"Good Morning Vietnam"
Vietnam may not be at the top of many peoples’ holiday lists. When mentioned it invariably conjures up images of the Vietnam War some 45 years ago. For someone of my generation, the images from the television broadcasts, the music of the day and the many hard hitting Vietnam themed movies evoke memories of a time that seem to be more recent than they actually are. Vietnam stretches for almost 1,500 miles from China in the north, down to the Mekong Delta in the south. Its eastern border is coast whilst its western neighbours are Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam is a country of lush paddy fields; endless golden sandy beaches; colourfully dressed locals and picturesque monuments - making this country a photographer’s paradise. With tourism in its infancy most places you visit will be hassle-free and your money will go a long way.
A Brief History
From an historical perspective Vietnam has lived in the shadow of its powerful neighbour China and incursions from China became a common occurrence throughout its history. The first Vietnamese dynasty to rule the whole country was the Ngo dynasty. In power from 939 to 967 AD, it vanquished the incumbent Chinese invaders after a protracted period of war. For a period of more than two centuries (1009 to 1225) Vietnam was ruled by the Ly dynasty. It was during this period that a new capital – Hanoi - was established. Buddhism became established as the national religion during the Ly dynasty. To consolidate its power the Ly dynasty set up a centralised government: it established a tax system; a judicial system and a professional standing army.
The next important change was the arrival of the Ho dynasty (1400 to 1407). It came to an abrupt end when the Chinese Ming dynasty invaded in the 1407. During the following period of Chinese occupation the Vietnamese were subject to a harsh suppression of their national identity - Chinese dress codes, culture and literature were imposed. In the mid 17th century Vietnam underwent a period of partition; dividing the country (North and South) - as would happen again a few centuries later.
The Nguyen Dynasty was the last Vietnamese dynasty to rule the country and they held power from 1802 until 1945 - when the last Nguyen emperor Bao Dai abdicated. It was during the Nguyen period that the French government, pursuing a policy of colonial influence in Indochina, arrived in Vietnam in 1858. This heralded the start of the colonial occupation that would endure for almost a century. By 1883 the French gained control of the whole of Vietnam until the Japanese invasion during World War II.
By the end of the Second World War the Chinese controlled North Vietnam and the British assumed control of South Vietnam. On 16th August 1945 the so called ‘August Revolution’ began. It was led by Nguyen That Thanh (better known as Ho Chi Minh); leader of the National Committee of Liberation for Vietnam. Within a month Ho’s guerrilla forces had taken the cities of Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon and in early September Ho declared himself president of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
France, having re-asserted its colonial rule at the end of the Second World War, refused to recognise Vietnam’s declaration of independence. Hostilities broke out that would herald a decade-long war to throw off the French colonial shackles. This war officially ended in July 1954 and left Vietnam divided again at the 17th parallel; a state of war existing between the two halves of the country. The beginning of 1965 marked an escalation in hostilities and America’s direct military involvement in the country. The US president sent large numbers of troops to support the South Vietnamese in their fight against Ho Chi Minh’s Communist forces in the north. By the end of 1967 there were more than 500,000 American troops in Vietnam. By 1973 both sides of the conflict had signed up to a peace agreement aimed at ending hostilities and the Americans pulled out their troops. Almost immediately the two Vietnamese states violated the treaty and by 1975 the northern Communist forces had overrun the south. On 30th April 1975 the Communists captured Saigon - the capital of South Vietnam - and under a flag of national liberation declared the country re-unified. The war is estimated to have cost the US $200 billion and the lives of 2,150,000 people. In 1978 Vietnam invaded neighbouring Cambodia, deposing Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime.
Today’s modern Vietnam looks forward. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) have become boom towns as foreign companies seek investment opportunities in this emerging market economy. Vietnam welcomes its western visitors with a friendly smile.
Modern Hanoi is a cosmopolitan city, decidedly Asian but with a dash of French influence. Most of Hanoi’s residents ride around the city on motor scooters; the Vietnamese version of the highway code is akin to the law of the jungle, where the strongest survive. Crossing the road is best undertaken by closing the eyes and just going for the other side of the street. Anyone of a religious persuasion should at this point invoke their god as their faith is liable to be severely tested milliseconds after leaving the pavement. At the heart of Hanoi’s old town is Ho Hoan Kiem; the Lake of the Restored Sword. Perched on a small islet on the lake is Den Ngoc Son - the Temple of the Jade Mound. Access to this enchanting temple is via a picturesque red arched bridge. A gentle stroll around the lake was the ideal tonic to work off the effects of jet lag from the long flight. Cafes selling ice cream, coffee and beer surround the lake. Families go out for a morning walk and inquisitive locals are eager to engage with western tourists in order to practice their English.
The infamous Hoa Lo Prison, known as the Hanoi Hilton, is where American prisoners-of-war were incarcerated and tortured during the Vietnam conflict; a sombre and reflective site. The unique Chua Mot Cot - One Pillar Pagoda - was originally built in 1049. It was then reconstructed in the late 1950’s after the colonial French blew it up in 1954. This picturesque pagoda rests on a single concrete pillar rising gracefully out of a lotus pool. The vast expanse of Ba Dinh Square is dominated by the enormous marble and granite Soviet-style structure Lang Chu Tich Chi Minh - Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum; where the embalmed body of ‘Uncle Ho’, as he is affectionately known, lies in state. Behind the mausoleum is Ho Chi Minh’s home; a modest two-room house built on stilts where he lived during the American conflict.
The following day introduced us to one of Vietnam’s highlights - the photogenic Ha Long Bay. Here you will find the most incredible scenery where over 3,000 limestone islands jut out of the clear emerald sea. Local legend has it that the wondrous island formations were created when the Emperor ordered a celestial dragon to turn back an enemy invasion from the sea. The dragon spewed out chunks of jade that turned into spectacular islands which caused the destruction of the enemy fleet. Many films, including one of the James Bond movies (Tomorrow Never Dies), have used Ha Long Bay as a location. The best way to appreciate Ha Long’s beauty is to take a trip out on one of the many Chinese-style junks. The area’s caves and grottoes are a major attraction on this trip. Hang Dau Go is a beautiful cave with stalactites and stalagmites – some taking on the appearance of animal and human forms. During our trip we dropped anchor; swam in the clear warm water; ate locally caught fish for lunch and then some of us had a nice relaxing massage ... what a day!
The next part of the journey entailed an overnight train ride on the ’Reunification Express’ to the former capital city of Hue, which sits on the banks of the Perfume River. Hue boasts an array of beautiful pagodas, a citadel and a smaller version of Beijing’s Forbidden City. Hue’s Imperial City is a magnificent collection of palaces and pavilions; enclosed by defensive walls 8 metres high, 20 metres thick and is surrounded by a wide moat. This city would have presented a formidable challenge to any would-be invader. As well as being extremely beautiful to look at, the various buildings have descriptive names such as: The Palace of Supreme Peace; The Pavilion of Splendour and The Palace of Celestial Perfection.
Beyond the outskirts of Hue, on the hillsides either side of the Perfume River, are the tombs of the Nguyen dynasty. The most impressive example of these is the Tomb of Khai Dinh (1916-1925). Approached from the river via a grandiose dragon staircase, it resembles a European castle in its architectural style. The courtyard in front of the tomb is lined with stone statues of mandarins, elephants and horses - both civil and military, whilst floor tiles, murals and frescoes make for a colourful interior.
The Chua Thien Mu (Celestial Lady Pagoda) was built in 1601 and was the focal point for anti-government protests in the 1960’s. The pagoda retains an iconic exhibit - the car in which a monk named Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon in 1963. In the glare of the world’s media, the monk doused in petrol, set fire to himself in protest against the government’s suppression of its people. Images of this shocking event made headline news all around the world.
The next visit on our itinerary was Hoi An. Many of Hoi An’s ancient houses and monuments have been restored over the years. They boast many original features including precious wooden framework, carved doors, carved windows, and sculptured stuccos. The city’s most historical piece of architecture is Cau Nhat Ban - a 17th century Japanese Covered Bridge - built by Hoi An’s Japanese community. The structure is curved in profile with a dazzling yellow and green tiled roof and has a small central pagoda. Incidentally, if the contents of your wardrobe date back to 1960s, Hoi An is where you can change all that. Every other shop is a tailor shop and every one is the ‘best in Vietnam’. Whatever you require is hand-made to your requirements and ready in less than 24 hours.
The following three days involved getting away from the towns and cities and taking long bumpy drives to visit some of Vietnam’s remote mountain villages. Staying with the local people was a humbling experience; they showed us wonderful hospitality and generously shared their homes and food. In Kontum we stayed with the local Bahnar people. As evening fell, the villagers entertained us with traditional singing and dancing around a campfire and audience participation was ‘required’ – much to the villagers’ amusement. The following morning we continued to a local village on the shores of Lak Lake – here the M’nong ethnic people still follow a traditional lifestyle. Our overnight stay here was in a traditionally built communal Long House. During the course of our stay in the mountains we indulged in an elephant ride into the jungle and later, a canoe trip (dugout) on a beautiful lake to watch a spectacular sunset.
Returning from the simple lifestyle of the mountain villages our next stop could not have been more of a contrast. Nha Trang is ‘Las Vegas on sea’ Vietnamese style; it’s where the wealthy residents of Saigon come to relax and play. Palm trees line the dazzling golden sandy beaches and the clear waters are inviting. Nha Trang is awash with swanky hotels, top class restaurants, and endless opportunities for pampering yourself.
A short internal flight brings us to Ho Chi Minh City, formally Saigon. This is a good place to come and satisfy your hunger for retail therapy. Everything is available here including Adidas, North Face and Rolex products at a fraction of the cost you would pay back home - of course most of it’s fake. Taking a motorcycle tour is a good way to get around the city and with this in mind I headed out of the hotel. Within a couple of minutes I was approached by a guide and asked if I would like a tour of some of the city’s sites. We agreed an itinerary and a price and off we set. My guide spoke immaculate English and drove his motorcycle like Valentino Rossi. We visited the Chinatown district, a local market and three pagodas. The most impressive of these pagodas was Chua Giac Lam; dating from the end of the 17th century - the oldest in the city. Amongst the many museums in the city is the War Remnant’s Museum - dedicated to commemorating the Indochina Wars against the French and the Americans. The displays include captured American tanks and planes as well as infantry weapons. Graphic photographs depict the war atrocities perpetrated against the Vietnamese and also show images of deformed children that suffered the effects of chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange. There is no doubt that a visit here is a distressing experience but it is a sobering and thought provoking reminder of the legacy of war.
A short bus journey from Ho Chi Minh City brings you to the town of Cu Chi - famous for its network of underground tunnels used by the Vietnamese during the Indochina conflicts; at the height of the conflict in the mid 1960’s nearly 150 miles of tunnels were cut through the region. Some tunnel complexes have four different levels and include living quarters, clinics and prayer rooms. The tunnels are a vivid example of how the ingenuity of a guerrilla force can defeat an armed and mechanised super power. Crawling through these tunnels is not for claustrophobics as they are less than 1 metre high and half that in width. High humidity levels and total darkness often act as a deterrent to visitors.
Sixty miles outside Ho Chi Minh City in the small township of Tay Ninh, is the holy see of the Cao Dai religious sect. The Cao Dai Temple has a star-studded ceiling and multi-coloured dragons that wind their way up numerous pillars. The Cao Dai sect, founded in 1926, is an amalgamation of Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam and a several other religions. Among the many figures revered by the sect are Napoleon Bonaparte and Winston Churchill. The sect has some 2.5 million followers in Vietnam.
A boat trip into the Mekong Delta to Binh Hoa Phuoc Island was my final destination of this holiday. Visiting the communities that live in the delta, the Cai Be floating market and staying overnight with a local family was a wonderful ending to this very special trip.
Vietnam is a truly remarkable destination.