The Spirit of Vietnam

Trip review by Tony May, 2002.

Vietnam was torn apart and ravaged by endless wars and oppression, yet today it remains scenically beautiful and culturally exquisite – a land of smiling faces, eager to put to rest the memories of its sad and tragic past. It was this aura of mystery and the unknown together with the guidance and direction of Intrepid Travel that inspired Lucy and I to plan a visit.

Our ten day Intrepid adventure gave us just a glimpse of this wonderland and a promise to ourselves that we would come back and see more. Our tour began in Hanoi where we were soon captivated by the charm and intrigue of its colonial past. From there to the UNESCO World Heritage listed beauty of Halong Bay, before journeying south to experience the deeply religious and historical traditions of Hue and the enchantment of riverside Hoi An (probably our favourite), to finally finish at Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) where we were constantly reminded of its struggle to assert itself as a leading Asian tourist Mecca.

After check in we couldn't wait to explore the old quarter with its maze of narrow alleys and crowded sidewalks. We initially believed that crossing a road would invite our premature demise but as a slight gap appeared in the traffic, we stepped tentatively onto the roadway, bit by bit progressing to the opposite side as motor scooters, bicycles, cyclos and the occasional car weaved in and out around us. As we gained in confidence, so did our speed of progress. We quickly summed up the philosophy and mood of rider and driver alike - their apparent intent being to avoid the 'other vehicle' at all cost. On the basis that everyone adhered to this principle collision and confrontation would be avoided. Hence a scene of crisscrossing, weaving vehicles, slowing then accelerating with horns blaring, creating an endless cacophony of discordant din.

The footpaths were even more crowded and congested than the roads. One had to constantly manoeuvre and sidestep around the masses of people as they sat on their plastic cubby house furniture, socialising, making or selling something, sorting or cooking food and drinking tea. Everywhere people sat or squatted, eking out a livelihood of some description, some pulling motors apart, honing machine parts by hand tool or, for the lucky ones, a power device. Footpaths would be strewn with oily scooter parts, stacks of cane ware, racks of t-shirts while the many vendors would thrust their assortment of wares in our faces as we struggled past.

I was stopped by a girl selling French bread rolls which she carried in a basket on her head covered by a cloth to retain their warmth and freshness. Her pretty smile convinced me to lighten her load – they proved quite tasty with a beer later that day. Lucy was pursued relentlessly by a shoe shine boy who led us to the St Josephs Cathedral, which we had been searching for unsuccessfully for some time. In front of this imposing neo-gothic structure, and surrounded by an impromptu soccer game between the local children, our shoe shiner lad applied a lustre to Lucy's shoes that they had never seen or would again. Unfortunately St Josephs is open only for morning and evening mass although I did learn later that entry could be gained by summoning the priest in the diocese compound. St Josephs stands at the west end of the tree lined Pho Nhu Tho or 'Church St' which has developed into a fashionable strip of restaurants, cafes and boutiques.

After perusing the many fascinating art shops nearby we stopped for a beer in the cosy Moca café where we purchased a couple of t-shirts similar to those worn by the waitresses. We then decided on the Church Street Bar and Restaurant for our first taste of authentic Vietnamese cuisine. We were not disappointed. Seated on a small first floor balcony, completely to ourselves, we were treated by the waitress to ice cold Carlsberg beer, delicious spring rolls followed by stir fry duck with sesame and peanuts for me and a Thai beef salad for Lucy. Our eyes were constantly drawn through the leafy treetops to the street below and the neverending movement of people. Young couples locked together on their scooters glided past as they enjoyed the balmy evening, while old women with their heavily laden shoulder poles, and moving with a shuffling trot, made their way down the roadside.

We had most of the next day to ourselves before meeting up with our Intrepid group. After some shopping we ventured to Koan Kiem Lake, with its eye catching Ngoc Son island temple. After much harassment we finally relented and bought some postcards from a young woman holding a baby – the transaction no sooner completed than a young boy introduced as the father appeared holding another child. The father looked no more than fourteen.

After introductions and briefings from our leader Brian Smith an IT specialist who had lived and worked in many parts of the world, but had now settled in Hanoi with his school teacher partner, the group set off by foot to a nearby open restaurant. We had a friendly group who related well to each other and provided good company. There were three young ladies: Stephanie from Maine, USA, Gitte from Denmark and Catherine from Sydney all full of life and good fun; two young friends from Melbourne Melanie and Nicole, Nicole returning from a two year working assignment in London; a couple from Brisbane, Nick and Barbara on their way home from visiting a son in Shanghai; Steve and Leisa, a RAAF couple from Townsville, sharing their love of adventure and the outdoors and who are to marry next May and finally Gerry from Hollywood, California who was revisiting Vietnam after 40 years, having served with Intelligence during the early days of the American war.

Halong Bay
After stowing our backpacks in the hotel store we left with daypacks and overnight requirements for the short walk to KOTO restaurant for breakfast. KOTO is the acronym for "Know One Teach One" and was founded by Jimmy Pham from Sydney. On returning to his homeland as a tour guide he saw the pressing need to give hope and promise to the countless street children. This he did by setting up a restaurant and training school for disadvantaged adolescents, providing accommodation, a training allowance and medical insurance. They attend English language lessons, and on graduating find their way into good positions in Hanoi's hotels and restaurants. Many return to KOTO as teachers to assist the new recruits. We were all very impressed by their competence, politeness and pleasant manner.

After breakfast we boarded our bus for Halong Bay. Initially the drive from the city was painfully slow with many stops due to traffic congestion, but sped up as we progressed through the sprawling suburbs to the rural countryside. After an interesting stop at a ceramics factory, observing the shaping, firing and hand painting processes, we were soon aboard our boat at Halong Bay to experience one of Vietnam's natural marvels with its thousands of limestone pinnacles rising from the green waters – very relaxing particularly with the help of a beer or two and a sea food banquet. Cameras did not stop clicking. We stopped to view a vast illuminated limestone cave and before returning to the wharf at Bai Chay, enjoyed a refreshing swim from the boat. With the sun receding toward the skyline, the peaceful beauty of Halong Bay was further enhanced by the ever changing colours in the dancing ripples. Dinner was down town followed by a stroll through the local night markets and a steep up hill climb to our hotel. Morning came earlier than expected thanks to a nearby rooster that seemed to follow us from one end of Vietnam to the other.

We were indeed an unusual sight as we undertook the short walk to the station accompanied by porters barrowing our luggage. For the 12-hour journey we were accommodated in three four-berth sleepers and despite some early frivolity from the younger members of the group, including Lucy, we managed some broken sleep. With the break of dawn the ever changing scenery provided a constant fascination as the train sped past small rural hamlets, their inhabitants including peasant farmers, workers and school children beginning their preparation for the new day. Reaching Hue at about 7.30am, we booked into the Citadel Hotel, some distance from the city centre and on a potholed dirt road. Some of us undertook an orientation walk to the city proper including crossing the wide Perfume River, wondering as we gazed below at its yellow, tepid waters how its name evolved. We returned to the hotel by cyclo, just in time for introductions to Tam, our local guide for the Hue segment. Tam led us back to the river where we boarded a boat for the short ride to our lunch stop. Edging into the crowded bank we were suddenly besieged by hordes of young children leaning from boats with the customary smile and outstretched hand. The restaurant was appropriately named "Two Dishes" because that's all they served, spring rolls followed by a beef noodle dish – quite tasty and satisfying and for less than $4 per head including a drink.

The family-operated vessel was well stocked with a wide assortment of souvenirs that were quickly put on display as we headed upstream to visit one of the royal tombs. I bought two moulded metal figures, a rather popular Vietnamese trinket, while Gitte our young Danish companion entertained us by trying on several pairs of silk pyjamas. The conspicuous and extravagant royal tombs constructed along the banks of the Perfume River pay tribute to the rulers of the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945). Our destination was the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc who ruled between 1848-1883.

The tomb surrounds were quite immense and included a huge lily pond, quite muddied, many stone walkways and steps. It was evident that without continued and regular maintenance and restoration the stonework would in time disintegrate entirely due in part to the damp and humid atmosphere but also I suspect from the use of inferior stone and mortar.

A brief visit to the Thien Mu Pagoda on our return provided particular interest. The pagoda was notable in former times for much anti-government protest and demonstration. On display is the Austin motorcar that took the monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon where he burnt himself to death to protest the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem. This tragic act was vividly displayed across the world's front pages. The president's sister-in-law Madame Nhu, the 'Dragon Lady' referred to this tragedy as a BBQ party, a referral not well received.

That evening we boarded cyclos and travelled across river to the Lac Thein restaurant run by a deaf mute whose novel method of opening beer bottles created much amusement. The intriguing implement consisted of a small bolt screwed to a flat piece of wood, the bolt head protruding about 10cm from the wood. He would turn it over, clamp the bolt head under the lids edge and with great gusto, a flourish of arms and a wide grin, off would fly the top. During the course of the meal we were all presented with one of these unusual gadgets, duly stamped with the day's date and the restaurant's name and address. As pre-arranged, our cyclo drivers waited patiently outside, claiming us as we left the restaurant. We stopped at a bar on the way home and they again waited. By the time I got home it was after 10.30pm and the agreed fare was 30,000 Dong, or US $2. Why couldn't taxis at home be like that?

Probably the highlight of our time in Hue was the visit to the remains of the Citadel, the walled city built on its present site in the early 19th Century. Having been devastated during the fierce fighting of the 1968 Tet Offensive and heavy follow-up bombing, only parts of the great structure remain. Until the early 1990s, authorities regarded the beautiful old buildings as symbols of the Nguyen dynasty and therefore politically improper, and as a result they had sadly been allowed to decay. Thankfully, in recent times the government - recognising Hue's tourist potential - has implemented restoration and preservation programmes in this now declared world heritage site. Unfortunately our visit was quite hurried, our guide Tam moving us from one centre of interest to the next and not allowing us space and time to absorb the beauty and awe of this remarkable place – even photographs had to be hurried as we raced to keep up. Notwithstanding the value and economic reasoning behind the compulsory use of local guides for most organised excursions, their communicative skills varied considerably. On one hand, Nguyen our Halong Bay guide was excellent on all accounts. He was extremely personable with a delightful sense of humour, his diction was first rate and importantly he knew when a little quiet time was appropriate. Tam, too, had a friendly disposition and sense of humour; however, he was unrelenting in his verbal bombardment and historical narratives, at times not easy to understand.

The indirect return to the hotel permitted glimpses of life in the back streets and canals, the cyclo driver making several stops for photos and at one stage allowing me to demonstrate my skill at marbles to several astonished young schoolboys. Their rather antiquated method of propelling a marble was by holding the marble in one hand against the forefinger of the other and firing it sling shot fashion. Wouldn't have won many games in my day!

At one stage we passed crowds of children departing school after the morning roster. Schools and teachers are in such short supply in Vietnam that schooling is programmed in two separate shifts, morning from 7am to 11.30am and afternoon from 1pm to 5.30pm - the teachers oversee both. The schoolgirls wear dazzling white long slim fitting pleated skirts and blouses called au dais and look a picture of elegance with their long black hair dropping to the waist. How they keep them so clean is beyond me, cycling to and from school along muddy roads amid the choking traffic fumes.

The journey south
Following a formal farewell by the hotelier and her staff in which we were each presented with a small shoulder purse bearing the name of the hotel, we boarded our bus for the journey to Hoi An. Our lunch stop was not without drama, an argument ensuing from a nearby table resulting in raised voices, chairs going over and much clattering of crockery. During lunch we were constantly badgered by souvenir sellers, women offering back and neck massage and by one black toothed old lady whose outstretched bony hand reached in from the open window behind. The proprietors did nothing to discourage this, despite our obvious annoyance. Incidentally, my earlier belief that blackened teeth were the legacy of chewing betel nuts is not entirely correct. Apparently many women blacken their teeth with a mixture of tannin and ferrous sulphate for beauty reasons – hard to believe given the effect. This practise thankfully is fast dying out.

The incredibly steep and winding road to the top of Hai Van Pass was negotiated without incident although there were many vehicles including large trucks pulled to the roadside with oily mechanics swarming over them, performing what appeared in some instances to be major repairs. We kept our fingers crossed as we inched our way to the top stopping to enjoy the view, hazy as it was, and to buy refreshments, before carefully making the descent. We made further stops at China Beach where American troops would be flown in for brief R&R's before returning to battle and to Marble Mountain. Lucy and I decided to climb the many steps and view the spectacular, cathedral like Huyen Khong cave, used by the Viet Cong as a field hospital during the war. Incense drifted across shafts of light and from eerie shadows peeped buddha like statues as we made our way gingerly into the cave with the aid of torch light. We were pursued relentlessly by souvenir peddlers, including children, eager to offer their services as guides. ]The pleasures in quietly and peacefully exploring, discovering, and viewing the many marvels of this lovely country is often inhibited by this unwanted attention.

On our descent by a different path we stopped to photograph a beautifully restored pagoda, being quite intrigued by the red, yellow and blue flag flying above. I discovered later that this is the symbol of Cao-Daism an eccentric religion that believes that the word of God comes from the spirits of deceased dignitaries, such as Lenin, Joan of Arc and Marco Polo. As we waited below for the group to regather, I busied myself photographing inquisitive youngsters as they shyly peeped from behind doorways and windows. I was amazed by the quantity of marble statues on sale, from every premise and yard – some statues being several feet high.

Hoi An
It was already dark when we arrived at Hotel Green Field, again some distance from the town centre. After a quick check in and clean up, we headed off to a riverside restaurant for dinner. Most of the group commandeered bicycles from the hotel, but Lucy and I chose a quicker form of transport, namely on the back of two motor scooters. Arriving first and claiming the two balcony seats we were well into our second Heineken by the time the others arrived. Nightlife at the riverfront being quite vibrant made for a good atmosphere and after enjoying a delicious meal we headed around the corner to the trendy Tam Tam café run by an expat Frenchman. We shared cake with Nicole who was celebrating her birthday – she went one better and washed hers down with snake wine.

Lucy and I tried our hand at pool and managed to hold the table for three games including a triumph over our waitress from the restaurant and another local girl. I enjoyed one of those rare purple patches, undoubtedly aided by the Heineken factor, Lucy remarking that some of the more amazing shots were drawing plenty of spectator interest. Such undeserved luck couldn't go on forever and we bowed out to our tour leader in the third game – it was easy to see what he did in his spare time. It was 1 o'clock in the morning when Lucy managed to cajole a couple of local lads to bike us back to the hotel. The silence, save for the scooters, was quite eerie as we sped through the now deserted streets, which only two hours before had been so alive and bustling.

The next day was free time and after a slow and seedy start we set of to explore the town by day. We were quickly joined by a young local girl who spoke excellent English. After exchanging life stories we promised to call in on her mother's tailoring shop on our way home. We perused the many art shops along the waterfront quite impressed with the style and talent of the local artists. I bought a couple of silk paintings which I believed would look nice framed. We ran into our pool adversary from Tam Tams as she touted for business outside her restaurant. When she praised our finesse on the pool table we felt obliged to stay for lunch. Occupying the same balcony seats as we did the night before we sipped our Heinekens while enjoying the busy view both on the river and the walkway below. We had hardly set foot outside the restaurant before being claimed by the girl from the tailor's shop. We were led through the busy food markets full of fresh fruit and vegetables and fish of all shapes and sizes. It was a hive of activity as I clicked away busily with the camera.

The tailor's shop was one of many housed in an enormous warehouse each divided from the rest by floor to ceiling shelves packed tightly with rolls of coloured cloth. It was evident that it was very much a round the clock operation, as everywhere the night shift girls could be seen asleep strewn across two chairs or a vacant table. We were introduced to "Mother" and from there Lucy had various fittings and consultations before settling on some silk pyjamas.

Dinner that night was at the Hong Phuc Restaurant, preceded by a cooking class where our group participated in the preparation of the meal. Mackerel in banana leaves, spring rolls, squid salad and fried wanton – all very delicious. At the end of the evening we were presented with copies of the recipes of which Lucy has already tried two. "Better than at Hoi An" she says. We decided to walk home via some tailor shops where Lucy ordered a couple of shirts. Soon light rain began falling and as it became heavier the street vendors, seemingly from nowhere, produced quantities of brightly coloured wafer-thin plastic raincoats which were quickly dispensed for US $1. These managed to keep some of the water out but by the time we sloshed our way home through over flowing gutters we were well soaked.

The following day we were on the road at 5am for a dawn visit to the My Son Sanctuary. Although still dark it was amazing to see so much traffic on the road including unlit bicycles laden with goods for the markets. Some of the motor scooters also were not showing lights and even before 6am our headlights picked up the white au dais of the schoolgirls as they pedalled to school for the 7am start – obviously for many, quite a journey. My Son contains the ruins of many Cham Kingdom monuments. The earliest structures still remaining date from the 11th century although repeated pillaging over the centuries has reduced the initial 68 structures to only 25. Further extensive damage was inflicted by American bombing – the My Son area being used as an important base by the Viet Cong. We again had difficulty understanding our guide who was extremely quietly spoken.

On the return journey to Hoi An, it began to rain and after stopping at the end of a huge bridge we were told to alight and make our way down a slippery bank to the waters edge. Were we to be lined up shot and dumped in the river? These fears were quickly dispelled, and we proceeded under the bridge to a small boat, previously unnoticed and not entirely weatherproof, for the completion of our journey back to Hoi An. After stops at a ceramic works and a joinery shop we reached Hoi An in time for a quick lunch and beer at Tam Tams before collecting Lucy's 'tailor mades'. Back to the hotel for bag collection, check out and the bus trip to Danang Airport for our flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
We had been warned that snatch and grab theft was rife, and that the faster pace of Vietnam's largest city could be intimidating - but I was pleasantly surprised. The flow of traffic, although significantly greater in volume than in Hanoi, is better controlled with wider streets and more traffic lights. The following morning (Tuesday), I heard for the first time the frightening news of Saturday's Bali tragedy – Singapore, our destination in two days time, was listed among others, as a country on alert.

Our day commenced with a group walk via the markets and Le Roi Rd to the Municipal Theatre, on the way passing the Hotel de Ville (closed to the public) and the Rex and Continental Hotels. The tour continued by cyclo with stops at the American Embassy, the imposing Post Office building, Notre Dame Cathedral and finally to the War Remnants Museum where we witnessed a very sobering photographic account of a shockingly futile piece of our modern history. By this time Lucy and I felt it was time for more pleasant surrounds such as lunch in the shady interior courtyard of the Continental Hotel. Following a relaxed and leisurely lunch we visited the Revolutionary Museum followed by a browse through the expansive markets, again frustrated by the incessant seller harassment – never left alone for a minute to make up one's mind as to what to buy.

We assembled for cocktail hour at the Rex Hotel, enjoying the view from the rooftop as the humid Saigon evening bustled to life. During the war, media correspondents would meet at the Rex for daily briefings from the American authorities, until eventually they became wise as to what was being fed to them, and ventured to the war zone to gather the real truth.

Dinner was at a huge restaurant boasting the longest menu I had ever seen, including every imaginable exotic delicacy – one of our group ordered scorpion. The atmosphere was stifling due to many patrons eating from small portable BBQ's placed on their tables. We adjourned next door to the Ghecho Bar run by an avid Richmond supporter who proudly showed me the extensive array of AFL memorabilia adorning the walls. Lucy and I tried our hand at pool but failed to recapture our form of Hoi An, possibly due to not enough Heineken, but more likely to the early onset of Lucy's stomach upset. This was to lay her low for 24 hours and be the cause of her missing the Mekong River trip the following day and our farewell cocktails at the Caravello Hotel and dinner at the lovely Lemon Grass Restaurant.

Mekong River
This vast body of murky, khaki coloured water has its origins in Tibet before flowing into the South China Sea by way of Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and finally Vietnam. Its shoreline is clogged with wooden boats of all shapes and sizes, from the high broad bowed transport variety to the low sleek sampans. Everywhere there was movement; barges carrying sugar cane, others much larger, filled to overflowing with road metal or earth fill inching their way with the help of struggling tug boats.

After docking at a large island we visited a wood carving works, ordered lunch to be had later then boarded two narrow canal boats at the other side of the island. From there we crossed the river and entered a narrow waterway where we visited a bee farm and sampled honey tea (quite refreshing), snake wine (ugh) and an assortment of local fruits including the colourful dragon fruit. At further stops we observed toffee making and embroidery before returning to the island for lunch. The Mekong area was very humid, quite uncomfortable in fact, and degrees worse than Saigon.

Farewell Vietnam
Lucy had fully recovered by the following morning as we made our final excursion to the Reunification Palace set in spacious well kept grounds. This imposing building, once the symbol of the South Vietnamese Government, and known then as the Presidential Palace, was where the first communist tanks into Saigon arrived on 30 April 1975 and the VC flag unfurled. It remains very much as it was in 1975, impeccably maintained and open to the public as a major tourist attraction. After sad farewells to our group and popular leader we transferred to the airport for the noon flight to Singapore.

Singapore, pristine and clinically clean was a disappointment in many ways. It was unrecognisable to the Singapore I visited 30 years ago. The Oberoi Imperial Hotel has long been demolished and the Cockpit Hotel whose dining room I remembered as luxury in the extreme was now a pile of rubble. The only landmark to my mind, still remaining the same is the Singapore Cricket Club except for its backdrop of skyscrapers rising from the rivers south bank. Admittedly, the traffic is free flowing and completely controlled by lights, while every car appeared as if it had just emerged from a car wash and not a dent or crumpled fender to be seen. Importantly the Singapore Dollar is now worth slightly more than ours, where as 30 years ago it took siix of theirs to equate to one of ours.

We did the usual touristy things, had a beer at the famous Raffles Hotel, costing $S31, visited the Arab Quarter, where I proudly purchased a shirt for $5, which incidentally disintegrated the first time washed. We walked the streets of China Town, which I'm sure is not where it was in the early 70s and visited the famous Orchard Road, again unrecognisable from my earlier visit and where Lucy had a very successful clothes shop. My experience in a nearby camera shop was anything but successful and to top it off an ATM devoured my credit card. We were over Orchard Road by now and adjourned to a nearby Irish pub for a couple of quiet ones where we attempted to relive our Hoi An glory on the pool table. We met up both nights for dinner with Catherine Hain, a fellow 'intrepidist' from Sydney who had arranged a similar stopover. On our way home from our last dinner Lucy and I wandered into the luxurious Fullerton Hotel, built on the river mouth and, as I believe, once accommodated the GPO. While having our overpriced coffees we were amazed at its vastness and grandeur.

We both agreed on the way to the airport and our journey home, that the Singapore tack-on was in many ways an anticlimax after our magical adventure through beautiful Vietnam.

Tony May
December 2002
If you like the sound of Tony's trip check out Intrepid Travel's trips to Vietnam on the site here
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