The Green Country
08.04.2011 - 21.04.2011 -32 °C
South East Asia was definitely new territory for us. We arrived in Hanoi (6 hours ahead of British time) at around 1 o’clock on the Saturday lunchtime to be greeted by the first of the excellent guides supplied by ‘Live Vietnam’. His name was Chung and he would look after us until we departed for Sapa.
Chung’s main task of this first day was to get us to our hotel, the Flower Garden in the old quarter of Hanoi. Dominated by scooters and mopeds, Hanoi is a busy, bustling city and the hotel bar offered our first street-side view of life in Vietnam as the camera clicked into action for the first time. We didn't venture far on our first day but in the time we had spare after arriving we took our lives in our own hands and walked to the end of the road and around the corner of what was an amazingly busy part of the city. But in that short walk you suddenly started to feel the culture and the way of life in this part of the world. Street traders - some on foot carrying baskets of fruit or vegetables hanging off either end of a length of bamboo slung over one shoulder and some perched on tiny plastic stools leaning over small cookers preparing various street foods for regular customers and passers-by. Almost all of these customers and passers-by appeared alongside on either a bike or a scooter and whose numbers overwhelmed the city, outnumbering cars by what appeared to be 40 or 50 to 1. With them came the obvious noise and feeling of a place that never rests. The sound and movement were constant features of our time in the cities as was the constant reminder of how Health & Safety conscious we have become in the UK - to an extreme. As an example, motor cyclists; either those wearing no crash helmet at all or the conformists who have been out and bought the flimsiest looking protective helmet that they then proceed to wear over the top of their baseball cap. Often two to a bike, or three, or even four! Young children at the front with hands firmly on the handlebars, Dad sitting right behind and in control (presumably!) and then, between him and Mum will be another child, to complete the family ride through the busy streets of Hanoi; and indeed the same would apply to Hue or Ho Chi Minh City as we would later discover. Some Vietnamese, both women and some men, cover their faces when out in the traffic to greater and lesser extents and we found out that this wasn't so much in fear of pollution but more to protect the skin or - "to protect the beauty" - as it was described to us. Looking up from the uneven pavement alongside the busy road you could also see clearly visible, draped along and across the street from building to building, a spaghetti-like mass of electricity and telephone cables. Welcome to Vietnam!!
Ho Chi Minh is the national hero in Vietnam and it was fitting that our first stop was to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum where he lies in Lenin-esque fashion inside a soviet looking building on one side of the city’s huge open square. The queues looked depressingly long but we moved swiftly to the entrance and passed quietly round the preserved figure of Ho before exiting the other side. Ho died in 1969 although his death was kept a secret from everybody until 1974!! Chung explained the relationship between the Vietnamese people and ‘Uncle Ho’ before walking us around to see the official residence of the late leader and also his ‘actual’ residence. But Ho Chi Minh preferred instead to live in a very modest house nearby from where he was able to properly connect with the people on many levels. We saw workers in Cooley hats busily labouring on the garden as we moved on to the Ho Chi Minh Museum and followed that with a visit to the One Pillar Pagoda and the impressive Temple of Literature. Later we experienced – and survived! – walking across the busy Hanoi main street thanks to Chung’s help and also that of an elderly Vietnamese lady who helped us across (!). The trick was to just walk slowly and the countless lanes of traffic would see you and go around you. Simple, but it was a leap of faith.
The heat had now kicked in and lunch offered some respite for a while. The afternoon was filled with more museums and another Pagoda and China’s cultural influence on Vietnam’s history was becoming clearer by the second. We also asked Chung if we could squeeze in a visit to Hanoi’s Prison (known as the Hanoi Hilton by the Americans during the war) so we made our way across the city but unfortunately found that it had just closed so our only view was of the outside and so made our way to Hanoi Railway Station to catch the night train to Lao Cai in the North of the country, close to the Chinese Border. From here we would transfer to Sapa for a night in the Chau Long Sapa Hotel and two days amongst the minority tribes of the area; notably the Black Hmong and Red Dzao. Chung had looked after us well during our time in Hanoi but we would be met by a new guide at the other end of the line.
The ‘sleeping compartment’ just about justified its name but at least we had a cabin to ourselves and the ‘Happy Room’ wasn’t far down the corridor. Drinks and snacks had also been provided so all in all it was a fun way to spend the second night of our Asian adventure. The train pulled in to Lao Cai at 5:15 on the Monday morning - slightly earlier than anticipated and caught a few people by surprise. However, it was the end of the line so little real cause for panic and after dragging our luggage across the tracks we were met by Thoun, our guide for the Sapa area. Breakfast was had in the ‘Bordeaux’ restaurant just across the square from the station and the occasionally hostile border that Vietnam share with China was literally just one mile further down the road. After breakfast, we made our way to Sapa, just 35 kms away but almost an hour on the roads of North Vietnam.
The journey to Sapa was a steady climb through proper countryside; the town sits about 3,500 feet above sea level. On route we stopped for our driver and guide to help an elderly member of the Black Hmong who, riding a scooter weighed down with ‘whatever’, had hit a pothole and parted company with her bike. She seemed ok – probably happens all the time!! – and she soon went on her way and so did we. Shortly afterwards, we came across a lorry that had somehow ended up in the mountainside ditch. It’s driver and passengers were busy trying to move it. It was clear that Sapa and the area had had some wet weather and this had caused small rockslides as well as the problems that we had seen first hand.
It was still early and Thoun had arranged for us to visit Tavan village (pop.2,500), where the Black Mhong and Red Dzao live. The minority tribes are well practised in dealing with the arrival of ‘fresh’ tourists and as the car approached we were met by around 12 or maybe more tribeswomen who surrounded the vehicle in a bid to have first bite as we got out. In truth they were harmless and simply wanted to be first to be heard with their bid. “You buy from me today” had obviously been the first line of English that had been taught to most of them!! And so on to my first mistake. “Maybe later” I replied. This gave them enough hope of a sale and justified them walking with us and talking to us for as long as we were still walking and talking. Their stamina had no bounds!!! “Lily” latched on to Jan as her new friend and helped her over the slippery parts of the track that we were walking on. And so, having shared our lives with these people over the course of around an hour and a half, it was time to be strong and resist buying too much of the items that the Black Hmong and Red Dzao had made to sell to earn a living. However, I weakened and bought from one but then the remaining members of the group also wanted a piece of the action. So, we asked our guide to explain that we simply couldn’t buy from every single one of them, even if we wanted to (which we didn’t). Disappointed faces all round and the group started to thin out a little and we were left with those who were determined to persevere with us. In the end, I made them an offer of a donation in return for a group photograph and they eventually agreed although in truth they wanted to sell us something that they had made. It was a great experience and good fun and, compared to the timeshare touts of the Canary Islands you could never consider the determination and persistence of the minority tribes of North Vietnam to be hassle. And when it was time to leave them, the few who had endured our visit to the very end for little or no reward were still good enough to wave us goodbye with a smile.
We arrived at the hotel and had some free time until dinner. Thoun arrived to walk us to the restaurant at the top of Sapa town. It was a damp, misty day and so we carefully took note of the route as we knew we would have to make our own way back to the hotel after the meal in the dark. We did.
The following day we woke up to the low cloud and damp atmosphere that I think we will remember Sapa by. Day two was to be equally as eventful as the first day with a visit to Cat Cat village - was located in a valley between Sapa and Mount Fansipan. It was different to Tavan and the steps down took us through village properties and down to a waterfall. We took photographs with Thoun before being tempted into a small theatre where we sat and watched a local dance show where Jan was persuaded to take part in the Bamboo Dance. It turned out to be a private show as we were the only ones there at the time (with five local children also watching) and, typical of our experience with people we were meeting on the trip, the performers all lined up at the door after the show to wave us goodbye. The friendliness of the Vietnamese people was definitely starting to leave its mark.
After lunch, we spent a little time in the town as we made our way back to the hotel. We wandered through the market and met more friendly faces and took photographs as we went. Thoun was picking us up at 3:30 to begin our journey back to Hanoi. But first we had another village to see. It was raining but that didn’t really matter as we walked through the lovely countryside that surrounded Ta Phin (pop. 300).
Vietnam is Green, very Green. If it isn’t the national colour of the country then it should be. The rice fields and the forest areas all boast the most vivid shades of Green that you can imagine and the rain on this particular day simply enhanced the colours. We were met at Ta Phin, as we were previously at Tavan, by a number of tribeswomen as we got out of the car but our experience with the people of both Tavan and Cat Cat had taken the fear factor away. We walked with Thoun along the roads – some of which were solid marble- and up through to the top of the village accompanied by several new friends. One pointed out her house and invited us in but we declined due to lack of time. This apart, it was the same routine as before. The usual questions and answers in the hope of being able to sell you something but without any real pressure and then a friendly goodbye. Basically, they are just nice people trying to survive.
We walked back through the village in the rain – the scenery in this valley was fantastic - and met up with the car again at the end of the road. From here, it was simply a case of heading back to the train station and back to Hanoi.
Back in Lao Cai, we had our evening meal at the now familiar Bordeaux Restaurant, the only restaurant we visited twice in the entire trip, and then said our goodbyes to Thoun. The train was due to leave at 7:30 and arrive in Hanoi at the unsociable time of 4:15 in the morning. Sleeping would be a real challenge. Having said that, the cabins were comfortable enough for two – we were grateful we didn’t have to share.
We were met in Hanoi by Windy, our new guide. We were driven straight to the Flower Market which trades from around 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. I would never have anticipated seeing so many people in a market at 4:30 in the morning. However, it was colourful and busy and passed some time prior to breakfast at the state run Trade Union Hotel. From here, we set off to Halong City where we would be boarding a Junk for the cruise around Halong Bay.
The Halong Bay cruise was earmarked as a highlight of our trip to South East Asia. We boarded at midday and received the keys to our cabin. After sorting luggage out we were met by the crew on deck who provided ‘welcome’ drinks as we set off towards the limestone rocks that dominate the Bay of Tonkin. It was a misty and hazy start to the trip but gradually the scenery unfolded and the mist and haze cleared. There were sunbeds on the top deck which were soon ‘owned’ by those on board and the friendly crew were working hard to prepare for dinner while the cameras of our small group of six sightseers went into overdrive. We cruised for about two hours which took us as far as Titov Island where we all got off via a small sampan and those that wanted the beach and to swim were able to. I decided to walk to the top of the island for the views over the small bay and to take more photographs.
It was a long climb and one that wasn’t helped by the constant stop-start of those directly in front in what was a conga-like procession going in both directions. I clambered to the top from where I could take more photographs before joining the trail of people on their way back down. At the bottom it was almost time to get back on board but I just found enough time to wander around the corner of the bay with the camera and take a few more from ground level. The two other couples; Stefan and Edith (German) and Ricardo (Italian) and Pauline (French) were good company and by the time we got back to the Junk from Titov Beach we had been joined by four others; a couple from Australia and another couple from Canada.
The scenery at Halong Bay was spectacular and during dinner we cruised further around the bay and then anchored for the night. The evening ended with drinks and a chat while fishing off of the end of the boat which we all tried and spectacularly failed at. The Captain soon explained that he would be turning the engines off soon after 10 p.m. and therefore we would lose the electricity and obviously the lighting in the cabins so thoughts turned to bed.
Breakfast was at 7 o’clock so another nice early start – not untypical in this part of the world. But to be honest, it really is the best part of the day and before long we were on another Sampan heading for Monkey Island and then Luon Cave. Then, it was back to the Junk for lunch which, scheduled for 10:30, we decided was much too early so politely declined. The Captain kindly brought us some fresh fruit which was more than enough to eat mid-morning. We were due back at the port at 11:45 so the rest of the time was spent leisurely chugging back through the rocks past Mans Head Island to Halong City. We eventually said our goodbyes to the others and waited for Windy and the driver to pick us up.
It was very hot and after tracking the driver down we found Windy who decided that we had time that we could use before driving back to Hanoi for the flight to Hue. A massage was suggested and we both agreed so within minutes were being treated to 90 minutes of occasional agony – all in the interests of relaxation!! To be fair, it was good fun and we had a laugh with the two tiny Vietnamese girls who were taking pleasure in inflicting the pain. Suitably refreshed we headed for the airport but not before an obligatory stop at a Craft Factory.
Dinner – a massive dinner – was had at Hanoi Airport where we said goodbye to Windy. Hanoi to Hue was the first of three ‘internal’ flights if you count Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap (Cambodia) as internal. The flight was just 45 minutes so barely time to do your seat belt up and listen to the Safety Briefing. At Hue, we were met by Dung (pronounced ‘dyoong’) who took us to the excellent Saigon Morin Hotel which would be our base for two nights.
In the morning (Friday), Dung took us to see the Imperial City which was very impressive despite there being areas in need of renovation. The Chinese influence was again clear to see in both the architecture and written language. From here, we went to the Thien Mu Pagoda which sits alongside the Perfume River and where 80 Buddhist Monks live. One of the monks was on walkabout, meeting and greeting visitors and having photos taken with them. He seemed very happy and friendly and we were secretly quite keen to have the experience of talking to him and taking a photo or two but our luck was out on this occasion as his route took him away from our direction. The Pagoda was well worth seeing even in the heat of the day which made the cooling boat trip back down the river even more welcome. The ‘dragon’ boats on the river are small and privately owned and are basically house boats. The couple that ran the one that Dung had hired for us lived on it with their young son and tried to make a living from the runs up and down the river together with money made from selling small items on the boat to tourists. We bought a drink and some bamboo book marks. It must be a hard life. After lunch, Dung took us to the Tu Duc Tomb. It was a hot day and very humid but the site was worth seeing with its small lake and moat.
Our evening meal was just a walk from the Saigon Morin. Dung met us to take us to the restaurant and he arrived on his motorbike, allowing him to go straight home after we were seated. I jokingly asked for a lift, he jokingly said ‘Why not!’. I carried on walking but Jan hopped on the back, much to Dung’s surprise. They briefly disappeared up the road in the direction of the restaurant, doing battle with the scores of other bikes and scooters. Eventually, I caught up just outside the restaurant and we thanked Dung for his time and bid farewell to him as we were moving on (again) the next day and he wasn’t able to be with us for our final morning in Hue which was a shame. We sat down in the restaurant, ordered drinks and then realised that my wallet was back in the hotel. I had no choice but to walk back and get it. The restaurant manager was concerned when he saw me stand up to leave but I explained the situation and Jan stayed while I went back. It took me about 25 minutes to walk to the Saigon Morin and back and during that time I had an opportunity to enjoy a ‘close and special friendship with a beautiful lady’ on four occasions. I declined (I didn’t have my wallet!) and eventually returned to the restaurant where we enjoyed our meal before walking back to the hotel for a drink.
After breakfast the following day, we had to sadly depart the Saigon Morin and were greeted at reception by Nie or was it Nai (which sounded like Nee but to which Nie or Nai said, “No, not Knee, it’s Nie (or Nai)”, which still sounded like Nee or even Knee!!).
Nie/Nai was going to escort us to Hoi An which was about a three hour journey from Hue but before reaching our destination we went to see the tomb of the 12th king, Khai Dinh and then drove on and took lunch at Lang Co Beach, still trying to solve the problem of how to pronounce Nie’s/Nai’s name.
We were hugging the coast now on our way to Hoi An and we drove via Danang (and China Beach) which was the base for the American’s during their involvement in Vietnam in the early 70’s. It also happened to be Nie’s/Nai’s home town. Danang was undergoing a serious transformation with both Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie putting their name to golf developments along the coast. There were also numerous classy residential developments in progress which gave the area an affluent feel. It would be interesting to see what the town looks like in ten to fifteen years time.
We arrived at Hoi An late afternoon and settled in for a well earned three night stay (3 whole nights in the same place!!!). We didn’t see the old town of Hoi An until the following morning, by which time we had endured a tremendous thunderstorm and tropical downpour which brought frogs of varying sizes leaping onto the pathways around the resort.
The old town of Hoi An was an unexpected highlight. Nie/Nai took us to an old Cantonese House and an Ancient Commercial House before showing us the Thien Hau Pagoda with its strong smell of incense. We also saw the small, covered Japanese Bridge but it was the lantern filled streets and riverside that made Hoi An so attractive and we made a promise to ourselves to return in the evening before we left in a couple of days time for Ho Chi Minh City.
Hoi An at night is a lovely place to be. A friendly atmosphere with lots of colour provided by the brightly coloured lanterns in the streets and also those being floated on the river. The riverside was very busy and it was as though it was a public holiday or a special occasion in Hoi An with small groups taking part in different events and with giant lanterns on small pontoons on the river on both sides of the main bridge. We had already eaten so it was nice to just walk aimlessly around the streets and watch everything going on. We paid 1,000 Dong (about 3p) for a paper lantern and Jan placed it among numerous others to float on the river. We retraced our steps and headed back up the street we had walked down earlier and then found our way to the Hoi An Hotel to catch the Shuttle Bus. Back at the resort, there was time to kill at the bar.
Originally, the plan had been to spend at least a little time on the beach. However, the storm of the previous day and the overcast skies that greeted us this morning really didn’t encourage any sort of beach activity. However, we also had to get back into town to the dressmaker’s so decided rather than wait for the Shuttle Bus to take a taxi before lunch so that we could try the clothes we were having made. The staff at the shop had made the entire shopping experience a fun one, even for me who had been largely a spectator during the measuring and trying-on process. As for the clothes, with one or two small adjustments which took about fifteen minutes, they were fine. All I had to do was pay for them and grab my half-price tie of course. This presented a minor problem for the cashier and, despite various explanations from her colleagues, the complexity of the transaction appeared to be a bridge too far for her mathematical ability. Eventually the penny dropped leaving an elderly member of staff (who had so far said nothing but had stood alongside listening intently) to look at me, raise her eyebrows, nod in the cashier’s direction and say, “Idiot” in perfect English before breaking into a laugh.
We left the shop poorer financially but with another great travelling experience behind us. Outside it was raining again but we still had a bit more shopping to do and, just around the corner from the dressmaker’s, was a series of small shops selling T-Shirts, Scarves, Table Runner’s etc., and we had promised one of the vendors that we would return. So, not wanting to break a promise, we went back to the shop that we had briefly stopped at the day before - and we were remembered. The previous day we had been her first customer of the day when we bought a T-Shirt for Matthew, and she gave us a gift claiming that we would bring her luck for the rest of the day. On our return this day she said that she had had a good day after our previous visit and, as she expected, we had brought her luck. We proceeded to buy two more T-Shirts and a Table Runner for a special price (although not THAT special!!). But whatever, she was good fun and we had returned as we promised. It was still raining so we threw ourselves and our bags somehow into a convenient bicycle rickshaw and asked him to get us to the Hoi An Hotel where we could have a drink and then catch the next Shuttle Bus back to the resort.
We had a lazy afternoon but it had been another good day and Hoi An had left a good impression on us and we still had some time the following morning for, weather permitting, an hour or so on the beach. But before that, we had booked a meal in the hotel restaurant that evening to watch the lanterns being floated on the river. It was a nice way to finish our stay in Hoi An and although we woke up next morning to heavy overcast skies we did venture over to the beach for a while before we left.
Nie/Nai arrived with our driver to take us back to Danang where we would catch a flight to Ho Chi Minh City (still known and referred to as Saigon by those born before the mid 1970’s). We were warned of possible delays out of Danang and, sure enough, for the first time in the entire trip, we had to hang around for an hour or so. Danang Airport isn’t the biggest and really isn’t the best equipped airport to be delayed for any period of time but we survived the boredom of the delay and eventually got airborne and landed at Ho Chi Minh City about an hour later than originally scheduled.
We were met by Lu who, like the other guides that had looked after us, was really friendly and good company. After getting through the rush hour traffic we reached and settled into the Palace Hotel, in the centre of the city. Lu collected us for our evening meal which would be taken cruising on the Saigon River. It was a nice way to see some of the city at night and the food was again different but as usual good. Lu had switched the itinerary around a little because he had an interview to attend on what was to be our second morning in HCMC. The interview would decide whether he would get an opportunity to go to the USA for four months in the Summer and where he would be able to visit his Mum who he hadn’t seen for three years.
So, for our first day in HCMC, Lu would take us to the town of My Tho on the Mekong Delta. He also employed some local help for when we got there and the three of us were joined by Mai, a lovely lady who knew the area well and who also spoke perfect English. Lu was happy because he could now sit back and enjoy the trip in the same way that we would. Mai took us on a boat on the Mekong and we visited an island where we had a lunch of Elephant’s Ear Fish, watched the local girls flee on sight of a large centipede (eventually caught in a bottle by one of the local lads), had the chance to have our photograph taken with as large a python as you would ever want to see, tasted various new sweets and fruits and then clambered aboard a Sampan for a ride down a palm-shaded tributary of the Mekong River. The Sampan was ‘powered’ by the efforts of two women, one at the front and one at the back, and whose role in life was to take tourists on the ride and then row themselves back up river before waiting their turn to start again. Lu had earlier given us some advice : Don’t tip the musicians that come and play for you while you are having lunch but think about tipping people like these women who have a tough, physical existence and put a lot of effort into ensuring that you have a good time. I took his advice and tipped our two Sampan ‘drivers’ and they responded with repeated smiles and waves of gratitude as they made their way back up the river. I got the impression that it was a good tip.
Mai had been good company on the trip and explained a lot about local life in this part of the world. It was a good move on Lu’s part to ask her along. We boarded the boat again and this took us back to port at My Tho, a neat and tidy town on the Mekong, where we thanked Mai and said goodbye before starting the journey back to Ho Chi Minh City.
Back in HCMC, we returned to the Palace Hotel prior to dinner. Lu again collected us and delivered us to another good restaurant and also explained that Sylvia, a friend of his, would meet us in the morning and take us to the Cu Chi Tunnels which were about an hour and a half outside the City. Lu had his interview to prepare for.
Sylvia arrived at The Palace Hotel just after 8 a.m., called for the driver and we set off for the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Vietnamese had dug over 200 kms of tunnels to help combat the American attacks in the mid 70’s. We were shown an assortment of traps, many made from bamboo, that the Vietnamese had made and used with great success. We also saw bomb craters and some of the U.S. equipment that was captured and some of the weaponry used by the U.S. during the war. And we also had an opportunity to go down into the tunnels which was quite a claustrophobic experience. I know that they are smaller people but these tunnels had been enlarged to allow tourists to be able to go into them!! It’s quite amazing that they used the tunnels in the way that they did and to such a great effect! Anyway, it was a good trip and worth seeing. We stopped for lunch on route back to the City before linking up again with Lu who was a very happy boy after successfully getting the Green light to go to the USA in August for four months. As if to celebrate, Lu bought ice creams for us all including Sylvia who soon afterwards said goodbye and went on her way as we then made our way to the Reunification Palace.
In many ways, the Reunification Palace was ‘something and nothing’ although the Control Room housed in the basement was interesting. Coinciding with our own arrival at the Reunification Palace was the arrival of several hundred school children on an outing. English is now being taught as a second language in Vietnam (until 1992 it was Russian) and one or two of the children, upon seeing some English people (namely us) wanted to say ‘Hello’ and get a reaction which they did. I said Hello back and the one or two voices soon became five or six which soon became fifteen or twenty and so on. And whenever they caught sight of us as we toured the Palace they would repeat the exercise all over again. But it was all good fun.
From the Reunification Palace we saw the Notre Dame Cathedral and then the impressive Post Office before finishing the day with a visit to the History Museum and Ben Thanh Indoor Market.
We weren’t really in the mood for (another) large meal so we asked Lu to cancel the main meal and replace it with just a drink and a snack which he did. The restaurant (occasionally revolving but not today!!) was in the middle of the City and had interesting views below of ‘the battle of the bikes’ at rush hour. With our drink and snack – cake in fact – out of the way, it was time to pick our way through the rush hour traffic to Ho Chi Minh City Airport where we would catch a flight out of Vietnam to Cambodia. Negotiating the predominantly two-wheeled traffic in a 7-seater people mover when you are outnumbered by thirty or forty to one was a real challenge for Ming, our driver in HCMC. Thankfully, his years of practice eventually paid off and we emerged from the whirlpool of metal onto some comparatively empty, open road which within minutes brought us to the airport. Lu had been good fun to be with and he was one of a few that it had been sad to say goodbye to. The people really had been a highlight of the entire trip.