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Vietnam Journey

Author: Riche (More Trip Reviews by Riche)
Date of Trip: August 2009

Email message from two teenage students I chatted to at the temple of MySon 'Hi Riche Yes, I wish you have a good trip to Hue and Ha Noi. And if you have time , send me a photo you take us in My Son temple because it is souvenir between you and us by accident. Thank you for that. And tell me your experience in Hue and Ha Noi if you don't mind! Thuy'

29 July HaNoi
Hi all The train! I'll be positive. So much better than the overnight trains in India. But not even close to that in Egypt. The VN train has carriages with close-door compartments of 4 bunks each, bottom sheet, pillow and doona provided, cleanliness a question. It's best not to mention the loo. A man comes round- actually several do- they sell food that, I think has been cooked by their wives at home, served in styrofoam boxes-like McDonalds used to use. I bought a pack for 25,000 Dong ($1.50). It had a very generous portion of sticky rice, some boiled cabbage, thin slices of (I think) three different meats-chicken??? pork??? sausage??? with a few beans mixed in, chopsticks and a cup of hot green tea. My guide had told me not to buy food for the train as 'full service on train, beer also', so I was desperate in the absence of these services. I ate some of the rice, all of the cabbage, sampled two bites of the unidentifiable meat, finished I suppose 1/3rd of total in container, and placed the remainder in the nearby bin- 30 secs later someone else on the train was finishing my meal. Certainly not much is wasted in Vietnam! I shared the compartment with a young couple from Boston USA, and a VN man in the bunk above me, but he must have disembarked during the night as a young VN woman emerged from the bunk this morning. There was also a large group, about 20, of English budget travellers of mixed age but travelling as a group, in the next carriage. I think VN families must book a 4-bunk compartment, then pile in a family of up to 10, babies, kids, adults, grandmothers, (I did not see any chickens but....!). I had such a family group on each side of our quiet little compartment, and they talk into the night. Then, the carriage security man brings out small plastic stools for those left standing in the corridors. If the train is licensed to carry x passengers, then there could have been xsquare plus at least on the train. And the single toilet, located at the end of each carriage, pays the price and suffers the burden. My itinerary shows I have this morning at leisure but, on arrival early morning, my guide says some things I must see are only open in the morning, so he meets me at 9.30am and we drive to the HoChiMinh mausoleum.

Email received from the young girl met in MySon 'Dear Riche, I think you and your wife are a very happy couple. I read your letter to your wife today, I felt emotional. Because I realized that the most happiness is when we can stay at close people. I must live far from my home to look for a job, it can be better for me in the future. I feel homesick. I miss father, mother, and brother. And I also hope that you are always happy and healthy so as to travel more, especially travel with your wife. See you! Good luck! All best Thuy.'

29 July HaNoi What a busy day! And, in addition, its been a 2-shower-three shirt day' with high humidity. My guide in HaNoi is a 27 year old man named Ha. My driver is also named Ha. So we have agreed that the guide will be called Ha, and the driver Noi. Problem solved. Our first stop this morning is the concrete-block-heavy, soviet-style mausoleum of HoChiMinh. At the 'security gate' several items are removed from the well-ordered queue of visitors. Sunglasses are not permitted as they show disrespect, cameras are not allowed as photos show disrespect, hands may not be held behind one's back, or in or near pockets, as this shows disrespect, heads must be held raised, looking forward only, except at the moment of passing the tomb when one may look to the left (of course, it has to be to the Left), as any other position shows disrespect. So I joined the queue of perhaps 20,000 other curious people, 90% local, and slowly we edged our way forward in a straight, well ordered, military-style line, with 'security police' placed at regular intervals to ensure that heads are held high and hands are straight at one's side. To see what? The mummified body of HCM, lying in state on a marble bed, freshly re-filled with formaldehyde each year by Russian specialists flown in to do the job.

Nearby is the Presidential Palace, a beautiful French-built mansion in green park-land that HCM refused to live in, preferring, at first the small 2-roomed GateMan's House, and later the 2-roomed 'House-on-Stilts, built for him so he could reminisce about the village architecture of his childhood. Two rooms, one holding a bed, the other a desk, no kitchen, food brought in, entry to an underground bunker nearby.

There was no need to ask Ha the question. 'HoChiMinh was very well educated', says Ha. 'He spoke many languages, Chinese the best, then French, German, English and Viet. He had the best teachers. Marx Karl, you know him?, and Lenin both taught him. He was good communist.'

'Then why,' I ask, 'Is SaiGon, HCMC, so busy and new with much business, while HaNoi still so poor with not many new buildings.' He smiles. 'Easy answer. The people of South Vietnam, they were traitors to their country. When we win the war, they escape with the Americans, some to USA, many you know to Australia. Now, they get rich there and send money back to family in SaiGon. Maybe drug also. That why HCMC so rich.' I have no intent to argue the point. What happens in Vietnam stays in Vietnam.

We continue into the heart of the Old Quarter, the medieval heart of HaNoi, crowded, narrow streets and bazaars, happy, colorful people, shops spilling their wares out onto the pavements, impossibly tangled webs of telephone, electrical and cable tv wires drooping from pole to pole. Love this place! At 5pm we reach a water-puppet theatre-what a fantastic show with brilliantly made puppets and stories telling of the mythical heroes of Vietnam. I am seated in a row next to three French male tourists. All holding our cameras at ready, we realize we are four Canon EOS 40D's all in a row. At 7pm we reach the International Press Club where I am booked in for dinner. Exclusive, dark-wood panels separate 'private cubicles'. The wine steward and waiter, both dressed in tails, approach. I choose a chardonnay from Chile, and 'salade niconnaise', 'roasted pork medallions over spice-smash potato', and 'legume froix'. It all arrives and is served with great formality. In the back ground I hear Frank Sinatra crooning, 'You'd be so nice to come home to' and I don't think Frankie boy is singing about HoChiMinh.

30 July HaNoi.

We depart at eight. Noi is driving our 4WD Ford Territory, I take the passenger seat, camera at the ready, Ha is on the back seat. HaLong Bay, only 170km but 3.5 hours away, our destination. Traffic ebbs and flows around us, approaching busses defy road rules and continuous white lines as, horns blaring, they challenge the legitimacy of all other traffic. Around us small motorbikes carry up to four riders, adult pigs tied across the pillion, baskets of chickens and ducks with heads protruding through the basket weave, huge bundles tied in plastic hide their contents. A cyclist is attempting to cross impossible traffic conditions while he straddles a 4 meter sheet of corrugated iron tied across the handle bars and saddle. A woman motor cyclist losses her load just ahead of us. The huge plastic parcel tied on behind her bursts open and hundreds of coconuts spill across the road. Many motorbikes seem to have broken down and are parked at roadside. 'They are broken,' says Ha. 'All Chinese Landsin, no good.' Apparently a Chinese 125cc Landsin bike can be purchased new for US$360, while a Japanese Honda or Yamaha costs upwards of $1600, and a Vespa over $2000. The difference is that a Japanese bike comes with a one year warranty, while a new Chinese made Landsin is covered for one week after purchase. It seems ironic to me that a people who won a war fighting with the Chinese built version of the AK47, now despise the Chinese made motorbike.

We stop half way and enter a 'protected place'. Here young people who are either disabled or orphaned are taught crafts. A huge warehouse exhibits lacquer artwork, brass castings, ceramics, embroidering, and a welcome coffee shop. Then, at last HaLong Bay appears in the distance. This huge bay of some 162 square kilometers is filled with over 600 pinnacle shaped islands. We board a timber ship which, until 1990, fished these waters but has now been converted to 6 cabins each with own bathroom, a viewing deck, a bar. Fishing for tourists, again, is more profitable than fishing for fish. We sail into the day, lunch en-route, disembark on one island to explore a huge cave system with as many stalactites as there are stalagmites. Ha points out features, a lion here, a turtle there, the emperor's sword. He again tells the mythical story of the defeat by the Viet over the Chinese a thousand years ago but now told in calcium dripping from the cave's ceiling. Then we again face the traffic, and several downpours, and a flooded road, and an overturned truck, and arrive in HaNoi at 6.

31July Ha and Noi meet me after breakfast and we visit the Temple of Literature, a 10th century school based on the philosophies of Confucius and a truly beautiful place. We then continue to a 6th century Buddhist Temple which is equally beautiful. After this short tour I ask to be dropped off in the Old Quarter and say good bye to my very good driver and guide. I first head through a narrow market street, sellers with fruit, fish, a butcher, assorted vegetables. Obviously this street is a 'farmer's market', peasants coming in from the country so sell their products. I find a small café/restaurant and take an outside seat so I can candidly photograph the passing parade. The Vietnamese couple at the next table start a conversation and, later, invite me to their home for tea. Their home is in the heart of the Old Quarter. The building has three levels. The ground floor is rented out as a shop, they live on level 1, Level 2 is rented out to a different family. My new friends own the building, and their home on level one includes an area of about 4metre by 6 meter which includes bath area, kitchen, living and sleeping for the extended family of seven people. The building, they tell me, is their ancestral home and they are the 8th generation of the family to live here.

This 'ancestor worship' is a philosophy I have come across several times in Vietnam. Though the people may be Buddhist, Catholic, Islamic or Taoist, all regard themselves first and foremost as 'ancestral'. Most rice paddies have a tomb of ancestors, they celebrate Death Day' rather than 'birthday' as this is the important day on which a person becomes an ancestor. Extended families meet on Death Day to thank the ancestor.

As they are very aware of the history of their family, through the ancestors, and of the land because the ancestors are buried there, I consider again the impossibility of the Americans, or any invading force, to take over a country such as this. The VN would not only fight for country, more important is that they fight for their ancestors as well.

After gratefully receiving another gift I say good bye and wander through the ancient streets of HaNoi again. The 'new' city is very green with mature trees and shaded avenues. At a lake-side café beneath the trees I stop for a bowl of icecream. This is my last day and I want to both celebrate and reminisce. As I sit there, ice cream half gone, the waitress, approaches and says, 'you pay now please, soon it rain.' Quicker than I could pull my wallet from my pocket, the skies close and torrents fall. I told the waitress to keep the change- it was only 5000 dong, and raced to the nearest intersection where a taxi had stopped at a red light. Drenched again, I jumped in, said the name of my hotel, and sat back. Ten minutes later, in rain so heavy visibility was reduced to 3 or 4 metres, we were once again stuck in traffic and, in words and hand movements, the driver indicates that he has no idea where we are. Lost and Wet! We slowly drive on until I recognize a landmark, jump from the taxi into about 200mm of rain water covering the road, sandals sogged through again, and run across the 6-lane road to my hotel. Tomorrow I have a 1.00pm transfer to the airport with luggage wet, and flight home.

Vietnam during the monsoon season- certainly something to write home about.

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