Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Saigon - the end of the tour

Saigon 24-25 February

Saigon is the final destination of the tour, and is a beautiful city which shows no outward signs of the war in the 1970s. It has wide boulevards, lots of gardens, 9 million people, about 5-6 million bikes and other vehicles, and a number of luxury stores. Our guide Ut lives in Saigon and has a passion for the city.

Beautiful Singapore orchids in the foyer of our hotel
 On our arrival we had a short tour of the centre of the city, which is known officially as Ho Chi Minh City, but equally frequently as Saigon. The names seem quite interchangeable. The next morning we had a more extensive tour visiting the Re-unification Palace, or Independence Palace, which is usually now used only for ceremonial purposes. It has louvred windows which create very cooling breezeways. It’s furnishings are elegant with Asian and French influences. It also has immaculate gardens.
The Reunification Palace
Floral decorations for Tet (new year)

Elegant French inspired reception room with large lacquered wall collage

Garden in the President's private quarters
 In the palace was an exhibit from the Vietnam War showing the last stages of the US rapid withdrawal from Saigon. The 2 images below show phots of the withdrawal and the building as it appears today.

Troops escaping by helicopter from the top of the CIA building

The CIA building in the foreground
We also went to the Catholic Church – religious tolerance is a significant feature of Vietnam – which is quite plain and austere, especially in comparison with the ornate Post Office next door which was designed by Eiffel and built in the 1880s.The group had its photo taken in front of the Town Hall, another ornate building.
Inside the Catholic Church. It actually looks quite gloomy inside
The Post Office, designed by Gustav Eiffel, a very ornate building, inside and out
These were phone boxes but are now ATM booths
This elderly man is 80 years old and for many years he has come to the Post Office each day to write letters for people and translate documents. I think he's almost part of the furniture.

The Saigon Opera House at a rare moment with hardly a bike in sight

In the afternoon we travelled about an hour north-west of Saigon to the Cu Chi tunnels, an extensive tunnel complex used by the Viet Cong during the war. The tunnels covered an area of about 200 sq. kilometres, ans some extended under a major US Base.The complex was comprehensive, containing areas for cooking, tool making and a variety of other occupations. The complexity of the tunnels showed great ingenuity on their part, and it’s no wonder that the US troops found it impossible to defeat the locals on their home ground. It has become apparent that most people supported the Viet Cong, except for the South Vietnamese puppet government. The defeat was inevitable.
Tony barely fitted into the tunnel entrance disguised under leaf litter

Nasty booby trap

There were comprehensive cooking facilities. Rice paper making demonstration shown here.

We ended the tour with a farewell dinner which was held on a dragon boat touring the Saigon River for about 2 hours. It was an excellent venue with an excellent buffet followed by traditional and modern singing and dancing. One interesting performance used a traditional bamboo percussion instrument called a trung which makes a wonderful sound. David started up the move towards everyone dancing – having his usual fun time. A magician also performed a few tricks at our table. He was very good and none of has any idea how he performed tricks with metal rings. All round it was an excellent way to end the trip.

We had an excellent guide for the Vietnam sector of the trip. Ut has excellent English and a real passion for his country. Our group made up a song and preformed it for him on the final night. In return he sang us a traditional lullaby as well as “I will always love you” from The Bodyguard, which proved he has a fantastic voice.

Our song lyrics were not nearly so polished, but I’ve included them anyway – sung to the tune “When the saints come marching in”
Tour leader Ut, you are a beaut
Tour leader Ut, you are so cute
We looooved doing this tour, Ut is a cool dude.

Verse 1
We saw Hanoi and did tai chi
We saw Hanoi and Halong Bay
We could have staaayed there longer,
With kayaks we loved to play

Verse 2
We came to Hue, and Ut would say
Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah
We go up the stairs this way
To watch the monks all chant and pray


Verse 3
Now from Saigon, we’ll say so long,
And across the sea we’ll fly
When you visit Australia
Be sure to say g’day

FinaleAussie Aussie Aussie , Oi Joy Oy

Oy Joy Oy translates roughly in Vietmanese to “oh my goodness” and was a phrase we all mastered well.

Now we’re all home, having seen many beautiful places and some not so beautiful, experienced a high level of hospitality and welcome everywhere we went, and learned a lot about life in Indo China in all its variety. We are a lot wiser about many things and more aware than ever of how lucky we are to live in Australia.

No, this is not the City to Surf Saigon style. It's just a few bikes having a law abiding moment at a red traffic light.

Probably one of the enduring memories will be of motorbikes everywhere, and the realisation that there is very little of importance that cannot be carried on one. Another will certainly be the sight of young Hmong children in Laos carrying several 2 litre containers on their backs from the village tank to their homes further uphill.


Hoi An

23 February

Hoi An is an ancient trading city about midway down the coast of Vietnam. It has long been known for its silk, and is full of dress shops, and if I was young and thin I could spend a moderate amount of money and oufit a whole wardrobe. However I am neither young nor thin, and didn’t buy any silk here. Hoi An is now dominated by large western hotels catering to the growing tourist trade, but fortunately it still retains quite a lot of charm and original features.

We had a tour through the old quarter visiting a typical Chinese Pagoda which was quite smoky due to the amount of incense being burnt. Suspended from the ceiling was incense shaped into giant red cone shaped spirals, all burning slowly.
Statues in the Chinese Quarter

The ornate temple gateway

Cone shaped incense hanging from the ceiling made a very smoky temple 

Dragon statues, very ornate

David the rickshaw puller pretending on a great performance of strength

A traditional fishing net wound up by a windlass, front left 

We also visited a typical merchant’s home made of timber which has been occupied for several generations. It had 2 storeys with a hole in the top floor and a pulley to hoist furniture and other items to the top out of the reach of annual floods. The owners took the opportunity of a captive audience to try to sell embroidered pictures and tablecloths, opium pipes, dominos and assorted other objects.

Local woman embroidering a tablecloth by hand

We crossed from the Chinese quarter to the Japanese quarter via a covered bridge constructed in 1593 and into a museum showing items from Hoi An’s history.

Covered Japanese Bridge dating from the 1500s
After lunch there was a cooking class followed by eating of the foods created. Everyone had a good time here except for the weather turning cold and wet and David was distinctly unprepared for it. The men were delegated to do much of the cooking and mainly seemed to enjoy it, especially the eggplant claypot
David cooking the eggplant claypot

Saturday, February 23, 2013


We have now had a chance to explore some of the high points of Hue, the second ‘H’ on our tour of Vietnam. During the Vietnam War (or the American War, depending on your perspective) Hue was often in the news, as was Da Nang which had an airbase nearby. As most of the places on our tour seem to be UNESCO World Heritage sites we aren’t focusing on the war, but instead on a massive citadel which was commenced in 1802 when the Emperor decided to move the capital city from Hanoi to Hue.

The citadel was established by the first Nguyen emperor and contains an Imperial city, which in turn contains the Purple Forbidden City. It was used until the last emperor died in the mid 1900s. Originally it contained magnificently decorated rooms and apartments for the Emperor, his wives and concubines and his eunuchs who performed administrative functions. As it was constructed of wood it has suffered significant damage, but much more was inflicted during the war. Parts have undergone restoration. We walked more than 3 km through a number of different areas of the Citadel, only touching the surface really.
The main entrance to the Citadel which is surrounded by a moat

Inside the Citadel, leading towards the Imperial City

Our guide, Ut, with an imperial dragon statue with a pearl in tis mouth

One of the restored covered walkways in the accommodation area of the Citadel

After the Citadel we visited Tien Mu Pagoda which overlooks the Perfume River, one of Vietnam’s major rivers. The pagoda is in the grounds of an active monastery, and when we visited we were able to hear and watch the community of monks chanting their prayers.  The community gained international when one of the monks burnt himself to death in 1963 in protest against the government’s violation of religious rights. The car he drove to his death is preserved at the monastery.
Tien Mu Pagoda and frangipani trees

Monks at prayer

The car driven by the monk who self-immolated in 1963

  Our return to Hue for the night was via a privately owned “dragon boat”. All through our journey the owners plied their captive audience with their wares – trousers, pyjamas, bookmarks and many other goods were brought out for us to hopefully purchase. The term “sitting ducks” sprang to mind.
A row of dragon boat prows

On the dragon boat - merchandise spread for sale. The boat is actually the family home.

In fact the locals seem to be very good at employing this tactic – cafes, cruise boats are fair game, and when you leave the bus at your hotel you often have to run the gauntlet and avoid eye contact. Our guide introduced us to the concept of the 3 generation T shirt. You buy it and after the first wash it fits your child, after the second wash it fits your grandchild. I haven’t bought any T shirts yet.

The following morning we visited the tomb of the Emperor Tu Duc which was built over 3 years from 1864 -7. It is an extensive parkland equipped as a palace might be with all the buildings and accommodation that might be required. He died without an heir because he contracted smallpox and wrote his own epitaph which is on a giant stele weighing 20 tonnes. This emperor had a poetic bent, but that didn’t stop the cruelty involved in the killing of the 300 workers who constructed his actual burial place which hasn’t been found.
The stele containing the Emperor Tu Duc's epitaph

Replica of the Emperor's throne

At the end of this tour we had a bit of fun dressing up a queens and kings and having our photos taken. Then we headed off to our 3rd H destination, Hoi An.
Emperor David and his Queen Joy

Emperor David in his palanquin with bearers Joy and Marion

The area near Tu Duc's tomb is populated with incense makers. The whole street is full of colourful displays of drying incense just like this one.


20 February

On our return from Ha Long Bay we had a full day of sightseeing in Hanoi, and managed to pack quite a lot in. The tour must go on despite the fact that it was raining – actually the first rain we have had. Hanoi has 7 million people and 4 million motorbikes. The only road rule in Hanoi is that there are no road rules. Crossing the road can be dangerous, especially as they drive on the opposite side of the road, mainly, and traffic lights are for ignoring if there happens to be a break in the traffic. David and I have both been nearly skittled at least once. Our guide says the best way to cross is to move slowly and don’t change direction sharply. The bikes will go around you if they can predict your actions. One of our group posted an excellent snippet on Facebook: Confucius say you haven’t lived until you have braved the traffic in Hanoi.
A street vendor negotiates her way with ease through the Hanoi traffic 

A not unusual sight in Indo China. I am still constantly amazed at what can be carried on a motorbike.

After negotiating traffic and street vendors we spent the morning at the Ethnology Museum followed by the Temple of Knowledge, a centre to honour Confucius and his teachings and other notable teachers from the past. There are stone plaques listing the names of several ancient PhD recipients, and temples at which the devout pray among the tourists. The gardens are beautiful with lots of very old bonsai and many intricate examples of topiary.
Confucius venerated at the Temple of Literature

Pagodas at the Temple of Literature

A very old and gnarled bonsai at the Temple of Literature

The Ethnology Museum has some excellent outdoor displays of traditional houses and other buildings from a variety of ethnic groups around the country. Vietnam has 54 minority ethnic groups.
The Nha Rong ethnic group of central Vietnam. The tall house is for single men

The long house is for women and couples. Notice the well polished protuberances on the right hand steps for men to use.

The next venue was a soup restaurant for lunch – Pho 24, where we all had enormous bowls of soup with our own choice of herbs and sauces to tailor the flavours to our palate.

After lunch we had a quick tour around the old French quarter, a very congested area selling all kinds of things. Most of the trip was on foot but it was a bit challenging negotiating our way among the bikes parked on the footpath and the street vendors on uneven footpaths in the rain. Our guide managed to secure spaces for all of us on electric carts seating about 10 people, so we zoomed about in relative comfort, watching the driver push her way through  on our behalf.
Produce displayed on the footpath next to the owner's motorbike

We watched while the shopowner peeled a pineapple in a spiral removing all traces of the skin. It only took a few minutes. Pineapples are often sold that way.

Footpath florist shop. Vietnamese are very fond of flowers and at the moment lots of buildings have large pots of chrysanthemums in bloom at the doorway.

Our electric shuttlebus

Next stop was a Taoist temple on an island in the centre of a lake in Central Hanoi. The temple was full of people and incense and donations of money everywhere. Rather than Buddhas there were animals and flowers and even a statue of a horse. The bridge across to the temple was decorated with the distinctive royal style flags. There a a legend associated with the lake – something to do with turtles I think, but Vietnam is full of legends mainly associated with kings and princesses and dragons and many other animals. The legends section of my brain contains a hotchpotch of ingredients but no decent recipe to use them.
The gateway to the temple on the island

The bridge to ther island. Fortunately all the other tourists had just cleared the bridge and I was able to get a clear shot.

Inside the Taoist temple. Flowers, cumquat trees and statues of birds. The ying and yang symbols are over the front door of the temple.
 Our final stop for the day was the Ho Chi Minh complex which is set in beautiful gardens and contains his mausoleum, the Presidential Palace – a magnificent yellow building, the house he resided in- Number 54, and another house on stilts which he liked to work from. According to our guide and other literature about him, he liked to live very simply and was, and still is, beloved by the people of Vietnam. The queue to visit his tomb has very long queues on the days it is open to the public.
Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum.

The his was used by the French administration prior to independence in 1945.

House 54 where Ho Chi Minh lived when he was leader of the country

To end our time in Hanoi we had dinner at a very classy restaurant called Wild Rice. Getting there was a bit of an event. The women went by taxi, following a different route to the one we expected to go, so we were naturally concerned. The men decided to walk in the dark, in the rain, with no map and no phone and we thought they may never arrive. We were very surprised to see them as the door plaque wasn’t easy to see. A group of 4 others went to an Italian restaurant and spent 3.75 million Dong (about $A125) Wine is very expensive in Vietnam so we have been mainly drinking beer or fruit juice. I think I’ve had less than 5 alcoholic drinks in the whole trip. Should be a cheap drunk by the time I get home.
Dinner at Wild Rice. They even changed my meal for me when I inadvertently ordered fresh spring rolls instead instead of cooked ones.