Vietnam 21 October 2002
Today is the first day of our second month. In some ways it feels like we've been away forever and in others the time has flown by.
Vietnam is an amazing country. It has been ravaged by war for centuries and yet the strongest feeling you get from the people is hope. The scenery has a hundred shades of green and the towns and cities are alive with energy.
Vietnam is about the size of the UK and and has 78 million people. The length of the 's' shaped country is shaped by lush green paddy fields, where ladies in conical hats work alongside their families and the water buffalo.
In stark contrast to the natural beauty of the country, the traffic is absolute chaos. With three and sometime four to a motorbike all the roads are packed with cars, motorbikes, trucks, buses, bicycles and in places water buffalo - and the only rule is that there are no rules.
The country is on the brink of substantial development - tourism is essential to the economy and it will go one of two ways. I hope that the country is taking the right advice to ensure that this development is in the right direction. The impact of more commercialism is positive in some of the places we've seen, but in others the developments are out of place and litter has the potential to be a real problem....
The people welcome tourists with open arms - and arms full of postcards, books, beads, watches, sunglasses, etc, etc, etc to sell! The women are stunning and the national dress is extremely elegant. Nearly everyone we've come across has been able to speak English. We've met some real characters. At times we've had to wonder what some of the people we've met could have achieved with the opportunities we have in the UK.
As the country is so thin, travelling is like being part of a big family. People we saw in our first week have popped up along the way time and again. The standard of accommodation is extremely high and it's very cheap to live here.
Enough rambling - here's some of what we've seen.
A landscape typical of Vietnam. Once the rice harvest is over, the people often fish in the paddy fields in all kinds of boats.
We flew into Hanoi, the capital. It was here that we first saw the crazy traffic. Every building is open onto the road selling something. We'd read about Bia Hoi - which is draft beer sold at the roadside - after a few days we were brave enough to try it. It's mad just to sit on the corner of a road on small plastic chairs drinking beer for 7 pence!
The city has a French feel and is broken up by several lakes.
A view of the pagoda on Hoa Kiem lake, the centre of the old quarter.
A traditional artform in Vietnam is water puppetry. We were really impressed - it's just like synchronised swimming without the noseclips and smiles! The puppeteers are all waist deep in water and are accompanied by a small band - the music is lovely.
Water puppet show in Hanoi
Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island
From Hanoi, we took a trip to Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island. Halong Bay is a series of about 3,000 islets off the North coast of Vietnam. The islets are dotted with grottoes and small bays, with people living among them on floating houses.
The trip, organised through Kangaroo Cafe, was a great way to explore this area. The food was great and the seafood was made even more enjoyable as we met Peter, Sue, Ray and Jenny, who taught us how to eat crab and bone fish etc... They also taught the beer sellers in Cat Ba that cold beer just won't do - as Australians it has to be 'very cold'!
Images of Halong Bay
We decided to stay on at Cat Ba, Vietnam's largest island, for a few days r&r on the beach - we left sooner than planned as we both looked like lobsters despite using high factor protection!
Sunset over Cat Ba town
We returned to Hanoi with a different Kangaroo tour and then made arrangements to go south. On this leg of the tour we met people that we've seen all the way down Vietnam - including some lads from Bolton who make us feel super organised!
After an overnight train to Danang, we headed across to Hoi An. It's a quaint riverside town which used to be the major port of Vietnam. Thankfully, now it's just a quiet town with some interesting Chinese architecture, art galleries and many tailors where you can get a new wardrobe for about a hundred pounds (it was hard, but I resisted other than to get a few things made useful for the trip).
On the way to the beach, boys play in a rice field
The highlight of our time in Hoi An was a day when we hired bikes (20 pence/day) to explore some of the temples around the town. As we set out some boys asked 'where are you going', because most people are trying to sell something we ignored them at first and then they asked if we were heading to the temples, when we said we were they told us we were going the wrong way. Three lads, Ny, Som and Moon, (aged 13, 15 and 16) took us on a tour for a couple of hours.
They told us the history of two Pagodas and a Japanese tomb, but much more interestingly, they told us about their families and school and what they want to do when they're older. In Vietnam, premiership football is keenly followed and all the lads know more about the teams than we do!
Children in Vietnam go to school from 7am to 11:30am six days a week. In the afternoons most children do some kind of work. The children we met only had to help their parents out during the rice harvest (three times a year in Hoi An). They told us how their parents have to give 50% of the crop to the government, use 25% for the family's consumption and sell the rest. The children's English was very good and they were really nice kids. Two of them want to teach English and the other wants to be an engineer. I asked them what they'd do if they couldn't do this and they answered, without any regret 'work in the fields like our parents'. We bought them a couple of cans of pop to say thank you and what was touching was that they saved it to share with their families later.
Mark with the lads at a Chinese Pagoda
After Hoi An, we flew to Nha Trang 'the' beach resort of Vietnam. There's nothing much here other than a pretty average beach. We went on the obligatory boat tour and did see a bit of coral while snorkelling, but the highlight of our stay here was meeting up with people we'd seen elsewhere (like the Bolton lads) and having a few good nights out.
Here we met up with Karen and Dave who we'd met in Hoi An. Karen is from Royton (where Mark's from) and we discovered that she went to playgroup with Mark's brother and her Mum and Mark's were in 'Busy Ms' (a Mother and toddler group I presume) together. I think they blame us for some bad hangovers (ask Dave about his tree hugging experience while calling for Hue!), but I blame the Bia Hoi - which tastes ok to start with and then tastes like it's brewed with socks! (I suppose we didn't have to drink it!)...
Mark enjoying (?) mulberry wine from the floating bar on a boat trip
Dalat and Cat Tien National Park
Having missed the bus on one day due to a very late night, we met up with Karen and Dave again on the bus to Dalat in the Central Highlands. Dalat is the favourite honeymoon destination for Vietnamese couples and we'd heard that it was cool and a good centre for some outdoor activities.
We decided that the four of us would try and arrange a trip and decided upon a day's canyoning (abseiling by waterfalls) and a three-day trip to Cat Tien National Park.
Lynette, Mark, Karen, Dave and our guide, Yung, setting out for a day's canyoning
It was my first time abseiling and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Although, as well as the abseiling, some of it was a bit like gorge walking - so all those who heard about or saw me in Wales earlier this year know just how talented I am at that (potential Olympian???!!!!)...
Lynette's first abseil - a look of concentration
Karen makes it look easy
Mark and Dave brave the waterfall
The following day, the four of us, and an Australian girl Rachel, set off for Cat Tien national park. The park is about 750 square kilometres and is supposed to be the home of a rare white rhino, tigers, crocodiles and hundreds of birds.
On the way to the national park, some Cham towers dating from the 13th century (Cham were a minority group descending from the people of Champa a Hindu kingdom dating from the late 2nd century)
On arrival, we trekked for a couple of hours to the crocodile lake. We were kitted out with leach socks as the floor was covered in them, but I'm pleased to say the leach socks really work! At the lake, we saw our first croc...
I won't say too much about the trip other than that the park just isn't set up for tourists and our stay in a beautiful setting was ruined by rangers watching Vietnamese TV until late and then from 6am! I won't even talk about the food!!!!!!!
Mark and Dave enjoy an early morning row on the crocodile lake
We trekked back the 4km from the lake and after lunch (ugghh!), we went on a bird watching tour. I was surprised at how interesting this was - mostly thanks to an excellent guide who could summon the birds by their calls.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Ho Chi Minh is by far the most populus city in Vietnam (about 6-7 million people) and is much more commercialised than the capital, Hanoi. Having read a couple of books and seen a number of films set here, I had a romanticised image of the city from the fifties. It's been interesting to see some of the hotels (Rex and Continental hotels) I've read about where the foreign correspondents met in the French colonial days and during the war. The city is the most developed place we've seen.
We took a day trip to Caodai Holy See and the Cu Chi tunnels.
The Caodai Holy See is a base for hospitals, administration, schooling as well as the Great Temple of the Caodai religion. Caodaism is an indigenous Vietnamese sect that seeks to create the ideal religion through a fusion of secular and religious philosophies from the East and West - a mix of Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam and Taoism. It sounded really interesting - until the part about allowing four wives!! We arrived in time to see mass - an impressive site with the different colours representing the different branches - yellow, blue, red and white.
The Great Temple of Caodaism
Mid-day Caodai mass
In the afternoon we moved on to Cu Chi an area famous for a 200 km labyrinth of tunnels which the Viet Cong used to enable them to control a large area only 40 kilometres from Saigon in the 1960s. The museum shows how the tunnels, several storeys deep, housed storage facilities, hospitals, dining areas, kitchens and command centres as well as booby traps for the South Vietnamese or Americans. The tunnels were originally built during the war against the French and were extended to be of significant strategic importance during the war with America.
The museum and in particular the video briefing are extremely one-sided against the US and no reference is made to the South Vietnamese.
The entrance to the tunnels has been made much bigger to accommodate Western tourists - the entrance of the actual tunnels was about 40cm by 20cms
A booby trap
We've also visited the War Remnants Museum. It's hard to describe the museum. It is very much anti-American propoganda, but some of the photographs with the more impartial captions are extremely interesting. I'm not going to try to comment on the Vietnam War, but the images in the museum and more starkly the victims we've seen across the country have made me feel pretty strongly about the use of chemical weapons. Seeing men, women and children affected by Agent Orange and other chemicals makes it very hard to understand how this could ever be justified.
Being in such a commercial place, Mark had the most interesting haircut of his life - it's not terribly even (he's not amused) and I was petrified of a) the cockroaches running around the floor and b) what sounded like rats in the ceiling - but as my great grandmother always said "buy cheap, buy dear" - it was only $1!! (70 pence)....
Tomorrow, we're off to the Mekong Delta for a tour and then on to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.