After dinner with the group, it was early to bed for all as the following day began with a 6 a.m. call. Following breakfast, we departed for Halong Bay, stopping at Bat Trang Pottery Village. This is a traditional porcelain and pottery village located in an area which is rich in clay close to the Red River. The clay allows for the production of fine ceramics purchased mainly by Japanese, Chinese and Western traders. Pottery making in Vietnam in the 18th and 19th centuries was restricted and production methods have changed little over the centuries.
Next up was a two hour boat trip in Halong Bay followed by an opportunity to test our resolve at kayaking in the choppy waters of the bay. Following dinner and wine, we played charades and, before retiring to our cabins for overnight rest, we took in the beauty of the bay under the night stars. Wine is very expensive in Vietnam, mostly imported from Australia and South Africa. It is possible to purchase local wine which is cheap, but not to my taste. Then again, I’m not a wine connoisseur. Halong Bay was designated a World Heritage Site in 1994. It is a spectacular scatter of islands covering a vast area and is Vietnam’s number one tourist spot.
Following an early rise, we had breakfast on the boat and a two hour trip back to the harbour to catch a bus for Hanoi. On the way we stopped at Hong Ngoc Humanity Centre. Resident artists specialise in embroidery artwork, paintings and photographs which they create by copying from original prints onto canvas. Many of the artists were disabled as a result of Agent Orange which was a chemical used in the Vietnam War. Agent Orange was used by the US to kill vegetation and pollute water in the attempt to overcome North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. Agent Orange caused deaths, cancers, stillbirths, intellectual and physical disabilities, nervous system disorders, and babies continue to be born with deformities. Anything from 3 to 5 million people were affected by the herbicide.
The artwork produced by the residents was absolutely beautiful and, of course, tourists are urged to support the business.
Later that night, we took a train ride from Hanoi to Hue; a thirteen hour ride which took nineteen hours due to a typhoon which swept in from the Philippines across the South China Sea causing extreme flooding which blocked the railway line. The view from the train was amazing with flooded land as far as the eye could see. Luckily we got through but the line remained closed for several days afterwards and the only way to get from North to South Vietnam was to fly from Hanoi to Saigon. The train was described as the best in Vietnam and we were in one of the main carriages which, by Irish standards, was very poor. I walked through a number of the second class carriages which I think were similar to those in use in Ireland in the 1950’s and 60’s. Following a later than expected arrival time in Hue, we took a city tour by bicycle. We visited Tu Duc Tomb and Thien Mu Pagoda, amongst other city sights. Tu Duc is five kilometres south of Hue but almost all of the cycle to get there was through city streets or outskirts of the city. Manoeuvring your way by bicycle through Vietnam traffic is challenging. The tomb was constructed between 1864 and 1867 for the Nguyen Emperor, Tu Duc.
The Thien Mu Pagoda is on a hill overlooking the Perfume River. It was constructed in 1844 under the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri and is dedicated to Manushi-Buddha (a Buddha that appeared in human form). Because we were late starting this cycle trip it was dark when we reached Hue in the evening. While cycling in a city in Vietnam is an incredible experience, on a bicycle in the dark without any lights borders on the ridiculous. It was a wonderful thrill but, in hindsight, must be looked on as being dangerous. High-Vis jackets – what are they??
After breakfast the following morning, we cycled to Thanh Toan Bridge and a nearby market. The bridge is a classic covered Japanese footbridge about seven kilometres east of Hue and was established during the reign of Emperor Le Hien Gong (1740 – 1786). It was constructed to better facilitate transportation and communication in the village of Thui Thahn which lies on both sides of a canal. Beside the bridge in the village is a country market with everything imaginable that grows, crawls, walks or swims, for sale. Every living thing, animal, mineral or vegetable that can be eaten, is for sale in extremely cramped conditions. Water living creatures are kept alive in containers to keep them fresh until purchase.
Having cycled back to Hue, we took a bus to transfer to the city of Hoi An, visiting Marble Mountain en route. Marble Mountain is a cluster of five marble and limestone hills named after the five elements – metal, water, wood, fire and earth. The hills contain several Buddha sanctuaries, and stone sculpture is a prominent art in the area. Later that evening, we visited Quan Cong Temple and Chuc Thanh Pagoda.
After breakfast the following morning, we took a walking tour of Hoi An Old Town which was a major south-east Asian trading post in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is basically a living museum featuring a mixture of east and west architecture. We visited a number of Chinese temples in the town but I was most impressed by a Japanese designed bridge. Hoi An has been successful in preserving its architecture and the old town was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999.
The afternoon was spent shopping, and clothing or footwear can be ordered, manufactured and collected within a couple of hours. The problem however is that getting something made to your satisfaction in a short time is difficult, which we found out to our cost.
Down by the riverside in the old town is a great place to visit at night, and is unique in that it is lighted by quaint old-fashioned lanterns which create a unique atmosphere. That night we, under the guidance of a chef, cooked our own meal in a pub/diner – The Green Mango. We prepared, cooked and ate the following dishes:
Mango and sticky rice
Garden chilli fish sauce
Tofu and eggplant in clay pot
Mango squid salad
The ingredients for the vegetable roll were lettuce, shiso, cucumber noodle, carrot noodle, garlic chilli fish sauce, rice, mint-pepper, sweet basil, holy basil, jicano noodle, rice paper, coriander and maybe more. All got to participate which was good fun and our performance was judged on the outcome by way of shape and texture. Some attempts left a lot to be desired but everyone enjoyed the experience and the resulting meal was washed down with local beer.
Typical meals for the average Vietnamese family would include a bowl of steamed long-grain rice for all, or served in individual bowls; a stir-fry dish; vegetables – raw, pickled or steamed; fish and seafood; meat and tofu – grilled, boiled, steamed, stewed or stir-fried with vegetables. Tofu, coagulated soya milk pressed into white blocks, is available on most menus and ideal for vegetarians. Pork, chicken and eggs are available everywhere, and chickens are reared in town and country. Almost all food and, indeed, all types of goods are transported on motorbikes. Hundreds of eggs being carried on a motorbike is a sight to behold. Beef imported mainly from Australia is available but you will not get it served Irish style. It is generally served in a pho dish or in a burger. Non-Asian tourists need to stress their preference for individual dishes when ordering. After a few mistakes you get the hang of it. Chopsticks are provided and if you want a fork you must ask. Similar dishes are served at all times during the day; there is no distinction between breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The image of people gathered together in village locations, chatting and drinking tea out of porcelain bowls or cups with no handles at any time of day, even 6 a.m. in the morning, leaves you with a distinct image of life in rural Vietnam.
The next day we took a flight from Hoi An to Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City. Both names are used, South Vietnamese people leaning towards Saigon and North or former communist supporters preferring Ho Chi Minh City, which it has been called since 1976 to celebrate the unification of North and South at the end of the Vietnam War. The afternoon was spent visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels.
The Cu Chi Tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tet Offensive in 1968. The Tet Offensive was one of the largest military campaigns of the war. It was a campaign of surprise attacks by the communist regime, including the Viet Cong, against the South and the US. The name was taken from the Tet holiday, the Vietnamese New Year, when the first major attacks took place. That was on 1st January 1968.
The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon stores and also living quarters for North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces and helped to counter the growing American military effort. We entered a tunnel and travelled 60 yards underground in very cramped conditions. One of our party, a gentleman of six foot three inches, could not participate. The history of the tunnels is most interesting, and the traps set for American troops were cruel. Girls supporting the Viet Cong frequented pubs used by American soldiers and information gathered helped the Viet Cong stay a step ahead. Their incredible persistence and durability together with local knowledge ensured success in the long term. That is, if one believes there is any winner in war.
The next day took us to Mi Tho and from there we cycled to Cai Be. Mi Tho along with Saigon was a major strategic city during the French Colonial Campaign in Vietnam in the 1860’s. The capture of Mi Tho in 1862 by the French formed the conclusion of the establishment of Vietnam as a French colony. Situated in the Mekong Delta, in the 17th century, the city had become one of the biggest commercial hubs in Vietnam. The Mekong Delta is a vast maze of rivers, swamps and islands that are home to floating markets, pagodas and villages surrounded by rice paddies. The Mekong Delta is regarded as the rice bowl of Vietnam. The cycle to Cai Be, competing with motorbikes, took us on a treacherous track about 3.5 feet wide with broken concrete in many places. It took two hours to cover the first five kilometres of the journey due to torrential rain, which caused us to take shelter under an eave. Thereafter a couple of cyclists took falls which required running repairs to man, woman and bicycle. Concentration was critical as any mistake could see you fall into one of the rivers of the Mekong Delta and the consequence might not be pretty. The trip took in a temple along the route and due to torrential rain and minor injuries three of the party, excluding Kate and I, had to be bused back to base.
That afternoon, we took a bus transfer to Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta. It is noted for its floating market and rice paper making. A floating market is one where people buy and sell goods on water. The rivers of the Mekong Delta are used to transport people and goods.. Locals sell fruit picked from their own gardens, as well as other foods and goods which are brought to the area from other parts of the country. The markets take place very early in the morning, and what we found particularly appealing was fresh pineapple. Each boat has a post with a product suspended to advertise what is for sale on it.
The next day, we took a boat trip to Cai Rang floating market and then took a cycle trip to Vinh Long. This was a forty kilometre trip through rural villages and scenic landscape. We stopped at many villages along the way to check out local markets and produce for sale, manufactured by local people. In these situations you are tempted to purchase something purely to support the poorest of people. The reception that you get in every village is one of hospitality and friendliness. In rural Vietnam one is drawn in by the children who are just so friendly and warm.
After the cycle trip to Vinh Long we took a boat trip to a homestay located on an island in the Mekong Delta. Stopping on the way, we made a visit to a beehive kiln. This is a local industry which produces bricks for building. All the work is done manually and rice husks are used to heat the kilns to a temperature of about 1000 degrees celsius. A homestay is a guest house built in the style of local houses. Our homestay was particularly nice, where we got to cook our own meal in a large kitchen with huge ovens and sit on the veranda before bedtime drinking Tiger beer watching the water rise from the river. We wondered if we could be able to walk to our boat in the morning or would we have to wade up to our knees to get from the homestay to the motor boat. Luckily, by morning, the water had subsided. We visited more floating markets, getting up close to the boats and conversing with locals. These boats are home to these people. Children are reared on them and it’s interesting to observe this way of life, which according to our leader is diminishing as the number and scale of these markets continues to drop. We transferred to a small boat, put on traditional conical leaf hats, and our rower took us through river channels where we were surrounded by huge bamboo shoots. Then it was back to the motor boat and, thereafter, a bus back to Saigon.
We visited the Reunification Palace. Reunification Palace is also known as Independent Palace and was the home and workplace of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The Palace entered the history books in 1975 when a Vietnamese Air Force pilot, who was also a communist spy, bombed it causing only minor damage. However, this attack helped bring about the end of the war. The Vietnam War ended on 30th April 1975 when a North Vietnamese Army tank bulldozed through the main gate. Two of the original tanks involved in this attack remain at the gates to this day.
Next we visited the War Remnants Museum. The Museum, opened in 1975, is one of the most popular in Vietnam, attracting half a million visitors every year. Depending on your perspective you could say that the exhibits are very one-sided, containing anti-American propaganda. However, the exhibits do graphically portray the horrors of the Vietnam War. One building in the museum has a reproduction of the ‘Tiger Cages’ in which the South Vietnamese Government kept political prisoners.
After this, we visited the Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral which was constructed by the French between 1863 and 1880. In October 2005, the statue of the Virgin Mary was reported to have shed tears. However, this could not be confirmed by the Catholic Church. To gain admission to the church it was necessary for us to approach an attendant and state that we were Catholic. Tourists generally were not allowed admission beyond the porch area at the main entrance. Pope John XXXIII gave the church basilica status in 1962. Vietnam has 5½ million Catholics out of a total population of 93½ million, the majority being Buddhist.
Outside the temple, we were approached by three students in their late teens who were studying business in college and were conducting a survey as part of their course. We were asked to verify our participation in the survey aurally, which impressed us and shows just how serious Vietnam is regarding education and business into the future. Education is compulsory but is not completely enforced, particularly in very rural areas. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for 2016 is quoted at a growth rate of 6.1%. On Tuesday February 7th 2017, Vietnam News reported, “Vietnam has been successful in getting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) over the last 10 years, but in order to improve the quality of FDI projects, it needs new policies and technologies.” FDI projects in the last year include big Japanese firms such as Sanyo, Matsushita, Sony, Fujitsu, Toshiba, Panasonic and Nidec. Western businesses, including Intel, IBM, Capgemini and Accenture, are also seeking more opportunities in Vietnam. The future looks good for the country and those that enjoy a job work really hard. But even with small families now, the norm especially amongst the middle class, the population is growing at about one million per annum.
Vietnam is a safe country to visit; ownership of guns is not permitted and the crime rate is very low. The country has a huge amount to offer a discerning tourist, with eight World Heritage Sites, over thirty national parks and twenty-one recognised national tourist sites. If you are taking a trip to Asia be sure to include Vietnam, especially rural areas, where you will be made most welcome.