A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam

Southern Vietnam

Vietnam photos

Since I am nearly a month behind in my blog writing, I consider the unnecessary length of the previous entry rather debilitating. Consequently, I will attempt to restrict the word count of this discussion. Fortunately, I don’t expect that to be a heinously difficult task, as the South of Vietnam was easily my least favourite region. Mum and Peter’s intervention on Globo Trip compelled me to travel through Vietnam faster than intended and thus skip numerous places of interest. I would therefore like to return to Vietnam to see those unvisited areas. I have no aspirations though to return to the far south of the country. Vietnam’s largest city of Saigon is eminently skippable; a wretched place of congestion, industrialisation, tourists and dodgy characters. The Mekong Delta is pleasanter, but my experience was compromised by my annoyance at poor decision-making. Nevertheless, I don’t believe its anywhere near as stimulating as destinations in the north.

Mum and Peter’s holiday concluded after one night in Saigon. While Mum desired to travel longer, they were not displeased to leave Saigon behind. Strangely on the final night of the trip, Mum acquired an authoritative voice, commanding presence and became the official “spokesperson” of the trip. She questioned and ordered staff efficiently and was suddenly fending off touts for motorcycles, fake Lonely Planet guidebooks and marijuana like there was no tomorrow! Those abilities might have been handy two weeks earlier…

Saigon is the modern and economic boomtown of Vietnam, akin to Shanghai or Mumbai. The land the metropolis occupies and the surrounding delta region were historically within Khmer (Cambodian) territory. Refugees from the north settled in a small fishing village known as Prey Nokor in the seventeenth century and gradually Vietnamised the area. By 1698, Vietnam seized administrative control and Saigon became an important coastal city. Saigon, officially known as Ho Chi Minh City (named after the revered communist leader of the North. The inherently communist name of the city is still an issue for many residents), has since become the country’s largest and wealthiest city. Modern Saigon completely lacks the charm of historic Hanoi. Wide boulevards dissect an ugly urban fabric in the inner city. The roads are permanently congested with endless swarms of motorcycles: Saigon is equal to Cairo as the worst cities I have experienced for traffic. It was very difficult to surmount the courage to tackle the streets of Saigon and I often waited minutes until a local was crossing. The only aesthetical components of Saigon are the Western-style buildings that were constructed during French colonial rule, including the Gothic cathedral, the Beaux-Arts Opera House and the neoclassical Central Post Office (amazing interior). The Reunification Palace, the former residence of the South Vietnamese president, was probably the city’s most intriguing attraction. The palace was constructed during the 1960s and exhibits all the clichéd design principles from this era. Some rooms are evocative of Austin Powers-style futurism. The “backpacker district” is a massive neon-lit area of the city completely devoted to the tourism sector. While I usually loathe such uncultured zones, I had an excellent night there on Halloween eve. The streets were totally full of people (immobilising traffic), with Vietnamese teenagers running around in spooky outfits and spreading tar onto people’s faces.

Vietnam, a country of such warm and hospitable people, suffered perpetual turmoil and conflict for more than three decades in the twentieth century. I think this period is particularly relevant to the South of Vietnam, which is why I have delayed discussion on said matter. German conquest of France in 1940 instigated the establishment of the fascist Vichy regime, which required French colonists in Vietnam to collaborate with the Japanese. The French retained administration of Vietnam during the Second World War, but the Japanese had ultimate power in Indochina. Communist leader Ho Chi Minh began a nationalist struggle for independence from both French and Japanese occupation. Vietnam was pacified after the war by a combination of French (after liberation), British and Chinese nationalist forces, but the Viet Minh (communists) continued guerrilla warfare. In 1950, the Soviet Union and communist China (post Chinese civil war) recognised the Hanoi-based Viet Minh as the legitimate government of Vietnam and their forces were transformed into a regular army. The Americans supported the French-backed Saigon government and funded up to eighty per cent of the French campaign. France eventually withdrew and negotiated independence to all Indochinese countries.

Vietnam was temporarily partitioned at the 17th parallel and according to the Geneva Accords, elections were to be held in 1956 to form a unified government. President Eisenhower was reputedly advised that if an election were to transpire in South Vietnam, eighty per cent would vote for the communist leader Ho Chi Minh. South Vietnam’s American-backed despotic dictator (US governments seem to favour that type) and communist officials in North Vietnam both rigged elections about the future statuses of their respective countries. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, large-scale dissent plagued the countryside of South Vietnam (most rural peasants were communists).

North Vietnam did not become directly and officially engaged until 1964, when they intervened to support communist guerrillas in overthrowing the Southern dictatorship. Peter amusingly revealed that when he was young, he often wondered when listening to the radio, “how did they manage to train gorillas to fight?” Direct US involvement was initiated by President Johnson as part of a broader strategy of “containment”. Despite initial successes in the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive of 1968 irrevocably damaged Johnson’s credibility and destroyed public support. President Nixon authorised a policy of “Vietnamisation” of the war and US soldiers were completely withdrawn by 1973. The communists eventually defeated South Vietnam in 1975 and unified the country under independent Vietnamese leadership for the first time in more than a century. Millions of combatants and civilians were killed and the entire industrial base of the North was destroyed.

The government opted to rapidly socialise the South, a poorly executed policy which further hurt the Third World economy. Ethnic Chinese, who dominated the merchant classes in cities like Saigon, were particularly persecuted. They departed Vietnam en mass and become known globally as the “boat people”. This severely damaged relations with China and Vietnam shifted to the USSR sphere of influence (Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated in the late 1950s from the bitter rivalry for leadership of the communist world). In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge; possibly the most despicable regime in human history. The Chinese, however, were an ally of the Khmer Rouge and reacted by invading Vietnam. The battle-hardened Vietnamese utterly humiliated the Chinese army and the great power was forced to retreat. The 1980s reforms of the Soviet Union resulted in withdrawn support for foreign communist states. Consequently, Vietnam opened its doors and markets to the broader world and the first tourists arrived in 1991. Vietnam is now a rapidly developing (faster than China) market-driven economy with a booming tourism sector.

Perhaps more famous than the historical facts and timeline outlined above are the terrible hardships and contemptible atrocities that the Vietnamese people suffered through the series of conflicts. To gain a miniscule appreciation, I joined a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels and visited the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. Cu Chi village is located around two hours driving from Saigon. During the Vietnam War, the villagers fought the South Vietnamese government as communist guerrillas (Viet Cong). They constructed an unimaginably extensive network of tunnels that stretched far beyond Cu Chi district. The tunnels were used for hiding during combat, communication, supply routes, hospitals and storage. The tunnels at Cu Chi exist at high elevation, so flooding them with water is an insufficient tactic to counter their usefulness. The tunnel system in South Vietnam was vitally important to the Viet Cong’s campaign. They would often reside in the tunnels during the day and only exit under the cover of night, to fight or tend to crops. The Americans did not realise the military significance until an Australian specialist engineering troop searched some discovered tunnels exhaustively and found ammunition, radio equipment and medical supplies. Visitors to Cu Chi can enter a portion of one tunnel (takes five minutes). The tunnel has been slightly enlarged to allow for Western-tourists to fit through, although it was still rather tight (I had to crawl). When I entered the tunnel, our group’s movement was delayed by a dumb American (no surprises there) who was freaking out because of the lack of space. Along with several members of the group, I had no remorse for this fool because he should have entered the tunnel if he harboured a fear of claustrophobic places. We were instead irritated to be stuck in very uncomfortable positions while awaiting his return to sanity. The tourist centre at Cu Chi has numerous exhibits of the various booby traps the Viet Cong set in the jungle intended for unaware Americans. The US military efforts in the region were far less subtle, with heavy carpet bombing levelling the forests and occasionally destroying the tunnels. The War Remnants Museum features graphic photographic displays about the Vietnam War. It includes exhibitions of atrocities like the My Lai massacre and the continual effects from Agent Orange (deformed children). At institutions like this, its fascinating to read accounts of the war presented by the other side.

The Mekong Delta is a densely populated region in the South of Vietnam, where Indochina’s greatest river disperses into the sea. The delta is thus extremely conducive to agriculture and is considered the “rice bowl” of Vietnam. Most tourists visit the Mekong Delta on a multi-day tour from Saigon. I stubbornly refused to entertain this possibility and instead attempted to explore the delta independently to avoid the clichéd souvenir shops. This was ultimately a stupid decision, because I didn’t save any money, I saw and experienced less and was continuously stressed about finding the correct bus station, bus, street, hotel etc. (my route and timeframe were the same as the tours). I did at least meet several kindly Vietnamese people between Saigon and Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta. Despite its size and busyness, Can Tho retains some charm as a riverside metropolis. The promenade area is quite pleasant with colourful facades, lively markets and a giant statue of Ho Chi Minh. Small wooden boats ply the giant but languid Can Tho River, while wooden-stilt houses can be seen on the other side. At sunset, I was treated to an extraordinary spectacle of colour. The sun set behind the city buildings and the sky boomed a brilliant gold-orange colour. In the opposite direction, the sky featured various hues of pink and purple, which were reflected on the wide river.

From Can Tho, I joined a morning boat tour of the surrounding delta area. Cai Rang is the largest floating market in the Mekong Delta and is easily accessible from Can Tho. We reached Cai Rang by 8:00am to see the early morning trade. I expected Cai Rang to be a real highlight of my travels in Vietnam, but it was ultimately a ho-hum experience. Around forty to fifty wooden vessels congregate in the middle of Can Tho River and each transports mountains of produce (usually tropical fruits). I didn’t think the spectacle was all that intriguing and it lacked atmosphere because it was not bustling with buyers and sellers. The market is apparently livelier in April and May when the tropical fruits are in season. The boat tour then journeyed along connecting tributaries and canals. When you drive through the Mekong Delta region, you pass over new rivers or canals at least every ten minutes. These waterways were bordered by wooden stilt houses and banana trees. We stopped at a noodle-making factory and observed how the villagers manually produced the noodles from rice flour. The process is quite convoluted and they use a range of intricate bamboo apparatuses. The tour concluded at a tropical fruit garden where rats (from the rice fields) and frogs were cooked for tourists (although both are traditional components of the diet of Vietnamese living in rural areas of the Mekong Delta).

Consistent with the general theme of disappointment in the South of Vietnam, I ate few mentionable dishes in the region. However, the baguettes of Saigon were certainly a culinary highlight. Ubiquitous throughout the metropolis are street vendors selling cheap sandwiches made with crusty French baguettes. They are filled with slices of roast pork, meatloaf of some delectable variety, cucumber, grated carrot, coriander (plucked out of mine), mayonnaise, chilli and soy sauce. A popular snack in the South is green mango with a chilli and salt mixture to dip the slices in. In Can Tho, I regrettably found myself in a vegetarian restaurant and ordered rice vermicelli (ultra-thin noodles) curry soup. I had not previously eaten noodles with curry, but it was actually a convivial dish with tofu and vegetables. The soup was indicative of my proximity to the Gulf of Thailand (curry is not inherently Vietnamese). One of the best dishes I ate in Vietnam was also the last. In the coastal and border town of Ha Tien, I ate a delicious batch of fried noodles with prawns. The dish was particularly special because of the garlic and prawn flavour infused into the sauce.

This concluded my stay in Vietnam, the first country of my last “trip” in 2013 (Southeast Asia). While the South wasn’t necessarily my favourite region, I had a brilliant time overall in Vietnam; despite Mum and Peter’s presence during most of it. After staying in Can Tho, I had some difficulty in reaching the border town of Ha Tien. I was unable to catch a connecting bus in Rach Gia in the early evening and was required to stay at a motor-inn about ten kilometres from the centre of town. I departed the god-forsaken area at 5:00am and caught a motorcycle taxi with my luggage to the bus station: the first time I have been on a motorcycle. The early start was successful as I eventually reached Cambodia when I originally intended to.

That’s all for now,

Liam

P.S. Sean has revealed he does have an Achilles heel to his vegetarianism: he’s requesting dried deer penis for Christmas.

Vietnam photos

Posted by Liamps 02:38 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Central Vietnam

Vietnam photos

The partitioning of Vietnam in the 1940s and the subsequent wars probably augmented the incorrect notion that Vietnam is defined by two regions, the North and the South. But this ignores the historical and contemporaneous reality that the Central region’s environmental, ethnic, cultural and culinary identities are distinct from the other regions in the country. Central Vietnam lacks the karst mountain landscapes of the North or the waterways of the South with the Mekong Delta. Consequently, its touristic appeal lies in the rich architecture of towns and ruins instead of natural wonders. The three primary attractions represent contrasting epochs in the Central Vietnam’s history. My Son was the religious centre of the ancient Hindu Kingdom of the Champa; Hoi An was a key port town on the trade routes between China and India (and later Europe); and Hue was the capital of Imperial and united Vietnam. Strangely, October is considered the worst month to travel to Central Vietnam despite favourable conditions in the North and South. After much deliberation, we decided to risk the weather and visit Hue and Hoi An.

“You might be surprised, but I really like train rides.” I’ll be surprised if that fondness lasts, Mum. To reach the central region of Vietnam from Ninh Binh, we were required to catch a long-haul train. I decided that since there were two middle-aged claustrophobes in our party that enjoy regular showers, the day train was probably a superior option to the overnight sleeper train (just to clarify, I personally am not claustrophobic and like overnight sleeper trains for their financial and time efficiency). The train departed Ninh Binh at 8:30am and was scheduled to arrive ten hours later. Mum surprisingly expressed bountiful enthusiasm and professed she had always loved rail journeys. My affection deteriorated slightly from the habit of Vietnamese men to place their dirty feet on the arm rests of the seats ahead of them. But Mum’s gleefulness was unabated during the early hours as we passed magnificent scenery. The Vietnamese landscape is covered with endless expanses of rice-fields, with people wearing typical conical-shaped hats and plowing the fields with water buffalo. The train also chugged through areas of rainforest. After a disappointing lunch (actually, it was deplorable), Mum’s initial enthusiasm gradually waned. By the late afternoon, her tolerance had completely dissipated. Unfortunately Mum suffered an incongruous lack of air for the final few hours (my breathing remained steady) and felt rather ill. She became desperate to escape the confinement of the train cabin. The continual postponement of arrival time hardly improved the situation. We eventually arrived after 8:00pm: our last train-ride in Vietnam.

Hue is often described as the “ancient capital of Vietnam”, but it only served as the capital of a united country from 1802-1945 under an Nguyen dynasty (there has been several Nguyen dynasties in Vietnam). Their legacy was the construction of a citadel and grandiose imperial mausoleums scattered near the wide and murky perfume river. The citadel is renowned for being an example of (very) late medieval architecture. I found it difficult to reconcile that such a precinct was built within the past two centuries, as it seems so archaic and unsuitable to modern civilisation. Its external appearance is comparable to Pingyao, a fortified old town in central China with history spanning a millennium. The rectangular citadel covers a massive area and is bordered by colossal stone walls. At one of the entrance gates, Peter revealed his obsession with cannons as he was eager to be photographed with every cannon in sight. Within the citadel walls, the streets are wide, spacious, clean and relatively ordered. Parkland dominates the blocks closest to the river while residential areas occupy the backend. The Imperial Enclosure (“citadel within a citadel”) is located at the centre of the fortified city and was, intuitively, the residence of the Nguyen emperors. The complex exhibits similarities to the Forbidden City in Beijing, with axial procession and symmetry emphasised in the design, but on a smaller scale. It features numerous Chinese-style pavilions and gardens, many of which were damaged by American bombing. Despite the short reign of the Nguyen dynasty, fourteen emperors ruled in Hue. Most of them constructed elaborate imperial tombs near the Perfume River south of Hue. Feng shui principles were strictly observed in determining the locations and orientations of these structures. The Tomb of Ming Mang was my favourite of the three we visited. The majestic complex blends harmoniously into the surrounding nature of forest and (artificially created) lakes. It consists of an axial procession of courtyards and beautiful temples, which eventually culminates at a mound where the emperor was buried. The Chinese-style architecture and the natural setting of the tomb is also exhibited at the Tomb of Tu Duc. However, axial procession is less emphasised in the design. The complex is decorated with frangipani trees, bonsai and mandarins. The Tomb of Khai Dinh is completely different as it fuses architectural and design principles of a multitude of cultures. The complex features two imposing buildings connected by grand staircases. European influences (it was constructed during French colonial rule) are evident in the classical columns and the bizarre Gaudi-esque mosaics that decorate the interior of the tomb. The citadel and mausoleums are Hue’s specific attractions as it lacks the old town charm of Hanoi or Hoi An.

Hoi An is a delightful historic town located on a languid river near the coastline. The area around Hoi An served as an important trading port for the Cham. It was established in 1595 as a Vietnamese town by the Nguyen lords (different Nguyens) and quickly evolved to become the most important trading port on the South China Sea. The Chinese and Japanese considered it the best trading port in Southeast Asia and it was a unique conduit for trade between Europe (the Portuguese), India and East Asia. Merchants from China and Japan resided in Hoi An for four months of every year while conditions for seafaring were favourable. The architectural composition and culture of Hoi An were thus influenced by numerous cultures. The collapse of the local regime and silting up of the mouth of the river resulted in Hoi An’s importance diminishing rapidly. This benefited the preservation of the city’s historic core, as Hoi An has remained virtually immune to the modernizing changes in Vietnam in the past two hundred years. Hoi An boasts an Old Town that can be described as beautiful and quaint, which is most unusual for an Asian city. The Old Town is a pedestrianized zone that is free of the omnipresent chaotic traffic and pollution that plagues Vietnamese roads. Historic Chinese and Japanese merchant houses and shops dominate the Old Town. They feature traditional wooden interiors and wooden shutters that slide into place at night. Chinese temples and congregation halls are scattered throughout the town. The Japanese Bridge is an iconic closed wooden bridge that connects the former quarters of the Japanese and Chinese communities. Hoi An also boasts perhaps the finest French colonial architecture in Vietnam. All buildings in Hoi An, regardless of whether they exhibit Asian or European architectural styles, are painted a gold-orange colour and with either white or dark brown trimmings. Mum was particularly enthusiastic about the quality of the tarmacs in Hoi An. Upon arriving in the town, she exclaimed loudly, “Look! Paved roads!” Hoi An is incredibly beautiful at night, when hundreds of lanterns are lit and the town and river glimmer in a multitude of colours.

Our accommodation was excellent throughout Vietnam, often for less than eight dollars per person each night (almost the same as dormitory beds). One particular guesthouse was especially memorable, the Huong Trinh Hotel in Hoi An. When we rocked up on their doorstep unannounced, the staff members greeted us with incredible warmth and offered us refreshments. They were genuinely (or, at least, convincingly) sorrowful though to advise us that all their rooms were currently occupied. After briefly consulting their database however, they announced that a room was indeed available as the people who reserved it were yet to arrive (it was the early evening). This is the epitome of exceptional hospitality: the staff members of Huong Tring were willing to compromise the integrity of their hotel by erasing an advanced booking for our convenience (can’t ask for more than that). The hostess generously invited all of her guests to a complimentary dinner on the patio. We sat around communal tables and ate the delicious Vietnamese dishes that were already laid out. More food was subsequently presented to us, and then more and more and more and more. The softly spoken and ever so gracious staff members were determined to place morsels of food in our bowls (they probably observed our inept use of chopsticks); “We want to serve you!” The endless supply of food and the flawless service became defining characteristics of Hoang Trinh Hotel. Unfortunately mother was feeling rather queasy by the tenth course and needed to retire to bed. The staff were anxious that Madame Teresa was displeased with their culinary offerings (on the contrary, she was happily wolfing down the delicacies before belly-up). Once they learnt the true motive for her abrupt departure, the staff were ever so concerned for Mum’s welfare (admittedly more so than Peter and I) and doted upon her. They regularly offered to prepare cups of fresh ginger tea, a situation Mum exploited as she continued to accept the tea even when her health had markedly improved. For just our breakfast table each morning, they presented multiple plates of tropical fruits, fried mixture of beef, shallots and chips (surprisingly delectable), baguettes, pastries, eggs from various birds and condiments. We were additionally entitled to order something from the menu (I usually ordered a large bowl of noodle soup with a spicy broth, chicken and peanuts) and drinks. Whenever we entered the hotel later in the day, the staff gave us more plates of fruit. Around midday, we were given glasses of fresh passionfruit juice and in the late afternoon, coconut cake and ginger tea. The staff members were constantly smiling, bowing, calling out elongated greetings and were eager to seem interested in talking to their guests (no doubt they found most topics of conversation mind-numbingly boring, but they would never visually express that sentiment). Mum reveled in all the fake compliments they bestowed upon us, but I became slightly irritated by the pervasive kindness. I am eternally grateful that such levels of hospitality are totally absent from Australian society, since I may have to work in a related industry when I return. Nevertheless, what an amazing place for a supposedly humble guesthouse!

Please feel free to read Mum’s reviews on Tripadvisor, hopefully she’ll add reviews for the other guesthouses:

Link

The mysterious and lost Kingdom of Champa reigned in Central Vietnam for fifteen hundred years. The Cham people are believed to have migrated to the region from the Subcontinent, which signified the Indianization of mainland Southeast Asia. They adopted Sanskrit as their sacred written language and practiced Hinduism until the latter period of the kingdom’s existence. The population converted to Islam and the remaining ethnic Chams in Vietnam and Cambodia constitute the respective Muslim communities of both countries. The confrontationist Chams were in a perpetual state of conflict with their neighbours, the mighty Khmer Empire and the expansionist Vietnamese. Consequently, the downfall of the Champa kingdom was probably inevitable. The Vietnamese obliterated Champa from the map in the fifteenth century and incorporated Cham territory into their realm.

The ancient city of My Son near Hoi An was the religious centre of Champa. It was founded in the late fourth century and occupied until the thirteenth century; the longest period of development of any city in the Mekong region (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand). The site formerly consisted of 68 temples, but American bombing destroyed all but 20 of them (another wonderful legacy of their intrusive campaign). Peter and I joined a tour and visited My Son at sunrise. The one occasion when it was actually desirable for Peter to wake up at a preposterously early hour, he slept in. My fortitude to set an alarm as back-up saved the day. My Son is situated in a valley amid lush rainforest. An ethereal atmosphere pervaded the ruins at sunrise, with mist shrouding the jungle and sunlight breaking through over the mountain ridges. The first of three temple clusters were particularly impressive and I was surprised by how well preserved they are. Verticality is emphasised in the design of these Hindu temples, with their height proportionally much higher than their base dimensions. Cham civilization is renowned for producing quality brickwork, which is demonstrative at My Son. Our guide explained that the temples now consist of brickwork created by the Chams and brickwork from restorations initiated in the past hundred years (specifically the French colonial era). Amazingly, the surviving brickwork constructed by the Chams is virtually unblemished, while the modern reconstructed brickwork appears worn, dilapidated and archaic. This indicates that the composition of Cham bricks were substantially better quality than that used by the French. Destroyed temples are now being reconstructed with bricks produced in the Cham way. The temples are decorated with iconography of Hindu gods and are covered in moss.

Hue is renowned for its imperial cuisine and Hoi An is the culinary capital of Vietnam. Consequently, we enjoyed outstanding food in Central Vietnam. The decadent emperors of the nineteenth century encouraged the Hue kitchen to develop numerous delicacies that can still be sampled in grandiose banquets. I predominately ate the traditional and cheaper fare, although the imperial legacy and their penchant for spice were still discernible. Bun bo Hue is the region’s most famous and popular dish. It’s a noodle soup with a spicy broth (thus quite different to pho bo), pork, beef, shallots and herbs. I tried banh xeo, which is a fried rice-flour pancake with pork, shrimp and bean-shoots stuffed inside (shaped like a Cornish pasty). Another excellent appetizer I sampled was pork rolls (mincemeat and spices) served on lemongrass skewers. The pork rolls were wrapped in rice paper with salad and herbs and dipped into peanut sauce. I also tried an unusual dish that consisted of a prawn and pork mixture (almost pureed) enclosed in a gelatinous substance and cooked in pandan leaves. The cuisine of Hoi An is emblematic of the historical presence of foreigners in the city. Can lao is a popular cold noodle dish with hot slices of roast pork, dry spiced sauce, green leaves and crumbles of rice-crackers (similar texture to prawn crackers but without the flavour). The noodles are unique in Vietnam because of their thick and circular structure. Japanese soba noodles are believed to be the source of inspiration. White Rose dumplings are another famous Hoi An specialty. Indicative of the Cantonese influence in the town, they feature a typical formation for Southern Chinese dumplings. The pork and prawn mixture inside however is distinctly Southeast Asian with the emphasis on using spice and tomatoes. Twice we dined at a brilliant restaurant that was always heaving with customers. The Morning Glory seems to have become somewhat of an institution in Hoi An and it offers a selection of the town and country’s finest dishes. The beef salads that Peter ordered were absolutely scintillating, with surprisingly tender beef, mint and a balanced dressing. Mum and I shared fried crab wontons (Chinese influence) for starters. We ate a delicious banana flower salad with slices of roast duck. I have no idea what a banana flower looks like since it was julienned in our salad, but it tasted pleasant with its subtle banana flavour. We also shared grilled snapper cooked in ginger with caramelized eggplant and chilli sauce. The French taught the Vietnamese how to prepare dessert (as our menu told us), but we needed no explanation how to demolish a crème caramel. Peter and I enjoyed delicious banana and potato fritters (slices melded together and deep fried) at the markets and fresh beer at a small restaurant. Many local businesses in Vietnam brew their own beer and serve it fresh on the same day as production. The low-alcohol beverage is perfectly refreshing for a hot and sticky day.

Hoi An is immensely beautiful and is thus far my favourite town in Southeast Asia. Although Hoi An is firmly on the mass tourist trail and every business is orientated toward that reality, I still thought its historical atmosphere has been successfully preserved. Hue’s appeal lies in its strange history and even stranger structures. The Central region of Vietnam is not to be missed, with the fascinating history, intriguingly diverse architecture and of course, the magnificent food.

That’s all for now,

Liam

P.S. One handy piece of advice I stumbled across for dog lovers: People get infected by swallowing tapeworm eggs from the dog's faeces (one good reason to beware of a friendly lick on the face).

Vietnam photos

Posted by Liamps 21:09 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Northern Vietnam

Vietnam photos

Flying in to Hanoi was ultimately the beginning of the end of this epic adventure, as Southeast Asia is the last of several regions I explore in 2013. Hopefully though, the conclusion of Globo Trip will merely be the end of the beginning for my international travel, as I am yet to visit even a quarter of the world’s countries. I survived two weeks in Vietnam with the parents and have since continued into Cambodia. This entry and any subsequent entries cover substantive timeframes, in an effort to reduce the gargantuan time deficit between when I was in a destination and when the relative entry is published. Please don’t consequently infer that I find Southeast Asia any less interesting than Europe.

I knew that Mother Teresa had always wanted to visit Vietnam, but I could not envisage how that dream could possibly transpire. I assumed Father Peter had absolutely no interest whatsoever in travelling to Vietnam, which most readers would surely agree was a justifiable assumption to make. Through a rare moment of charitable consideration, I e-mailed Mum and offered her the opportunity to meet me in Vietnam in late-2013. Mum responded enthusiastically to the proposal and added, to my eternal surprise, that Peter would be coming also. We deduced that Peter was affronted by my assumption (included in the e-mail) and, inspired by pangs of irritation and jealousy, opted to join the adventure. This demonstrates that the way to goad Peter into partaking in something you wouldn’t expect him to be interested in is to directly say “Peter isn’t interested in xxx”. This unexpected development proved to be a marvelous decision on Peter’s part, because throughout the trip he continuously exclaimed “this is my favourite ever holiday!”, ”I must come to Asia more often!” and “I love Vietnamese food!!!” (Ok, perhaps I fabricated the last). It was a rather dangerous journey for Peter though, for seldom an hour passed in which he nearly suffered horrific stumbles. After ten months overseas, meeting up with the folks again was a slightly emotional experience, or though more so for a certain person. When I arrived at the hotel in Hanoi and saw Mum, she immediately vacated her seat (excusing herself from breakfast in an undignified fashion) and charged head-first toward my stomach (fortunately I hadn’t eaten mine yet). Thankfully I survived the impact, although it exacerbated my disorientation caused by a sleepless overnight flight (there were too many movies to watch). I thought we travelled rather well together, aside from a few minor annoyances. Since I have stayed in dormitories for most of the year, I am quite accustomed to loud people entering the room very late at night. I was not, however, used to being woken up routinely by obnoxious roommates at 5:30am. Mum’s penchant for collapsing into a coma immediately after dinner each night probably contributed to that issue.

I was quite surprised by the economic development and standard of living in Vietnam. I anticipated we would see rampant destitute in a country still listed among the poorest thirty-five per cent on the planet. Instead, I didn’t really encounter or notice abject poverty in a fortnight in Vietnam. It seems that most of the population inhabits modern structures in the cities or reasonably component and spaciousness shelters in the countryside. The typical residences certainly don’t compare to the wastefully large detached houses on four-acre properties in Australia, but they also don’t compare to standard dwellings in sub-Saharan Africa or neighbouring Cambodia. Vietnam is technically a communist state, but that reality is not really noticeable to the naked eye; aside from a few monuments in Hanoi. With entrepreneurial or merely opportunistic mindsets, all Vietnamese are out to make a quick buck from unsuspecting tourists. There seems to be minimal restriction on enterprise (compared with China), from the tiny hawkers stalls to the zillions of travel agencies and international brands. Another thing that struck me was the sheer abundance of fresh food. I was captivated by the quality and diversity of the produce at markets: the most impressive of any country I have been to (forty-four for the record).

Vietnam’s intriguing history partly explains its bizarre shape. The Vietnamese people originally populated the far northern regions of the country (around Hanoi) and established the first “Vietnamese” state around 257 BC. It was soon conquered and incorporated into the empire of the Han dynasty, which initiated a thousand years of Chinese hegemonic rule. The Vietnamese language, culture and architecture are thus heavily influenced by Chinese tradition. They eventually gained independence from China in the tenth century. Meanwhile, the central region of modern-day Vietnam was inhabited by the Kingdom of Champa, which was a Hindu and later Islamic state influenced by Indian civilisation. The south of Vietnam was part of the expansive Khmer Empire, which has since diminished into the Kingdom of Cambodia. After centuries of warfare, the Vietnamese expanded southward by conquering the Champa in the sixteenth century and the Mekong Delta region of the Khmer Empire in the eighteenth century. Most of the territory within contemporary Vietnam was thus “Vietnamised” quite recently. The French colonised Vietnam in the mid-nineteenth century and incorporated it into French Indochina. During this period, the Latin script was adapted to the Vietnamese language to replace Chinese characters, in order to educate the masses. The Vietnamese were not prolific builders like the Khmers (constructed Angkor Wat), so there are few vestiges of their pre-colonial history.

I only spent one disorientated day in Hanoi as Mum and Peter preceded my arrival by a couple days. Although Hanoi is a massive developing city with over six million residents, I still thought it was quite an enjoyable place to visit (I certainly don’t have the same opinion of Saigon). The touristic zone of Hanoi is restricted to the Old Quarter and the surrounding areas. All roads in the inner city are protected from the sun by expansive canopies of tropical trees. The streetscapes were thus very different to what I had experienced immediately beforehand in Europe. French architecture from the colonial era is omnipresent throughout the Old Quarter. These buildings are insignificant by European standards, but their context within an Asian city and their decay caused by the humid climate make them intriguing sights. The Old Quarter is a maze of narrow and virtually identical streets that are clogged up with countless motorcycles. Navigation and crossing streets (traffic lights are only tokenistic additives) are thus exceedingly difficult. Unfortunately the relentless presence of motorcycles is characteristic of every Southeast Asian city.

Hanoi recently celebrated its 1000th anniversary since it was founded. One of the few remaining structures from its earlier history is the Temple of Literature. The temple is dedicated to Confucius (indicative of the Chinese influence) and housed Vietnam’s first university, the Imperial Academy. The symmetrical design consists of a several courtyards that variously feature halls, pools, stelae and gardens. The ancient architectural styles have been retained since its initial construction, although substantial restoration occurred in the twentieth century. We also visited the Hoa Lin Prison, which is a vestige of another epoch in Hanoi’s history. The complex, located in central Hanoi, was founded by the French to incarcerate politically active Vietnamese agitating for the country’s independence. The prisoners were subject to horrific forms of torture and execution, including the guillotine. There are several exhibitions that detail the prison’s use during the Vietnam War (American War). The descriptions are exceptionally condescending of the “imperialist aggressor” (USA). There is a photographic display that suggests American POWs were treated with the utmost dignity and generosity. The prisoners in the images are always smiling affably and are depicted enjoying typical activities like playing basketball or decorating a Christmas tree. This contravenes Senator John McCain’s version of events, as he claimed they were merciless tortured.

Arguably Vietnam’s most famous attraction is the World Heritage-listed Halong Bay. Tourists usually visit this natural wonder on a multi-day cruise, but we opted to stay on nearby Cat Ba Island and venture to the bay from there. To reach Cat Ba Town from Hanoi, we needed to catch three buses and a ferry, which sounded like a convoluted process but was surprisingly quite efficient. Cat Ba Town is a purely touristic settlement of hotels and restaurants that line a wide marina. Despite this identity though, I still quite like Cat Ba Town because it is quite relaxed, traffic-free (compared with Hanoi) and not ostentatious like other beachside resorts. We hired a driver to explore this mountainous and rainforest clad island. We passed picturesque rice fields, numerous water buffalo and karst landscape. We visited a cave that was converted into a rudimentary hospital by the locals during the Vietnam (American) War, to shelter victims from American bombing. I was surprised by how “hospital-like” the halls within appeared. We trampled through a lush rainforest and spotted Giant Black Squirrels. We ascended to the top of a mountain for panoramic views over the island.

Our day cruise on Halong Bay was my personal highlight of traveling in Vietnam. We were accompanied by a small group on a rickety but atmospheric wooden vessel. The unfriendliness of the four Germans onboard prompted Mum to judge all German tourists in a negative light, which I thought was a touch unfair. Fortunately, there was a pair of medicine students from Newcastle (Aus) and a late middle-aged couple from Newcastle (UK) that we managed to tolerate. Halong Bay boats mesmeric scenery with thousands of karst towers jutting upwards from the greenish waters. They feature vertical faces of exposed rock and dense vegetation on their tops. We cruised past monolithic islands and karsts with only a few metres diameter. We kayaked around the islands for an hour, which allowed us to better appreciate the sublimity of the karst formations from directly on the water. We stopped at pristine white-sand beaches for swimming, but the water was quite murky and possibly polluted. Many of the karst islands are hollow inside and thus feature cavernous caves. Mum bravely attended the exploration of one of these caves. The stalactites were badly damaged or dead, probably from excessive human activity. We saw several floating villages where people permanently live and work on their fish farms. Peter spotted a resident openly excreting into the sea.

Our next destination was Ninh Binh, an unappealing city located just south of Hanoi. We travelled to Ninh Binh in order to explore the surrounding countryside. A major highway bisects the city, which makes the central area unpleasantly busy and polluted. We were bemused by the official population figure of 150,000 as the roads seemed to be permanently congested. A produce market near our hostel was a redeeming feature of Ninh Binh. The market was brimming with freshly picked fruits, leafy vegetables and other interesting sights. As with any marketplace in Vietnam, there were countless women carrying bamboo devices that resemble scales; two loads dangle from a bamboo pole they carry on their shoulder (one load in front, the other behind). We saw dozens of plastic bags with goldfish inside attached to a single motorcycle. We also saw a massive ox walking along the busy highway. Peter was enlisted by local workers to help pull down a tree and another lady attempted to coax him into laying bricks.

Ninh Binh is a rather unappealing place, but the karst landscapes of the surrounding countryside definitely make visiting worthwhile. The highlight excursion in the area is a languorous rowboat ride at Tam Coc. The women (they seem to do all the labour in Vietnam) that oar the boats use both their hands and feet (interchanging). The trip follows a peaceful river and passes tranquil rice fields and dramatic karst towers. The route includes floating through three caves, the largest of which is 125m long. We climbed to the top of a karst mountain and after the exhausting ascent in the blazing sun, we were treated to panoramic views of the region. The interminable flatness of the rice fields was contrasted by the surreal karst towers scattered throughout. We visited a reconstructed citadel that served as the capital of an ancient dynasty. The day concluded with another boat trip at Vin Long Nature Reserve, which was less touristy and more unblemished (by rubbish) than Tam Coc.

Vietnamese cuisine is certainly among the tastiest and healthiest in the world. Herbs are integral to flavouring dishes as chilli and other spices are used less frequently and less abundantly in Vietnam than other Southeast Asian countries. Coconut cream is seldom added and oil is used minimally. Pho Bo is the national dish and it has become especially popular in Melbourne. Pho is traditionally eaten in the morning for breakfast, although I devoured bowls of pho at any time of time. It is a noodle soup with a beef broth, herbs and bean sprouts. Bun cha is a delicious specialty of Hanoi. Slices of grilled pork and pork rissoles are served in fish sauce and eaten with noodles, herbs and salad greens. Spring rolls are ubiquitous in Northern Vietnam and are either fried or eaten “fresh”. Numerous local stores are devoted to solely to rolling and frying spring rolls. The fresh spring rolls of Northern Vietnam were less bulbous and tastier than the varieties in Melbourne. Spring rolls became the standard appetizer we ate for dinner each day. Peter’s diet almost exclusively consisted of banana pancakes (ubiquitous on breakfast menus at hotels. Banana pieces are mixed into the pancake batter before frying, rather than served as a topping), fried noodles with beef and vegetarian fried rice (credit to Peter for refusing to eat at a Western restaurant throughout the trip). A notable exception to this was in Ninh Binh, when Peter and I shared the local speciality of roasted goat with sesame sauce. Unfortunately, his daringness went unrewarded as the meat was hideously tough and sinewy. Mum and I exploited the opportunity to eat fresh seafood on Cat Ba Island by sharing calamari fried with tomato and pineapple, fish fried with chilli sauce (unacceptably hot for Mum’s palate), fish fried with sweet and sour sauce and prawns fried with garlic. We also sampled pork hot pot with coconut in Hanoi and chicken fried with lemongrass in Ninh Binh.

The North of Vietnam is the country’s most appealing region, particularly because of its wondrous landscapes. I was constantly reminded of Hong Kong and Guangxi Province in the North and thus thought that the region’s identity is more synonymous with China than Southeast Asia. Unfortunately for Mum and Peter, half of their trip was over in the blink of an eye. But for me, it was just another week of this epic Globo Trip.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Vietnam photos

Posted by Liamps 07:15 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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