A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam 5

Halong Bay is somewhere I've wanted to see for ages - a long stretch of coast between Vietnam and China with countless huge limestone pinnacles rising from the sea, disappering into ethereal mists. It was as beautiful as I hoped.


We were on a lovely old wood-panelled boat for an overnight trip, with a dozen or so other pleasant friendly people. And two deeply unpleasant frat boys, one Canadian and one American, who launched into the most prolonged and aggressive homophobic abuse either of us has ever experienced. Before that little exchange of views commenced, they and a couple of other lads had got very drunk and repeatedly jumped off the boat into the sea, despite the tour guide's express request of no swimming. At one point when all four were in the water, there were comic scenes of the tour guide pleading with them to get out, while the boat's chef was shrieking furiously at them in Vietnamese and brandishing a meat cleaver. All I can say is it was a pity they weren't left to the chef to deal with.

Anyway. Halong Bay is captivating, and undoubtedly one of the natural wonders of the world. Unbeknown to us the trip also included a trip to Sun Seot, which translates as Amazing Cave. Amazing Cave is not an amazing cave, it is in fact three amazing caves, each more amazing than the last. And possibly more amazing than Halong Bay itself. We were rushed round at high speed unfortunately without enough time to enjoy the Roger Dean-esque shapes and colours, and the pillars of rocks that appearered to be composed of hundreds of compressed Cthulhus. It would have been easy to spend hours here. But the conveyor belt of tour groups did not permit.


Sapa, our second touristic venture, is a town in the far north of Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. It's famous for its sculpted terraced hills, which in summer are vivid with bright green new rice. This wasn't summer however, and Sapa as far as I could tell was composed entrirely of fog and mud. That's pretty much all we saw anyway.


This trip was billed as a two day trek, with an overnight stop at a Hmong village homestay, one of the north Vietnamese hill tribes. An experience of authentic rural life, we thought - great. The first morning we set off, a group of nine westerners led by a tiny young woman from the Dzau tribe. We were soon joined by more and more tiny Dzau and Hmong women, some with babies in baskets on their backs, some with just baskets. They explained that they liked to come along to talk with foriegners and practice their English. Someone asked Why no men, only women and girls? The men don't want to learn English they replied, but we do. What wonderful initiative, we thought - well done these women.

As the terrain grew steeper, muddier and slippier, they leapt nimbly from ledge to ledge offering helping hands up, pointing out footholds and preventing innumerable falls and injuries. We, all clad in hundreds of pounds worth of expensive hiking gear being hauled up steep hillsides by these women, none of whom were anywhere near five feet tall, wearing childrens wellies and flip-flops was an absurd sight. The Hmong woman who appointed herself my hike partner/helper/saviour asked lots of questions - where am I from, am I married, how many brothers and sisters do I have - pulled me out of quagmires, led me across streams and safely up steep banks, made me a little horse out of bamboo stalks, pointed out different plants and stopped me injuring myself and falling into muddy bogs time and time again. Then the lunch stop, and the mysterious baskets were all revealed to contain embroidered and woven goods, which we were morally obliged to purchase, their fearsome sales technique notwithstanding. This was not an unreasonable trade-off so we bought a couple of items from the women who helped us, but a crowd of small girls also joined in, pleading 'Buy from me, buy from me'. We have a no-buying-from-children policy but it felt awful to refuse them. And then on the even more hazardous afternoon walk a second wave of women appeared, asking the same questions - where am I from, am I married, how many brothers and sisters do I have - helping negotiate more quagmires and fresh mud hell, and at the end produced similar goods to sell. But there was no money left, and scenes of anger and acute embarassment ensued.

And as for the authentic village life we expected to experience? Foreigners were put in a cold drafty cramped shed-dorm, sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor, next to a pigsty, waking to dawn chorus of grunty mama pig and her squealy offspring. The host family spent the evening in front of the tv, young girl on a laptop watching youtube videos, all warmed by a fire, and sleeping in rooms with western style beds and doors. I had been concerned that all the profits went to a Hanoi travel agency, with no trickle-down benefits to the locals. I need not have worried. Good luck to the canny and enterprising Hmong, I say - I wish them well.

A slight feeling that we'd been 'had' aside, which I don't begrudge, some uncomfortable truths about tourism came to light and the 'sustainable' travel boom in particular. Endless tourist buses clogging up the roads to get to these (once) remote parts. Villages almost completely orientated to selling handicrafts and ethnic nick-nacks, with whatever crops or products they used to rely on abandoned and their culture repackaged for tourist consumption (see also my earlier post about Aboriginal theme-park-isation in Australia). So many little girls sellings trinkets on the streets - not at school because why waste money sending girls to school when they can make money wheedling cash out of tourists. And in a region with a terrible problem with sex tourism and child prostitution this seems particularly disturbing. Were we contributing to to these blights just by being there?

I said I wanted to come back from these travels with more questions than answers. The trip to Sapa certainly supplied plenty...

Next: Gibbons, turtles and reverb-goats.

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

Vietnam 4

Given our penchant for gruelling long distance railway journeys, the opportunity to travel the entire length of Vietnam (1726 km/36 hours) was not to be missed.

The cabin was small and grubby, even by the standards of a country where everything is small and grubby. The view more than made up for these minor shortcomings, especially the golden beaches and dramatic cliffs along the coast between Hue and Danang.


We stocked up with instant noodles for breakfast lunch and dinner, having learned from the Trans-Siberian experience that food from station platform sellers can have unfortunate consequences, ie ten days of food poisoning for Lesley on that particular occasion. (It also turned out that instant noodles were not entirely hazard-free, as Caroline scalded her hand badly during their preparation when the train jolted suddenly while she was at the water boiler). It was as well we came prepared as station sellers in Vietnam only sell toys, rice wine with snakes in, luminous Buddhas and ornamental plates with Ho Chi Minh on. There were hawkers on the train however; we were woken by furious shouting and banging on our door at 4am which I assumed in my sleepy state must be alerting us to some emergency, but was only someone wanting us to buy boiled eggs.


Arriving in Hanoi before day-break was a good time (in fact the only time) to see the city, clean, traffic-free and atmospheric. We blearily looked for somewhere to have a non-noodle-based breakfast. Ordering fried eggs, baguettes and coffee at a cafe that had these items clearly stated on the menu met with blank looks. A girl went out and stopped an old woman passing by with a bag of baguettes and bought two from her. Enquiring about the eggs, we wondered if she was going to have to go out and find another old woman with a hen.

There's a lot to like about Hanoi but it's difficult to enjoy. It has a famous historical district where each street was run by a guild of artisans and sold only their specialised type of goods. This tradition is still alive today and the fake designer underwear street, the laminating and comb binding machines street, the safe deposit box street, and the buttons street are all thriving. However the art deco architecture is well hidden underneath tacky vinyl shop signs, and the volume of traffic and awful driving makes exploring the streets a stress not a pleasure (we saw one collsion after another). And it's pretty chilly. No wonder then that people use Hanoi as a base to explore the rest of the north of the country - as we did.


Next: we hit the tourist trail. We head for the hills of Sapa, and do a boat trip on Halong Bay - and are reminded why the tourist trail is not for us.

Posted by mountaingoats 05:47 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam 3

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In Saigon it's possible to walk around all day, even with the heat and noise and overcrowding, and still feel positive towards the human race. Admirable human qualities are writ large everywhere and you can feel pleasantly benign towards what seems to be an intelligent and creative species. That is, until you visit the War Museum.

Saigon people are cheerful, bright and likeable, on the whole. Every inch in the city's tiny living spaces is used - micro-balconies, roofs, walls and beyond - in all sorts of inventive ways. Every home has plants growing somewhere, somehow. Children are treated with affection. Parks are busy and truly public places where people of all ages go to eat, chat, dance, eat, relax, play games, exercise, read and eat. There's surprisingly little waste: everything that can be reused, recycled or resold is. The streets are teeming with activity: people making things, mending things and selling things; preparing, cooking and eating meals on the same tiny patch of pavement; playing with children, and eating, eating and more eating. It's not a beautiful city but it's buzzing with a tremendous positive energy and busy with ingenious, resourceful people.

And then you go to the war museum and witness the absolute nadir of human innovation and endeavour.

The War Remnants museum was until recently named the Museum of American War Crimes. I don't know the reason for the change, but maybe it was felt to be discouraging to visitors from the US. It's a museum that Americans absolutely should see, particularly anyone with a vague belief that the Vietnam War (or American War as it's called here, more accurately) had some basis of moral validity or political necessity. Once you've seen the images of experiments in interrogation methods (early forms of waterboarding for instance), sadistic execution techniques (dragging to death by tank, burial alive), all the amazing innovative new bombs and chemical weapons designed to kill and maim children and animals and leave vast areas of land uninhabitable for years after, and all the countless images of the pure horror and terrible suffering inflicted on millions of innocent Vietnamese - it's surely not possible to leave with the conviction that the moral or political ends justified such means.

The most harrowing exhibit in the museum looked at the effects of Agent Orange and biological weapons. I'm not going to describe the foetuses and stillborn babies that were photographed. Just imagine the worst deformities you can - these were worse. Children whose parents and grandparents handled the most toxic chemicals ever created are still being born in the USA with physical deformities, missing limbs and brain damage. The manufacturers of the substances in question have admitted liability and are paying compensation and pensions to the former US service personnel and their families. But they deny any such liability for Vietnamese victims. It's impossible to imagine the how the US Supreme Court recently upheld this astonishing position and decided that the final legal appeal by Vietnam's victims should be thrown out. But they did.

Agent Orange victims in Vietnam, and those born with physical deformities and brain damage long after the war ended, have little or no means of earning a living. They will often have no access to medical treatment or health care, and there is no support from the state or other agencies. There were photos of two emaciated twin teenage boys with twisted limbs who lie on a mat and scream all day, in constant pain, watched over by their mother - who can do nothing for them. One of a young man with a deformed spine and arms who has to walk on all fours like an animal, but who still somehow manages a rice field of his own. Another young man born without arms or legs who supports himself as an artist, painting with a brush in his mouth. Orphanages full of children who can never have an independent life, abandoned by parents unable to support them, who will spend their lives in grim institutions that can barely care for them either. All born decades after the end of the war.

Vietnam embraced communism as a response to French colonial rule/exploitation, as have many colonised countries on their path to independence. Their grievance was with France, not the USA. Vietnam remains communist now, yet with its culture of individual commercial endeavour, no-holds-barred free-market enterprise and thriving economy is probably in a sense one of the purely capitalist countries there is. Vietnam is a nation of avid entrepreneurs, under the hammer and sickle flag. So, really - what was the point? And in the forty years of invasions, occupations, military 'interventions', puppet governments and regime changes since the supposedly watershed moment that was the Vietnam War*, has the USA changed? Not as far as I can see.

My abiding memories of Saigon are of the crazy traffic, the sparky people, the noise, the swarming street life and the distinct feeling of being in a vast hive. And at the war museum, a gaze into the abyss.


  • The 'Vietnam War' is a misnomer. From 1964-73 the USA carried out a little-known secret war on neighbouring Laos. Millions of tons of explosives were dropped on Laos in daily bombing raids over nine years in an attempt to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the network of supply routes to the Vietnamese forces. Most of it is still lying unexploded; about 200 people are killed or maimed by these bombs every year, mostly children. Another post on this will follow.

Posted by mountaingoats 06:32 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam 2

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The Mekong river has three tributaries, named by the French colonial regime in a moment when their usual poetic instincts had clearly deserted them as Top, Middle and Bottom. These vast rivers divide into innumerable canals and then ever smaller and smaller waterways across the whole Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam. We reluctantly left our tropical island idyll (slightly less reluctantly after an epic storm and torrential rain battered our fragile bamboo cabin all night), and headed back to the mainland to spend a week here.

The verdant abundance produced by this watery network is wonderful - coconut palms, banana palms, rice rice and more rice, and orchards of mango, guava, pomelo and papaya, with fish pens in the channels that feed the crops (the Vietnamese are skilled at maximising space and resources - favourite example so far, a bomb crater made into a fish pond). Thousands of people also live by and on the water, in rickety one-room shacks teetering on the banks, delicate stilt houses reached by a boat and a ladder, and tiny covered-rowing-boat houses.

The floating markets, with masses of sellers of fruit and vegetables plying the river in little boats were a compelling sight.

We hired bikes for a couple of days to explore the delta countryside - as it's all completely flat it's easy to ride for miles without really noticing, happily for the exercise-averse like Lesley. The peace of the quiet lanes is punctuated only by small children piping Hello! as you wobble pinkly by. We rode past a village school and the whole playground shouted hello at us. Aww....

Three Buddhist monasteries were on our route. The first had cheesy Vietnamese pop music playing over the outdoor loudspeakers. The second had young monks sitting round smoking and texting, and a snack wagon - not quite the life of comtemplative austerity we'd expected. The third we never found as we got lost in the lovely backwaters instead.


Posted by mountaingoats 02:06 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam 1

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Some small Vietnamese children burst into a chorus of 'Jingle Bells' as soon the plane wheels hit the tarmac of Ho Chi Minh City airport. This was a good introduction to the level of randomness we should expect here (and also how ridiculously cute Vietnamese kids are). The taxi ride from the airport into town felt like being in an action movie trailer, hand-held jump-cut high-octane style, complete with insane traffic, crazy street life, dazzling lights, noise, heat, sweat and all those cinematic cliches associated with exotic urban locations.

Ho Chi Minh is huge, really sprawlingly vast. And there is so much to see - so many people, all busy busy busy, and so much happening, right in front of you on the street, all around you, above you and just everywhere. The sheer volume of people and whirl of activity is completely disorientating, but the sensation of losing yourself in the maelstrom is strangely pleasurable (once you re-learn how to walk along and cross a road). You can walk up and down the same street all day and see a hundred different things each time, and tomorrow it will be all different again. It's impossible to take in much beyond a few superficial immediate impressions. So here are mine, from our initial wanderings in permanent state of astonishment.

I loved the view of the city from the roof terrace of the hotel we stayed in - we spent most evenings just watching the street life below and the city lights (lots of the buildings have changing coloured lights at night for added kaleidoscopic effect)

There's a fascinating labyrinth of narrow alleyways and hidden courtyards that run off the main streets, where a whole other more private life goes on, although still very much on the streets.

The Saigon traffic takes a bit of getting used to. There are very few cars on the road, apart from taxis - but everyone has a moped. Traffic lights are purely ornamental, ditto pedestrian crossings, and pavements are useful things to ride along if you're in a hurry, although their main purpose is of course for parking your bike on. The trick to crossing the road is a zen-like technique of walking slowly and calmly and allowing the traffic to flow around you (grasshopper). It requires leap of faith to begin with but it works.

Like this.

A chihuahua on a moped. And why not?

Vietnam is a country of dizzying contrasts, so after a few heady days in the cauldron of Saigon, we took off to the peaceful island of Phu Quoc. Not the prettiest of names, but a beautiful tropical island with vast empty beaches (probably not for much longer) and the warmest sea, where you could paddle along the shore among shoals of tiny bright green fish, if you're Lesley, or peacefully float on your back on the calmest of waters, if you're Caroline.


Three idyllic days here passed very slowly, with amazing food and pleasant company at this lovely place. The communal dinner table immediately developed a lesbian corner, where we hung out with a couple of Aussie restauranteurs, and a couple of German clowns. Yes, clowns. Yes, German. If there's one thing I've learned it's always expect the unexpected in Vietnam...


Posted by mountaingoats 23:38 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

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