Vietnam Jan 4-25
Vietnam immigration was interesting with my full passport. Despite having a visa, I still needed a stamp and they weren’t going to give me one. Accused of removing a visa because of the empty page in the middle of the passport and some glue residue, they said I had nowhere to put a stamp. I put a $10 bill in the passport, and he stamped it in the one spot big enough for the large Vietnamese chop. The adventure continues. Only 6 more countries to go – and Vietnam immigration again.
After a 6 hour bus ride where the Mekong was crossed on a ferry in Cambodia, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (pop 7.5 million), previously known as Saigon. Established in 1698, the French attacked in 1859 and it surrendered in 1861. They left many colonial buildings. It is the high-octane center of commerce and culture that is driving the booming Vietnamese economy.
A walking tour is in the Lonely Planet. It starts right outside my hostel in the “backpacker” area full of hotels and restaurants. After walking through a nice park across the street, I visited the worthwhile Fine Arts Museum. The Bitexco Financial Tower, the highest building in the city at 68 stories and 262m, is a stunning piece of architecture built in 2012. A gentle sloping triangle with rounded corners, no two floors are the same. A huge heliport indents the tower by 18m and juts out 22m from the 52nd floor like a lotus flower (the national flower of Vietnam). The entire 49th floor is devoted to a viewing area and one of the 22 elevators zooms you up in seconds. Interactive TV screens allow identification of all the landmarks but dense smog limits a long view.
The downtown area around the Opera House is very swank with high-end hotels and all the luxury brand stores, all empty. The rest is a typical big Asian city, but this one has millions of motorcycles. Maneuvering through traffic is death-defying as they don’t give way and crosswalks are ignored. With a population of 90 million in Vietnam, there are 70 million motorcycles. Everyone wears helmets but often tiny children are balanced on the front of the seat. The few taxis outnumber the fewer cars. The Ho Chi Minh City Museum is not worth the 50 cent admission.
The War Remnants Museum documents the atrocities of the war in a unique and brutal way. Agent Orange containing defoliant and dioxin are blamed for birth defects and a whole range of genetic and acquired abnormalities (conjoined twins, hydrocephalus, neurofibromatosis, cerebral palsy etc) that have a natural occurrence. The exhibits are propaganda but still powerful. The photography, some collected from journalists from all over the world is heartbreaking. Two million Vietnamese were killed and 3 million injured in the war; 58,158 American and ally soldiers died and 304,000 were injured. Look at my long bit on Agent Orange in the Travel Facts section of Vietnam. The Reunification Palace is a time warp, left as when the first communist tanks crashed through the gates. The modern looking four story building, the home of the South Vietnamese president, has a dance floor, meeting rooms, reception rooms, bedrooms, offices, a theatre, shooting range, and bomb shelters. The Jade Emperor Pagoda is a gem among Chinese temples representing both Buddhist and Taoist religions. It is filled with phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes, and has some wonderful wood carvings. Two pools outside each have carp and wall-to-wall turtles. Notre Dame Cathedral was built between 1877 and 1883. With its twin 40m towers and Romanesque arches, the facade is imposing. The impressive French-style Post Office was designed by Gustaf Eiffel. Postage was $3 for a small, heavy envelope.
There are many day tours out of HCMC. The most popular is a full day trip north first to the Cao Dai Great Temple built between 1933 and 1955. This is the headquarters of Vietnam’s most interesting indigenous religion. A mixture of many religions, its disciples are Sun Yet Sen (1866-1925, the leader of the Chinese Revolution), Victor Hugo (1802-1887, the French poet with compassion for the miserable) and Nguyen Binh Khum (1492-1587), Vietnam’s first poet laureate. The temple looked like a Christian church from the outside with two towers on the end, but heavily decorated. The inside had columns adorned with huge spiraling dragons. We arrived in time for the service that started at noon. Everybody was sitting cross-legged on the floor, dressed in white smocks, men on the right and women on the left. Closer to the front the some guys had blue (Christian), red (Taoism) and yellow (Buddhism) smocks. Musicians played Chinese bowed instruments and women chanted from a balcony at the back. Every so often a gong would ring and they bowed several times. Everybody was old except for the rare younger person. Then one fellow in red got up and chanted for a while from an altar a long ways away t the far end of the very long church. It all looked kind of boring.
Cu Chi Tunnels are the number-one site-seeing sight, but I’m not sure they are worth the trip. Almost 2 hours north of HCMC, they were a legend in the 60s for their role in facilitating Viet Cong control of a large rural area only 30km from Saigon. At its height, the tunnel network stretched from Cambodia, and around Cu Chi, there was more than 200km of tunnels. After ground operations were ineffective in targeting the tunnels, artillery and bombers transformed it into a moonscape. There are demonstrations of kitchens, workshops, booby traps, an aged documentary film, methods of camouflage, and 120m of reconstructed tunnel – enlarged considerably for our larger bodies to move through. It was still a squeeze, hot and very claustrophobic. There is also a shooting range where you can shoot AK47s, M16s and other rifles at a dollar per bullet (only the Russians and Americans tried them out). Another common tour goes to the Mekong Delta but reports are that it was very lame.
One night I went to a show at the Opera House – a clever display of dance, acrobatics, contortionists, musical instrumentals, and a dizzying variety of uses of wicker baskets. It was well worth the $35 admission.
Some observations about Vietnam. They don’t seem very religious. There are no stupas or monasteries. Pagodas have only tourists in them. Maybe they have done something right. Every pagoda has Chinese, Hindu and Buddhist images. Unlike other Buddhist countries, there are no stray dogs, a very welcome thing. The countryside is completely flat, not a hill anywhere, just rice paddies. Vietnam is the second largest producer of rice in the world after Thailand. People seem more active here and walk around parks vigorously swinging their arms or doing lame calisthenics. A hacky-sac like game using a dart with a flat end is common. Tuk tuks don’t exist and motorcycles are the main transportation but aren’t that cheap. Again the number of motorcycles is amazing. To cross the street requires courage – you must weave your way around and through the traffic. Neither police nor the army are very visible and it doesn’t feel like a controlled society, but apparently press freedom and dissent aren’t tolerated. As in all these SE Asia countries, there are many old, generally fat men with young Vietnamese women. Vietnamese men believe most Vietnamese women with white guys are prostitutes, even though these couples may be married or in long-term relationships. Generally, Vietnamese are not overly friendly and smiles uncommon.
Visiting a restaurant is always interesting. When you look at a menu at the front of the restaurant, someone from the restaurant always irritatingly hovers over you. Once you order though, you never see them again. You could sit for 5 hours never ordering anything, and they never check on you. Virtually nobody speaks English outside their limited field. The motorcycle taxis require a map and a lot of sign language to find anything. If they offer French fries, try to get mashed potatoes, or poached eggs if they have fried. Salt and pepper is a challenge.
I decided to leave on a night bus 11 hours north to Nha Trang, sacrificing my $8/night room. This was another type of sleeper bus with 3 single columns of seats and 2 aisles. With only about 7 passengers, I tried several beds until settling for the back with 5 seats – mine reclined completely, it was the only bed long enough for me and it was a good sleep on the bumpy roads. The countryside was completely flat until an hour before Nha Trang when we followed the ocean, passed a big sand dune area, and mountains started with the road hugging the cliffs between the big, swanky resorts. Many people were playing badminton on the malecon outside at 6AM.
Nha Trang is the beach capital of Vietnam. I came here only to break up the long trip north. The 6km beach forms a full-fledged international resort, but besides the usual backpacker crowd, 75% of the tourists here are Russian. The menus, town signage and even the voice message to do my seat belt up in the taxi were in Russian. I walked on a sidewalk that borders the beach all the way north to the Hon Chong Promontory, a scenic collection of granite rocks jutting into the South China Sea. I then followed the river to the Ponagar Cham Towers, built between the 7th and 12th centuries by the Cham people, a Hindu culture in south Vietnam. Originally there were 8 towers but now only 4 remain. The 28m North tower is an all brick masterpiece of Cham architecture and was built in 817. It is still an active place of worship with linga and Ponagar images, a dark-skinned female deity, the Holy Mother. A museum is dedicated to Alexandre Yersin, the discoverer of the agent of Bubonic Plague, the founder of the Pasteur Institute in Nha Trang in 1895, and introducer of rubber and quinine-producing trees to Vietnam. Long Son Pagoda is impressively adorned with glass and ceramic dragons. It has a great selection of bells in the shape of wood animals and large bronze bowls with wonderful tone. At the top of a hill behind the pagoda is a gigantic seated Buddha. Around the base of the statue are relief busts of 7 Buddhist monks who died in self-immolations protesting the Vietnam War in 1963. It was a great walking day but I took a bike out to Long Son, really risking my life. However the motorcycles were relatively respectful – the main problem were all the motorcycles going the wrong way in my lane.
I wondered why an old woman was kneeling in the street. One pant leg was pulled up and she was taking a pee! I needed to buy a file to deal with a sharp metal stay in my pack on which I kept tearing the front of my pants. After drawing a picture, one ingenious fellow used Google translate and gave me the Vietnamese word – tan tin. Nobody could connect the picture until one fellow with better English informed me that I was asking for a computer file. I should have been asking for a dua. We had a good laugh. English with its multiple uses for the same word must be as hard for them as Vietnamese is with its tonal pronunciations is for us.
Up at 4:30, I caught the train 9 hours north to Hoi An. Nobody working on the train spoke a word of English. I had a berth in an ultramodern car with a rock-hard bed. Views out the window were of low forest-covered mountains, an infinite variety of rice paddies in all stages of cultivation and growth, bent-over farmers wearing coolie hats, water buffalo, dirty houses with rusty corrugated roofs, egrets, ponds and vegetable fields with perfect raised beds. These people work hard. Cemeteries of all sizes seemed to be everywhere. Nobody is 6 feet under here – all burials are in above ground crypts, many with little pagoda roofs.
In Hoi An, I stayed in the most expensive and best hotel of the trip at $20/night, 2-4x what I have been spending. This is the first TV with a great selection of channels in English and I am getting caught up with world news and playing tons of online bridge.
Hoi An Old Town (pop 120,000) is a World Heritage Site more to luck than planning. Originally a busy international seaport on the Thu Bon River in the 17th and 18th century, annual commercial fairs lasted for 4-6 months and Japanese, Chinese, Dutch and Indian traders set up businesses. The river started to silt up in the early 1900s, business died and the town became literally a backwater, preserved in time until the tourist boom struck in the 1990s. It is a virtual living museum.
A $5 ticket buys entrance to five of the 20 or so heritage Chinese Assembly halls, pagodas, temples, historic houses and museums. The buildings have amazing roof lines with gables and ridges covered in terracotta dragons and intricate carvings. Detailed wood carvings, colorful plaster bas reliefs, bonzais, antique furniture and pottery, and paper-mache figures in glass cabinets are highlights. Often combinations of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese architectural styles are used. I went to the Fujian Chinese Congregation, Tran Family Chapel, Quang Trieu Assembly Hall, Trieu Chau Assembly Hall, Minh Huang Communal House, Japanese Covered Bridge, and several free temples. The 200 year-old Old House of Tan Ky was on the river edge. It is flooded every year and in 1964 the water was 10 feet high in the two level house. Seven generations had lived in the house and it was still occupied by the same family. Despite all this, it was beautiful with marvelous wood carvings, furniture and beams.
This is a very busy tourist town. The narrow streets are lined with clothing stores, art galleries, restaurants and knickknack stores. Around the markets, vendors sell vegetables, fish and live chickens from the sidewalks. One is constantly badgered with “come into my store” and “low prices”. The Old Town is small and easy to walk. However many tourists were being unnecessarily wheeled around in bicycle rickshaws (one tour group was 34 rickshaws long) or riding bikes. Motorcycles are common and as aggressive and obnoxious as anywhere in Vietnam.
On my way home, an old house had a free tour sign. The same family had lived in it for 8 generations. With beautiful pure Vietnamese construction, the young “tour guide” showed me every room, wood carving tools and jewelery making techniques. Then came the clincher – I was virtually forced to buy some earrings. It was unavoidable.
My Son, a Unesco Heritage Site, has the most important remains of the ancient Cham culture. Set in remote jungle away from any town, the crumbling ruins are in poor shape and have undergone extensive restorations. Reach by bus 55km SW of Hoi An and return by boat. I don’t think they are worth the effort but I rarely miss a Unesco Site.
Near Hoi An there are beaches and the Cham Islands with diving and snorkeling only available March to September because of bad weather.
A 3 hour bus ride north is Hue (pop 300,000), the spiritual, intellectual, and spiritual heart of Vietnam, and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Back at a $6/night dorm room, but this is a purpose-built hostel and has the best included buffet breakfast in the world (Tigon Hostel). Hgia Long immediately started building an imperial city, the Citadel, on the north bank of the Perfume River. It is a surrounded by a moat, then a massive, 30′ thick, 25′ high brick wall, 2.5km on a side. One huge gate is on the south, facing the river, and each side has its own majestic gate. Inside are several walled enclosures, each serving as residence for the Emperor’s family. His personal residence is in the Forbidden Purple City, a walled, 568x640m, nearly square citadel within a Citadel. The only servants allowed inside were eunuchs. Just next door, a compound was home to up to 500 concubines. The fourth Emperor sired 164 children. Other palaces were for the emperor’s parents, children, ceremonial halls and administrative buildings, all surrounded by lakes and gardens. It was heavily bombed by the USA, and there are few intact buildings, although it is being actively reconstructed. Immediately on entering through the main gate is the intact Thai Hoa Palace. It was used for ceremonies. Well outside the Citadel, to the east across a canal is the Dieu Do National Pagoda, a bastion of dissent against the South Vietnamese government with its Catholic, prejudiced Prime Minister during the War.
The Royal Tombs, part of the World Heritage Site, are 2-16kms south of Hue along the Perfume River. All are worthy of a visit, each a testament to the megalomaniac tastes of these guys, as they were all started several years before they died. I went by boat and then a bus on a tour on a rainy, cold day. They all start with a courtyard with wonderful statues of soldiers, mandarins, horses and elephants followed by a huge stele telling the emperors story. The most majestic of the tombs is the Tomb of Minh Mang, the third of the Nguyen Dynasty (reign 1820-1840). Surrounded by forest and lakes, one crosses temples and causeways on lakes to a 285m round enclosure with a 14′ wall and a hill inside that is not open to the public. The location of his body in this enclosure is unknown as he was moved to the site via one of six tunnels which were all closed up. The Tomb of Tu Duc (the fourth emperor and the longest reign of all the Nguyens from 1840-1883), is set in serene woods among canals and lakes. The location of his body is also unknown. The Tomb of Khai Dinh (the thirteenth and second last emperor from 1916-25), has 127 steps up to one of the most beautifully decorated interiors with its mosaic tile and glass bas reliefs. A life-size bronze on a bronze throne sits under a mammoth canopy covered in bas-reliefs. His inaccessible crypt, the only known burial site of an emperor, sits up behind the throne. He died at age 41. From the river, we also visited the Phu Mong Garden House, The Thien Mu Pagoda (7 tiered, 21m high octagonal tower, a ‘normal’ Buddha, a Chinese Happy Buddha, an enormous stele sitting on a giant marble turtle, and a wonderful bonzai garden), and the Chinese Hon Chen Temple). We had two tour guides whose English pronunciation was so poor that half what they say was not understandable.
I had two very unusual occurrences on my first day in Hue. On the way to the Citadel, I walked through a park and was accosted by a deaf-mute fellow using vivid sign language, moving his finger in and out of his mouth and pointing to my crotch. He kept pointing across the river. Thinking that he was pimping, he wouldn’t leave me alone all the way over the bridge, constantly repeating the finger in and out of his mouth, and showing admirable enthusiasm. I finally figured out it was he who wanted to give me a BJ and was pointing to some outside washrooms in a park!! The pestering one gets from shop owners, beggars, motorcycle and bicycle rickshaw drivers gets annoying. At night, one guy followed me for a block wanting to sell marijuana – “no good high, no buy”. I finally relented and he called his friend, the real dealer. After we finished one joint of poor quality dope and they ordered food, I said it wasn’t very good and left. The guy said I was crazy as he was very stoned and went ballistic, following me down the street demanding money. I gave him a 10,000 dong note ($5), he demanded more and wanted me to pay for their food. Feeling pretty threatened, I gave another and they finally left. Stay away from these crazies.
I caught the 5 hour minivan to Phong Nha and the National Park of the same name to see the karst landscape and its myriad caves. On the way, we stopped twice in the Demilitarized Zone to see a museum and the Vinh Moc Tunnels. Unlike the tunnels at Cu Chi, there are original and only reinforced. There are three levels of tunnels at 12, 15 and 23m, all able to withstand bombs. Up to 600 people lived in the tunnels and 17 babies were born here during the war.
I had booked the 2-day Tan Lo Cave trip. About 100km north of the National Park, we passed through an amazing karst landscape – sheer walls, broken ridge lines and karst pinnacles. Hung Ton Cave had a big drop with a ladder and then a long swim. After swimming across a river, we entered Kim Cave, discovered first in 2012. This one involved 3 moderate swims. We were wearing a life jacket and had a pack carrying our stuff and providing flotation. After a long hike we entered Tan Lo Cave with wonderful formations – large draperies, soda straws, and marvelous fern like formations. This was a hike in and out with no swimming. We camped outside Ken Cave with its rushing waterfall. Sleeping was in a hammock and I was out for 11 hours. The Polish couple on the trip got into the rice moonshine and were so hung over the next morning, they skipped the Ken Cave. After a 200m swim, we explored another half kilometer of dry cave with some good formations at the end and then had the same swim back. It was a rough hike back across rugged karst mountains. The guide, food, caves and company were all excellent, well worth the rather expensive $250 cost. We crossed many flat fields on the way back – all cultivated for crops other than rice. It seems women do all the work and men ride around on their motorbikes, play cards and checkers, and drink rice wine. After the fields were plowed they were breaking up the clods by standing on a simple frame of 2 boards pulled by a water buffalo.
A Unesco World Heritage Site, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park has pristine jungle with over 90% primary forest and hundreds of caves in the oldest karst landscape in SE Asia, including the largest cave in the world. It costs $3,000 to explore this one and quotas are low with only 8 visitors (only journalists and photographers) per year at this time. I went on a one day national park tour. We stopped at several road side viewpoints to see the amazing landscape and get a full run-down on how the war was fought in this area. It was the start of one of the Ho Chi Minh trails. The area was heavily bombed and defoliated with agent orange but seems to have recovered except for large amounts of unexploded ordnance. The Paradise Cave has boardwalk through the first 1 1/2kms displaying marvelous formations in this huge cave. In the afternoon, we explored Dark Cave, named for the harder black limestone forming most of the walls. After a kayak ride to access the cave, we had a short wade and entered a narrow side canyon and waded through and climbed over several hundred yards of wet mud up to our mid-thighs and then returned the same way. I think the guides wanted us to start a mud fight but few took the bait. It was then a swim out and back in a big pool to wash off all the mud.
It was then a 12 hour train ride north to Hanoi. As I was coming back to Hanoi and Halong Bay is a must-do, my destination was Cat Ba Island, about 35km south of the bay with a national park and a much more relaxed pace. I had an amazing series of transportation links without a 30 second delay between any of them – motorcycle to Leong Yen Bus Station, 2 hour bus to Haiphong (third largest city in Vietnam), motorcycle to Ben Binh Harbour, bus 30 minutes south to Dinh Vu, 30 minute fast boat to Cat Ba Island and another 30 minute bus across the island to Cat Ba Town.
Cat Ba Island, rugged, craggy and jungle clad, is Vietnam’s adventure and ecotourism centre. Declared a National Park in 1986 to protect the rare golden-haired Langur, the world’s rarest primate, Cat Ba is a nice alternative way to see all the karst formations of Halong Bay, one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World, while avoiding all the dodgy scams involved in seeing the bay from Halong City. Lan Ha Bay has 300 or so karst islands, very much an extension of Halong Bay but with beaches, fewer people, and less trash. I went on a one-day boat tour of the bay visiting a cave that wound through an island, kayaking, and swimming. The forested, vertical-walled karst islands are quite spectacular.
Returning to Hanoi, I took a boat through Halong Bay to Halong City and then a bus to Hanoi. I am staying in an expensive ($15/night) hotel in the Old Quarter for 5 nights and get some relaxation and watch the Australian Open tennis. Hanoi (pop 6.4 million), the capital of Vietnam is a frenetic place – busy narrow streets, motorcycles, and sidewalks impossible to walk on because of all the parked motorcycles. The motorcyclists are just as crazy here as elsewhere – they have the absolute right of way. Crossing a busy street with 5-6 lanes of motos requires simply walking across weaving your way through vehicles – it is the only to way to cross or wait for a long time. Tiny women carry huge loads balancing a long shoulder pole with their quick almost running gait.
After a day off, I explored the sites in the Old and French Quarters surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake. St Josephs Cathedral, very near my hotel was closed. The Woman’s Museum is an excellent museum showing the role of women in Vietnamese society, especially their many wartime contributions. The many street vendors are women, often from villages to make money to support their families and educate their children. Hoa Lo Prison, or the “Hanoi Hilton” is where John McCain and other American pilots were imprisoned during the Vietnam War. Originally built by the French in 1896, it propagandizes the poor treatment of the Vietnamese by the French and the Cadillac treatment of the Americans.
Bach Ma Temple was built in the 11th century to commemorate a white horse who guided the emperor to the site where he decided to build the city walls. Memorial House is a restored ancient ‘tube house’ showing how merchants lived in the Old Quarter. The atmospheric, historical sole of Hanoi, the Old Quarter was settled in the 17th century by merchants of the 36 guilds, each with their own “village”, gates, pagodas and community halls. As taxes were determined by the width of the facade, buildings were very narrow, extending well back from the street with stores out front and living quarters at the back. Initially 1-2 stories, over time, as density increased, they built up and now are 5-6 stories high. The French destroyed the villages but streets still concentrate specific types of stores with whole neighborhoods selling the same thing. I tried to buy a pencil but never found the pencil street. Hoam Kiem Lake is surrounded by nice sidewalks but is heavily polluted. A 200kg turtle supposedly inhabits the lake but was taken out for medical care because of the pollution in 2011, and then was put back in! Ngoc Son Temple occupies an island in the northern part of the lake. It also has an embalmed 200kg turtle.
West of the Old Quarter are the Museum of Fine Art (missable) and the Temple of Literature (dedicated to Confucius in 1070, later a university for the education of mandarins, has 5 courtyards and reflecting pools). There are magnificent bonzai throughout the grounds in large round and rectangular pots.
The premier attraction in Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. This is the holiest of holies for many Vietnamese. In the tradition of Lenin, Stalin and Mao, the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh is a glass sarcophagus set deep within a monumental edifice. Ho is honored as much for his role as liberator of the Vietnamese people from colonialism, as much as for his communist ideology. Built contrary to his last will to be cremated, the Mausoleum was constructed between 1973 and 1975 (he died in 1969). The embalmed corpse gets a 3-month holiday to Russia for routine maintenance from September to early December and the Mausoleum is closed Mondays and Fridays and is only open from 8-11 AM daily (last entrance at 10:15) so one has to plan the visit. One must register, have no bags, mobile phones or cameras, nor shorts, tank tops, or indecent clothing. It is a fast walk through by all the guards in bright white uniforms – quite moving in its simplicity and dignity.
Nearby in the complex are the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House (his official residence from 1958-1969, with simplicity reinforcing his reputation of a man of the people), One Pillar Pagoda (built in 1029, designed to represent a lotus flower, a symbol of purity), and Presidential Palace (constructed in 1906 as the palace of the Governor General of Indochina, not open to the public).
It is the big holiday of the year this week, Tet or Vietnamese New Year. The entire country closes down for three days. Nothing is open so I am glad I will be leaving on the 26th for the Philippines.