Hanoi, Vietnam. Friday 19th October 2018
A short but interesting ferry ride delivered me back to the mainland, and onto a new and fast road to Hanoi. Interesting? Yes, because of a young guy I met. He was riding around Vietnam and the conversation turned from bikes to funding the ride. I was intrigued to learn that he makes about 1,000 euros per month gambling on the currency market. He only buys relatively small amounts, thereby minimising risk and, like any kind of gambling, he loses as well as wins. I took some information off him to study later. Food for thought. Once in Hanoi I found the hostel I’d chosen and settled in.
Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital city but is smaller than Saigon with, I’m pleased to say, about a million fewer people, and far less motorcycle madness. There were some places to visit, mostly museums, plus some cultural sites too. So I made plans. To help me in this onerous task, at 5pm the hostel staff wheeled out a keg of beer, set out some glasses and said “Help yourselves for the next hour”. I was surprised and delighted! This was my first introduction to Bia Hoi. This translates as Gas Beer, but its common meaning is Daily Beer or Street Beer. It’s very light, quite low alcohol – 3 to 4% – and is brewed daily. It has no preservatives to speak of, so needs to be drunk before the day is out. Whatever’s left is simply thrown away. It’s produced by small breweries and is sold mostly at street stalls or small cafés, from kegs. It’s only found in North Vietnam, rarely in the south. It tasted fine, especially on an empty stomach, and soon became a daily routine.. More info here.
I’d arrived on Friday and the next afternoon I went for a walk down to the Hoan Kiem Lake. The name means Lake of the Returned Sword, relating to an ancient legend about a 15th century ruler, Le Loi. He was boating on the lake when a Turtle God came and asked for his magic sword back, to be returned to his master, The Dragon King. Well, who wouldn’t respond to such a request. I’d seen many roads named after him and now I understood why. The lake is home to a number of turtles so I left my sword back in the hostel, just in case. It is also home to the man made Jade Island, on which stands the Temple of the Jade Mountain. It’s connected to the shore by the Morning Sunlight Bridge. I didn’t attempt to visit the island as it was getting late.
All the roads around the lake were closed. On one side I saw what looked like a start/finish line for a marathon race. On the other side were hundreds of people promenading along the lakeside, taking photos of each other and generally enjoying the balmy evening. Most of them were women, many of them wearing what seemed to be traditional costume. They wore silk or satin trousers, with dresses over the top, which were split up as far as the waist. Bright colours and nicely trimmed. Other women were dressed equally nicely but in modern clothes. I was a bit puzzled by it all until I discovered that it was Vietnamese Women’s day. It made for a very nice, relaxed atmosphere; a nice family event.
Over the next couple of days I made a tour of the museums, Some good, some not so much. I made it onto Jade Island. The bridge was pretty, the temple fairly standard issue Chinese style. It was undergoing refurbishment anyway, so I couldn’t see much. The Museum of National History covered Vietnam’s early periods, but not modern times. The south was very much influenced by Hinduism, brought in when the Khmer Empire occupied it. The north was occupied by the Chinese for many centuries, accounting for the predominance of Buddhism. They were eventually driven out but their influence remained. The Mongol hordes invaded three times during the 13th century, and were driven out each time.
The Vietnam Revolutionary Museum was ultimately a disappointment. It dealt with the revolt against the French occupation, post WW2. There were lots of old photos, some artefacts and some artwork, but no story line to pull it all together. They did have a special exhibition, showing how the new regime reconfigured history to emphasise the communist ideals of working for the greater good. It’s true to say that all these places included an element of propaganda – the great and glorious revolution, etc. So plenty of pinches of salt were required. But I find these efforts at shaping opinion interesting in themselves.
Next on the list was the Vietnamese Military History Museum. And what might that be about? Guns, tanks, planes and helicopters of course, many captured from their enemies, as well as Soviet supplied tanks and armour. The display is called The Garden of Broken Toys, a quite perceptive and evocative name, I thought. The centrepiece is a quite striking sculpture, created from shot down aircraft and other captured weapons, centred around a B52 bomber. But it wasn’t just about weapons. Inside there was a section dedicated to the General who led the fight against the French, a much revered man. A section covering the role of women, and the usual display relating to how bad the Americans and South Vietnamese were, and how heroic was the North. By the time I left I’d nearly run out of salt! One section showed a lot of the anti-war posters and press articles from around the world, some of which I remember from my youth.
Near to this museum was the Imperial Citadel. It’s really just the site of the citadel because the only remaining building is the 12th century South Gate. There’s a much more modern building on top of it. Beyond it is an archaeological site, showing the floor of the citadel and, below that, the floor of an earlier 7th century building. Not hugely exciting but the steps of the modern building were a very popular place for what I assume to be wedding photographs, judging by the clothes worn by the subjects. I’d seen this phenomenon in other SE Asian countries, so it seems that seeking out special locations is a popular thing.
Not far from the citadel was the Ho Chi Minh museum and, nearby, his mausoleum. Time was pressing so I only had time for a quick guided tour of the museum. The most striking thing was how much of his time he spent abroad, especially in France, but also Russia and many other countries. France was where he discovered communism and he was an early member of the French communist party in the 1920s. He brought those convictions back with him when he returned to Vietnam in the 1940s. In many ways his exile from his country reminded me of Gandhi, despite the completely different approaches to freeing their respective countries. He travelled all around the world during his exile as, Gandhi had. I had a photo taken of me standing next to a life size photo of ‘Uncle Ho’. He died in 1969, aged seventy one, and had been sidelined as leader before then anyway. His health was failing and younger shoulders were required. Next day I went back, hoping to be able to go into the mausoleum, but I was out of luck. It’s a huge building though, suitably grand for someone who could be regarded as the father of the nation. Lots of info here about Uncle Ho,if you want to know more.
In among all this history, I made a visit to the Water Puppet Theatre, near to the lake. The clue is in the name as to what it was all about. There was an area of water, where all the action took place. They showed us vignettes of traditional life: fishing; ploughing; boat racing and so on. It was very clever, with all the puppets being controlled from behind a curtain at the rear. I presume there were rods running under water, doing all the work. Nice music, songs and some narration – which I didn’t understand, of course. Well worth seeing.
Still on the cultural aspect of ancient Viet life, I visited the Temple of Literature. This was a fascinating place where I learned as much about ancient Chinese life as I did about Vietnam. Even after the Chinese had been driven out, Vietnam retained their administrative system, which centred on the role of the Mandarins. This class of people were highly trained in all aspects of administration, law, tax collection etc. They acted directly on behalf of the Emporer. The temple was where the sons of Mandarins, and other rich people, were educated ready for public service. The learning was intense and tough, with a strong emphasis on the spiritual aspect as well as the practical. The complex of buildings is laid out in a certain way, relating to its spirituality. There is a shrine to Confucius, on whose teachings everything was based. Quite an inspiring place, rather than merely interesting.
As a complete contrast I stopped for lunch at the famous Bun Cha café. Famous? Yes, because it hosted Barak Obama during a Presidential visit in 2016. There’s photos of him on the wall and they’ve placed a perspex cover over the table he used. It was very busy and they clearly make a very good living from their fame. The food was pretty good too.
At the hostel I made friends with a couple of Americans, who’d been travelling around on a bikes. One of them had sold his bike and left, but Mark was still around. I was leaving the next day so my final act of cultural exploration was to join Mark, and two young women he’d met in Cat Ba, in visiting Hanoi’s old quarter. It was a Friday, so all the streets were closed to traffic. We went to a café that had been recommended, where we enjoyed the food. We also discovered a bia hoi stall. As is typical, this run by an elderly woman, with a few plastic stools and tables set out on the street, selling beer at 5,000VND per glass. That’s less than £0.20. The beer slid down very easily, especially without that haunting thought about the cost. Both girls were English but one had been adopted as a baby. She was of Vietnamese origin but with no Viet culture. How strange. We ended the night in a club, heaving with hot and sweaty bodies. A great way to finish up my visit to Hanoi. This fascinating city is firmly on my list of places to revisit, only on the next occasion I’ll have a bit more time to spare.
My next major destination was Hue, but I had a few other places to visit on the way. While in Hanoi the hostel had arranged to extend my visa by a week, so the time pressure was off a little bit. I headed down to the Trang An caves, the online write ups having made it sound like they would be worth seeing. They have created a very nice tourist space, with a newly built Buddhist temple to visit. But the prime activity here is a ride on a boat along the river and through the caves. There are dozens of brightly coloured, four seater boats and I joined a couple of young women for the trip. No engines on them; paddle power only. Most of the paddlers were women, all looking quite small considering the work they did. This area is karst limestone, prime terrain for erosion and therefore caves.
The trip was a fabulous two and a half hours, where I was able to ignore the dozens of other boats and their fluorescent passengers and simply be amazed by the natural features. We paddled through the first cave and out into a lake that was a place of true beauty. It was surrounded by green karst hills, with a temple on one shore, and as there didn’t seem to be any access other than by water, it made me think of a lost world. Through another cave and into another lake, this one with a pagoda on an island, from where music and singing wafted towards us across the water. The roof of the next cave was so low that we had to sit on the floor of the boat so as to avoid the skull splitting stalactites. The next lake had a temple on the shore, known as the Royal Step-Over Palace of Vu-Lam. What a name! It was a replica of an ancient building to where a king from the 13th century would retreat, to gather strength, then continue his fight against the Mongol invaders.
Getting through the next cave involved waiting until the man with the megaphone told us it was our turn. We came to Skull Island, where there was another temple, but also an area of replica buildings from ancient times. Grass and rattan buildings, with some people dressed accordingly for tourists to take photos with. After that it was back to the start point, with we passengers being encouraged to make use of the extra paddles on the long haul back. It had been a great trip. Despite the dozens of other people there I felt like I’d visited a secret hideaway, full of ancient stories, now only remembered by the karst rock.
I headed south and west and was pleased to find myself back on the Ho Chi Minh Highway. I was covering the section I’d missed when I got lost on the way north. I stopped to take some photos when I saw a big war memorial, which turned out to be a war cemetery. These places are dotted around everywhere. But pretty soon I was back in Phong Nha, the town in the valley with its name on a hill. Once I’d booked into the hostel I walked down to riverside to book a boat ride.
More boats? Yes, and more caves too. The Phong Nha caves had beckoned me back. I think I’d discovered my inner troglodyte. These were much bigger boats and I waited around for more people to turn up, it being very necessary to spread the cost. Eventually six people turned up, three couples who had joined forces to reduce costs and were happy for me to join them. The boat was a rather odd shape, with a stern much higher than the prow for reasons I couldn’t determine. But it took us serenely down river to the cave entrance. From here we had to walk because the water level was too high. We didn’t have to go far in before we came to the most amazing display of stalactites I think I’ve ever seen. With subtle lighting to enhance the colours given to them by the minerals within the rock, they were truly beautiful. What I really liked was that most of them were curtain stalactites, with their many layers folded over and wrapped around each other. Often the colour changed as I looked at different sides of the same curtain. Some of them reminded me of creatures from the film Alien, and I wouldn’t surprised if displays like this inspired the designers. Back outside we climbed up a small hill whereon sat a temple, dedicated to the cave gods. It also gave a nice, if hazy, view over the valley.
That evening I went to a restaurant and treated myself to a deliciously fresh river fish. I was just about to leave when Moritz, my companion from Da Lat, turned up. A good chat over a beer or two ensued. He was heading north. I asked his advice on bike repair shops in Bangkok because I was feeling that I might need to get some work done on mine. The engine was getting increasingly noisy and I wanted the reassurance of some back-up if needed. He knew of a good place, so armed with that information, we parted company once again. I’d catch up with him once I got to Bangkok.
I carried on down the green and twisty HCMH, until I reached the Moument National Cemetery. Is it morbid to be interested in these places? I don’t think so. I’d made several visits to WW1 cemeteries in Belgium, as well as to the Menin Gate in Ypres. This place reminded me of those. It was laid out in a big park, with different sections, although I don’t know what the significance of each one was. This area was the scene of many battles during the American War. I wandered around, just absorbing the peaceful atmosphere. There was a wall of names too. From what I’ve read of some of the fighting it wouldn’t surprise me if huge numbers of soldiers died unknown and with no grave or marker.
Next day I made my way to the Vinh Moc Tunnels. This is a truly amazing place, far better than the Cu Chi tunnels I’d visited near Saigon. The public entrance is close to the coast. Their main purpose was to provide accommodation for local villagers. The USA bombed this area endlessly, it lying just north of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) at the 17th Parallel. That was partly because they believed (correctly) that the villagers were supplying the PAVN anti-aircraft garrison on the island of Con Co. They thought the bombing would drive them away, rather than underground. In effect each village dug its own tunnels, but they were all interlinked. The deepest were at 30 metres, although these were for storing war supplies. They dug wells, had medical facilities and even a maternity ward.
Our young guide told us that her grandparents were involved in the digging and that her father was born underground, one of seventeen similar births. The entrances which faced the sea encouraged air circulation from the sea breezes. Apart from at the entrances, there is no shoring up in any of the tunnels. The rock is basalt and is self supporting. The tunnels are a bit small, especially for the average westerner, and nobody would suggest that life was wonderful down there. But they survived, and that’s what counts. They were in use from 1966 to 1972. It did occur to me to wonder whether their ability to dig tunnels was the key factor in the North winning the war. Just a thought. More info here.
From there I rode down to the Hien Luong Bridge, the only one which crosses the Ben Hai river, which was the effective border between North and South Vietnam. This is a memorial site, to all intents and purposes. Modern traffic uses a new bridge so the original retains its wooden slats as the roadbed, and its steel structure. Halfway across from north to south the blue colour changes to yellow, marking the dividing point. There is a museum and a memorial on the north side, and down near the bank, among the trees, I found an old steel tower with loudspeakers on it. They used to be on the south bank as well and each side would use them to shout propaganda, and probably insults, at each other across the river. It would make a perfect scenario for a Monty Python sketch. The museum contained photos and war mementos – guns etc. Nearby was an old wooden building which had been the headquarters of the United Nations Observers, established after the French left in 1954. But the most striking structure here was the Flagpole. It had been here since partition, but was now on top of a building, itself on top of a huge mound. The wall around the base was covered in some excellent murals, in the socialist realism style, depicting aspects of local life and the local war efforts, life in the tunnels, victory celebrations and, inevitably, Ho Chi Minh. Some fantastic artwork.
I’ve previously written a little about the American War. It’s a huge subject and it would be impossible to cover it here. But a few observations might be appropriate at this point. The North Vietnamese, with their growing army (PAVN) and with Russian support, were determined to unite the country. Essentially they were communists, but in their mind they were simply nationalists, and had been since the end of WW2, the communism being irrelevant. The French involvement in supporting the South declined in the 1960s while the American involvement grew. The USA had supplied weapons since the mid 1950s, along with an increasing number of advisers, whose role was to train the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and develop tactics. It was around this time that ‘nationalists’ started being referred to as ‘communists’, or Viet Cong, by the USA. These were the guerillas who operated in the south, largely independent of the PAVN. Some of them were southern, others came down from the north. American involvement was now a ‘good’ war, fighting the evil of communism and therefore much easier to persuade the folks back home of the need for US troops on the ground. USA allies also sent troops, particularly Australia and New Zealand. The UK government had the good sense to not get involved.
Men and machinery poured in but this wasn’t a conventional war with trenches, concrete bunkers and set piece battles. A very mobile enemy, supported by local villages, made it extremely difficult for American and ARVN troops to pin down their enemy. The Viet Cong were hard to capture. In addition they were prepared to suffer heavy losses, something that the USA weren’t, especially given the growing anti war feeling among the American public. They relied heavily on bombing, especially in Laos and Cambodia, to destroy supply dumps, infrastructure and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Their troops on the ground were focused on search and destroy, aimed at Viet Cong bases, tunnels etc., although there were some set piece battles too. They ended up effectively waging war on villagers in their efforts to deny the VC support. Meanwhile the South Vietnamese government was a complete mess of competing groups of generals, all out to promote their own agendas and personal interests, with constant coups. American military leaders became very frustrated and discouraged by this, leading to them often bypassing the government in their military decisions. In the end they’d had enough and pulled out in 1973, very much under public pressure. The ARVN managed to struggle on for two more years. But in 1975, following the Paris Peace Accord, Vietnam finally became an independent and united country once more. This website is a great place to go if you want to know more.
That evening I finally made it back to Hué. On the way I got pulled over by the police again, scooped up with some scooters. But as soon as they realised I was foreign, they sent me away. Phew! I went to the same hostel as before and was welcomed back like a long lost Papa, which is a name I was often called throughout SE Asia. Respect and concern for older people is the norm out here. I was sharing the dorm with a Polish woman, who lives in Bristol, and we went out for a couple of happy hour beers. We met an Indian friend of hers, along with her Israeli companion. It was like a UN convention so I had a Four Seasons pizza, which seemed appropriate. It was Halloween and the closed off streets were full of people dressed to scare, both visitors and locals. It was a great atmosphere and lots of fun.
Hué became the capital of a united Vietnam from the time that Emporer Gia Long conquered the south in 1789. In 1804 he started building, and a huge citadel was constructed, surrounded by a moat and a very thick wall. Unfortunately most of the buildings were destroyed during battles between nationalists and the French, and then later by US bombing raids. The post 1975 regime ignored the citadel. They saw it as a relic from the feudal past and consequently of no value. More recently the government has recognised both its historical importance and tourist potential, and a programme of reconstruction is underway.
I spent a happy couple of hours walking around the inner section. The citadel covers a huge area. The moat is ten kilometres long. There used to be 160 buildings within the citadel, only ten major sites now remain. These have been, or are being, slowly restored. The centrepiece used to be the Forbidden Imperial Palace, a building where only the emperor, his family and his concubines were allowed to enter. There’s only the base left now but there are big plans for constructing a replica. They had drawings showing how it would eventually be. It was possible to look at the main inner gate, and then to wander round the remaining buildings, many of which had been nicely restored. Some of them had displays of photos on various local subjects. The restored buildings had some delightfully elegant architectural features, especially the roofs. Some attractive formal gardens are being laid out too.
Hué has a fair number of other old buildings, including some tombs of former emperors. Like the citadel, these all lie on the north bank of the Perfume River. On the south side are some nice looking French Colonial buildings, including Vietnam’s oldest high school. I didn’t have the time, or the inclination if I’m honest, to visit them, so they’ll have to wait until another day. But the tourist area had its fair share of nice old buildings too.
My time in Vietnam was running out, as was my visa. I had to move on. The border crossing of Bo Y, where I entered the country, and from where I wanted to leave, was a bit further south and over to the west. That meant a delightful ride through the central hills. But first I rode south down the coast so as to be able to enjoy the bendy fun of the Hai Van pass once more. As I came near I bumped into a young couple on a bike who weren’t sure of the way. I felt like an old hand, having already ridden it once, so I led them along to the approach road. It would be very easy to go the wrong way and end up in the tunnel through the cliffs instead. There’s no fun in that. I loved the ride back up the pass, totally different to coming down it of course. I stopped for photos. After all, the view is fabulous. Then I stopped at the top for a break and to enjoy the views from there.
At the bottom of the pass I turned west and had a lovely ride through the gentle hills, following rivers and generally enjoying the quiet roads. That night I stopped in a guest house that was also a yoga centre. The lovely owner gave me a lift to the nearest café, and in the morning she left me three baguette rolls, for breakfast and lunch. She also left a note wishing me a safe trip. I suspect they were a gift, but I couldn’t be sure so I left some money and a thank you note. With a such a nice start to the day I had confidence that crossing the border would be straightforward, and so it proved. The place was deserted on this Saturday lunchtime. When I went through the first barrier a customs officer gave me a hard stare, but that was all the attention I got from them. I rode past the main building, as before, then went back to immigration. I declined their offer to relieve me of two dollars for the exit stamp, then rode across to the Laos side. As easy as you like. Getting the Laos visa was a formality, the only pity being that I didn’t quite have enough Vietnamese Dong to pay for it. It would have been a good way of using up my now redundant currency. So here I was, back where I began about nine weeks earlier, with Laos beckoning.
Vietnam had been a revelation. Some of the nicest people, some of the craziest traffic. I was impressed with the whole country, and pretty much every aspect of it. It’s become nicely geared up for tourists, although the downside of that is the amount of over powering development taking place. The infrastructure is first class almost everywhere and everything seems to be extremely well organised. I loved the contrast between the watery Mekong Delta, the rolling hills of the central highlands and the karst limestone peaks in the north. Such variety. And it’s so cheap! Budget accommodation is easy to find and street or café food is delicious and very low priced. Do you remember me getting two tyres for £70 in Saigon? What’s not to like? Do I want to go back? Yes, indeed I do!