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Good Morning Vietnam! …Part Two

| 07 Apr 2017

The following day we set off by car for Hue over the Hai Van pass, stopping briefly in Da Nang at the museum of Cham sculpture to inspect altarpieces, sandstone carvings, busts of Hindu gods and portrayals of scenes from the Ramayana.

Hai Van Pass

Hai Van Pass

If you haven’t already read Part 1, please click here >

The Hai Van pass is probably best known to many of us from the Top Gear special in Vietnam, but it is certainly pretty spectacular, particularly when looking back over Da Nang bay (which both the French and the Americans used to offload men and materials). We paused at the summit to take in the view.

Descending the pass, we headed for Hue to visit a couple of mausoleums, which tend to follow a basic pattern: a pavilion featuring the emperor’s achievements, a temple for worshipping him, a sepulchre for the remains, a decorative courtyard and a lotus pond. Our first stop was at that of Tu Duc, which some consider to be the most elegant in Vietnam. He designed it himself, and preferred the site to that of his palace. He is rumoured to have been buried secretly along with a great treasure, but unfortunately nobody knows where, since all those involved in his burial were executed to protect the location against desecration.

Tomb of Tu Doc

Tomb of Tu Doc, Hue © Chris Simm

Our second stop was the tomb of Khai Dinh, the penultimate emperor of the Nguyen dynasty and the last to be buried in a tomb in Hue. His mausoleum is built into the side of a hill, and is the least Vietnamese of all the tombs, having a considerable European influence in its architecture. On a side note, I suffer occasional ambulatory difficulties as a result of an imbalance in leg length, which leads me to treat steps, particularly those of an uneven nature, with some caution. It is, however, truly embarrassing to be grasped firmly by the arm and assisted back to ground level by an elderly lady… as I was here!

Warrior statues, Imperial Khai Dinh Tomb

Warrior statues, Khai Dinh tomb

Our first treat the following morning was a cyclo ride. The Indian bicycle rickshaw leads with the cyclist, with the passengers seated on high behind him with a restricted view; the Vietnamese have reversed this arrangement, leading with the passenger almost at ground level and the cyclist power unit behind. This may be better from the sightseeing point of view, but is somewhat unnerving at the height of the morning rush hour.

We were eventually delivered to the Imperial Palace, which is set inside the citadel, a world heritage site since 1993. It suffered significant damage during the Vietnam war, when the Viet Cong took and held the place for 25 days during the Tet offensive, but restoration work has been undertaken. The outer walls, bastions and moats are much as one might expect, but the buildings within (palaces and temples) are both beautiful and elegant. We worked our way from the entrance to the back of the complex, admiring the architecture, carvings, lacquer work and other forms of decoration before moving on to Thien Mu pagoda, whose octagonal seven-storey stupa is regarded as a symbol of the city. This site of worship still houses monks, and its bronze bell is said to be audible 10km away. It also houses the car used by the monk Thich Quang Duc to travel to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), where he immolated himself in 1963 in protest at the then regime.

Gate to the Imperial City, Hue

Gate to the Imperial City, Hue

We returned to the city by boat along the Perfume river – if this seems to be extremely exotic, I can only report that in colour and odour it is much like any other river. However, it is apparently the case that in autumn, petals from orchards upstream fall into the river, giving rise to a fragrance which leads to its name.

Our final activity in Hue was a martial arts performance, which started off in the normal manner with young men demonstrating fighting techniques using swords (wooden!), flails and bamboo poles, before moving on to the heavy duty, crowd-pleasing stuff such as head butting roof tiles and lying on a bed of broken glass as rocks were broken over them – enough to make your eyes water just watching it!

The following day, we set off for the last major stop on our itinerary: Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon). This buzzing commercial city is not overly endowed with tourist sights. We visited Notre Dame cathedral and the spectacular post office, which was designed by Gustav Eiffel, of tower fame. It has a high-vaulted ceiling vaguely reminiscent of a railway station, intricately designed floor tiles and seating for customers, all overseen by a portrait of Uncle Ho.

Post office Saigon

The post office, Ho Chi Minh City © Chris Simm

Also on our itinerary was the Reunification Palace, an imposing building that was formerly the French Governor’s residence. It was renamed the Presidential Palace in 1962. Shortly after this it underwent a major redesign, courtesy of the South Vietnamese air force, in an attempt to assassinate the then president. A subsequent president fled from the rooftop helipad when the North Vietnamese arrived. And in 1975 the south surrendered and the gates were knocked down by a North Vietnamese tank – the photo of this event is symbolic of the reunification of the country. Inside the palace are a number of lobbies and reception rooms, lavish living quarters and, in the basement, a bunker and military operations centre.

I mentioned at the outset that the shadow of the war hung over our trip, and it was never more apparent than in our visit to the War Remnants Museum. I would be the last to declare it as being even-handed in its approach, but the photographs on display were both graphic and horrific, showing the effects of torture and battlefield scenes. Most moving of all were those showing deformities caused by Agent Orange, whose effects are still being genetically transmitted two generations down the line. It is difficult not to be angered at the indiscriminate use of this chemical without regard to the consequences.

ho chi minh city scenes

Reunification Palace (left) and the War Remnants Museum (right) © Chris Simm

Having finished with the basic ‘tourist visiting sights’ part of the holiday, we set off the following morning for a cruise on the Mekong river. We embarked after a 3-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City and spent a pleasant day trundling slowly along the waterway, as small villages and the occasional larger settlement came into, and passed from, view. We paused at one of them for a wander along a fruit-tree laden route while our village host fashioned crickets and grasshoppers out of reeds.

The next morning we were summoned from the arms of Morpheus at an early hour (one of the many benefits of being billeted near the anchor!) and were taken round a floating market (mainly for wholesale) where the various boats advertise their fruit and vegetable wares by hanging samples on poles, and then to a noodle-making factory (this is basically the same process as making rice paper, at which I failed so lamentably) before being returned to shore and our guides.

Floating market, Mekong river

Floating market, Mekong river

Originally we would at this point have returned to Ho Chi Minh City and our flight to the holiday island of Phu Quoc, but the airline had put our flight back and, faced with the prospect of about 5 hours in the airport or doing something else on the way back, we opted for the latter. The something else in question was to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, as used by the Viet Cong. We were given an initial briefing and watched a film on the exploits of the fighters who used the tunnels. We then walked round the site, which is peopled by humans in military uniform and mannequins inhabiting the sorts of accommodation used at the time. We saw tunnel entrances and the various types of booby-trap used against enemy troops, most of which involved sharpened metal or bamboo.

You could not fail to be impressed by the ingenuity shown in effectively creating an underground city. There is a small tunnel complex for visitors to have an authentic experience. We bravely decided to give it a go, and made it safely down to the first level, but shortly after entering the first tunnel Chris was struck by claustrophobia and retreated. I, being made of sterner stuff, ploughed on until I became aware that my shoulders were becoming wedged against the sides and that my midriff was incapable of folding to the extent necessary to  facilitate further progress, and therefore had to beat an undignified retreat having got about 1.5 metres further than Chris!

The Cu Chi tunnels

Cu Chi tunnels

The drive back to Ho Chi Minh City, at roughly the time of the rush hour, gave ample evidence of the role of the scooter in Vietnam. On a route with many traffic lights and intersections, it was not uncommon to see a phalanx of several hundred scooters lined up across all lanes and back for two or three hundred yards, making it difficult for four-wheel vehicles to get a look in. I still fail to understand how the scooters avoid bumping into each other. After all our exertions, we enjoyed beach time on Phu Quoc before heading for home.

Phu Quoc, Vietnam

The beaches of Phu Quoc

This was enlivened by our gamble on 3 hours being sufficient time for a 40-minute flight (Phu Quoc to Ho Chi Minh City), baggage collection and changing terminals. It turned out that our inbound flight to Phu Quoc was delayed, followed by floating about in a holding pattern over Ho Chi Minh City. It was only due to some sterling efforts on the part of Vietnam Airlines staff that we made it to the gate for the London flight 15 minutes before take off!

All in all we found the entire trip a fascinating experience, combining aspects of the nation’s distant past with its more recent history. It seems to me that history is somewhat different when it is something that has happened in one’s lifetime (I am of an age that I could have been caught up in it had I been born elsewhere), and indeed I now think differently about the events of that time than I did when they were taking place. Add to this the friendly nature of the Vietnamese people, the spectacular scenery and delightful cuisine, and it becomes a holiday that will live long in the memory.

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