Good Morning Vietnam! … part one

| April 7, 2017

We have, over the years, visited a number of countries with difficult pasts, including Chile (the Pinochet regime), Sri Lanka and Guatemala (civil war), Cambodia (Pol Pot), Burma (Military Junta) and China (Cultural Revolution), but in none of them has recent history cast such a large shadow over the trip as it has done in Vietnam. I do not mean this in a bad way, but in terms of sights seen and sites visited, practically all of them had some connection to the war and to the personal stories of some of our guides, of which more anon.

Thu Bon river, Hoi An

Now on with the travelogue!

We arrived in the pre-dawn dark of Hanoi with, it must be said, little in the way of a Tigger-like bounce in our step, possibly because while local time was 6am, our body clocks were just getting ready for bed the previous evening. Sadly we were unable to check into our hotel immediately so, accompanied by our guide, we set off for a wander round Old Hanoi, which showed us, among many other things, that the Vietnamese get up quite early and get active – within the first half-hour we came across a tai chi class, dance sessions for the elderly and games of ‘football badminton’ among the youth.

Tai Chi Vietnam

Hanoi in the morning © Chris Simm

We then arrived at Hoan Kiem lake (or the Lake of the Restored Sword), named after a legend involving a magical sword and a golden turtle. The lake has a 19th-century pagoda commemorating the event, known as the Turtle Tower. We then wandered off into the back streets and the hustle and bustle of the awakening city. This is not as noisy and frenetic as, say, its Indian equivalent, but there is an air of movement and purpose about the place, with small shops and street vendors (ranging from large vegetable stalls to individuals trying to sell a few items just to raise enough cash to keep body and soul together) opening up to catch the early morning trade. In the course of our walk we also saw the Bach Ma (white horse) temple – Bach Ma is now the guardian spirit of the city – and St Joseph’s cathedral, the focal point for the city’s Catholics. We then retired to recover and regroup before starting serious tourism the following day.

markets hanoi, vietnam

Scenes from Hanoi's Old Town © Chris Simm

In the UK, Sunday is spent in many ways: going to church, lying in bed, gardening, cooking, visiting theme parks or possibly going to a shopping centre. In Vietnam they do things differently: they gather up several generations of the family (including the very young and the very old) and head for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. There are lengthy queues, supervised by soldiers, and visitors are required to approach along a prescribed route in twos. Once the mausoleum is reached, it’s up the steps, past two sides of Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body and down the steps the other side. He clearly remains a significant figure for most Vietnamese, and his image looks out sternly from every banknote, from the 1,000 Dong note (roughly 3.5p) all the way up to the 500,000 note – so possession of approximately £35.70 makes you a Dong millionaire!

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Vietnam

Once clear of the mausoleum we moved on to view the outside of the former (pre-Ho) presidential palace, which he deemed too grand for his needs, and then the stilt house which he had built. It is a pretty spartan set-up, with no concessions to personal comfort. Still keeping up a good pace, we paused briefly at the One Pillar Pagoda, which, as its name suggests, is a small pagoda set atop a 4ft diameter pillar. It was originally built by a long-ago king in gratitude for the birth of a son and is held to symbolise purity.

In what was turning out to be a busy morning, we finally moved on to the Temple of Literature, built in 1070 as a centre for higher learning. It was founded in honour of Confucius and modelled on the original temple of Confucius in China. It has attractive courtyards and gardens and a central colourful temple with statues of the philosopher and four of his main disciples. At this point we paused for breath and lunch, and to make a decision: did we wish to visit the Museum of Ethnology or the ‘Hanoi Hilton’? Recent history won out and we headed for the latter.

Hoa La Prison

Hoa Lo prison aka the 'Hanoi Hilton'

Hoa Lo prison (to give it its proper name) achieved fame as the Hanoi Hilton, where captured American airmen were imprisoned. Its history in fact goes back much further to the days of French rule, when it was used to house those who disagreed with them. The prison museum contains a ghastly collection of shackles, whips and other instruments of torture, as well as a guillotine.

After this fascinating but slightly depressing experience we moved on to a water puppet show for a light-hearted end to the day. In brief, puppeteers stand in water behind a bamboo curtain and operate puppets on the end of wooden poles, putting on scenes of village life, which include smoke, fireworks and fire-breathing dragons. Patrons in the front row seats would be well advised to wear protective rainwear, since some of the model fish leap around rather too energetically!

Bright and fairly early the following morning we left Hanoi for the drive to Halong Bay, which offered the opportunity, after the big city, to have a look at rural life. The countryside was pleasant, featuring paddy fields, grasslands and the occasional animal. National flags (a red flag with a central yellow star) were on display on the houses and shops in the towns and villages we passed through, or the occasional red flag with a yellow hammer and sickle.

Going to Halong Bay

Going to Halong Bay © Chris Simm

We arrived at Halong Bay in what was described as unseasonal weather (glorious sunshine at a time that usually has an average of only two hours a day), embarked on our small six cabin cruise boat, and set off out to sea. It is said that there are 1,969 islands in the bay – strangely the same number as the year of Uncle Ho’s death – we certainly did not see that many, but the plethora of outcrops rising steeply out of the ocean is certainly spectacular. In the course of the afternoon we disembarked once to visit a fish farm in a local boat.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay

The following morning we were roused from our slumbers for a visit to Ti-Top island (it is named after Gherman Titov, who visited in 1962 and was the second man to orbit the Earth. I have no idea why Titov became Ti-Top, but while researching him I discovered that he was the first man to orbit more than once, the first to do an overnighter in space, and the first man to vomit in space! Such is fame...

The island has a climb in excess of 400 steps up a wooded hillside to reach the highest viewing area, but there is an intermediate area for the elderly/infirm/lazy at roughly the halfway point, so we laboured up to it, were impressed by the view, took a few photos, wheezed for a while to get our breath back and then tottered down again. In due course the boat returned us to dry land and we spent the rest of the day travelling by car and plane to Hoi An, our second major stop.

halong bay scenes

Halong Bay fishing village and view from Ti-Tip island © Chris Simm

The only scheduled activity for our first day there was a cooking class, which commenced in the fairly early morning with a walk round the market to see the available produce before piling into a boat for a river trip to the cooking class itself – at which point I discovered the fundamental drawback to grabbing a place at the very end of the boat: if it rains (and it did, without much forewarning), you get very wet!

The chef/tutor had a well-practiced presentation, and required us to undertake a number of tasks, although much of the basic chopping had been done for us and left at our workstations in small dishes. Along the way I discovered that I am pretty rubbish at making rice paper, and indeed at food carving, but I did manage to bumble my way through the rest of it.

After an afternoon at leisure we leapt up the following morning for a visit to the ancient site of My Son, a religious centre for the Cham people between the fourth and 13th centuries, which was rediscovered by French archaeologists in the 1890s. It is believed to have contained some 70 temples, although only 20 or so are in good condition; restoration work is taking place on a number of others. Matters were not helped in the late 1960s when the Americans decided to undertake a ground and air redevelopment programme: the Viet Cong hid around the site, believing that the Americans would show a degree of cultural sensitivity – and were sadly disillusioned!

My son ruins

My Son ruins © Chris Simm

Returning to Hoi An we undertook a walking tour of the old city, which is now a Unesco world heritage site, and features a mix of architectural styles (Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese). We visited a number of significant buildings, including the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall and the famous Japanese bridge, built by the Japanese trading community in 1593 to link their community on the west side of town to the Chinese community on the east; after many renovations the basic Japanese characteristics still remain intact.

Japanese covered bridge

Japanese covered bridge

Having reached the halfway point in our travels and this little article, I thought I might take time out to consider the Vietnamese language, our guides and their personal stories. The written language differs greatly from those of its neighbours, using the Roman alphabet; Tagalog, Khmer and Lao all utilise a form of script indecipherable to a western eye used to letters and combinations that have defined sounds.

Vietnamese seems to abhor a polysyllable, and indeed words longer than five letters, which one might think would render it fairly simple to speak and understand. But this is far from the case. The words themselves may be short, but it is a language which relies on six tones, indicated by various accents. The problems this can cause for the unwary are manifold: you can find yourself, while seeking the railway station, asking for chicken rice (both are the word Ga), and more importantly, if you venture away from the standard Xin Chao greeting and attempt ‘Good Morning’, you can easily find yourself making inadvertent reference to a part of the male anatomy not normally mentioned in polite society.

Our guides were splendid chaps who all had stories to tell. One had made three attempts to leave after the fall of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), one attempt by sea and two overland. He was unsuccessful and sentenced to three years in prison. The father of another had spent 14 years being ‘re-educated’ (we did not pursue this further, but assumed that he must have been a powerful military man or politician to have received such a long sentence), and the relatives of another had not been unanimous in their view of which side to support.

Read Good Morning Vietnam… Part Two, where the author’s travels continue in Da Nang, Hué and Ho Chi Minh City here >

Read more on Vietnam holidays >

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