This year was the one when we finally got to Vietnam. Most of my kids had been there, so it was about time we tried to catch up. We decided to go on a group tour with an organisation we’d used before. We like their model, structured but loose. With lots of time to ‘do your own thing’ if that’s what you wanted.
In retrospect the tour was a bit too short – eleven days from North to South. We had wanted to visit Hong Kong on the way and to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia at the end. So Vietnam did get slightly ‘sandwiched in the middle’, even if we added two more days in Saigon/HCMC at the end, independent of the tour.
Just prior to the holiday, we’d been lucky enough to see most of the amazing Ken Burns’ documentary about the Vietnam war. That brought back a lot of childhood memories, of scenes from the other side of the world appearing on my nightly TV news feed. Not that I ever really watched the news in those days.
Back to the present with a bump, and first stop Hanoi. We stayed very centrally, and I was surprised that the old centre did not appear to have been badly bombed in the war. I really liked Hanoi, albeit we only really saw the square kilometre in the centre. It’s a teeming mass of humanity, accentuated by the narrow streets. People push bicycles laden with fruit, pottery, garments, anything. There are thousands of restaurants, hardware shops selling plastic buckets, basins, birdcages, motorbike helmets, and so on. And all the time a constant hum of scooters and motorbikes, with the associated fumes.
One thing I realised quite quickly was that photographing people was very easy, because a) everyone seems to live on the street, outside their dwelling, and b) they seem relatively relaxed about people taking photographs of them. As a result, while I took a ridiculous number of photographs (victimless crime, in my view), an unusually large number of them were of people. And they are photogenic. As far as I can see, Vietnamese people are very open and friendly toward tourists too, and seem to have a very industrious approach to life. Nice people.
After two days soaking up the sights, smells and food of Hanoi, we bused it down to Halong Bay, and a boat trip. Too short a time, sadly, but the bay is beautiful and the sheer rocky islands are memorable. We didn’t like the bit we saw of Halong City – it seems like a very spread out place. On the waterfront they seem to be creating a massive amusement park (with Chinese investment apparently – China is only about 50km away). And when we explored a bit up behind the coastal strip, the food market we found was really basic, dirty and even a bit disturbing. Ah well, the photos of the bay will stay in my memory a lot longer.
Back on a bus to Hanoi, straight to the railway station for the overnight sleeper to Hue, down the coast. I had been dreading this trip, but it turned out to be a real experience, decent bunks in a four bed carriage, and we even managed to sleep because we got to stretch out properly. We woke around 5am and watched the flooded paddy fields with water buffalo sweeping past. At 7am our guide stuck his head in to say that we were now arriving in the DMZ (De-Militarised-Zone). Very memorable.
Hue proved to be great, the historic Citadel (made famous by the Tet offensive during the war) proved very interesting, and we visited an ancient Buddhist Temple/Monastery after a boat ride up the Perfume river. I must say that monastery really exuded a sense of peace and calm, more so than the many other temples we visited. I don’t know why, but I really felt a sense of tranquillity there.
Next day we traversed the high Hoi Van pass in driving rain, to arrive in Hoi An. My kids had told me that I’d love it, and they were right. It’s smaller than most of our destinations, but beautiful, all along the river banks. Many photo opportunities, friendly people, great food and even a chance to get some tailoring done at breakneck speed. Our last day there was wall to wall torrential rain unfortunately, and about five days after we left the city was flooded by a combination of high tides and torrential typhoon-driven rain. But we did see it at it’s best, and I loved it.
Next day we flew from Danang down to the city with two names – Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC for short). It’s a place teeming with life, millions of scooters, and a very vibrant feel to it. There are many remnants of the French and US occupation if you know where to look. We did all the usual tourist stuff, including excursions to the Mekong Delta and to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The food was amazing, no matter where we ate. It’s fresh, flavoursome, not too spicy, and just says ‘more’. I think Saigon is the ultimate metropolis I have visited, not necessarily because of the number of people but because they are packed in so tightly. We developed skills in walking through swarms of scooters that I would never have believed possible. We had to, frankly.
My one downside to the whole trip was that because it was quite short, it became very urban-based. I’d like to have seen more of the countryside, and it just was not possible in the timeframe available. But I would definitely go back – it’s a fantastic country and I only have good memories. Plus about two thousand photographs, should my memory fail me…