefit from the therapeutic qualities of the brown waters before sitting in the natural hot springs. A humorous, but not entirely pleasant experience. We also managed to catch up with the Dartford girls and had a heavy night on the town with them before they headed home. This culminated in myself and Dave wandering home at 4am after watching the England game, and both being accosted by six 'ladies of the night' who obviously thought we were more inebriated than we actually were, and began by offering their services but ended grappling with us both in an attempt to relieve us of our money and cameras. We managed to fend them off for a few minutes, starting with polite refusals and ending with a few elbows and all the strength we could muster to throw them off. Luckily, we were right outside our guesthouse and the night-porter had woken in time to let us in to safety.

On our last morning, we thought it would be nice to get involved with some local voluntary work, and enrolled ourselves at one of the free schools which helps with the teaching of the many street-kids who are trying to make lives for themselves in the area. These children are usually either orphaned or sent away by their parents because they can't afford to raise them, and there are a number of organisations who are trying to educate them so they can go on to gain respectable employment rather than begging and stealing on the streets, or being targeted by a shameful selection of tourist paedophiles who come to the area for easy pickings. Our first class was with a group of younger children, and we were asked to sit with them and go over basic conversation in English, whilst the second hour-long lesson dealt with older kids who already had a good grasp of the language and were at a more advanced level. Admittedly, we were expecting on both occasions a bunch of playful and rebellious urchins, but we were stunned to see not only the grasp of English that they had, but also the enthusiasm at which they tackle the subject and turn up uncoerced every morning to learn. It was nice for us to be able to contribute to such a worthwhile scheme, and can admit to feeling quite guilty when some of the friendlier students asked whether we'd be back the next day. Admittedly, they didn't seem at all surprised to hear that we wouldn't, but this only served to make us feel worse about our fleeting visit.

With our trip quickly running out on us we were looking for something a little different to anything we'd previously experienced. Jo and Andrew had bumped into a man on the street who was part of an organisation called 'Easy Riders' and after explaining this to us, a trip with them seemed like just the ticket. In short, you jump on the back of a motorbike with your backpack strapped behind you, and the driver acts as your guide for any route you wish and over as many days as you would like. With biking appearing to be in the lifeblood of the people, this seemed like the ideal way to get ourselves off the beaten track and see some of the 'real Vietnam', and so we booked ourselves a three day tour that would eventually see us reach the well-known southern city of Saigon.

We were all a little nervous about how a bike trip would suit us, especially after seeing some of the haphazard traffic conditions but our four guides Huy (pronounced Hoi), Me, Cuc (Cook) and Trung (Troong) we all adamant that our safety was their first priority: "No worries" generally being Huy's distinctive motto. Within minutes of being on the back of the bikes I think we were all put relatively at ease and once we'd left the city limits we all started to relax and take in the scenery. We stopped at numerous points where Huy would show us some of Vietnam's main exports (such as cashew nut plantations), tradecrafts (making incense sticks from pulp) and crops. This was then followed by a beautiful scenic drive into the central highlands, lunch at the most local of local restaurants (diarrhoea all round please) and delivery into the heart of a small picturesque town called Dalat. It was transpiring that road rules do actually apply, and Huy was quick to tell us of how driving a motorbike in Vietnam is all about respect for others, keeping the speed down, and of course, a certain degree of self-awareness and talent in the saddle.

Once checked into our accommodation, the plan had been to take us to see some of the sights, but as we strolled around our first stop at the Flower Centre (admittedly, this was like a flash version of Homebase) it began to absolutely chuck it down meaning not only that this is probably the coldest we've been in the last six months, but also ensuring that the rest of the afternoon was called off. During the evening however, the heavens had closed and so we could at least venture out to the night-market where the usual supply of foul-smelling meats go on sale and the jumble-like clothes stalls are packed with noisy locals after a bargain.

On day two, the sun was thankfully shining and we were able to take a quick skirt around the town's large lake and out into the surrounding countryside to visit the very popular Buddhist Pagoda and the nearby waterfall, reachable by a novel luge/roller-coaster style ride. Upon leaving the Dalat province, we were yet again out into the countryside, and stopped briefly at a small ethnic minority town called Chicken Village, owing to the giant stone statue of a chicken which adorns it's skyline. In Vietnam, the term 'ethnic minority' refers to the groups of people who are born into the world with a darker skin tone than the rest of it's countrymen, and are hence outcast to small rural populations where they are inevitably forced to manufacture basic handicrafts (weaved garments and tapestries) or gather crops whilst living in relative poverty. It's a sad state of affairs, but unfortunately, the Vietnamese take the skin-tone issue even further than some its neighbours, using skin-whitening creams and lotions at an alarming rate and ensuring that their women are covered from head-to-toe throughout the day in order to avoid tanning.

Back on the road, we wound our way through yet another highland pass and back down onto the coastal roads, unfortunately leaving the cool air behind us once and for all. Before arriving at our overnight destination we were taken to the white sand dunes just outside of town, and then onto the small fishing village of Mui Ne to watch the trawlers come in for the night. By this point, our backside's were in a fair amount of discomfort after nearly nine hours on the back of a motorbike, but the trip was turning out to be as good as expected.

For our final day we knew we had a long journey in front of us, three hundred kilometres and some six or so hours of riding. We were also aware that this leg was to be a little less eventful than the first two, with few stopping points of any interest. Huy did manage to find a nice Dragonfruit harvesting complex however, where we got to sample some of the fruits for free and speak to the workers. After that, it was a case of motoring all the way. We knew it was also likely to get a little hairy at this point, as the volume of traffic increased as we entered the city limits. By the time we reached the centre, we'd seen four bike accidents in under an hour, and our driver-guides really had to step up their game in order to weave their way through the congestion. Saying our final goodbye's in downtown Saigon, and feeling so saddle-sore that John Wayne would have been a little jealous of our amusing waddles, we had a final few days in Vietnam before heading on to pastures new and had said all along that this was the best place to indulge in some recent history.

To start our journey into Vietnam's past, it was necessary to acquire some background. Most people know that during the seventies, the American's fought a long and ill-fated war here, but like us, know nothing of the reason's for it. In a nutshell, in 1954 Vietnam became a divided country with two very different leaders: Communist Ho Chi Minh (of sarcophagi fame) in the north, and Ngo Dinh Diem, anti-Communist catholic in the south. In 1960, the Hanoi government changed its policy of opposition to the Diem regime from one of 'political struggle' to 'armed struggle' and formed a guerrilla group better known as the Viet Cong (VC) to fight the south. When Diem was assassinated by his own troops in 1964 and the North Vietnamese Army infiltrated the south making the future for the Saigon regime bleak at best.

The US (who were still fighting the Cold War with the daddy of Communist states, Russia) held the view that Communism was a threat to peace all over the world, especially America, and so elected to join the south in it's fight, sending over their first troops in 1965 and setting up base in Saigon. They were soon to be joined by troops from South Korea, Australia, Thailand and New Zealand. Unfortunately, no-one had quite anticipated the strength and determination of the forces in the north (unsurprisingly, the Viet Cong are the only group to have significantly resisted the Japanese occupation in World War II), and gradually began losing supremacy in a war that raged for over eight years, and took the lives of hundred's of thousands of soldiers. An eventual ceasefire was called in 1973 with the total withdrawal of US troops and release of of American prisoners of war. Although the eventual reunification of Vietnam by the communists meant liberation from more than a century of colonial repression, hundreds of thousands of southerner's fled to neighbouring countries, creating a flood of refugees for the next 15 years. Vietnam would later hold a large campaign of repression against ethnic-Chinese and invade Cambodia in 1978 which would prompt China to invade in 1979 in a war that would only last for seventeen days but would disrupt relation between the two countries for next decade. As you've probably gathered, it's all very complicated.

To get a better understanding, we took a bus out to the Cu Chi province to the north-west of the city. This rural area is the strategic setting for one of the many reason's that the American's could not defeat their enemy, a two hundred kilometre network of tunnels dug by the Viet Cong which would make them almost invisible to enemy troops on the surface. First there was a brief introductory video, in which it was described the planning and digging of the tunnels (often by hand) and how some undeniably nasty traps were built. Despite the obvious seriousness of the subject, it was hard not to chuckle at some of the names for the medals that were awarded to some of the more successful troops and the seriousness at which it was presented: "Hero American Killer" and "American Tank Destroyer Hero" to name but two.

Moving on, we were given a live display of how soldiers used to hide inside small holes covered by leaves for hours on end waiting for enemies to appear, and a further insight into some of the trap-door style nasties that awaited unsuspecting troops. Next up, we got to fire a machine-gun, good fun, but at nearly seventy pence a bullet, over before it seemed like we'd even pulled the trigger. Finally, it was our turn to experience the tunnels for ourselves. Now I'm not one for suffering from claustrophobia, but after a few minutes cramped on all fours inside the pitch-black tunnels (which have been widened for tourists!) it is hard not to hold a certain amount of awe for the men and women who spent days or even weeks underground. Sarah was very brave on the other hand, but as expected got suitably panicked after about thirty seconds inside the first small tunnel and had to be calmly guided out by a random stranger while I supportively hung back taking photos.

Back in Saigon, we continued our tour with a stop at the War Museum, an interesting display of retired artillery pieces such as American bombers, tanks, helicopters and missile casings. It was the exhibition itself however that really gave an insight into the brutality of the war itself, displaying the tiger cages which were used to imprison Viet Cong prisoner's of war, pictures of troops in action and of those who suffered torture, and even a jar containing the foetus' of two fused unborn babies whose mother had been the recipient of some of the side affects associated with Agent Orange, a defoliant chemical mix which the American's sprayed onto foliage so that the opposing troops were unable to hide within it. Unfortunately, this weapon and the rest of the war effort now accounts for much of the deformity we were due to see on the streets of Saigon during our stay.

All in all, Vietnam had invoked a mixture for the senses. There are undoubtedly some beautiful places which we'd seen with our own eyes, but it is all still slightly over-shadowed by a dark past which the country itself is only just beginning to recover from. There is no doubt that it holds the title for our favourite place in South-East Asia so far, and the friendliness with which we were generally awarded accounts for much of this sentiment. As the country grows in popularity, it's nice to think that this will improve even more but it's hard to believe that the less established places such as China Beach and Hoi An will retain their quiet charm for much longer. We certainly intend to return someday to check on the development ourselves, and hopefully explore the areas that we may have missed...

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Posted by dbo 01:11 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking

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Comments

Wow - l really enjoyed reading that - and your explaination of why America became embroilled in Vietnam has helped - l was really clueless! Im in the middle of planning our Vietnam trip for November this year and found this really really interesting - Thanks!

by Purdy

Very intresting insight in to Vietnam and the past keep it up.Some other time some other adventure after all the world is so small,
amit

by marco1955

Dan,
Really enjoyed your comments on VN. I have been to most of the places you mentioned and enjoyed your take on them. Really appreciated the 'easy rider' part as I did not go on tour with them.
Mike

by vegasmike6

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