Another day, another border crossing, this time from Tay Trang in Laos into Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. I decided to go for the 15-day visa-less entry which meant strategic planning (my favourite pastime), to cover my want-to-see list.
Vietnamese history is fascinating. A country having been constantly invaded, ‘resilient’ defines the people, who are more commercially-minded than their neighbours Laos and Cambodia but who are also, in the main, as friendly. I had been wondering if I would encounter the openness of the young people that I had so loved in Myanmar and here they were shouting ‘hello’ running across the street to practice their English.
In 1954 a major battle took place in Dien Bien Phu – a 57 day siege in which 3,000 French soldiers lost their lives and 25,000 Viet Minh lost theirs. Despite these heavy losses the Viet Minh captured a further 10,000 soldiers and the French army capitulated. This resulted in the end of more than 100 years of French colonial rule. So DBP, now the provincial capital, is a big deal in Vietnamese history and has an impressive war museum, cemetery, reconstructed bunkers etc. Standing by an enormous crater, I was fortunate to meet a Vietnamese man whose father had fought jn the war as had the father of the Frenchman with whom I was travelling.
No sooner had the Vietnamese said au revoir to the French than the US started its assault on north Vietnam. This war is so recent that everyone I talked to had a story to tell; a woman whose father, as a young doctor, spent the war in a military hospital in HaNoi; a man whose father was in intelligence and a couple of tour guides who had seen active service.
What I hadn’t appreciated was the depth to which the country and in many cases families, had been bitterly divided – those living in the south supporting the US in fighting against the communist north led by Ho Chi Minh (affectionately referred to as Uncle Ho). Jay, a young man in his early 30s told me that his uncle had fought with the US against his own brother (Jay’s father). He subsequently spent 10 years in jail and on release was to be deported to the States but died just before. Whilst the war had ripped Jay’s family apart he said that his generation needed to move on with their lives and in this spirit American tourists are welcomed, as is American investment.
Most travellers head north from DBP to Sapa for trekking and home stays with the locals. As a result it’s crowded and has inflated prices, I’d also heard the area was experiencing bad weather. I therefore decided to head towards HaNoi, stopping along the way in the tiny village of Pom Choong near Mai Chau, which promised mountains, paddy fields, rivers and authentic home-stays in stilt houses, minus hoards of tourists. Leaving DBP at 4am I had the worst bus journey of my travels so far. Scheduled to take 7 hours it took 10 and involved being pulled over by the police (a regular occurrence), a flat tire, numerous stops to pick up and drop off locals and a service station lunch with worrying amounts of rice wine being consumed.
The scenery, though less dramatic and less densely forested than in Laos, was interesting, as was people watching and luckily, when I finally arrived, Pom Choong didn’t disappoint. I found a home-stay with a welcoming couple, a sweet 7 year old daughter with whom I played hop scotch and grand mother’s footsteps, a couple of ubiquitous roosters and gorgeous views. 3 nights B&B plus dinner £15! It was a perfect stay with lots of R&R, a massage from a septuagenarian with magical hands and a road trip with a really nice father and son from Sydney – they on their own motor bikes and me, having sworn off riding myself, on the back of a local man’s bike, who have invited me to stay when I get to Australia. The son has a place in the Bondi Beach area and the father in the Blue Mountains. How lucky am I.
I visited a forest area thick with bamboo where there are several factories producing chopsticks. I’ve never stopped to think how these humble utensils are made so it was fascinating to wach the process and to see thousands upon thousands of chopstick ready to be exported around the world.
Only 3 hours or so from HaNoi I would really recommend Pom Choong and its neighbour Ban Lac. Could I say the same about HaNoi? I think I could, but only in the same way that a capital city is worth visiting for a couple of days. The highlights for me were the world-famous water puppet show with traditional music and magical tales with dragons, turtles, rice farmers, a royal barge and fireworks thrilling adults and children alike, and the excellent museum of Fine Arts packed full of interesting carvings, sculptures, lacquer, silk and woodcut paintings from C11-19th and C20th art with a definite European influence.
There was a bit of a queue (mainly school children), at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but it was nothing compared to the queue in Tiananmen Square to see Mao Tse Tung. That queue I declined to join but Uncle Ho is so revered and every aspect of recent history revolves around him that I decided it would be worth the wait. Flanked by guards dressed in white who could have been waxworks, it felt bizarre filing past him but actually, in so doing I was able to understand he power of the man.
HaNoi also gave more my first soaking in 3 months as there was a short torrential downpour which caught me out. The soaking was compounded by the Old Quarter being a rabbit warren of identical streets making it tricky to find the way back to my hotel…..every time!
And so, on to misty Halong Bay for an overnight cruise. It’s a bit of a mission (4hours each way) on an uninteresting road and, being a major tourist attraction, it’s pretty crowded. I’ve seen a lot of soaring karst mountains from China through Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. Guilin in China in particular is very similar. Having said that the mountains rising up from the sea bed are impressive, my cabin was quite luxurious and I got to learn two new skills. Firstly kayaking, which at the ripe old age of 58 I have never done but is actually a doddle (unless you’re careering down a rapid) and secondly nighttime squid fishing over the side of the boat, which is amusing fir about half an hour and you get to fry the catch. I also had pleasant cruising mates, in particular a German couple who at the age of 72 and 79 were intrepid travellers. I nick named them Indiana Jones and Lara Croft which they loved.
A bit of trivia. No one knows the exact number of mountains, with new ones regularly popping up so the government decided to go for 1,969 – the year Uncle Ho died.
My first experience of a Vietnamese sleeper bus was quite something. Luckily I’m small which meant I fitted perfectly into a ‘pod’ on the top deck but I saw blokes bent double with legs and arms everywhere, and of course the bus was overfull so there were people kipping on the floor!
I usually enjoy chaotic travel but the bus driver was bad tempered and then at a drop-off point an apoplectic Aussie hauled a local off the bus after his daughter said he had groped her. This is the first time I’ve come across any unpleasantness.
My final two stops in Vietnam were the old capital city of Hue and laid back Hoi An. The dramatic coastal road between the two which takes in a tiny village with a stunning ancient Japanese bridge on which children sit with their English teacher striking up conversations people like me (smart idea), ascends the famous Top Gear featured hairpin mountain and winds past fields with chill-making remnants of American bunkers including a dilapidated checkpoint, bizarrely now a popular spot to pose in wedding gear. In fact, anywhere there is a special view you’ll find Asians in wedding regalia. I have yet to work out if they’re actual weddings or photo shoots or just a fun pastime as in ‘hey, let’s dress up as a bride and groom today, drive to xxxxx and takes some photos’.
But I digress. Both Hue and Hoi An were a delight; the former with its royal palace and tombs, incense production, elegant women in traditional Ao Dai (tight fitting long silk tunic worn over pants) and conical hat (containing a poem) and student buskers; the latter with Gaudiesque temples, culinary delicacies like rose dumplings, boutique shops and its famous lantern-strung streets. Hoi An also has deserted ‘secret’ beaches from which bowl-boat fisherman ply their ade and countryside strewn with marshes and paddy fields, all accessible from my excellent Irish – yes Irish, hostel.
Searching the internet for somewhere to stay I found Paddy’s, which had only opened two weeks previously and offered weary travellers a decent sized swimming pool, a full sized pool table, Fox sport and menu which included spag bol, bangers & mash, fish & chips and Strongbow! A yearning for good old Blighty overcame me and I booked in. The people staying at the hostel were all very good fun and I hooked up with a Kiwi and a French woman for daytime beaching and nighttime sorties into town.
The only random experience I had was waking in the middle of the night to find a bloke peeing up against the curtain. I guess making it to the bathroom was just too much of an effort! I can hear your gasps of disbelief but it was actually quite amusing.
My flight out of Vietnam was from Danang to Kuala Lumpur. Danang is a burgeoning city, now the third largest in the country. Several of the major hotel chains (Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton etc) have built 5 star beach-front resorts at which the likes of the Beckhams stay for $2000 a night. Apparently they venture into the city for a spot of local culture but prefer to lying by their personal pool. I prefer my more authentic way of travelling but I bet no-one pees on their floor!
I enjoyed Vietnam enormously and saw masses in 2 weeks without rushing. It’s rich in history and culture and after three months of full-on Theravada Buddhism, it was interesting to find myself in a country whose religion is structured on the folk doctrines of Confucius, Taoism from China and Mahayana Buddhism. What is also noticable is that whilst Vietnam is communist, the way of life is infact closer to socialist.
I’m now off to Malaysia to meet some of Simon’s (son-in-law) numerous relatives. I can’t wait to stay in a family home.