Good Morning Vietnam
Like most people us travel agents all have a wish list of places to visit and I am no exception! I have a great passion for the Far East and when the opportunity arose in September this year to visit Vietnam I jumped at the chance. I have previously visited Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Penang but so much has been said about the non- commercial aspect of Vietnam, it was a fantastic opportunity to see the country first hand.
We flew out with Emirates via Dubai from Heathrow and due to the late arrival into Dubai it was somewhat of a dash to catch the connecting flight. This was not a problem, but the group were far from happy when we arrived in How Chi Minh City (Saigon) discovering that our luggage was still in Dubai and would not be with us for 24 hours. On leaving the airport late in the evening the only option was to immediately visit the night market to barter for shirts, shorts and trainers!
The market was packed with people buying everything from chickens to pigs to jewellery to kitchen sinks –You name it and it was there. All the stall holders had a great command of English and were more than happy to take US dollars as opposed to their own Vietnamese Dong. However the “Bargain Hunt “was a complete success and readied us all for the visit to the Cu Chi tunnels the following day.
The weather had been forecast to be wet and humid, but this was far from the case with temperatures in the 90’s and bright sunshine. The tunnels are approx. 35 kms outside Ho Chi Minh City and this distance could be covered in anything from one to three hours and I can now understand why. The roads are just a sea of scooters and motor bikes with up to 4 passengers on each .As long as you wore a helmet anything was legal and it was not unusual to see baskets of piglets, crates of ducks on board on their way to market.
We arrived at the tunnels which were located in a jungle clearing and the guide was quick to point out the various man traps that were set to painfully catch the unfortunate US soldiers. The area was densely wooded and you could imagine how eerie and difficult it would have been for the troops as the camouflage was cleverly arranged. The 121kms network of tunnels had cooking areas, weapon making rooms and even schools down there –quite amazing. It was our turn to go down and we descended down a hatch. You had to crouch, not quite crawling but once you were down there was no turning back –you had to keep going. They were dimly lit with staff at the junctions but ultimately an absolutely unique experience.
The next day it was a short flight to Hue and on to the heritage port of Hoi An where the relaxed lifestyle and architecture has changed little over the years. The route from Hue to Hoi An is very scenic and passes through the wonderfully photogenic fishing village of Lang Co and then climbs and descends over the “Pass of Ocean Clouds” and on to Danang en route.
Danang was a surprisingly modern beach resort with pristine roads running adjacent to the golden beaches with fauna, carefully pruned and trimmed and not a sight of any litter. Clearly a very well developed resort and a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Saigon.
Hoi An is a contrasting ancient town with charming narrow streets full of former merchants houses, temples and many colourful markets .It is also famous for its 400 year old Japanese covered bridge plus of course its local fishing . If you want to get more involved with the traditional fishing techniques the locals are more than happy to help you navigate a basket boat through their narrow waterways, for just a few dollars or so!!!
Eating there is also incredibly low cost and delicious with a four or five course buffet with local beer or wine setting you back no more than $10 with a wide selection of stir fried prawns, pork, of course linked to many varieties of rice dishes. The restaurant owners are very proud to please and are also very accommodating for vegetarians too .Our stay in Hoi An was sadly just two nights before flying further north to Hanoi.
Hanoi was similar to Saigon with crazy traffic and congestion everywhere and we were all pleased we had mastered the art of crossing the road. Just walk, do not stop and they will drive or ride around you!- It really did work! The old Ho Chi Minh Quarter was an amazing back street labyrinth of street sellers spilling on to the pavement selling and cooking literally everything and I am still not sure what Vietnamese snacks we were testing. The photo opportunities were endless.
The guide decided that we should have a glimpse of our hotel and led us to the “Hanoi Hilton”, or alternatively known as Hoa Lo Prison. It is so called named as such as it is supposed to reflect the easy life that the US airman faced after capture but this was not always the case. Only a part of the building has been retained as a museum and clearly in the earlier French occupation, torture and executions of Vietnamese rebels was common place. There were many stories of amazing escapes through the drainage systems in their quest for freedom.
The following day we were off on a 3.5hr coach transfer to Halong Bay which passed through the rich farmlands of the Red River Delta, and the rice fields with the villagers working alongside their personal water buffalos if they were wealthy enough. Stops en route gave me some good ideas for my allotment!!
After arriving in to Halong Bay it was straight to the port for the small launch transfer to our Pelican Cruise ship, for what was an unforgettable two days. The ship was more like a traditional galleon, with oak and mahogany everywhere, and of course the cabins were extremely well appointed. She gently cruises through beautiful scenery passing a myriad of islands and rock formations which all had their own names such as Dog, Sail, and Dinh Huong (Incense Pot) before mooring up at sunset for the night.
This was followed by a Vietnamese banquet on board and then to relax later, fishing for squid from the back of the boat.
The following morning it was off early to the “Surprise Cave” and to kayak through these in the hunt for bats. Once inside they were clinging to the roof, with the eerie squeaking echoing all around .Sadly this was the end of our stay before re-boarding the Pelican and weaving our way back to the port and then returning to Hanoi for our flight home.
In summary Vietnam is certainly untouched , non-commercial and a real contrast from any other Far Eastern country I have visited .The people there are extremely friendly, appreciating what little they have, yet are so, so happy with their lives. I certainly makes me appreciate even more what we take for granted here back at home!
By Lance Sturges