Those of you who grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s will remember Charles Mitchel, newscaster for Raidió Teilifís Éireann, reporting on the Vietnam War. It was a war between North and South Vietnam in which the US became heavily involved, fighting its longest war and suffering its first defeat. At the end of the Indochina War of Independence (1946 – 1954) the Geneva Accord stipulated that elections should be held in 1956 throughout the country and that Vietnam would then be reunited. However, the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem (first president of Vietnam) in the south of the country knew that the communists were likely to win free elections and refused to hold them. He was supported by President Eisenhower as the US was worried about the spread of communism after the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War (1946 – 1949) and communist aggression in the Korean War (1950 – 1953). The US was afraid that if Vietnam fell to the communists, so would the rest of South Asia. In 1960, South Vietnamese communists (known as the Viet Cong) joined with other groups opposed to Diem, including the National Liberation Front, with the objective to reunite Vietnam by stirring up unrest in the south of the country and by waging guerrilla warfare against the Diem regime. Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader of North Vietnam, supported the Viet Cong and others. President De Gaulle, president of France, told JFK (elected president of the US in 1960) not to get involved in Indochina and, in particular, Vietnam. De Gaulle said the US would sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire, regardless of how much resources might be employed. JFK increased spend and sent more men and military resources to Vietnam.
On a visit to the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City which, in essence, is a collection of articles and pictures produced by journalists over the course of the Vietnam War, I asked our group leader Thang (local guide), “If Kennedy had lived do you think the war would have taken a different course?” He replied, “If Kennedy, Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu had not been assassinated the outcome would almost certainly have been different.” All three were assassinated in November 1963. This, of course, is based on his opinion but it is also, as I understand it, the widely held view of many Vietnamese people alive today. Nhu was the chief political advisor to Diem. A documentary produced in four parts by American Experience/WBGH productions suggested that before his assassination Kennedy knew the Vietnam War and the US involvement in it was a mess, and he would probably have commenced the withdrawal of the US army.
The war lasted from 1st November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30th April 1975 and included, not just Vietnam, but also Laos and Cambodia. It was officially fought between communist North Vietnam and the government of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese army was supported by the Soviet Union, China and other communist allies. Support for the South Vietnamese army came principally from the US but also included South Korea, Australia and Thailand. The Viet Cong, aided by the North, fought a guerrilla war against anti-communist forces in the region while the North Vietnamese Army engaged in more conventional warfare. After much internal political protesting in the US, their military involvement ended on 15th August 1973. The capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army in April 1975 marked the end of the war. North and South Vietnam were reunified the following year. The war exacted a huge human cost in terms of fatalities, and estimates vary greatly from a minimum of 1.3 million to a maximum of 3.9 million. A total of 58,220 US Service members died in the conflict with a further 1,626 missing in action.
Having travelled via Istanbul and Saigon (southern Vietnam), we spent our first night in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Hanoi in the north is the capital of Vietnam and is known for its centuries old architecture with a rich culture of South Asian, Chinese and French influences. The Old Quarter has narrow streets thronged with motorbikes, pedestrians and vehicular traffic of all descriptions. The majority of motorbike riders wear masks in an attempt to minimise lung damage due to pollution. Crossing the streets is a daunting experience. However, after a few days you lose your fear, behave as the locals do and, as a result, your confidence in moving around increases.
We began our exploration of the Old Quarter in Hanoi in a cyclo (a three wheeled bicycle taxi). On the advice of hotel staff we struck a deal for an hour’s trip before we set off: 200,000 Dong for the two of us, equating to less than 10 Euro. Throughout the two weeks, regardless of where we visited in Vietnam, the daytime temperature was around 30 degrees with little direct sunlight which, for me, was pleasant. Following a tour around a number of narrow streets we took a trip around Hoan Kiem Lake, taking in the sights including two shrines in the lake, both located on islets; the most prominent being Ngoc Son Temple. A temple in Vietnam is a place to worship a real person, e.g. a king or queen. This has nothing to do with religion, whereas a pagoda is a place to worship Buddha. Sights to see around Hoan Kiem Lake include:
The Hanoi Opera House,
The National Museum of Vietnamese History,
Ba Dinh Square (a former Governor) and French Indochina’s mansion,
The One Pillar Pagoda,
Back Ma Temple,
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Dong Xuan (Hanoi’s largest market).
Following our cyclo trip we visited Back Ma Temple. Dating back to the 11th Century, the Back Ma Temple is the oldest in Hanoi.
Next we visited a café overlooking a square by the lake to celebrate Kate’s birthday – October 7th. From a vantage point on the café veranda, we observed everyday life in the Old Quarter and we were particularly amused by workmen wearing flip flops, stripping a tiled roof four stories high. Each tile was removed with care which was critical in that there was no scaffolding and any error could have resulted in death or serious injury to people going about their daily business on the street below. People were blissfully unaware that this activity was taking place above them.
Later that evening we joined a festival of local culture which took place around Hoan Kiem Lake and included music, song, dance and street theatre. With our pale skin and difference in height relative to the local people it was obvious that we were tourists. We were approached by a Hanoi TV crew and asked what we thought of the city. Questions included – Why we visited Hanoi? – What sites we intended to visit? – What could Hanoi do to attract more visitors and would we return? The following morning on October 8th, we met with our Exodus travel group to begin a fourteen day tour of North, Mid and South Vietnam. Exodus is an English tour organiser and our group consisted of twelve people, including our group leader Thang. The group consisted of eight UK residents, one from Northern Ireland, and Kate and I.
Day One was spent exploring the Old Quarter in Hanoi in the company of our group leader Thang and included a visit to The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. The museum includes a variety of dwellings and tombs representing the building styles of Vietnam’s large number of ethnic groups.
Later that evening the group dined together to become better acquainted and went to bed early for a 6 a.m. rise. The Old Quarter of Hanoi has small bars, restaurants and pop-up stalls (cooking and eating on the footpaths) serving a diverse range of foods including pho (soup). The price range for food varies from the equivalent of 2 to 10 euro for a main dish. Beer, either Tiger or Saigon, per 350 cl is the equivalent of about 50 cent. I understand food is cheaper in other parts of the city but we were very happy paying that little bit extra to get, in our opinion, good quality but also avoiding the street cuisine. We tend to avoid street food as an upset stomach can ruin a holiday. Footpaths are used more for eating and trading than they are for walking, which means moving about is a constant challenge. Hanoi is a noisy place, motor bikes make it so, and especially the Old Quarter. However, Vietnamese people are gentle and soft spoken. I don’t think it’s over commercialised and we were not aware of many tourists. This was perhaps due to our inability to distinguish country of origin from the moving masses of local people and mainly Asian tourists.
On Day Two, we took a 3½ hour bus drive to Mai Chau for lunch and, thereafter, a short bus transfer to Xa Linh to begin a 4 hour trek in the region. Mai Chau is a rural district in Northwest Vietnam and Xa Linh is a small village in the Mai Chau region. The trek took us through Hmong country (temperature early 30’s) visiting villages where most of the people wore colourful national dress. There is little height difference between men and women and we noted the strength of the women who seemed to do most of the hauling. We met two girls on the trail carrying firewood in wicker baskets with a head strap. With the leader's help I sought permission from one of the girls to try on her load (picture above), which I found was extremely heavy. I placed my sunglasses on a bank and, in the excitement of saying goodbye to the two girls, I left them there. Fifteen minutes later up the trail I realised they were missing. I back trailed but the glasses weren’t there. About one hour later along the trail one of the girls we had met earlier was sitting on a rock with my glasses. She had followed the group with the intent of returning them to me. I thanked her for her honesty and effort and rewarded her with local currency of 200,000 Dong (1 Dollar = 23000 Dong) which put a big smile on her face.
The last stop of the day was at the small village of Mai Chau, which is located in a picturesque valley with quilt-like patterned villages and rice fields. The houses are on stilts and underneath children play and women weave cloth to make colourful trinkets for sale. Water buffalo, huge creatures, are to be seen in the fields; they are the tractors of the region. We had evening dinner and spent the night with a Thai hill tribe in their longhouse (rural guest house). From the dining area we looked out over vast rice fields, and close to the house a woman worked in the field; her tiny frame hidden under a large conical hat. This sight typified for me the image of Vietnam I had conjured up in my mind from media reports and articles seen and heard over the years. Most rice is still harvested by hand, the traditional way. However, rice harvesters are also used and their use is gaining momentum. What changes will the next 20 years bring?
The entire group slept, in one large room overhead a dining area, on the floor on mattresses protected by a mosquito net. A fan was used to cool the room and we left the door ajar for the night to aid air circulation. The temperature probably did not drop below 25 degrees. Sleep was erratic and three roosters began their morning call at around 3:30. There seemed to be an order to the crowing, i.e. rooster 1, followed by rooster 2 and then rooster 3 which was repeated over and over. This was in addition to the lowing of cattle which were housed within about a 10 metre radius of the longhouse.
The day began with a 6 a.m. rise and traditional Vietnamese breakfast of sticky rice, pho (pronounced “fuh”) and French bread. Pho is a soup with rice noodles flavoured with chicken, pork or beef and includes many combinations of flavouring including garlic, parsley, basil, lime, bean sprouts, chillies, cabbage, coriander, peanuts and shallots. Pho is served any time of day throughout the country as a starter or main course and is usually served with a fish chilli sauce. Sticky rice is served in a number of ways including steamed with brown sugar and mung beans. It is often served wrapped in coconut or bamboo leaves. As a hangover from French rule, breads are widely available, even in rural areas. If you’re lucky you may get some fruit for breakfast including mango and pineapple.
Following breakfast, we took a bus drive to Sam Khoe for a trek back to Mai Chau (approx. 6 hours) visiting villages of white and black Thai minority groups, learning about their customs and culture. Most of the ethnic groups in North Vietnam are of Thai ethnicity. They are good looking people and the children are very pretty and most friendly. They call out “Halo” as you pass and we were well armed with sweets. “Halo”, it appears, is a means to an end. They have very little by way of worldly goods but they are very happy. Dogs are plentiful in rural North Vietnam. Some are bred for specific eateries in the cities. Many villages and towns have markets with all manner of food for sale including creatures that walk, crawl and swim. We spent our second night in the same longhouse and after dinner we were treated to a local culture night. We participated in a dance routine having consumed Tiger beer and “funny water” which is similar to poitín. We got an opportunity to mingle with other tourists from various countries including a group from New Zealand who were also staying in another quarter of the longhouse.
After breakfast, we travelled by bus back to Hanoi stopping at Kho Muong village along the way. This village is one of a number of villages where Muong and Thai people reside in this part of North Vietnam. The Kho Muong area is probably one of the most beautiful areas in Vietnam. Most of the residents in the village are of white Thai ethnicity. After lunch our guide took us on a half-day tour of the Old Quarter of Hanoi taking in The Temple of Literature and Hoa Lo Prison. The temple was built in 1070 and hosts the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university. It is dedicated to Confucius and other scholars. Hoa Lo Prison was used by French colonists for political prisoners and was later used by the North Vietnamese Army to house US prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. The site is now a museum. Most of the jail was demolished in the 1990’s.