I was not sure what to expect of Vietnam, would they be anti west? Was there still animosity over the war? I needn't have worried, the welcome was warm and genuine.
Our first port of call was the capital Hanoi, it was cooler than Laos for which we were grateful. At the end of the Vietnam war the Americans bombed the city heavily so there are a lot of fairly ugly 1970's concrete buildings, it cannot really be considered to be a pretty city, and as with all big cities it is not the cleanest and on the day we were in the city by mid afternoon there was a degree of air pollution which was starting to affect us all.
Visiting the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh was rather creepy
We visited the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, which I have to say was for me a rather creepy experience. The great leader and father of modern day Vietnam has been dead since 1969 but has been preserved for the people. We patiently queued in near silence under the watchful eyes of many young soldiers immaculately dressed in their pristine white uniforms all standing to attention. Any attempt at conversation was met with a hard stare and a 'be quiet' in Vietnamese, locals and tourists alike.
Our guide, a young man called Duc (pronounced Zuk) walked us round the old town of Hanoi and what an experience. After the dreamy, relaxed Laos this was bedlam. There were cars, buses, lorries and worst of all mopeds coming from every direction. There appeared to be no give way signs, no stop signs and a pedestrian crossing did not mean right of way for the pedestrian even with the green man lit.
How do we get across the road?!
The secret of crossing the road we soon discovered was to pick a spot to cross, look for a small gap in the traffic nearest the kerbside and then step out, you do not make eye contact, you do not stop (if you do they are more likely to run you over), you just keep walking slowly-ish at an angle and by some miracle you arrive on the other side; all well and good on a normal sized street but utterly terrifying on a 3 lane main road, my brain was screaming at me to stop. I can safely say that I have never experienced anything like it in my life. Zuk thought our reaction was hilarious! The city tour finished and we went to the theatre to watch the water puppets which was rather charming and quaint after the chaos outside.
The view from Surprise cave across Ha Long Bay
After Hanoi we made our way north to Ha Long Bay for a 1 night cruise. The scenery on a good day is spectacular but we were not so fortunate as there was a sea mist which obscured a lot of the 1,969 islands and islets but the food was good, the staff on the cruise entertained us and the locals who live in one of the floating fishing villages rowed us around in bamboo boats and showed us some interesting rock formations.
We then had a "surprise"
We also visited Surprise cave that had some interesting stalagmites and stalactites, one or two of them resembled (with a bit of imagination) things like the lady Buddha and a pair of dragons. There was also one large stalagmite that resembled a certain part of male anatomy and gave rise to lots of giggles and much joking. Our guide told us that this was the reason for the name of the cave as it usually provoked a 'surprise' reaction from the females. I am sure that the real reason it's called Surprise cave is NOT because of this, but we just went along with it.
A long drive back to Hanoi saw us back at the airport for a flight to Hoi An which is located in central Vietnam. The temperature rose by two or three degrees and the humidity increased. It was a bit of a shock after the cooler climes of Hanoi. This was the complete opposite of Hanoi, very French colonial in style and although there was the same issue with the traffic it was little quieter and by now we were old hands at crossing the road without getting run over.
A day off at last!
The night markets were teeming with locals and tourists alike and you could bag yourself a bargain if you fancied the haggle, although to be honest the prices were so low it seemed almost immoral to be haggling over 20p, but it's part of the game. We spent the time there looking at the old merchant's houses, walking round the city and visiting temples with a nice young man called Vin. We did have the luxury of a day off from tours and spent the day on the beach. Once we worked out the etiquette of the sunbeds and parasols it was a nice relaxing day.
A two hour visit to My Son in the heat of the midday sun and I thought I was going to melt. The ruined temples look a bit like those at Angkor Wat but the complex is not as big and the area was heavily bombed by the USA during the war resulting in quite a bit of damage. There were bomb craters everywhere but it was very interesting.
SIX MILLION mopeds!
Ho Chi Minh city (formerly Saigon) was our next port of call with the temperature rising still further and our new guide, Ut (pronounced Oot). Back to a busy, bustling city with just over 11 million inhabitants and 6 million pesky mopeds. We were back to the dangerous business of crossing wide roads again and if you took the time to look at what was coming towards you, you would still be there two weeks later! There were more traffic lights though so grateful for small mercies!
The war remains museum was very moving
The ubiquitous city tour saw us visiting the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame church, the brightly coloured Post Office (it's bright yellow) and the war remains museum. The museum was filled with gruesome pictures and artefacts from the war. It had, as expected, a very biased view of things but the victor owns the truth. For me the strangest exhibit in the place was the guillotine. Apparently, the right wing pro west President who was in power before the west got involved in Vietnam used it to execute his enemies, and there were many, and communist sympathizers that were arrested. Our guide told us that when the President started doing that it was inevitable that the communists in the north would react. The stage was set for the war to begin.
There is a very famous picture taken in Saigon at the end of the war when the Americans left the city. It's the one with the helicopter evacuating people from a rooftop. I have always believed this building was the American embassy but actually it was the CIA building and our guide had a copy of the photo to prove it.
Enlarged entrance to one of the Cu Chi tunnels
The highlight of Saigon was undoubtedly the Cu Chi tunnels. This is a vast network of tunnels about 40km from the city through which the Viet Cong moved to conduct guerrilla warfare operations against the American forces. There was a presentation and a DVD to watch. Think communist anti west propaganda and you have it in one but it was nice to get out of the heat. We went down a couple of the tunnels....they have been made a little wider to allow larger people into them but it was an extremely unpleasant experience.
I DEFINITELY won't be taking up potholing!
The tunnel was only about 2' 6'' high and 18'' wide, they twist and turn and go up and down. You have to crawl, slide and pull yourself along as best you can. We did two tunnels totalling about 60m in length and it was horrible. How those people did it carrying food, water, weapons, ammunition etc in total darkness is beyond me. I am glad I did it but I don't want to do it again and I can't see me taking up potholing as a hobby.
View from the sky deck of the Lotus Tower in Saigon
Our final visit saw us 51 storeys above Saigon on the sky deck of the Lotus Tower, the tallest and one of the newest buildings in the city. Probably the most expensive cup of mint teat I will have but it had to be done, the views were spectacular. The ride down in the lift proved a bit tricky, we couldn't work out where to get out much to the annoyance of the lady in the restaurant on floor 51 for the second time!
Next day at the crack of dawn it was goodbye Vietnam (instead of good morning Vietnam) as we headed off for the airport and our flight to Cambodia. Holiday, did someone say this was a holiday.........I am absolutely knackered!!
To be continured..
By Lynda Davey