in IndochinaComments Off on Vietnam


We took an evening flight from Siem Reap to Hanoi…

…landing in the rain; the ride in from the airport was 30 km, it gave us the first experience of Vietnamese traffic…more  alarming than in Cambodia! These people just have no regard for their own lives as they ride their bikes and motorcycles, often unlit, in the fast lane of a wet slippery motorway, -while the slow lane is empty!
Our hotel was in the old quarter of the city, the facilities were basic, but it was comfortable and filled with character dating back to the French colonial days; curved wooden staircase and dark polished wood floors; decorative cornices and plaster ceilings with a small balcony over the street; but as usual, shower plumbing that flooded the bathroom…
The breakfast buffet was an adventure in eating, with a great mix of European and Vietnamese food, -but the French pastries were to die for!


The old quarter is the interesting part of town, the streets crowded, the footpaths made impossible to walk along by parked motorcycles and people cooking and eating, -woks on gas cookers, charcoal braziers and delicious smells of cooking all day long.


The traffic is bewilderingly busy, with a change of lights the torrent of motorcycles surges through the intersections, ahead of a flood of honking cars…endless, to and fro; pedestrian crossings mean that’s a place where you can try to cross the road, but always only in the tiny gaps in the traffic, it never stops and seldom slows!


There is no high-rise, buildings of 4-5  floors being the usual, narrow cluttered alleys between


and the buildings nearly meeting overhead. The street frontages are minimal, the houses go back along way from the street, local taxes are rated according to the street frontage used,


and efforts to avoid that go to a ridiculous extent!
The old quarter is filled with streets of small shops, they are grouped according to what they sell, a street for hardware, a street for shoes, a street for clothes…. the most colourful were the flower shops




but the most interesting were the art and craft shops, -beautiful laquerware at dirt-cheap prices…we spent a lot of time looking, not much money, -but still came away with full bags…If we didn’t have to carry it on an aeroplane and find somewhere for it on the boat, there would have been a great deal more!


Hanoi is on the Red River, centrally in the city are lakes where the river has been previously and changed its course.
It’s a comfortable part of town, clean, nice gardens, relaxed, with room to move…


-or take a break and not move…


The red bridge goes over to the Ngoc Son pagoda on a small island in the lake






an 18th century temple in a prime situation.

Just back over the wide road where the traffic loops around the lake is the water puppet theatre, -one of the ‘must sees’ of Hanoi. Water puppetry is said to have developed in the flooded paddy fields…the puppeteers stand in water to their waists behind a screen and manipulate puppets on long poles obscured beneath the water.




They tell a series of short stories about the Vietnamese rural way of life, -even though in Vietnamese they are easily followed, there is music and singing from the orchestra


and liberal, clever use of fireworks for effect…


They run a couple of shows a day, about 45 minutes each, in a proper theatre, it’s inexpensive and well worth the visit!


At the other end of the lake is an area which is still quite French in atmosphere, it has stylish shops, expensive coffee houses, restaurants


and a small very European looking Roman Catholic Cathedral.


Throughout Vietnam there is a presence of Christianity, more than in most of Asia. but the Chinese have had a much greater and longer influence than the French, so, as in China, most commonly the people have a mix Bhuddism with old Chinese beliefs.




Most pagodas honour a selection of deities.

Hanoi of course is the seat of a communist government (maybe not so communist now?) so has the disproportionate, oversized monuments that seem to be fundamentally association with that ideology…


wide open parks


a giant statue of Lenin


the presidential palace


and  the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.

Not to be outdone by the Red Square of Moscow, there’s a queue of people about a kilometre long waiting to view ‘Uncle Ho’. They arrive by the busload from all over Vietnam. Foreigners are permitted to view him too, but few would ever be interested enough to wait in that line!



Some purchase and take floral wreaths as a tribute, shops near the head of the queue sell masses of flowers.

The civic open spaces are only partly open for public access and are in total contradiction to the rest of the very crowded city,


where although the people generally have far more than the Cambodians we had been with,


they could not be regarded as well off.

From Hanoi we flew to Danang on the eastern seaboard of Vietnam.




It was an overnight stop only, the following morning we hired a car to take us to Hoi-An, about 40 km further south.

We didn’t get to see much of Danang, it’s now a busily growing town. During the Vietnam war (the ‘American’ war as they call it here) it was a large air force base and close to the demilitarised zone between the 2 Vietnams.

The drive from there to Hoi-An took us along China beach, well known during the war as a place for the American forces to relax. It’s a long white sand beach and stretches almost all of the 30 or so km to Hoi-An.

Hoi-An however, is a different place, up a small river and one of the old seaports. From the 17th to 19th centuries it was a major trading hub in South East Asian, along with Melaka and Macau. It was visited by vessels from Japan and China, trading with the Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and others. As in Melaka, the mix of cultures is still very evident as the old town hasn’t been demolished for rebuilding (or bombed by the Americans) and its history is now a major tourist drawcard. 




Most of the buildings are coloured with the same ‘Hoi-An’ yellow-wash, much of it in a suitably neglected condition, giving the town a delightfully dated, run-down look;


there are interesting narrow alleys



and in building style, an eclectic mix of Asian and European.



There is a covered ‘Japanese’ bridge,


and beneath its heavy, beamed roof, a temple in its middle.
The major influence on building style has of course been Chinese,







the wild, over decoration of all the temples, their beliefs and superstitions;


the good-luck lanterns,


and the symbols above the doors of the old merchant houses.


Many of those, although still lived in, open to the public for viewing.


Vines hang over the footpaths and there are many trees for shade, neccessary, in this the heat of midsummer,


and there are ponds with lotus flowers.


Down at the river front the port is now just a fraction of it’s former self.


with only small river boats.


Even the sea fishing fleet is now based further down the river as it has shallowed.


But the market’s there on the waterfront, it’s very busy, there’s good cheap food, -and almost everything else you could, but don’t want…although the sellers insist you do!
Hoi-An is an attraction for its history, but also as a seaside town. Most of the new hotels are in a strip along the road to the beach,


-a slow, uncomfortable 5 km ride on a way-too-small rented bicycle…


through the paddy fields.


The beach when you get there however is near perfect, -idyllic, -if that is what you enjoy. In this, the southern hemisphere winter,  many Australians are there working on their year-round tan.

About 40 km from town are the ancient ruins at My Son.  Although not on the same scale as the ruins at Angkor, nevertheless they are very important as relics of the ancient Cham people. They populated the whole of this area from about the 4th to the 14th centuries, many hundreds of years. The remains are of temples to their kings and Shiva of Hindhu belief.


The ruins are in the hills, surrounded by jungle. Unfortunately the Americans perceived it as being a place where the Viet Cong were hiding out, (perhaps they were right!) and they bombed it mercilessly. As a result, many of the old towers were reduced to  unrestorable heaps of rubble. Bomb craters are still obvious and unexploded bombs part of the displays.


Not all the site was destroyed however, it covered quite an area and some of the towers survived



they look in a worse state than they really are, they are sound, it is possible to walk inside them still.


Built of brick wihout mortar, how they have stuck together so well has not yet been explained
On close inspection some of detail of the carvings is still in good condition.



There is much in common with Angkor, Sanskrit inscriptions, similar motifs and the many ‘linga’



altar-like stones which are supposed phallic symbols (don’t ask which is what and why) that they worshipped.

Hoi-An has shops selling a lot of the same craft work, the attractive laquer-ware that can be bought cheaply through-out Vietnam, but there are also some excellent painters and they are doing amazing things combining the traditional techniques of laquer with modern themes.


Likewise, there are sculptors blending their traditional stone carving with modern forms


Several galleries of each were most impressive, -oh for a much bigger boat!!!

From Hoi-An we retraced our path to Danang airport and flew south to Nha Trang, another town on the beach.


Justifiably it has been well developed for tourism, the beach is excellent but there are also several outlying islands offering opportunities for boat-trips and diving.


It is also the base for Sunsail Yacht charters, which we were interested to see, as they set up a base there for the first time last year. There must be some good cruising around the local islands with nice anchorages, but the scope is quite limited and there being no dock, (as it has to be all done from the beach),  must make access to the yachts for change-overs and servicing difficult!


It is a pretty town and along the waterfront it’s clean and tidy. But it’s known as a ‘rip-off’city, full of scams and ways to fleece the unsuspecting foreign tourist of his money. That happens throughout Vietnam, but Nha Trang is where it happens more often and we witnessed it!
 We took an ‘airport taxi’,  for a fixed fare,  for the 30km ride from the airport into town. We were given the dirtiest, oldest taxi on the rank, the driver was uncommunicative, his driving was perilous, we suspected trouble from the outset… It was confirmed when he insisted he had never heard of the hotel we wanted to go to, (inspite of pointing it out to him on the Lonely Planet map). He made calls and took us to a different place, where we were  met by porter and manageress who were obviously expecting us and where he clearly had ‘an arrangement’! (a commission).
Having been following on the map, we knew our hotel was only just around the corner so we angrily grabbed our bags, loudly abusing the man, making it clear that we knew what he was up to all along and we were not falling for it. He just insisted he didn’t know where our hotel was… I don’t expect it did any good, but those people were left in no doubt what we thought of that stupid driver his reckless driving; his clapped out car and that we were not going any further with him!  I slammed the boot so hard the lid almost fell off and we walked to our hotel…but I was so wild I could have had another go at his car!
It turned out to be one of the best hotels we stayed in.
The town is on the beach, a small area of flat land surrounded by hills with a river coming through the middle.


forming an estuary used as a fishing port.


Alongside the river on a small hill are some more Cham ruins


also dating to 7-1200AD, but in better condition and kept more alive than the ancient collection at My Son.





Across town, on another hill, with a commanding view, above an old  pagoda; as if in opposition to the Cham ruins, but certainly in contrast; is a modern, giant Buddha


with a small, modern temple in its base.


From Nha Trang to Dalat it is just 205 km, we thought we would take an ‘open tour’ bus trip for that. It picked us up from the hotel half an hour late at 7.30 am; an hour later we were still circling the town picking up passengers, it was filling up fast and the ventilation system showing signs of strain…

Soon after leaving town travelling over the first hills, the small boys in the seat immediately in front of us were throwing up and we knew we had clearly made the wrong decision. A car with driver might have seemed more expensive, but there was no doubt it would have been far more comfortable!
The bus was overloaded, the suspension in poor state, it ground its way for over 7 hours down the coast and up the hill


over a pass to the Dalat plateau; -an average speed of just under 30 km per hour! (Just before the winding pass we had stopped for a lunch break, so it wasn’t long before the boys were at it again…)
We were needless to say pleased to get out and into the cool fresh air of Dalat.
It’s not like any other Vietnamese town we had seen so far. It is much cooler as it is at 1500 m altitude, it has an abundance of French influence, but not just that, it has an unreal, ‘holiday village’ atmosphere.


Indeed that is what it is for many people, the Vietnamese from Saigon and other low lying southern places flock there for the cool in summer time, there are many more Vietnamese tourists than foreign. It’s also known as a  place to go to get married, a honeymoon city, so there are rose gardens, boats in the shape of swans on the lake and white horse-drawn carriages for hire…super kitsch!


About 5 km out of town is the ‘Valley of Love’. Although named that in the distant past, the honeymooners have latched onto it, it (I am told, we DIDN’T go there!) is the ultimate in awful for anyone not hopelessly infatuated….

But Dalat’s not all so tacky. Looking beyond that it is a pleasant town with a very agreeable temperature, clean air, and there is an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers, it is in an excellent fertile area for agriculture.


The market sells masses of flowers


and the area is especially famous for strawberries…


Some features about Dalat are as if they have been plucked out of France, the most obvious of course being the radio antenna in the form of a miniature Eiffel tower, but the Sofritel Hotel, (the Dalat Palace) also resembles a grand French Chateau


with the view over the lake, wide steps down and the Citreon car parked in the driveway


it’s verging on the over-done!
The secondary school on the hill also has a European look


as does the Novatel hotel we stayed in


-a poor little sister of the Palace just up the road.


The morning view from our window was also most un-Vietnamese!
There’s a train station in Dalat, the railway doesn’t go far now, it was part of a grand plan never completed.


The station has a quirky look, it’s certainly not Vietnamese and looks scarcely European, it’s a bitser…


but the old steam engine permanently parked is genuine Japanese!
Sadly, it doesn’t run any more, but there is still a small diesel electric loco and 2 carriages that make the trip of 8 km to nearby Trai Mat village. It’s a tourist attraction only, another favourite of the honeymooners…

Because Dalat is in the hills and the climate so suitable there are several tour companies that offer out-door pursuits, trekking, mountain-biking, rock climbing etc. It’s not for the Vietnamese however, the patronage is almost exclusively western.
It seemed like a good chance for a cycle ride or some walking, I visited a tour company and arranged a guided trip the next day. It would be hardly strenous, but involved a mountain bike ride about 15 km out of town, then a climb of Lang Bian mountain, the highest point around;



and the highest of this picture. It doesn’t look much of a climb (and wasn’t) but the summit is at about 2500m, -in New Zealand that would very possibly be permanently snow covered!
It’s nice farmland with red soil all around, the cabbage crops prosper, but so do beans, carrots and tomatoes, -although my guide (Thu) told me there were problems with ‘bugs’ they have to do a lot of spraying to control them.
The shade houses are for growing flowers.

The hire bike was quite new, it was good to ride, we had a fast trip to the base of the mountain. There we left the bikes and then it was a quick scramble up the hill. Thu discovered that smoking is not good for him, -I think he had thought that he was in for an easy day taking this old man out!
The views from the top were 360 degrees, over the town of Dalat, the coastal strip of flat land and in very distance the sea in one direction,


 in the other,  were jungle covered mountains, just sparsely populated.


While I looked about, Tuh made the lunch


-baguettes,ham, salad, fresh mangoes, rambutan and lychees…it was quite a spread for the 2 of us, but none was left over!

At the bottom of the hill near where we left the mountainbikes is the Lat village, a small town where one of the tribes of hill people have left their nomadic way of life and settled permanently.
In the past all the hill tribes of Vietnam have lived completely separate lives from the rest of the Vietnamese, with their own language and law, but they are now being integrated.
They are quite different, less ‘Chinese’ in appearance. Called the ‘minority people’, they have always been regarded as underprivileged and inferior, living mainly by hunting, but with wild animals depleted they couldn’t survive. Here they are doing much better in the villages, growing crops, cutting timber, making charcoal and the women doing craft work. They are making an effort to preserve their language and culture and are also open to tourism. Unlike other ‘custom’ villages we have seen elsewhere where they ‘perform’ their old way of life, like prehistoric animals in a zoo, these people are not sacrificing themselves to the past, they are selectively integrating.
We visited one of the craft shops, looking at the goods and drinking ginger tea with the couple who owned it. They were nice people. Most of the goods for sale were of hand woven silk, with fine patterns, each tribe has its particular motifs.


Needless to say, I did my bit for the minority folk, I made some purchases…
We were generally less impressed by Vietnamese food than we expected to be. With a few exceptions we found it generally quite bland and even in truly ‘local’ restaurants, too influenced by the west..
But perhaps we weren’t brave enough to get sufficiently ‘local’ to have real Vietnamese food…?


we would have declined trying the snakes from the jars…
Probably it has been a case of them having to, but they do eat anything that might have nutritional value. Frog is an option on every menu, insects, monkeys and all forms of offal are eaten…interestingly there are very few stray dogs in the streets, good for walking, but making us wary at the restaurant!
But not all the food was ordinary, there were some surprisingly excellent meals, the fruit and vegetables were always good, (and not to mention of course the French pastries on the hotel breakfast buffets!!!)
We stayed longer in Dalat than we originally planned, just because of the cool, we thought it preferable to visiting Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) as we had intended. We were enjoying being away from the heat and noise, -it was with no regets that all we saw of Saigon was in a brief stop-over at the airport. We had enjoyed Vietnam, although didn’t warm to the people as we had in Cambodia where we felt that even though they were always trying to sell you something, they were very poor and only trying to make an ‘honest buck’. The Vietnamese were less so; unfortunately we had a constant feeling that we were being ‘ripped off’ -and often we were, but I’m sure not as often as much as we suspected. Certainly it is neccessary to be more aware of what is going on around you there and not only to avoid the ‘scams’,  but there are other opportunists, as Mark found in Hanoi when he foiled someone  attempting to open the zipper of his back-pack to remove his wallet. He must have  been watched putting it in there a few minutes before. However, generally, both countries are quite free from petty crime and are regarded as safe, fun places to visit, in comparison, Singapore is lifeless…

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