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After waking at the ungodly hour of 4am and catching the 6am coach to Heathrow we found ourselves on a Vietnam Airlines B787 Dreamliner aircraft bound for Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as it is known today.
I was quite looking forward to travelling on Boeings new answer to modern air travel but have to say was generally disappointed. Firstly although the seat pitch and width are the same as the Qantas A380 we travelled on from Singapore the last time we went long haul, the seats did not have winged headrests so that to get any sleep was difficult unless the lady next door lets you rest your head on her shoulder! Of course the design of seating is down to the airline and not the aircraft manufacturers.
Secondly the controls for all services are in the armrest and you are continually digging them with your elbow, perhaps switching off your film or, even worse, those of the lady next to you!
Finally the aircraft is unusually noisy in flight in the economy cabin but Boeing claims it is quieter than any others. In my experience the A380 was the quietest aircraft I had ever flown in but I suppose it is not just decibel levels but frequency, especially when you are wearing hearing aids. Could the Rolls Royce engines of the A380 be quieter?
The first impression you get of Vietnam is the number of mopeds. There are 93 million Vietnamese and in 2013 there were 37 million motorbikes registered so there are probably a few million more by now. By comparison there are only 2 million car owners and Tuan told us there are 12,000 road deaths per annum. That is about half the death rate during the 20 years of the most recent wars here.
The mopeds mostly ignore all the traffic rules including giving way to the right and stopping at red traffic lights so as a pedestrian you take your life in your hands crossing the road and the green man is superfluous. On dual carraigeways our bus travels in the left hand lane and usually passes on the right hand lane continually honking at scooters to get out of the way who weave in and out of traffic at will. Organised chaos. Many people wear face masks as the fumes from thousands of two strokes makes you cough and your eyes water. The cities of Vietnam were obviously not healthy places to live and breathe!
After WWII what is South Vietnam today was a French colony called Cochinchina. North of Cochinchina was the protectorate of Annan ruled by the emperor Bao Dai from Hue and north of Annan the protectorate of Tonkin. In 1945 Ho Chi Minh, who had joined the French communist party in Paris, proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in Hanoi. In 1946 the French declared Cochinchina a republic and in the same year the French Indochina war began and they reclaimed Hanoi but the DRV continued to operate in the remote North.
In 1949 France divided the country into North and South at the 17th parallel. Uncle Ho was in charge of the North and an anti communist government of South Vietnam was formed led by Bao Dai who was deposed in 1955 by Ngô Đ́nh Diem the then prime minister. Diem was a Catholic dictator who persecuted Buddhists and was himself assassinated in 1963, succeded by Nguyen Van Thieu with Bao Dai as head of state. Meanwhile Uncle Ho had turned the Viet Minh into the Viet Cong (VC) and from 1959 waged guerilla war against the South. Into the valley of death rode the Yanks and at the height of the war with the North had 500,000 soldiers with 1.5 million South Vietnamese fighting the North. A peace accord was signed in Paris in 1973 and the Yanks went home but the fighting continued. In 1975 Uncle Ho marched south taking the cities of Hue, Da Nang and Da Lat in central Vietnam which the South Vietnamese army were unable to defend with no US help. Finally Saigon fell in 1975 with a DRV tank smashing through the gate of the presidential palace and Thieu being whisked away by helicopter from the roof of the palace.
In 1978 Vietnam went to war with Cambodia to remove the dreaded Pol Pot regime but in 1979 Pol Pot then continued a Guerilla war until his death in 1998. Vietnams actions in Cambodia upset the Chinese who regarded Pol Pot as their ally so they then invaded Vietnam and that war continued on and off until 1989. Sino Vietnamese relations are going through a sticky patch today with China's territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The Presidential Palace has been renamed the Reunification Palace complete with old tanks in the grounds to show these 'yer southerners just who is in charge. I have never visited a stranger version of a communist state as this one which charges its citizens for health and education and the richest man in Vietnam owns most of the hospitals and the best schools. In 1990 they abandoned the Soviet version of economics and adopted the "free market" version which we know as capitalism which meant that anyone could set up in business, produce, buy and sell and make a profit. You see extreme poverty and extreme wealth but very little in between so unsure where the communism comes in?
Ah yes it comes in with the propaganda where it is displayed in spades at the war museum with lots of pictures of all the atrocities that the Americans did during the war and how the glorious armies of Uncle Ho beat them. The palace was interesting for its architecture and its art deco interior. They even had a helicopter on the roof.
In the evening we ventured out to the night market which was just around the corner from our hotel and Sue invested heavily but delegated the haggling to me. It began with them suggesting a silly price and me suggesting an even sillier lower price to which the usual response was "Oh my God, Oh my God" then a lower price. Once our respective prices grew nearer it might become a little physical with me getting a tummy rub and the suggestion "good for you, good for me" which might elicit a response.... well you get my drift!
The sect was formed in 1926 when God was supposed to have made an appearance on earth. In the 1940's they had considerable financial and political influence and even a private army numbering some 20,000. In the 1950's it reached a zenith of 4 million members but, just as they seem unable to decide on which religion to follow, so they were equally undecided which political system they should follow and fought for the South as well as the VC!
On we went by coach to Can Tho which is the largest town in the Mekong Delta and stayed overnight. Walking through the town the next day I noticed a fruit stall selling Durian fruit. This is quite a nice tasting fruit if you can get it into your mouth as it smells like shite!
We boarded another boat and visited another floating market at Cai Rang. At least here there were some boats and they were trading but it is a wholesale market where farmers bring their produce by boat and sell it to traders who collect it by boat so about as interesting as watching paint dry. We also visited a maker of confectionery where they produced everything from things grown around the area like coconuts, bananas, rice, ginger, peanuts, sugar cane et al. They even used the Durian fruit which I called shite toffee and passed around the bus but they didn't make it when tourists were visiting on account of the smell. At a fruit farm we tasted several tropical fruits like jack fruit and dragon fruit but no Durian.
Stopping for lunch on the way back to Saigon the chefs were making huge rice balls which tasted of... well... rice. Three hours on a coach each way to and from the Mekong was really not worth the trip considering what they had to show us and I for one would have rather stayed in Saigon for longer as we barely scratched the surface of that city.
We did manage to get to see the impressive old central post office built by the French which used to be the railway station.
We would have liked more free time to wander round and discover more however we were rushed off up north the next day to look at the tunnel system the VC used during the war.
Chance of a bit more propaganda here for the government which they milked, especially the video they showed which was complete rubbish.
Helen, the youngest member of our group by some distance, kindly popped up out of a secret tunnel entrance pretending to be a VC and Sue made friends with a nice VC couple.
You can hire an AK47 here and fire off live rounds at VC targets. It sounded as though they had plenty of business from the noise of exploding munitions.
This was another few hours spent in a coach to see a few holes in the ground but we were told that tourists wanted to see. Perhaps I am in the minority but I found it boring.
Back in Saigon for lunch we were also beginning to find our daily meals boring. Chicken sweetcorn soup or pumpkin soup, some sort of salad with bits of chicken, pork or chicken in a sauce, boiled or stir fried veg of unknown make, and oh, I almost forgot morning glory.
Nothing to do with sex but tasteless green stringy thingies and we always had rice with every meal. Dessert was usually fruit salad which was usually a few pineapple and water melon chunks. This menu was similar for lunch and dinner but the hotels did provide a reasonable buffet breakfast. The tour included all meals but we felt that lunch could have been a baguette and a beer leaving more funds for better food at dinner. Better still would be to reduce the price of the tour and just do bed and breakfast. A few of us went off piste a couple of times much to the chagrin of the guides who we suspected were on commission from the restaurants.
I was rather taken with the very trim lady conductor who wore a tailored tightly fitted uniform which caused Brian, one of our party from "oop North", to exclaim his love for ladies in uniform. Brian was further excited by the Vietnamese girl in a short leather skirt who sat on my knee to have her photograph taken! I should add that Brian is in his mid eighties as is his wife Ethel and a brighter more engaging couple you could not wish to meet.
We left the train and then had to wait on a level crossing for the little diesel loco to move to the other end of the train for the return journey, a movement which the lady conductor performed with military precision, whistling her commands to the driver and getting Brian even more excited!
The purpose of our visit here was the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, built by Buddhist monks from debris of glass, pottery and porcelain between 1949 and 1952
The Vietnamese drink a lot of beer and in the garden is a 49 metre long dragon made from 12,000 empty beer bottles! This is truly an amazing structure as can be seen from the various photographs on this page.
The Bonsai in the country were nothing short of amazing and I could fill this page with photographs I took of the different examples. Below are two examples of the art. A bouganvillea at the cable car station and some more outside our hotel in Dalat.
Another interesting visit was to the crazy house which they are still building and it is also the Hang Nga guest house where you can stay the night. Hang Nga was one of the presidents daughters who created the original house. Photographs of the presidents garden and of his daughters crazy house are displayed above and moving your mouse over the image will freeze it
Our final visit was to a village where the minority Lach people perform a traditional Gong music show. The Lach were the first people to live in Dalat and their women especially are very attractive. The women choose the man they want to marry, ask his parents for permission and must pay a dowry. Seems a good arrangement to me! They marry and have families when they are still quite young.
Back on the mainland we visited the aquarium which was another French addition before going off piste which was a great success. The Spanish owner of la Mancha took us under his wing and recommended an excellent Spanish red wine to accompany our Argentine fillet steaks which came 1.5 inches thick and cooked 'A Point'. Pudding was a huge sort of Knickerbocker Glory and we were entertained throughout by enthusiastic and very fit Salsa dancers of Strictly standard! The next morning the rest of the party told us various porkies about the food they had eaten and we told them the truth!
We waved goodbye to our guide Tuan at Nah Trang airport after a 5am wake-up call and flew to Danang where we were met by our new lady guide Tian. She took us to admire the beach which was huge before the short journey down the coast to Hoi An, our hotel being a few miles outside the old town right on the beach.
Before checking in we were shown round a lace making workshop then visited a few of the old houses in the town finishing with the Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall before stopping for lunch and the usual menu.
We checked into the hotel after lunch but unfortunately having settled down to soak up the sun beside the swimming pool it went on strike and a cool wind sent us back to our room for a siesta. For the rest of our stay in Vietnam the sun failed to shine but it did not rain often.
The next day was a free one so even more money was spent shopping. We had discovered Bambou clothing at a roadside stop in the Mekong Delta and selected a couple of tee shirts we liked, however, when we came to pay they wanted over 1,200,000 Dong for one! That is over £38 in proper money which even for Sue is expensive so we did not buy. In Hoi An we went into a proper Bambou shop and found the prices much more reasonable. I bought a nice bamboo fibre polo shirt for about half the price of that tee shirt and sue bought a bamboo fibre tee shirt plus a couple of cotton ones. Bambou make clothing from many different types of fibre but the bamboo fibre is incredibly soft and will absorb four times the amount of moisture than cotton so is great for warm climates.
At the Cargo Club that evening Tian had reserved us a table on the balcony upstairs overlooking the river with all the lanterns floating down. The photo left includes me modelling my new Bambou polo shirt!
The meal was first class and not too expensive which we rounded off with coffee and brandy at that nice cafe opposite before catching the shuttle bus back to our hotel. The next day the other lot again told us what a wonderful meal we had missed, the lying sods!
We were now bound for the Imperial city of Hue about two hours drive north but our first stop was the Marble Mountain where they have built an elevator to take you up to the pagoda and natural cave. Inside the cave we sheltered from a sudden rainstorm before retreating down to a showroom of marble sculptures which were wonderful works of art but impractical souvenirs unless you were prepared to pay the shipping cost.
We passed through the longest tunnel in Asia (6km) on our way to Hue, the former Vietnamese capital and arrived at the Forbidden City in time for lunch. Here we had the best food of the entire trip and the photograph shows Tian holding up a plate of tempura prawns arranged on a half pineapple decorated with carrots carved to resemble a peacock. This was Tians home city and I think she wanted to impress us. She may look young but she is 45 years old and has two sons, the eldest being 19!
I was impressed with the forbidden city but most of our party were not. It was completely demolished by bombing during the war and is still in the process of being rebuilt. Emperor Gia Long ordered the construction of the Citadel in 1802. The English traveller George Findlayson wrote in 1821 "the Imperial Enclosure was of such sheer elegance, grandeur and perfection, that all other Asian cities seemed in comparison to be the work of children". Gia Long died before the Citadel could be completed and Minh Mang, his fourth son by his favourite concubine, became his successor and completed the Citadel.
Minh Mang had somewhere between 500 and 700 concubines, who begat 78 princes and 64 princesses so he was a busy man and it is said that most Vietnamese are directly related to him! The Forbidden City was inspired by the one in Peking and covers 520 hectares.
We only had one night in Hue and a special banquet was held where we all dressed up in costumes of the period while, as the eldest of us, Brian and Ethel were our chosen Emperor and Empress. I approached the Emperor after the meal and remarked that he reminded us of the late Pope John. His response was to invite me to kiss his ring, an invitation I declined.
It was from here that in 1963 the 66 year old Monk Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon in his old Austin and burnt himself to death as a protest against the discrimination of Buddhists by the government of Catholic President Diem. Diems sister-in-law the infamous Madam Nu commented "let them burn, we will applaud them". Not long after Diem was overthrown in a military coup. Behind the car is a picture of the monk committing suicide and his example was followed by over 30 monks and nuns as a protest against American involvement in Vietnam including two US citizens.
We stopped for the regulation dinner on the way and one of our party was beaten by a short head to the WC by a large rat. It does not inspire confidence in the standard of hygene in the kitchen with rats running round the place.
Our hotel was the Sunway which was a nice hotel in the wrong place, a slum opposite, families eating their meals on the pavement and the whole area very seedy. Sue and I walked into the French quarter as far as the Opera when a rat tripped along the gutter beside us. The fumes from the scooters and danger of getting injured by their refusal to obey traffic lights convinced us that our part of Hanoi was a place not to be explored on foot.
The next day we endured a four hour coach journey to Halong Bay and boarded the Victory Star for our cruise. The boat was nicely fitted out with a roomy cabin and en suite bathroom. Food was of a good standard but our bar bill was over $US65 when we paid off.
Although we were by this time completely templed out we were taken to three more which were 10th century but, as I said to Dinh after I asked him for a wheelchair, "I know they are all different but I just can't take any more!"
You always buy souvenir tee shirts when you are on holiday and this trip was no exception. I did get the Ho Chi Minh Hip Hop during the trip and to commorate it I aquired the tee shirt on the right as a fitting tribute!
Being in Vietnam for the first time reminded me of a Tom Paxton song I used to sing in the late 60's with The Ghillies folk group in Edinburgh so here it is for posterity:
I just got a letter from L.B.J
It said, "This is your lucky day"
It's time to put your khaki trousers
Though it may seem very queer
We've got no jobs to give you here
So we are sending you to Vietnam
Lyndon Johnson told the nation
Have no fear of escalation
I am trying everyone to please
Though it isn't really war
We're sending fifty thousand more
To help save Vietnam from the Vietnamese
I jumped off the old troop ship
And sank in mud up to my hips
I cussed until the captain called me down
Never mind how hard it's raining
Think of all the ground we're gaining
Just don't take one step outside of town
Every night the local gentry
Slip out past the sleeping sentry
They go to join the old V C
In their nightly little dramas
They put on their black pajamas
And come lobbing mortar shells at me
We go round in helicopters
Like a bunch of big grasshoppers
Searching for the Viet Cong in vain
They left a note that they had gone
They had to get down to Saigon
Their government positions to maintain
Well, here I sit in this rice paddy
Wondering about Big Daddy
And I know that Lyndon loves me so
Yet how sadly I remember
Way back yonder in November
When he said I'd never have to go
Two hours back to Hanoi and the Sunway hotel wanted $US10 to use their gym locker room for a change and shower before our flight home to which I strongly objected. Fortunately some of our party were spending an extra night here prior to going on to Cambodia for more temples. Some people just can't get enough but Leamington Pete lent me his room to change in so all was well. We had a 12 hour flight to Heathrow that night leaving at 00.40 hrs but pitied those who went on to Cambodia as they returned via Saigon with a five hour wait for their Heathrow flight.
We all went out together for a final dinner which according to Dinh was even posher than the previous night but it was more of the same old menu. We dropped off the Cambodian crew who waved us off to the airport and our flight home. At Heathrow we managed to catch an earlier coach home to Cheltenham arriving about 11am but our next long haul will be Premium Economy.
The Spring Equinox is upon us so it is time for another page.
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