I get how it’s done, I’ve been told and I’ve observed numerous times but to disregard your natural ingrained instincts…I can’t do it!
And so I found myself standing on the roadside kerb staring at the unachievable….the kerb across the street. Unachievable because separating the two kerbs is eight lanes of horn blaring traffic dominated with swerving motorbikes that seemingly have overdosed on caffeine. Sure there are zebra crossings but it’s a waste of good paint if no-one understands their significance!
Suddenly an angel appeared….actually it was 70+ year old man Vietnamese man who took my hand and calmly led me while laughing and saying ‘come come’ and not once looking at the oncoming wall of death, content in the knowledge if he maintained the same pace, that be it motorbike or bus, they would anticipate his position and stop or swerve around. I thanked my new hero and sat down to replenish the adrenaline just lost.
SAIGON AND MEKONG DELTA, VIETNAM
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon); 8 million people and counting. I have sold my house and quit my job to come explore the world unknown. For someone who has only recently seen the lights of Brisbane, the impact of the sights, noise and smells that are seemingly inescapable here in Saigon are becoming overwhelming. Two days of sightseeing including the war museum and reunification palace and I was ready to escape.
My escape is a 3 day tour of the Mekong Delta where the mighty Mekong River (largest in SE Asia) empties into the ocean creating a vast flat delta from which most of Vietnam’s produce originates, namely rice. It’s so vast the opposite bank is barely discernible, both sides lined with corrugated iron shanty towns. Despite the heat, having observed people using the river to wash, dump rubbish and defecate, a cool swim can wait! To witness the river markets where the local traders load up boats with product and trade between boats was a highlight.
CENTRAL COAST, VIETNAM
A few hours north of Saigon on a crescent shaped beach stretching several kilometres, lies the fishing village of Mui Ne. Popular with windsurfers and with new resorts and hotels under construction, tourism will undoubtably soon rival fishing as the primary industry.
Very peaceful of an evening with a beer and fresh seafood dinner – so cheap it defies belief – next to the beach watching the distant lights of the fishing boats blinking on the dark night ocean. Then their early morning arrival on the beach greeted by the villagers eager to purchase their fresh catch is worth forgoing a sleep-in.
Sliding down the sand dunes on cardboard, helping the old Vietnamese ladies dig for pippies on the beach, exploring the area on a hired motorbike – my first time on a motorbike! The respite Mui Ne has afforded from the chaos of Saigon has been a blessing. A chance to find my feet and explore my surroundings a little slower and deeper.
Nha Trang could be Vietnam’s version of the Gold Coast. Although no theme parks, plenty on offer including dance parties and bonfires on the beach, trial scuba dive, a day on the ‘party’ boat or just sunbathing on the sand. Highly recommend the ‘party’ boat…when the guys running the boat start drinking at 9.00am you know you’re in for an interesting day.
The service received from tour companies, guesthouses and restaurants in Vietnam has been very impressive and a perfect example of this was a boy maybe 12 with only one arm selling books on the beach. When we asked for a book which he didn’t possess, rather than trying to sell another of his books he handed over the box containing his sole source of income saying ‘take care of these’ and disappeared into the streets behind the beach. Twenty minutes later he reappeared with a copy of the requested book!
Bus trips in Vietnam are often seen as an opportunity to catch up on sleep, but the drive to Hoi An should not be missed! The highway at times almost touching the beach affording glimpses of the locals fishing along the shores and the smell of salt air through the open window. Moving inland and rising in altitude, we gain sweeping views of the jungle cloaked mountains towards Laos down to the sandy beaches and open ocean.
Hoi An, split by a river and only some 5 klms from an impressive beach is arguably one of the prettiest cities in Vietnam. Like Hanoi to the north the French architecture is very evident, but unlike Hanoi, has escaped the wrath of the Vietnam war. Even more pleasing are the narrow pedestrian friendly streets providing welcome relief from the horn blaring motorbike frenzy found throughout the country. With most of Hoi An a Unesco World Heritage site, it seems I am not alone in my opinion of this beautiful city.
Hoi An’s predominate industry is glaring obvious…tailoring. Whether it be suits, dresses, shoes – the options and the scores of tailor shops are seemingly endless. As soon as you hit town, settle on a tailor, find picture of required garment, choose material and get measured. Two days later you have your finished product ready for shipment back home, including my own new suit and leather deck shoes!
While you’re waiting for your new wardrobe, visit nearby China Beach used by the American soldiers for R&R – remember the TV show? Or climb one of the Marble Mountains – actually made of marble – overlooking China Beach and explore the caves within, ironically used by the Viet Cong!
With all that Hoi An has to offer the visitor, it’s difficult to leave and the drive to Hue had me wishing I didn’t! The views from the bus window as the highway snakes its way up and over a large mountain range are truly spectacular. However during the course of the day we sighted two trucks and a bus that had left the road and rolled in only the preceding hours which left us somewhat uncomfortable. The risks taken by drivers in Vietnam are astounding and we saw it first hand with the driver frustrated with slow traffic in front whilst driving through a small city. His solution was to cross to the opposite side of the road at a set of lights and drive several hundred metres at oncoming traffic, who subsequently had to swerve to avoid a collision, then at the next set of lights cross back over the green median strip to the correct side! Provided some explanation as to why he was offering us all Valium when we boarded the bus in Hoi An!
Hue is where I saw the greatest evidence of the Vietnam War with its close approximation to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ); an area separating north and south. Confirmation not only in the bomb craters still visible in the rice paddies beside the road, but also the tours of Khe San (made famous by Cold Chisel), what remains of the Citadel which housed emporers in centuries past and even the underground tunnels where whole communities hid!
HANOI, HALONG BAY AND SAPA, VIETNAM
Some eight years prior I had started to sponsor a child in a small village SW of Hanoi through Christian Childrens Fund (CCF). Through the exchange of letters and photos had learnt a lot about Thuy, her family and the village she lived in, but the desire to meet in person was overwhelming and so began the process to visit her and ultimately the catalyst for me leaving Australia.
The process to visit a sponsor child is both time-consuming and exhausting, from having Australian Federal Police checks to arranging a driver and interpreter in Hanoi on a certain date. Heading out of Hanoi in my comfortable 4wd complete with driver, Ha (my interpreter) informed me that normally CCF arranges a ‘neutral’ place outside of the village for the sponsor to visit the children. However as part of a new trial, I would be the first sponsor to visit the school and the village, so the whole school from the principal down were very excited – no pressure!
To finally meet Thuy and her parents was incredible feeling. I was a little lost for words, but the excitement of the children and teachers alike of my arrival as they took me from the principal’s office to classrooms to playground, provided emotional relief and soon the conversation started to flow.
I was afforded a tour of the village, sighting the new schools, irrigation system, electricity and water infrastructure all built with the assistance of CCF and each carrying a plaque acknowledging the support of Australian sponsors. Add further the priority given to education for the children and adults alike; it’s quite incredible the difference that has been made for the people in this one village.
It was time to say goodbye to Thuy and her family – I held back the tears until after we’d left – to finally meet someone you’ve known for so long then to say goodbye so soon after – very difficult.
The day concluded with a visit to CCF Vietnam’s head office in Hanoi – again a first – to meet all the staff and share my experiences from the day. I urge everyone to get involved in a similar program; you can and will make a difference!
My arrival in Vietnam was preceded by an outbreak of chicken/bird flu virus which was dominating the news the world over and Vietnam had recorded the largest number of deaths from the virus. Consequently all consumption of chicken has been banned! Given Vietnam’s topography, beef is not readily available at the best of times, and I’m not a great fan of pork – my craving for chicken is becoming all-consuming!
Hanoi has some subtle differences with Saigon, most notable the french architecture, cooler climate and after midnight the city streets are eerily quiet – the strong arm of communism at work?!
The traveller precinct surrounds a beautiful lake in the city centre, the feel of manicured lawn underfoot, the smell of the gardens instead of traffic fumes, watching the locals playing chess or tai chai groups; an oasis of green and opportunity to escape the traffic.
Hanoi is the gateway to two of my favourite places in Vietnam.
The first is the renowned, gorgeous, World Heritage listed Halong Bay. Some 3000 islands, countless limestone cliffs, cruising the vast bay on chinese junk style boats adding to the serenity of what should be this country’s number one destination.
The second requires an overnight train trip and a very long scary drive winding up the precipitous side of a mountain range north of Hanoi near the border with China; where some 1600 metres above sea level lies the beautiful village of Sapa. From our guesthouse balcony had front row seats to the magic views of the mountains including the highest point in Indochina; Mt Fanispan 3143m. Watching the clouds race up the valley with a whistle and cold blast as they swept past the village was strangely very tranquil and calming; not hearing any traffic noise no doubt added to the atmosphere. The cool air is a nice respite from the heat and humidity of the previous few weeks.
Wherever you might be in Vietnam, barely a minute seems to go by without someone approaching you to sell a product or service, which at times becomes quite exhausting. Sapa is no exception except that the approach is done by young girls about 6 to 12 years of age dressed in their traditional costumes speaking excellent English along with several other languages….incredible!
Sapa is a trekkers heaven. 2 days and 1 night walking through a deep valley in the shadow of Mt Fanispan, which whilst hidden behind clouds, its presence was still felt. This is not one of those true wilderness walks solely though rainforest, crossing mountain streams and expansive views; the forest, streams and views are here, but are intermingled with the indigenous population and their farming, livestock and respective shelters. As we meandered through these varying landscapes draped in a thick fog we could hear the sporadic chatter of people working the rice fields, but not seeing them gave you a wonderful feeling of isolation during the quiet moments where voices could not be heard.
Late on the first day we rounded a corner to see another world encased in a vast valley below us stretching as far the eye could see, the sides of which must be hundreds of metres high. Even more incredible the rice terraces cascading down either side of the valley, one below the next, too many to count – surely hundreds! Each terrace perfectly engineered to fill and overflow into the one below and so on and so on, all constructed with a hoe and shovel! Intensive farming rarely co-exists with the natural environment, but to view from a distance these ancient fields looked quite stunning.
Back in Hanoi from Sapa it’s 5.30am and with my guesthouse yet to open, I sit on the footpath amongst the street sellers setting up for the daily morning market. Selling predominately fruit and vegetables, they seemingly ignore me as they set up in front and beside me on the footpath and the street itself. The old lady beside me is selling whiting sized fish and for a short time I’m entranced with the skill at which she removes head, tail and internals using only a cleaver. Immersed in the activity around me I feel a connection with this daily ritual, but the smells wafting from the raw meat being chopped in readiness for sale reminds me I am still an alien in this world.
My last day in Vietnam includes a visit to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s – or more precisely North Vietnam’s – inspirational and adored president from 1945 to his death in 1969. Uncle HO as he was affectionately known and featured today on each currency note, now lies embalmed in a glass tomb situated within a huge granite mausoleum.
Some 10,000 people visit his tomb to pay their respects each and every day and only between the hours of 8.00am to 11.00am! Standing in the hot sun wearing attire that must cover legs and arms, the queue shuffles forward through several security checks before entering the building, upon which complete silence must be maintained and is enforced by the guards nursing AK47’s.
As I sit in the taxi en route to the airport for my flight to Laos, I reflect on the last five weeks in Vietnam. Any apprehension I had initially has completely disappeared; from the sights, landscapes, smells, culture, history learnt, and the people both local and fellow traveller alike, I’ve had an amazing time.
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