Saigon. Tuesday 18th September 2018.
I finished the last post with some history and shall start this one the same way. I’d reached the part of Vietnam where recent events were impossible to ignore, given the amount of museums, monuments and memorials to see. Wikipedia refers to the post WW2 fighting in Indochina as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Indochina Wars. It’s a complex topic and I’m determined to try and keep it simple.
‘Indochina’ refers to the three countries of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, all of which were colonised by the French between about 1850 and 1880. Japan occupied the area during WW2 but allowed the Vichy French to maintain their administrative regime. The Japanese surrendered to the Chinese and Vietnamese in the north but to the British in the south.
North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh had turned to communism while in France in the 1920s. He came back to Vietnam in 1941 and promoted nationalism among the people, but didn’t push communism so much. At the end of the war the British handed the south back to their Free French allies and the French then tried to take over the north. At the same time they re-occupied Laos and Cambodia. It strikes me as ironic that the ‘Free French’ weren’t so keen on others being free. The Viet Minh was the nationalist grouping led by Ho Chi Minh and had been active in resisting the Japanese and Vichy French occupation of Vietnam during WW2. Having then declared independence at the end of the war, only to have the French march back in again a year later, they continued their fight for independence, along with similar forces from Laos and Cambodia. They were largely communist in their beliefs. The French government, supported by American aid, set up a puppet government in the south which was anti communist and pro French. The Viet Minh had, up to that point, fought a guerrilla campaign. They had men but not enough weapons. They also lacked military discipline and tactical nous. By using the terrain well, getting the people on their side and arming their forces, they slowly overcame these difficulties until they were able to take on the French on their own terms. Much of the fighting in the north centred around Ha Noi, and it was near there that the French were finally defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu.
Peace terms were agreed at the Geneva Conference in 1954 and the French left – kind of. The country was temporarily split into two, with plans for national elections ahead of unification. The north was supported by Russia and the south by the French and the USA, continuing its anti communist stance, as demonstrated in the Korean war. This was just as the cold war was ‘heating up’, with the south and their American supporters not at all keen on a potential communist backed unification of the country. So Vietnam remained split at the geographical point known as the 17th Parallel, directly leading to the 2nd Indochina War. A nice overview can be found here. But more on that later. For now, on with the show.
Riding across to Saigon (correctly called Ho Chi Minh City) was another delightful look at the waterside way of life. I crossed the river on a ferry, very much for bikes only. We had to ride on then turn around to ride off again. Another confirmation, along with the bike only bridges, that the two wheeler is the mainstay of the transport system here. I got plenty of looks as my very noisy ‘silencer’ and I passed through the small waterside villages. I had my earplugs in so wasn’t all that bothered by it. As usual, I’d used the booking websites to research hostel choices and I found the one I’d earmarked tucked away down an alley. Opposite was a hotel with an underground car park where I could leave my bike for 10,000 VND per night. Sounds like a huge amount doesn’t it? £0.30 in real money. Is it sensible to just turn up at a hostel without a booking? It’s been fine so far and I’d rather the hostel got all of my money, with none of it going to the booking sites as commission. Most of them are small businesses who need the money. Had it been full, well, there were plenty more around. I was in Saigon’s backpacker area after all.My first job was to replace my very worn tyres. The second was to find a way of repairing my silencer. I’d been in contact with some Vietnamese guys who organise bike tours for Westerners. They’d put me in touch with a tyre shop in the city which stocked larger sizes. It’s often a problem to find these in SE Asia because 99.5% of the bikes are small. I headed down there, delighted to find that they had several brands of trail bike tyres for me to choose from. I went for the Dunlop 605s and couldn’t believe it when they demanded 2.1 million Dong for the pair. I was gobsmacked by their audacity. It was £70! Somewhat stunned at finding tyres for about one third of the UK price,and while they waited for the tyres to come in, I rode up and down the road asking at all the repair shops if they had a drill. Eventually, after lots of strange looks and head shakes, I saw someone welding up a steel frame and guessed, correctly, that he might be the man I was looking for. He drilled some holes and screwed in some screws. (Relative) silence reigned once more. I was happy, passers-by were happier.
Once the tyres were fitted I headed back to the hostel, stopping at a McDonalds for a decent coffee. Americano even. And with fresh milk yet! A real treat in a country where a tepid, sickly sweet, muddy mess at the bottom of a glass seems to be the norm. I got chatting to Nigel, a retired policeman from Manchester. He’d got a two year residency permit and he’d been touring round the country on a Vespa scooter since November. He had a few suggestions for places I should visit, including a few on the coast. He said he really liked Vietnam and, already, I could see why.So what was there to see in Saigon? People, and plenty of them. Although Hanoi is the capital, Saigon has a larger population, more densely packed together. In 2017 there were 13 million, with a mere 7.7 million in Hanoi, as of 2015. And it shows. The roads here are very busy, especially if you’re on the streets at about 4pm, which is when the rush hour seems to start. It’s almost like a tap has been turned on. Streets that were only busy suddenly become crammed. There’ll be a mass of motorbikes at every junction and I often wondered how they didn’t become all tangled up. I suppose it’s the lack of aggressive riding that keeps things calm. The riders are quite well behaved although ‘turning right on a red’ was common. I needed to have my wits about me when crossing the road, even though the green man suggested it was OK. Vehicles do give way to pedestrians though, and when crossing a road away from traffic lights it was necessary to just walk steadily across and be trusting. So far, so good!
But what about cultural places? There’s a good mix of things to see there, so here’s a run down.
There’s lots of nice French Colonial architecture to admire. The City Hall is a classic example of a civic building, built to impress. It has a very long frontage, with an inner courtyard, but not open to the public. There’s a pretty clock tower above the main gate. It’s painted a restful creamy beige colour, with white trimming. I discovered that this is the standard colour scheme for most civic buildings in Vietnam. Next was the Post Office, a really nice design, with an arched roof running front to back. On the wall either side of the foyer was a map, in French, providing information about the city and environs. It still functions as a post office although most of the people in there seemed to be curious tourists, like me. In the grounds were some statues depicting the struggle for independence. Across the square was Notre Dame Cathedral. A fine looking building but, sadly, closed for refurbishment.
From a historical point of view perhaps the most significant place was the War Remnants Museum. The displays were all about the fight against French occupation and the war against the South Vietnamese and the USA. Its remit, according to the leaflet, is to “study, collect and display exhibits on war crimes and consequences inflicted on the Vietnamese people by foreign aggressive forces”. At the same time it is tasked with opposing unjust wars, promoting peace, etc, etc. To be fair, it does this to a large extent. But of course it was put together by the victors so ignores any suffering of others at their hands. For example, many in the south did not want to join the north in a unified communist country. So they’re seen as unpatriotic traitors and puppets of the French and the USA. Their story isn’t told and their feelings get no voice here. The first section in the museum is called Historical Truths. Well, there’s truth and then there’s truth. The truth here is rather one sided. There’s plenty of photos of the stoic and determined PAVN (People’s Army of Viet Nam) and their supporters in the civilian population. No photos of the American, French or South Vietnamese opponents except in poses of defeat.
But to be fair the North suffered terribly. Not just from bombing and shelling, but also from the horrors of napalm and chemical defoliants. Many of you will remember the press photo of the naked nine year old girl running down a road with severe burns on her back, caused by a South Vietnamese napalm attack. (Her story is told here, if you happen to be interested.) The horrors and effects of the many defoliants used are very much longer lasting. Large areas of land are still contaminated, despite efforts to clear them up. Continued effects have been felt by three generations of people, especially from Agent Orange. It caused horrendous defects in those exposed to it, as well as their children and grandchildren. The genetic damage lessens with each successive generation, but children are still being born with missing and deformed limbs, facial deformities and various other effects. The photographs of these people are sobering and heart rending. The fact that these agents were all named after colours lends a jarring note of normality to their appalling impact.
Another photographic exhibition, created by a former war photojournalist, brings together pictures from many correspondents from around the world. This does present a far more balanced view of events, but I needed to bear in mind it was ultimately selected by the museum authorities. Other displays show support for the Vietnamese people from around the world, including photos of anti war demonstrations and quotes from politicians calling for the war to end. I well remember seeing these demos on the TV news in the late sixties. There are displays of weapons, and also an example of the infamous ‘tiger cages’, used by the South to hold PAVN and Viet Cong prisoners. It showed how dreadful they were and how badly the prisoners were treated. The information fails to mention that the North used the same cages and treated their prisoners equally badly. This is definite propaganda, in my view, and there’s many a US or Australian Army veteran who could attest to that. In the grounds outside is a whole range of US military equipment which was taken from the South at the end of the war. Planes, helicopters, tanks, artillery etc.
Despite its somewhat one eyed view of events this museum is well worth visiting. If you ever go it would be worth reading up on some war history first, especially if you’re not old enough to remember the actual events. It’s true to say that the Vietnamese people have suffered terribly at the hands of foreign invaders, but they’ve won through and have made terrific progress as a country. So I suppose I can’t blame them too much for wanting to sell their positive version of the story. The website link given above will lead you to helpful information about the events, if you want to read further.
The Museum of Ho Chi Minh City was also well worth the time spent there. The building itself was designed to hold a commercial museum, built by the French in 1860. It quickly became the French Governor’s palace, then the South Vietnamese Governors residence. Post independence, it became the city museum. The building itself is a fine example of colonial architecture and houses exhibitions covering the area’s history, and the growth of the city from its 17th century beginnings. Being on the river, the city grew mostly as a port but also as the centre of government for the south of the country. There were also exhibitions covering the recent wars too – no surprise there.
The final visit was to the Presidential Palace, used during the time of the South Vietnamese regime. Its style reminded me of an upmarket 1960s comprehensive school, such was the low key design. It was nice enough inside, functional without being opulent. There was a notice at the door stating that it would be closed for an hour while an official government announcement was made. It didn’t close but I did learn that the president of Vietnam had died that afternoon, so I imagine that was the reason.
Time was pressing and I needed to move on, but before I did I wanted to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, not far from the city. This 121 kilometre complex provided shelter and accommodation to the local fighters as they battled to win the war in the south. It is one of many tunnel complexes that cover the whole country, which were instrumental in North Vietnam’s victory. The living conditions were very rough, with malaria and digestive infections being common. The fighters would tend to shelter there in the daytime and go out at night on raids, to tend their crops or to fetch supplies. The Americans discovered the tunnels and did their best to bomb them to destruction. But by the time they finally managed to render them unusable, they’d served their purpose anyway. It amazed me how close to the city they were, demonstrating just how local much of the fighting must have been. No big battlefields. Raid the enemy, then disappear back underground.
I’d discovered a terrific website called Vietnam Coracle, set up by a British immigrant, who spent a lot of his time exploring the country on a scooter. (www.vietnamcoracle.com) He’s put together an amazing travel guide, aimed at the independent traveller, and especially those who explore by motorcycle. In this way he’s able to focus on the non-tourist destinations far more, and has created a series of rider guides which include where to ride, where to stay, what to eat and what to see. To this end I headed out of Saigon towards the coast and to ride some recommended coastal roads as I headed north.
Vietnamese roads are pretty good, although even the main roads are single carriageway. Until that is, you enter a town where the road widens and becomes dual carriageway. I imagine the reason is to accommodate the extra traffic and to make leaving and joining the road far easier and safer. The problem is that the wider road also tended to cause me to forget myself and speed up. And when the police set up speed traps, guess where they put them? I got flagged down, wondering what kind of grief this was likely to cause me and my wallet, and whether they’d ask to see my non-existent customs papers . The officer spoke good English and got me to listen to his radio while his colleague manning the speed gun intoned ‘67kph’. I handed over my passport and driving licences, with the officer asking me how old I was. He glanced through the documents then gave them back to me, saying ‘You’re old, you can go’. I was off the hook! I started the bike and escaped before he changed his mind, not sure whether to be pleased at having got off or annoyed at being too old to scam. I settled on the former.
When I reached the coast I turned north and enjoyed the sight of blue skies, blue sea, sandy beaches and litter! It wasn’t actually all that bad and the small towns were often very pretty, with colourful fishing boats moored on the beaches. As I progressed north there were plenty of nice resorts, many of them having businesses with signage in Russian. It seems this coast is popular with Russian tourists and is undergoing a lot of development. Despite this, a sunny couple of days passed pleasantly as I rode by the sea, then wended my way up through some hills to the mountain top town of Da Lat. At 1500 metres, only a small mountain to be sure, but it meant I’d left behind the the flat and watery delta region and was about discover the ‘other’ Vietnam.
Sited on the Langbian Plateau, at the southern end of the Central Highlands, Da Lat is a town that didn’t exist until the French decided to build a mountain resort town, desirous of escaping the coastal heat. The first of several hotels was built in 1907 and golf courses, health centres, schools and villas soon followed. Apart from the temperate climate, the attraction of Da Lat to the visitor is the colonial architecture and the general tourist ambience. In my case I had an added bonus in the person of Moritz. A young, Bangkok based, German guy. I’d met Moritz online and we’d arranged to meet in Da Lat. He was riding a Honda CRF250 that he’d bought in Bangkok and was enjoying his own tour of Vietnam. We met at a local hotel, shared a room and enjoyed a couple of days looking around the city.
Da Lat is a nice town to walk around. It’s criss-crossed by canals, which puzzled me. I thought I’d left them behind when I climbed the hills. Then the afternoon torrential rain arrived and the 2 metre deep, previously empty ‘canals’ became drainage ditches filled to the brim with a raging torrent of muddy water. I was amazed. How much rain had fallen to create such a flood? A lot, that’s for sure. It was the tail end of the rainy season and the rain tended to be very heavy, albeit short lived.
A place all the tourist guides recommended was called The Crazy House, or the Hang Nga Guesthouse, to give it its correct title. Begun in the 1990s, by Russian trained Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga, this place is simply amazing. There’s two buildings, linked together with stairs and walkways that seem to wander around and cross over each other. It resembles a giant Banyan tree. A maze of rooms with sculptures inside, which managed to be imaginative, incongruous, startling, loud and colourful, all at the same time. The rooms were themed, reflecting the sea, or flowers, or spiders etc. We walked around, wondering what sort of mind could create such a place. She was influenced by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, most famous for designing the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona. In odd corners there were rooms for guests too, ten in all, each one with an animal theme and decorated accordingly. A place that Salvador Dali would have been proud of, Moritz and I were impressed and fascinated.
Of the French Colonial buildings perhaps the best of these was the station. It’s no longer in commercial use. Instead it acts as a history centre. The railway was first begun in 1908 and took thirty years to reach Da Lat, mostly because of the mountainous terrain. The current building is built in the Art Deco style, but with high roofs, representative of the local village architecture. There’s an old steam engine there, along with a Diesel Electric locomotive, both hitched up to copies of old style carriages. There is a 7km section of track, running out to a nearby village, which attracts tourists to the regular service. There were plenty of visitors there, many of them using the engines as a backdrop for photographs. This seems to be a common pastime in SE Asia and it was fascinating to watch people draping themselves across the carriages or engines, searching for that perfect shot.
Eating in Da Lat was varied. We visited a night market one evening, managed to avoid all the overpriced touristy places, and found a cheap but nice stall for noodle soup. Another night we found a place that specialised in BBQ at the table type of meals. We tried some wild boar, but shouldn’t have been too surprised when it tasted like pork. We also discovered how the Vietnamese work around the sometimes difficult licensing laws. They simply open a café but don’t bother selling any food. Fridges are stuffed full of beer but nothing else.. We discovered one of these places and spent a pleasant couple of hours chatting to some hospitable locals. Shame about the beer though, which is always very ordinary lager.
The time came to move on. Moritz left early, to continue his journey south. I had a more relaxed start, with plans to head across country a bit and follow one of the routes described in Vietnam Coracle. First I paid a visit to Elephant Falls. A steep and slippery climb down, made more challenging by my riding boots, was rewarded with a view of a thirty metre high, very pretty waterfall, albeit partially obscured by a large tree. Back at the top I enjoyed a coffee and a chat with a couple of female Danish engineering students. On their travels they’d spent six weeks in Nepal as volunteers, helping to to repair donated hospital equipment. That’s the kind of thing I rather fancy doing too, if I can find how to get involved. Another chat with some Russian tourists finished off that visit and I continued my ride through the well developed agricultural land. The temperate climate on the mountains lends itself to cultivation of vegetables such as cabbage and cauliflower, one of the few areas in Vietnam to do so.
A couple of bike problems came my way, just to make life interesting. The rear brake locked on while I was riding along. It had happened in the past, so I knew what it was when the bike suddenly slowed down, with no input from me. I freed it off but then had no rear brake at all. That was new, and I had to manage without it until, a couple of days later, I found a Honda motorcycle dealer, where the mechanics were happy to replace the fluid and bleed the system for me. They absolutely refused payment, so I was delighted to pose for photos, that being the only reward they wanted. The other problem was that the silencer fell apart once more. The screws I’d put in had vibrated out. I did manage to get it welded the next day but it wasn’t all that good a repair and I was left with the feeling that it wouldn’t be permanent.
But to compensate for these inconveniences I was delighted by the countryside I was riding through. Farmland, but also nice hills and valleys, interspersed with lakes and rivers. The weather was good too. The local people here were much darker skinned, clearly farmers, but also prosperous looking. When I rode through towns and villages I often saw schoolkids, travelling home as early as 11am. This puzzled me at first but having also seen them at 4pm too, I realised that they must have a long midday break, probably because of the heat.
Over the next couple of days I rode through some delightful countryside, both up in the hills and lower down. These small back roads were in very good condition and the riding was great, despite occasional rain, on good roads. Sometimes I passed by people, clearly unused to tourists on big, foreign bikes. They looked at me like I was an alien, but always responded to a smile or a wave in like fashion. The kids would always wave as I passed. It probably brightened up their day. In the more remote areas I would often pass people trudging along the road with a wicker basket on their back, carry tools or plants. At random intervals I would see bikes parked at the side of the road and notice people foraging in the undergrowth, or cutting wood. I’d also pass bikes laden with wide loads of grass or reeds, designated for some domestic purpose or another. These little vignettes of activity all helped to add flavour and context to the places I rode through. I often wished I could stop and chat with people, just to find out more about their lives. When will someone invent a real Babel Fish?
Just to continue the theme of bike related challenges, my clutch cable snapped. I was near a café and actually managed to get a decent cup of coffee while I fitted the spare. This cable had been fitted as a temporary repair, way back down in Sumatra, and 20,000kms previously. I was seriously impressed by how long it had lasted, considering it was only two thirds the thickness of the proper one and the lower nipple was just of the screw on type. I’d managed to get a couple of spares from home by then, one of which I’d installed on the bike, running alongside the other one. So fitting it was a quick job and I was soon on my way again.
I made my way back to the coast, intending to follow another recommended route, heading north. I rode into the town of Hoi An, merely hoping to get a decent coffee. I saw some Westerners, who directed me to where the cafés could be found. I soon realised that I’d happened into a very busy tourist town, so I located a hostel and booked in. Hoi An is an old port town, with a history going back to the 7th century. It was built up around the spice trade, and then ceramics, and was at one time reckoned to be the most popular trading port in the whole of Asia. Its location by the sea, on the Thu Bon River, drew traders from all of Asia, as well as Europe. The old town area became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1990, accounting for the thousands of visitors I found myself mingling with. The riverside is chock full of old Chinese trading houses, nowadays mostly selling tourist goods. At one end is a very rare Japanese covered bridge, with a Buddhist pagoda alongside it. It used to separate the Chinese and Japanese sections of the town but is now a busy tourist attraction and photograph backdrop. The river was crowded with colourful boats, crammed with tourists and illuminated with lanterns as darkness came on. Across the river, accessed by a very prettily illuminated bridge, were a whole series of eateries, some cheap, some dear. Around the corner was a night time street food market. Despite the hordes of tourists, mostly bussed in from nearby Da Nang, I found this town to be a very nice place.
Not only nice, but mechanically useful too. The hostel staff directed to me to where there were some bike shops, and eventually I found a bike washing place which also sold oil. To my surprise they were also able to help me do the now essential oil change, providing me with the means to drain and dispose of the old oil. Once that job was done, I asked them if they could clean the bike too. They threw their hands up in horror at the idea of cleaning my pig filthy steed, but I suppose they’re more used to getting town based scooters clean and shiny than dealing with mud encrusted travelling bikes, so I let it pass. Down a nearby side road I also managed to find a welder, who ended up sending out for some large pop rivets with which he effected a pretty good repair on my extremely noisy silencer. When he’d finished the job he took me into his house and proudly showed me his prize possession – a very pretty Honda 400F four cylinder bike. I admired it and asked him if he was allowed to ride this bike in Vietnam. He assured me he was, which surprised me as I’d heard that the authorities would only allow bikes of less than 250cc on their roads.
I enjoyed some damp walks around the old town, checking out some of the historical buildings. There were some old Chinese temples, which had some terrific artwork in them. Many places offered specialist cooking classes, a very popular tourist activity. I tried a Vietnamese coffee with an egg in it. Different, but unexciting. I tried various foods and beers by the riverside. I also found a backstreet bar, frequented by Aussie and British ex-pats, where it was nice to chat about not much, but in English. I also took an enjoyable, and mostly dry, ride up into the nearby hills, on a route recommended by Vietnam Coracle. On the way back my GPS went a bit haywire and took me along small tracks among the rice paddies. Harvest time was drawing to a close so many of the fields had stooks of rice straw awaiting collection. There was a system of waterways controlled by gates and weirs, all designed to provide water when needed, and to keep it out when not.
When I left Hoi An I took yet another recommended route which closely followed the coast and would take me to the town of Hue. The route took me up a steep and narrow road, onto the cliff tops, and eventually to a high viewpoint overlooking the bay. But the more spectacular ride was still to come. It was over the Hai Van pass, made famous in the West by the Top Gear crew’s amazing motorbike ride along the length of Vietnam. You may remember it as the programme where the heathen Jeremy Clarkson finally admitted that travelling by motorcycle did actually have some merit. The road over it was less challenging than the one I’d just ridden, but its saving grace was the spectacular views of the bay below, and its beaches. It was easy to see why they raved about it, and local people were delighted with the tourist trade which its notoriety engendered.
For the Vietnamese this pass had another significance. This range of hills separated the southern and northern parts of the country, to the extent that they used to be two different nations. The Cham, in the south, were different people to the Viets, in the north, but their land was coveted by the northern rulers. They were struggling to feed their burgeoning population and wanted to take over fertile Cham lands. The Viets eventually managed to invade the southern lands, imposing their rule over the Cham. The French built a fort at the top of the pass, providing another place for tourists to visit in addition to the cafés and stalls.
The last part of the ride into Hue took me along minor roads and past a cemetery which contained some incredible tombs. I stopped to look and was amazed at how decorative they were, and by their size. The Vietnamese, despite their Buddhism, still worship their ancestors and these tombs contain the remains from many generations. They were very ornate and must have cost a lot of money. Further along were some very decorative temples, suggesting that this area was very well off.
I hadn’t planned to stay in Hue, but I found there was a large tourist area and plenty of hostels to choose from, so it seemed a good idea to stop there.
As will this blog post. More soon.
All part of a splendid day’s ride out from Hoi An.