Normally I avoid going away in the school holiday season, and the news was reminding me of the reasons why in the lead up to my trip. Threats of strikes at railways and airports, predictions of chaos at check ins, stories of lost luggage. I decided not to fret but just deal with any issues as they came up.
As my flight wasn’t until 4pm, I’d decided to use public transport for my trip to Heathrow. A friend kindly collected me from my house and took me to the train station. At London Euston, I made my way by underground (I know the route to take to avoid stairs) to Terminal 4. The queue for check in did take an hour, possibly because of the need to check people’s eligibility for entry to whichever country they were visiting. I was asked ‘Are you fully vaccinated?’ without specifying which vaccine. I assumed the airline official meant Covid, so answered ‘Yes’, without volunteering that I’d only had the initial two but no boosters. At any rate, as my final destination did not require any Covid jabs, the question was immaterial.
The first flight, to Doha, Qatar, was uneventful. The food was edible, and I watched ‘Operation Mincemeat’ to pass the time. We landed at midnight Qatar time. It was very easy to find the gate for the flight to Hanoi. I did my best to sleep during the second flight, and mostly succeeded.
Immigration asked no questions before stamping my passport with a visa granting me 15 days in Vietnam (I’m due to leave in 14). Then I experienced the excitement of wondering whether my luggage would arrive. I had packed a set of spare clothes in my carry on. However, bag did appear, hurrah!
I was met by the guide for the trip once I left arrivals. A car took me to the hotel in Hanoi. The temperatures were in the mid 30s C, so I was grateful for the air conditioning. At the hotel I discovered the lovely news that I had a room of my own. The company I often travel with, Exodus, guarantees no single supplement if you’re willing to share a room with a person of the same gender. The make up this group, however, hadn’t provided a woman for me to share with. Under Exodus’ agreement, if you do end up as a ‘spare’ but had been willing to share, you don’t pay single supplement.
I went to my room, had a shower, and a short nap. At 6pm I joined the group in the lobby for the briefing by our guide. There were supposed to be nine in the group. However, one family had thought that Irish passports entitled people to the 15 day visa. This had proven not to be the case, and although the two affected had applied on-line to obtain their e-Visa, this had only come through for one of them before landing in Hanoi. The father (who had a British passport) and teenage son (Irish passport) had flown back to Bangkok, and only the (adult) daughter was with us. The hope was that the son’s visa would come through and father and son could join us the next day.
We went out for dinner at a local fish restaurant. The beers came through warm, our guide explaining that the establishment didn’t have enough room in their refrigerators to keep beer cold. We added ice to bring the lager down in temperature. The fish was stir fried on a hot plate set into the table, with various fresh herbs and vegetables added in. We ate the fish with cold noodles, all using chopsticks.
Afterwards we walked through the local area to a lake. The night was muggy, but cooler than during the day. The streets were crowded. Youngsters kicked around footballs and hacky sacks. Children whizzed by on rollerskates. Scooters dominated traffic. Our guide showed us how to cross the road, namely slowly but surely, as cars and scooters whizzed by on either side of us. He told us to never back up, as that would probably put us in the path of a scooter trying to cut behind us.
At the lake, stalls promoting farm produce had been set up. I sampled and bought a small jar of forest honey. We also bought water, not wishing to become dehydrated in the heat.
Back at the hotel, I checked emails and went to bed at 10pm Hanoi time. Vietnam’s time zone is six hours ahead of the UK, so I hoped I’d be able to sleep. Jet lag is the price you pay for going away on holiday.
To my relief, I did sleep well, although I had some rather strange dreams. I rose at 6am and was one of the first down to breakfast thirty minutes later. The hotel offered a wide selection of Western type dishes (omelets made to order, sausages, bacon, bread, fruit) and Asian (stir fried vegetables). The coffee was deliberately cold, though.
We headed out into an already warm morning at 8am. Our air-conditioned bus took us through the city to our first stop, the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. Despite the liberator of Vietnam stating in his will that he wanted to be cremated, his body was embalmed and placed into the large building. Our guide explained that his body could not be viewed at the moment, as it was being sent to Russia for ‘maintenance’.
Men and women had to be respectfully dressed to enter the area, which meant covering up shoulders and wearing shorts or skirts which went below the knees. Although we were outdoors, we had to wear face masks through the security area. On the other side, we took them off.
We walked around the plaza, and to the gardens of the presidential palace on the other side. Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the palace, taking residence instead on a traditional stilt house in the grounds. Our guide explained that stilt houses were built as a defence against leeches. The occupants would pull up the ladder at night so the creatures couldn’t crawl up and attach themselves to human flesh.
The next stop was to the prison museum. The prison was built by the French when Vietnam was one of their colonies. The exhibits pulled no punches (and used triumphant language) about the cruelties shown to the prisoners, which included women and children. During the war with the USA, captured US pilots were kept at the prison. According to the exhibits, the US airmen were given medical treatment, fed well, and allowed to exercise.
Our bus took on to the Temple of Literature. Several of the party were in need of caffeine, so we found a local coffee shop and had various iced drinks.
The Temple of Literature had been built as a school for scholars. Those who were studying to become mandarins (government officials, based on the Chinese system) lived on site. The gardens featured a large pond and stelae inscribed with the names of those who had passed the exams each year. Our guide told us the youngest to ever pass had been ten years old, and the eldest eighty. It was only open to males.
A mural in the Confucian temple featured carp and dragons. The students were considered to be carp, trying to leap out of the water and over a wall. If they made it over the wall, they became dragons. The robes for those who passed the exams were intricately stitched with four toed dragons, indicating that they were scholars. (Five toed dragons were the sign of royalty.)
We walked to our restaurant, Koto, for lunch. The initials stood for ‘Know One, Teach One’. An Australian Vietnamese man set up the restaurant to give street children a way to learn skills (cooking and hospitality) and therefore find employment and build a better life. I had a delicious meal of BBQ pork on noodles, spiced up by a pickle sauce.
After lunch, we visited a shop which made their own indigo die to colour the cotton items on sale. Clothing, placemats, and bags were offered in the dark blue tint. I bought a few items.
Our bus took us to ‘train street’. The train, which only runs in the evenings, goes between buildings, most of which have been turned into cafes and shops for the tourist trade. One of our party needed a shoe repaired, and our guide had summoned a local to glue the sole back on. We were impressed with the work, and the use of cigarette papers to give the glue grip on the rubber.
We walked on to a theatre for a fifty-minute water puppet show. Live musicians, and a couple of live actors, joined in puppets which operated in a water tank. Large video screens explained, in written English, the different acts, as everything spoken was in Vietnamese. I enjoyed the ‘Dance of Dragons’, of course. My other favourite was a farmer and his wife trying to chase a fox away from their flock of ducks. We’d been given tickets for the third row up from the front, but just before the show started I went down to an unoccupied seat in the front row. The two men on my left fell asleep in the warm theatre and missed most of the production.
We walked on to the old quarter. The many streets were named after the main item sold in the shops. ‘Paper Street’, ‘Brass Street’, ‘Lock Street’, etc. In Silk Street we visited a shop selling silk clothing. I admired a set of very light weight, short sleeved shirts. ‘Pick any colour, I have sizes in extra large,’ said the shop keeper, which did little for my ego or for my wallet. I did buy one.
The street I found most interesting was ‘Votive Street’. Seems that the Vietnamese, when they visit the grave of their forebears, will take a gift to leave behind. Rather than present real items, they take paper models of such items as clothing, cars, or houses. I liked the small A4 sized boxes of paper shirts and ties.
A number of the shops were in the narrow passageways which cut between the streets. When the shopkeepers locked up for the night, they slid a partition between their goods and the passageway.
People honked past on mopeds, the vehicles piled high with goods. One woman had a large sheet of glass attached to the side of hers. Other women had fruit and vegetables stacked in containers surrounding their bicycles. The main item touts tried to sell us were paper fans.
We stopped for another cold drink, in one of the traditional narrow houses. There were views from terrace across a lake. We also had the happy news that our final two group members had sorted their visa problem and were on a flight from Saigon.
Our guide left us to go back to the hotel. We stopped for a couple of beers before navigating our own way back. I retired to my room for a cold shower and to work on photos and packing. We were asked to only take a small bag on the overnight cruise on Halong Bay and to leave our main suitcase at the hotel.
One of the cultural matters our guide told us about was the reason why Vietnamese prefer to have sons rather than daughters. By tradition, when a woman marries, she moves to the family home of her husband and is expected to look after his parents. The government of Vietnam brought in a two child policy in 1988. Due to this limit on family size, couples began to carry out tests in pregnancy and female fetuses were aborted. This has resulted in many more men than women, and Vietnamese men now being unable to find wives. In addition, the government has become worried about the lack of young people to support the growing number of elderly in the future, and although the policy has been relaxed, there hasn’t been an increase in births.
Slept well again, and another nice breakfast. I finished my packing and was down in the hotel lobby at 8.30am with luggage. We headed out for the four hour drive to Halong Bay. Along the way, I was delighted to see a herd of water buffalo, two on the bank, another half dozen submerged up to their necks in the water. Later on we came across a large flock of domestic ducks.
At the halfway point we stopped at a ceramics factory for a comfort break. A number of pet dogs watched us as we wandered around. I bought a couple of items in the shop whilst others had a coffee.
We disembarked at the harbour and a tender took us to our ship. Although set up to hold a larger number of passengers, we were on the only ones on board. Our guide explained that tourist numbers had not yet recovered post pandemic.
We set off around 1pm, and a seafood lunch was served around thirty minutes later. Separate items kept arriving, such as shrimp (peel it yourself), fried fish, and stir-fried calamari. As well as some rice and pork.
We travelled around the bay, admiring the tree-covered hills which rose from the ocean. Fishing boats and some larger container ships shared the space. Hawks circled above. Our guide explained the story behind the formation of the bay—Ha Long means ‘descending dragon.’ Vietnam has been invaded many times. One emperor called upon the gods to send dragons to protect his country from their enemies. The mother dragon and her children flew down to destroy the invaders. Afterwards, large emeralds descended from heaven. These are the teeth of the dragons, and settled in the bay to protect the Vietnamese from further invasions.
Our first stop was to visit the large cave of Hang Sung Sot. We’d been warned about mosquitoes, so I went well covered up (plus I have to avoid the sun due to my case of skin cancer). We climbed up the steps, took in the view, then went inside. The cave was large, and crowded, with people posing next to various stalagmites. As we went further inside, the humidity rose, drenching us with sweat. Both artificial light, and that which streamed in from various holes, helped us to navigate the path.
We exited, climbed up and then down to our waiting tender. Next stop was a beach, again very crowded. A couple of places sold drinks and ice creams. A number of the group took the over three hundred steps up to the viewpoint. I consulted my right knee (which can cause me problems—an old skiing injury) and decided not to attempt the hike. I had an ice cream and watched as people played in the sand and splashed each other in the sea. The area cordoned off for water entry was too crowded for any swimming.
The beach had been named after a Russian cosmonaut, GS Titov. Our guide expressed his confusion as to why anyone had thought this to be a good idea. A statue of the said man featured in the main area, and as ever people took turns posing in front of it for photos.
Back to the ship, where we had beers and chatted. The sunset was lovely, and then as the evening progressed streaks of colour appeared in the sky. We had another excellent seafood meal, again dishes arriving one by one, admiring the light and the scenery as we ate and drank. Other ships arrived in the area –obviously this was where many set anchor for the night. The water was very still, not much movement.
After a final beer I headed off to my air-conditioned cabin to do some work on photos before setting my alarm for an early rise.
I woke up at 5am and opened the curtains. Pre-dawn was offering some lovely light. I opened the cabin window and hot, muggy air streamed in. I took a few photos of the view, stopping to wipe condensation from my camera lens.
Taking both cameras with me, I headed to the top deck. One of our group was fast asleep on a sun lounger. She woke up whilst I took dawn photos, telling me that she’d slept out all night and had enjoyed seeing the stars. Fortunately the insects hadn’t decided to snack on her.
I headed back to the cool cabin and had another hour’s sleep. As breakfast wasn’t being served until 8am, I spent time on photos. When we set off, I took some photos of the area in the morning light.
Breakfast was toast with butter and strawberry jam, hot coffee (hurrah!), bananas, and a beef and noodle stir fry. Afterwards, I packed up my items before indulging in a bit more photography.
We disembarked at 9.30am. The harbour was very quiet. Our guide told us that, pre pandemic, around 7000 people a day would take boats out into Halong Bay. This level of activity has yet to return.
I dozed at various points during the four hour return trip to Hanoi. We had a stop half way at a large complex selling local produce and sweets. I enjoyed some pieces of mango and admired a shrine. Our guide explained that the three figures symbolised luck, prosperity, and longevity. They didn’t belong to any particular religion.
At Hanoi, we dropped into the hotel. Our large bags were brought out, and we stuffed items from our overnight bags back into our cases. We hopped back on to our bus to be taken to a café for iced coffees and a snack lunch. Our guide reminded us to be back at the hotel at 6.30pm to collect our bags before we headed off to the train station for our overnight train journey to Hue.
Afterwards we went our separate ways. I thought I’d head for the lake, then make my way back to the hotel. After about a mile in the heat, during which I bought a hat off a street vendor (I’d forgotten to take one with me), I realised that my maps app had led me astray. A rickshaw driver showed me that I was several miles away from the hotel, and offered to pedal me back (rickshaw powered by bicycle) for around £10.00. I briefly considered haggling, then reminded myself that the few pounds I saved meant a coffee to me but possibly a full meal to his family. I hopped on board, and found the experience both enjoyable and somewhat guilt inducing. It did seem rather cruel to make a man sweat away on a bicycle simply to save my legs. I gave him a tip when, around 20 minutes later, we arrived at the hotel.
I decided to stay put, rearrange some packing, and work on photos. The day we’d already had in Hanoi had been so wonderful that I didn’t feel the need to visit the same areas again, particularly in the heat and humidity without access to a shower before the train trip.
The group formed up and we went to a local convenience store to buy food for the journey. I picked out a banana, two apples, and an orange. The woman weighed each one separately, the machine spitting out a sticky voucher which she applied to the fruit before scanning the bar code.
Our bus took us to the train station. We’d ordered takeaway meals earlier in the day, and we were met with our meals. The handle on my rolling suitcase had jammed a few days before, so I had to drag the case with the less convenient cloth handle. Much heavier work on the arms. Our guide located our train carriage, and we went on board. Blissfully, the train was air conditioned.
The sleeper cabins held four people in two bunk beds. I’d arranged to join the Irish family of three, and they’d agreed that I could have a bottom bunk. When I saw the peg in the wall which gave access to the top bunks, I was very grateful for this mercy. I’m not certain I could have made it up and down safely.
We ate our meals in the cabins before wandering the whole of the train to reach the dining area. The cabins gave way to soft seats and then harder seats, the cheaper way to travel on the train. In the dining car, we had beers and chatted. The younger four played various card games.
I made my way back to the cabin after a couple of beers and a Coke. The others came back later, and sat together in the next door cabin for a longer chat. Around 12.30am the family came to the cabin and we all settled down for the night.
Can’t say I slept, mostly dozed. The bed was hard, and somehow, no matter how I tried to arrange myself (I sleep on my side), my arms would develop pins and needles.
I got up at 7am and ate the fruit I’d purchased the night before along with a dried fruit and nut mix I’d brought from England. My fellow cabin mates began to stir around an hour later. Several headed off to the dining car to look for coffee. I packed my items into the large bag and stayed put.
At 9am we pulled into Hue. Our guide assisted me with my suitcase, pulling it with the cloth handle whilst I took care of his much smaller and lighter bag. An air-conditioned coach took us to the hotel, where we pulled out what we needed for the morning and left our suitcases behind. All of us would have loved to go to a room and have a shower, but check in wasn’t until 2pm, so we did our best to freshen up in the public washrooms.
We drove around Hue looking for somewhere for a late breakfast. Our guide tried out two establishments before we found the DMZ Café. I had a pancake with sliced banana and chocolate sauce alongside an iced coffee.
The day was heating up, and becoming quite humid, as we went on to the Forbidden Purple City. This had been the dwelling place (palace, really) for the kings of this part of Vietnam. Sadly, much had been destroyed, first by the French and later during the war with the USA. Some of the buildings have been reconstructed, and many of the original walls remain. Our guide showed us the bullet holes from the war with the USA.
We walked down the wide paths, seeking shade wherever we could. The main entrance was for males only, which included the horses and elephants. Females and eunuchs entered from different gates. The complex included a library and a pavilion in which the king could meditate.
Kings had a wife or two and many concubines. The concubines, our guide told us, were often very bored with their lives and therefore did a lot of gardening. We visited the restored gardens. By this time, we were all beginning to drip and to flag in the heat. The temperature was around 36C, with humidity at 60%. As urged by our guide, we drank lots of water.
During the walk back to our coach, I found myself on the verge of feeling ill. I drank water, had a mint, and concentrated on reaching air conditioning. Once back at the hotel, I turned on the air conditioning in my room and had a cold shower. Thankfully this helped me to recover.
The afternoon was free. Some of the group went into the swimming pool, reporting back that the water was rather warm. Another had a massage in the hotel’s spa. I stayed in my room, caught up on photos and emails, and washed shirts and underwear which I hung up over the bath to dry.
At 6.30pm we headed out. A van took us outside the city to a residential area, where we had dinner in the house of a Vietnamese family. The husband poured us shots of his home distilled banana liquor—I only dared to have the one. Geckos scrambled along the walls and across the ceilings.
His wife and older daughter cooked and brought out the food items. My favourite was the crispy jackfruit bits on rice crackers. We also had excellent vegetable rolls, chicken in lemongrass, and roasted tuna. The fruit for dessert was loganberries, which had to be peeled and reminded me of lychee nuts.
Afterwards we asked questions of the couple. The husband’s father had had two wives, and children called their stepmothers ‘Auntie’. The couple’s marriage had been arranged, but their own adult children had chosen their own spouses, and the couple were happy with that. There were two shrines at the house, one for the local god, and the other to honour their ancestors.
We said our thanks and goodbyes and returned to the hotel. Early to bed…
I had a good night’s sleep, aided by air conditioning and a bed which didn’t move. Breakfast was served at the top most floor of the hotel, which offered views over the city.
We headed out at 8am. Our first stop was Bunker Hill. Several concrete bunkers were set at the top of the hill, probably first built by the French, later used by the Americans. We admired the river views and kept a wary eye out for biting insects.
The day was already beginning to warm. We returned to the coach to be taken to the Tu Duc Mausoleum. This was completed in 1867 for the Nguyen Emperor Tu Duc. He had it built for his tomb, but actually lived there for most of his reign. He would boat on the lake, have game released on the small island for him to hunt, and recite poetry to his concubines (or ‘minor wives’ as a sign at the site called them).
We walked through the remains of the complex. Our guide explained that the Vietnamese government is slowly tearing down the old buildings to raise reconstructions in their place. We expressed sorrow at this, stating a preference for the originals to be conserved.
A small flock of chickens led our guide to explain that the Vietnamese prefer backyard raised chickens to any raised in factory farmed conditions. They like the tougher meat which results from chickens free to roam. As someone who detests factory farming, I was pleased to hear this.
We were told that, in the end, Tu Duc was actually buried in a secret location so his remains would be left undisturbed. The two hundred men who arranged his burial were all beheaded to ensure that the site would remain unknown.
After leaving the complex, we enjoyed a glass of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice. One woman stripped the outer skin and chopped the cane into strips, another ran the strips through a press, and a third served the juice over ice. Very tasty, milkier and less sugary than I’d expected.
Our route back to the city took us to a street lined with joss sticks for sale. We entered one shop to watch a woman rolling a sticky mixture on to bamboo sticks before rubbing the stick through ground up incense. The smell made me sneeze. Outside, women posed in traditional costumes to be photographed in front of the joss stick displays.
Back into Hue, and a visit to the Thien Mu Pagoda. The legend is that an old woman appeared on the site to tell the locals that a lord would build a pagoda there to ensure the country’s prosperity. A local lord duly did so, completing the original complex in 1601.
The Phuoc Duyen tower, the most striking feature of the pagoda complex, was erected in 1884. It’s dedicated to the Buddha, and monks still live on site. In 1963, when the president of South Vietnam was favouring Catholics and discriminating against Buddhists, the monks led protests in Hue. Nine monks died at the hands of the police and army. We saw the car which took the monk Thich Quang Duc to the site in Saigon where, on 11 June 1963, he had other monks pour petrol over his body before he set himself on fire. This act of defiance against the government was captured on film by photographers, most famously by Malcolm Browne.
After viewing more of the complex, we went back to the coach and then on to a restaurant for a lovely lunch. We were returned to the hotel, and I went in search of an ATM. There was one just up the road, and I tried to take out around £160 in Vietnamese money. This was denied, so I knocked it down to £100. Success!
After showering in the hotel room and hanging up soaking clothes to dry, I relaxed in the room until it was time to go out for the sunset over the river. We watched swan boats paddling up and down the water as the sun went down. A walk along the boardwalk brought us to a restaurant where I enjoyed a dark beer (like a stout but milder in flavour). We went on to a pool bar, where we played various games. It was only the third time in my life I’d played pool, and I was very pleased that I managed to sink two balls.
When our guide announced that he was returning to the hotel, two of us decided to go with him. The walk took around 30 minutes, which surprised me, and I would have been lost without him.
As instructed, I was down in the lobby with my suitcase at 8am. Most of the group arrived around twenty minutes after that. We set off at 8.30am for the drive to Hoi Ann.
There was a tunnel through the local mountain range, but we were due to travel up the pass for the views. We stopped first to take photos of local fishermen before the coach chugged us up the twists and turns, giving us views back down to beaches and cities. At the top, we stopped for a loo break and coffee. Our guide again pointed out how quiet it was, compared to pre-Covid times. Tourism, international and domestic, has yet to pick up again.
Down the other side and into the city of Da Nang. As the day was already hot (something from which we were shielded by the coach’s air conditioning), our guide thought it might be good to visit the Cham museum, which he expected to be air conditioned. When we arrived at noon, however, we discovered that the museum shuts from 11am to 1pm. We walked to the dragon bridge, then into the city for a drink. Our guide had decided that we didn’t need lunch, but the group overruled him and had some stir fry with noodles.
The museum was open by the time we returned but, although there were air conditioning units to be seen, these were not on. We roasted inside as we looked at the exhibits. The Cham were influenced by Hindu and Buddhist culture, and the various items reflected this.
After thirty minutes we headed to the air-conditioned coach. A drive out of the city brought us to the Marble Mountains. I was a bit concerned about the number of steep steps required to reach the caves at the top, so I took the lift to halve the number. The rest of the group caught up with me afterwards.
The Marble Mountains provide views over the sea and river, as well as a number of natural caves which have been turned into Buddhist shrines. Although there were steps to the viewpoints and caves, there was plenty of flat between, which meant that my dodgy right knee was fine.
We reached one pavilion just in time for evening prayers. A monk played a drum and then a bell whilst chanting. We spent several minutes listening and taking photos before starting the trip back down.
Soon afterwards we were in our locale for three nights, namely Hoi An. The city had once been a major trading port, with merchants coming from China and Europe. After time to relax in our hotel rooms, we met up to head out to the old town.
The old town looks Chinese. It reminded me of Pingyao, an old town in China which I visited in 2018. The wooden buildings were two stories tall, strung with lanterns. Most were either shops or restaurants. We walked through the crowded streets to a restaurant, where I enjoyed deep fried wontons and green tea smoked duck breast. The duck came with wild rice, which was a nice change from the white fluffy rice I’ve had most of the trip.
After eating, we continued to the river. Small boats plied up and down, lit by lanterns. The lights on the buildings on the other side gleamed on the water. Paper lanterns lit by candles could be purchased and floated on the river. The area was very crowded, but again our guide said this was nothing compared to earlier years when you could hardly move for people.
We decided to head back, as it had been a long day and we had two more nights for exploration. I bought a beer in a mini mart to enjoy in my hotel room and then had an early night. The day before I’d nearly swallowed something ‘down the wrong tube’, and this had aggravated my throat. As a result, I had a cough from time to time, with which the heat and a lot of walking had quite tired me out.
After breakfast we took an electronic shuttle from the hotel to the old town. One of our group stayed behind, not feeling well due to a cold.
Our guide took us to several of the old buildings, using a ticket which gave us entry to each one. The first was a temple dedicated to a Chinese general, honoured for his courage and loyalty. Wooden horses stood either side of his altar. From the ceiling hung incense spirals. People buy a spiral, write a prayer to hang in the middle, and the end of the spiral is lit. The spiral takes several weeks to burn.
The second temple was popular for those praying to have children, with an altar set aside for that purpose, along with another altar to pray for longevity and wealth. I admired the wonderful dragon sculpture in the small courtyard.
The last building was a ‘tube house’, so called because it was long and narrow. The family allow people to enter as part of the ticket package. At the back, two women were making food items for sale.
As we continued our walk through the town, we encountered a group of children from ‘Nobodoo English School’. They spoke to us in English, asking us to help them fill out a survey which included questions about our age, our favourite place in Vietnam, and our favourite season.
After admiring the Japanese Bridge, we stopped for cold drinks on a terrace overlooking the river. The town was much quieter than the night before, with all of the boats moored at the banks. We parted company soon afterwards. I did some gift shopping before trudging back to the hotel.
I’d arranged, whilst still in the UK, to go on an afternoon’s photographic tour. At 3pm the guide, a French man who now makes his home in Vietnam, collected me from my hotel. The other person on the tour was collected a few minutes later, a young man from Australia. We made our way to a nearby village, where our guide bought us sugarcane juice which we drank as he talked us through some of his principles for people and portrait photography. I was distracted by a couple going past in a boat and by chickens with chicks.
Clouds rolled in as we continued our walk through the village. We came across a man raking corn kernels outside his house. Our guide said the man was quite confident it was going to rain, so he was gathering the grain together. We took photos from a number of angles before our guide gave him some money and we moved on.
We headed into the cornfields, looking for some activity. The ground was uneven, and I watched my step. I also swallowed my pride and asked for a hand up a steep slope.
We found a couple harvesting beans. According to our guide, the woman said it was going to rain, and the man said it wouldn’t. She packed up and left soon after we arrived, and we took photos of the man. Our guide encouraged us to look for interesting angles through the beans and to think about the background, particularly the rather dark skies. Afterwards the two men picked up a sack each and carried them from the field to help out the farmers.
Once back at the village, I was intrigued by seeing an altar in front of a Communist memorial. Children came up to say hello to us. We made our way to the rice fields where some women were working. The light was beginning to dull under the cloud cover but the rain did not come our direction. As we returned to the village, our guide explained that only the old and the young now live in the village. The adult children of the farmers don’t want to work the land. They live in cities, doing jobs there, and their children, the grandchildren of the farmers, live in the village with their grandparents. The adult children send money back which is used to build grand houses and new temples in the village. But what will happen to those homes if no one returns to the village to live after the old farmers die out?
We came across a man tending a fire, and returned to our starting point to have a beer and another chat. As we left, I spotted chickens standing on a cart, silhouetted against the river, and took some final shots before we returned to the car.
I’d had my coughing increase during the course of the afternoon, and a build up of a headache. So I decided to order food to be delivered to my room instead of going out.
Sadly, over night I realised I was coming down with a cold. We’d been warned that the morning’s destination, My Son, was very hot and humid. I knew I wasn’t well enough to go, and I sent off a message on the group’s WattsApp. Two other people were also unwell. The curse of the bus cold!
A day spent in bed…
I didn’t sleep very well, but the coughing and runny nose eased. I packed in the early morning before going down for breakfast and to pay for my room service. At 7am we headed back to Da Nang, where we took a domestic flight to Ho Chi Ming City (although our guide told us that most people still call it Saigon).
We had lunch before going to the War Remnants Museum. The exhibits were about the Vietnam War (as the Americans call it), explanations provided in Vietnamese and English. Photographs showed the battles and the devastation caused to the people and countryside of Vietnam. Some of the photos were quite graphic. One section was dedicated to the injuries, and subsequent birth defects, caused by Agent Orange. The American forces used Agent Orange to kill off trees and other vegetation so the Vietnamese would have no cover from air patrols. A collection of US tanks, aircraft, and other weapons of war were lined up outside the museum.
Afterwards we headed to our hotel, where I did some laundry before we met up for dinner at a local restaurant. I then headed back for an early night.
A much better night’s sleep. We left Saigon at 7.30am for the two hour drive to the Cu Chi Tunnels, half of that time spent working our way through city traffic. ‘The city that never sleeps,’ our guide joked as we passed mile after mile of cars and mopeds. I was intrigued that each tree bore a painted number, and our guide explained that this was done so trees could be assigned to work details.
In the countryside, we drove through groves of rubber trees. The bark was cut in spirals up the trunk, and a small basket was suspended by a wire at the top. The rubber sap drips down the wire into the basket for collection and processing.
The Cu Chi tunnels were dug out by the Viet Cong during the war with the USA. Cleverly hidden entrances and a complicated system allowed the Vietnamese soldiers to hide during combat, store food and weapons, operate hospitals and kitchens, and provide a place to sleep. They were safe from US bombing and could emerge to attack US troops. The tunnel system was quite narrow and cramped, and often infested with insects and snakes. Malaria was quite common amongst those who used them. The tunnels at Cu Chi run for 75 miles.
The area has been reforested since the war, although the bomb craters remain. We first watched what our guide called a ‘documentary’ about the tunnels. It was in English, obviously filmed after the war, and the first part featured a schoolgirl who was praised for being a great ‘American killer’ with her rifle. The movie explained how patriotic and brave the Cu Chi villagers were, how proud they felt to be ‘American killers’, and showed how they even had time to do traditional dances. All of the actors looked quite healthy and were full of smiles.
Afterwards we walked through the complex. Our guide uncovered one of the hidden entrances and various members of our party went down inside. We also saw examples of the traps laid for American soldiers, all of which stabbed them with sharpened sticks covered with a mixture of urine, faeces, and poisonous sap in order to infect the inflicted wounds. Gun shots went off frequently from a shooting range on site. We passed a number of centipedes and a rather large snail, the latter of which I moved from the path into safety.
We had the opportunity to go down part of the tunnels which have been made safe and expanded for tourists. I did a small section before realising that my knee would not like the cramped position I’d have to take in order to go much further. Other members of the party completed a larger section, emerging a few minutes later with very dirty hands and knees.
After a couple of hours, we returned to the coach for the return drive to Saigon. Once there, we had a small lunch before visiting the Independence Palace. Several buildings have preceded the current one on the same site, the first serving as the Governor’s Palace when Vietnam was still a French colony, the second (the President’s Palace) and the current (the Independence Palace) built to serve the president of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). When the Republic of Vietnam fell to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), it was renamed the Reunification Palace, but the common name remains as Independence Palace.
We visited the underground bunkers and the reception halls and rooms, different ones for the president, the first lady, the vice president, and ambassadors. We saw the president’s bedroom and also visited the balcony and the roof.
Afterwards we waved off our guide and made our way to the market. I found this somewhat disappointing, as it was full of cheap souvenirs and brand knock-offs. I did buy a t-shirt, bartering down to less than half the price originally quoted, before heading back to the hotel. Lightning was flashing overhead, followed by thunder, and soon after I returned rain began to fall.
I ventured out again to join a smaller section of our group at a local bar where I had a simple platter of mozzarella cheese and tomato covered flatbread, washed down by a beer. Not only has a cold being going through the group, so has a digestive bug, and I’d been suffering off and on all day. Afterwards, I returned to the hotel for another early night.
We left at 9am in order to avoid the worst of the Saigon rush hour. Our coach took us to the Mekong Delta, a region based around the large river which flows through four other countries before reaching Vietnam. We passed large areas of farmland and, as we neared the river, we could see how channels had been dug out between rows of fruit trees to irrigate the orchards.
At Cai Bae we boarded our boat for a short trip to a nearby village. Lunch was taken at a ‘ancient house’ (around a hundred years old). Several people shared an elephant ear fish (so named because of how it moves in the water, supposedly like the waving of an elephant’s ear). A waitress carved up the fish and put it with salad into rice paper before offering it around. I had fish balls in fried pumpkin flowers.
After returning to the boat, we had an hour’s travel past riverside houses and what remains of the Cai Bae floating market. Sadly, very few boats now carry on the tradition of selling items on the river. Trucks are more commonly used to transport goods, and items are further distributed by moped.
We headed into the wide Mekong River itself. Another sign of the impact lockdowns have had on tourism were the parked up cruise ships along one bank. In years past one could journey from Saigon into Cambodia along the Mekong. There was some activity one on ship, men cleaning windows and decks, so maybe the cruises will return.
We crossed the river and headed into one of the canals. People were going about their daily business, checking fish traps, making repairs to boats and buildings, cooking their meals. We tried to visit a pottery, but the tide was out and it would have been quite a climb up a wall to get inside. We went on to a sweet factory, where we saw how coconut toffee and (separately) puffed rice were made. We were served jasmine tea afterwards before we purchased food items.
On to our home stay. Our rooms had been built alongside the family’s home. I’d expected to endure some discomfort, but our rooms had air conditioning and were en-suite, albeit the shower and toilet were outside, accessible through a glass door, and had no roof. Plants surrounded the shower, which made it feel as if I were washing in a jungle rain. There was even excellent WiFi. Nothing much could be done against the mosquitoes except bug spray and/or covering up.
The evening meal consisted of several dishes, mostly featuring fish although one dish was chicken. The fruit dessert included ripe jackfruit, which was delicious.
Afterwards, we played a couple of games. One was a variation on charades, ‘oldies’ versus ‘youngsters’. This oldie is pleased to confirm that wisdom triumphed, although the youngsters didn’t lose by much.
The beds themselves consisted of a rather hard mattress on a hard platform. It wasn’t entirely uncomfortable, but I was relieved that we only had to use them for one night.
Other than a coughing fit in early hours, I slept well. At 7.30am we had breakfast, consisting of an omlette, bread rolls, fruit, and strong coffee. We were supposed to head out at 8am, but not everyone was ready until around fifteen minutes later.
Our boat took us back to the pottery. The tide was high, and we easily stepped off the boat into the factory. We watched as people used the local grey clay inside moulds to make plant pots. Row up row of Easter Island mock statues greeted us further inside. These were destined, our guide explained, for Australia. We were also amused by several groups of hens and chicks which climbed up the mound of rice husks.
After returning to the boat, and being served with fresh coconut juice (drunk direct from the coconut with a straw), we were taken across the Mekong and back into the canal. We stopped in order to board much smaller boats called sampams, only three per vessel. Each was powered by two oars, and we sat back and relaxed while a local did the hard work of moving us through a much smaller canal. We passed through the greenery, greeting people and at one point being challenged by two large domestic geese.
We transferred back to our boat and not much later were back on land. Our coach was waiting for us. We stopped for a quick visit to the Cai Dai Temple. The Cai Dai religion was established in 1926 and blends Confucianism, Taoism, and Mahayana Buddhism. Jesus and other religious figures are also honoured. The temple was quite ornate, and I particularly admired the dragons.
We went our separate ways. I walked to the Saigon Post Office, a rather grand building which is a historical landmark. Trying to obtain stamps for my postcards was not straightforward, as there seemed to be no particular counter for just that. In the end I asked and was told where to go.
A brief browse in the souvenir shop helped me to find a couple more sew on badges for my collection. I headed back to the hotel for a shower and some initial planning on how to pack for the return home.
At 6pm we gathered together for our last dinner together as a group. Afterwards we walked to ‘Party Street’, a long avenue of drinking establishments offering loud music, expensive drinks, bright lights, and even pole dancers. We walked on to find a place in which we could hear each other talk. Our guide directed us towards a rooftop bar, which offered lovely views over the city.
I had the one drink, and then four of us decided to call it a night. Rain was falling, and our guide organised a taxi to take us back to the hotel.
I wasn’t being collected until 4pm for the 8pm flight to Doha. After a bit of packing, I headed back to the post office. The temperature at 10am was pleasant, the air cooled by rain and a breeze. I bought a few last items in the souvenir shop, concentrating on presents for friends and family.
I checked out of my hotel room at noon, leaving my check-in luggage in the protection of the hotel reception as I went to a local café for lunch. Afterwards I sat in the hotel reception and worked on photos.
At 4pm five of us were collected for delivery to the airport. Check in went smoothly. Saigon airport was rather small, with little to distract me as I waited for the flight.
All went well to Doha, where I tried to stay awake to ensure I didn’t miss my flight to Heathrow. This flight also went smoothly, as did my underground and train journey to Northampton. A very nice taxi driver took me to my house, where I put on coffee and started to unpack. Holiday over!
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