A Travellerspoint blog


Miss Saigon


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There are 10 million people in Ho Chi Minh City and a staggering 5.2 million motorcycles. A mere 5 minutes after getting in to a taxi from the station (with a soundtrack of Bony M my driver had found specially for his foreign passenger) we had knocked someone off their scooter. Thankfully she was just shaken and could carry on her journey, but those road death statistics are starting to make sense.

I visited the Cu Chi tunnel complex outside the city, where Viet Cong and local villagers created an underground maze of bunkers to hide from the American bombs. The tunnels themselves are tiny, in parts only 80cm high and phenomenally sweaty. The VC managed to construct kitchens, ammunition workshops and operating theatres in the mud, all ventilated by bamboo pipes with outlets disguised as anthills.

After the tunnels we went to the Cao Dai Holy See. This religion was formed in the 1920s and was originally an amalgamation of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. It later borrowed from Catholicism and Islam and is predictably bonkers. We observed a service- the priests wear blue, red or yellow robes whilst the adherents wear white. The cathedral itself is a confection of pillars and frescos and includes a mural depicting their three major saints, one of whom is Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables. Given that he died in 1885 and was a notorious rejector of organised religion, I'm not quite sure what he'd make of this.

The next day I braced myself for a trip to the War Remnants Museum. It has, amongst other things, collected an extraordinary number of photographs from during and in the aftermath of the American War, by both Vietnamese and Foreign photojournalists. There are no punches pulled and the effect is almost overwhelming. A difficult but necessary visit and a fascinating insight in to how the Vietnamese view the conflict. I sought respite in the Vietnamese answer to Starbucks (proof of how far the country has come I suppose) where I had a caramel iced coffee jelly freeze (me neither) which turned out to be one of the best things I've ever drunk.

In the evening I got to meet up with the lovely German couple I'd met in Hoi An, Denis and Franzi, for dinner and cocktails. During my travels I've met many people only fleetingly and so it was refreshing to see some people again later on to compare notes. We were chucked out of the cocktail bar at 9pm in honour of the state funeral of General Giap, a significant figure from both the fight for independence and American War, who had died at the grand old age of 102 the week before.

After over two weeks in Vietnam it was time to move on. I've had 16 days of fantastic food and beautiful sites, but Cambodia beckoned.

Posted by arianemeena 08:37 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)


A brief stay in Nha Trang

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After all the sightseeing I thought it necessary to chill out for a bit. To that end I got off the sleeper train in Nha Trang on the South China Sea, famed for its beaches. It seems the Russians have also cottoned on to this- a combination of free visas and package tours have enticed enough over to justify Russian menus and guides. After making myself sit on the beach for an hour I gave up and walked 4km along the coast to the Po Nagar ruins, where the Cham built a temple over 1500 years ago.

The next day I went on a boat trip to go snorkelling around the islands in the bay. My previous experience hadn't been all that positive, but a combination of good equipment and warm, calm waters with plenty of colourful fish made this trip a success and one I'll hopefully repeat later in my travels. Add to that a huge lunch and sun deck on the boat and I'd finally got this chilling out thing sorted.

After an evening of drinking cocktails with the British couple I'd met at Danang station, I got up early to get the train to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it's still known on the timetable. As I've come to expect, the train was delayed (advertised with cunning use of Microsoft Word). As a pro, the 8 hour journey should have been painless, but the basket of fermenting vegetables another passenger had left behind my seat had other ideas.

Posted by arianemeena 06:34 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

Floods and Ruins

Hoi An

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To leave Hue I finally got to try the Vietnamese train system. It did not start well. I arrived at the station to be told my train to Danang had been delayed. However, the early morning service hadn't arrived yet and I could swap my ticket. I was in the 'soft seat' carriage and was delighted to discover tv screens blaring Vietnamese pop would accompany us on the 2 and a half hour journey. I was more interested in watching the impressive coastline out the window, although my seat wouldn't budge from the fully reclined position so I saw it all from a slightly odd angle. On arriving in Danang I shared a taxi with a lovely German couple to my next destination, Hoi An. This is a small coastal town that was once an important port, bringing Chinese and Japanese architectural influences that have survived five centuries of unrest and flooding and are now recognised by UNESCO. Indeed, the river had burst its banks after the storm that had flooded the train tracks and, I later discovered, killed 12 people in the centre of Vietnam.

In the evening I dined with my new German friends, who had asked me to show them my TransSiberian photos as they are considering embarking on the trip (I was more than happy to advise, I've become somewhat evangelical on the topic). The next day I visited several of the preserved Chinese Assembly Halls and merchants' houses and ate the local specialty of flat noodles with roasted pork and crackling.

With my night train not until late the next evening I had time to visit the Cham ruins of My Son- these temples and burial places survived over a thousand years until the Americans dropped B52s on the Viet Cong who were using them as a base. What remains is still imposing and fascinatingly no one has yet worked out what the Cham used to stick their bricks together.

We took a boat back to Hoi An via a small fishing village, which has its own ferry service tailored to the locals choice of transportation.

And so to the sleeper train. The hotel had advised the best time to take a taxi to be at the station in plenty of time but they were a little on the generous side- I found myself, along with some Brits and Belgians in the same situation, with a couple of hours to kill so we sat drinking tea on the tiny patio furniture beloved of SE Asia. Having successfully passed the time we were informed our train would be two hours late, so there was only one thing for it; beer. Vietnamese beer isn't half bad and at 4.3% is a vast improvement on the watery nonsense they serve in China.

The carriages followed the same premise as the other sleepers I've been in- 4 berths, scratchy blankets, grumpy locals. The cleanliness left a little to be desired (Sasha would have been horrified) and I was glad for my sleeping bag liner and travel pillow. But my gift for sleeping anywhere came in to its own and I awaited our arrival in Nha Trang.

Posted by arianemeena 01:48 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

Imperial Splendour


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After the track flooding incident I had another half day to spend in Hanoi before my flight so I ambled around, drinking iced coffee and looking at cathedrals and pagodas and temples. Hanoi, consider yourself well and truly done.

The pre-booked car from the airport wouldn't start and I wondered if this was the universe telling me I wasn't meant to have gone to Hue... However the driver very apologetically called for a replacement and the hotel staff were welcoming, plying me with fruit and sending me off to a local restaurant for a much needed beer and plate of cashew chicken.

As I now only had one whole day in Hue, I booked a sightseeing tour through the hotel. This turned out to be a great choice as it sporadically pissed it down all day and I was much happier in a bus then on the back of a motorbike, which was the alternative suggested. Hue was the Nguyen dynasty imperial capital from the 19th century until HoChi Minh declared power in Hanoi in 1945. Many of the emperors chose to have grand mausoleums built to the west of the city (although these ones weren't pickled) and we visited three of the most impressive.

After a surprisingly good lunch (given that it was included in the tour) we made our way to the Imperial Citadel. It was based on the Forbidden City of Beijing but on a smaller scale and sadly much of it was destroyed in the American War. The ruins feel like they are returning to nature but there are plans afoot to restore parts of it.

We visited a pagoda to the west if the city that was the monastery of the monk Thich Quang Duc whose name you may not know but whose image you will almost certainly have seen. In 1963 he set fire to himself on a busy Saigon street in protest at the treatment of monks by the South Vietnamese government. The Austin that he arrived in is kept at the pagoda.

The next day it was time to give the Vietnamese train system another shot as I headed to Danang on my way to Hoi An.

Posted by arianemeena 06:47 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Good Morning Vietnam

(massive cliche but had to be done)

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Vietnam Airlines was a pleasant surprise, the two toddlers and newborn behind me were less welcome. Baggage collection resembled a budget version of the Generation Game; 7 rice cookers, 3 vacuum cleaners and a microwave (no cuddly toy) went past as I waited for my bag.

My flight had been slightly delayed and I wondered if that was why I couldn't spot the driver sent by my hotel. However after calling them from a pay phone (thank you Lucien and Caroline for a generous donation of 200000 Dong) it transpired he had been standing with a sign for someone called Sophie. I'm hoping there isn't a girl stuck at Nai Boi airport without a lift...

The Hanoi Guesthouse is in the heart of the Old Quarter and full of unbelievably helpful staff. I popped across the road for my first Vietnamese dinner and got talking to a couple at the next table who it transpired were medical students on their elective. There is no escape.

The next day I headed to the train station and thanks to the invaluable seat61.com (for those who haven't yet found this gem, it is the font of all knowledge on global train travel) managed to book 4 tickets for a staggered trip down south. Pleased with myself I headed to Ba Dinh Square, the ceremonial heart of Hanoi, but was most disappointed to discover Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is closed for renovation- apparently every winter he gets sent to the Russians responsible for Lenin for a touch-up. This scuppered my chances of completing the 'pickled despot triumvirate tour' but there is plenty to see and I headed to the Confucian Temple of Literature and the French Quarter.

China had partly prepared me for negotiating the scooter-filled roads in SE Asia as a pedestrian but Hanoi is a step up from Beijing. The key initially is to spot a local about to cross the road and walk out when they do, using them as a human shield. Once you have the confidence to go it alone there is one rule- never change direction. The scooter drivers have taken in to account your course and will happily go round you if you stick to it.

Next morning I headed off on a boat trip in Ha Long Bay, because my enthusiasm for karst landscape knows no bounds. The guide filled us with optimism when, at the beginning of a 3 hour bus trip, he informed us of the road death statistics for Vietnam (a staggering 13,000 a year). The bay contains nearly 2000 limestone hills projecting from the sea and provides calm waters for junket cruising, kayaking and swimming.

We saw the largest cave and climbed one of the hills but I have to admit the highlight for me was the seafood- 'jacuzzi' prawns steamed in vodka on hot stones, deep fried squid, barbecued catfish, grilled oysters...

I had a final day in Hanoi so visited some of the museums. Ho Chi Minh's Museum is utterly bonkers- they've taken an abstract approach to his life and works and exhibits include a model of his cave headquarters re-imagined as a human brain and a 3D interpretation of Picasso's Guernica. The Hoa Lo Prison Museum was a much more sober affair and the Vietnam Women's Museum was excellent.

In the evening it was meant to be time to test out Vietnamese trains with a sleeper to the imperial capital of Hue, but flooded tracks meant I was stuck in Hanoi. After debating the merits of a 16 hour overnight bus I've opted for the more civilised (and expensive!) option of a short flight. Here's hoping the rest of the trains run more smoothly!

Posted by arianemeena 06:47 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)

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