After crossing the border (quite a feat, it turns out), we made our way to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is popularly known, a labyrinth of bicycles and mopeds, an urban sprawl that broke up Vietnam's seemingly endless rows of paddy fields. On the way, we were introduced to the country's rural landscape, not too dissimilar to that of Cambodia's, although we noted the sudden emergence of the infamous conical hat, donned by labouring farmers and city dwellers alike - something of a symbol of national identity, it seems.
Upon arriving, we settled in our hotel for a while before heading out for an evening meal. It was a fairly momentous occasion, being the final evening with the group for five members who were shortly to depart, so we resolved to make the most of it. We had arranged to have a kind of 'secret santa' style gift giving session for the night, so spent the aftermath of the meal exchanging presents, the recipient given three chances to guess who their gift was from. I received a 'Good Morning Vietnam!' t-shirt from David, whilst I in turn presented Alan with a model of a martial arts baby whom I thought he resembled uncannily. Luckily he saw the funny side. Afterwards, Keasar gave us an emotional farewell speech, thanking us for being a fun and easy group to manage, one which he felt he could introduce his family to (his energetic young daughter and wife had joined us for parts of the trip). We thanked him with a signed card from all of us and a reasonable financial gesture. We spent the rest of the evening and early hours partying in the 'Go2 Bar', a lively nightclub, where we saw the departees off in style.
The rest of our time in Ho Chi Minh was spent visiting a couple of its sights and enjoying its energy, expressed most fluently by the never ending swarms of mopeds that motored around its streets, a constant mechanical drone that gave way to chaos and excitement. As well as spending time in the main market, we also decided to visit the War Remnants Museum, an experience which opened our eyes to the state's careful handling, and some would say manipulation of, historical data. Although I firmly believe that the US's campaign in Vietnam was one of the greatest crimes of our age, I couldn't help but notice how figures were presented in such a way that gave the communist Viet Cong a certain moral high-ground and military superiority. The South Vietnamese army were invariably refered to as the 'puppet army'. A sense of pride was certain, however, and my general opinion, developed over my time in the country, was that the Vietnamese people generally carry this pride with them. Socialism in Vietnam seems as strong and stable as it ever has been. The horrors of the war, especially the effects of the US's 'Agent Orange', were graphically presented to us in a series of disturbing photos and videos, leading me to believe that all the US managed to achieve during their campaign was to arm the socialist cause with a wealth of propeganda material and new sympathisers.
After meeting our new tour guide, Hai, and the new members of the group, six in all, we made our way to our Vietnamese homestay via the Cu Chi war tunnels. The tunnels were an impressive sight, a glimpse of an underground network that covered much of the country and played a large role in the Viet Cong's victory over the Americans. The visit started with an amusing propeganda film which referred to the Americans as 'those devils' and championed those who slaughtered them. After trailing through a section of tunnel on our hands and knees, marvelling at the dedication and perserverence of the Vietnamese (whilst also avoiding the presence of a bat, a scorpion and a spider), we tried some of the basic food that provided the soldiers with their staple diet, before heading to a shooting range. Whilst some of the group eagerly paid to try out some machine guns and the like, I kept my distance - not really something I like to play around with (and perhaps a tad tasteless?). After the group were satisfied, we continued on to the homestay, stopping off for an interesting lunch along the way where we tried 'snake wine', a lethal spirit infused with the flavour of a deceased snake it shares a bottle with.
Just before we arrived, we caught a boat down the river, stopping off at brick and sweet factories as well as a salt refinery - businesses all based by the river side, an experience which gave us an interesting insight into the local industries. After embarking on another smaller boat and meandering through jungle passages eerily reminicent of scenes from 'Apocalypse Now', we finally came across our homestay, a neat little series of huts that opened out onto a wooden decking by the riverside. After dropping our bags off, we went on a bike ride through the local villages, passing through dense forest and small openings, until we came to a small residence where we ate some fruit and drank some tea whilst a few of the girls tried their hand at some weaving with the local women. Back at the homestay, we relaxed with a beer or two before tucking into a fantastic dinner, a vast array of food that sated the appetites that we had developed during the day's activities, leaving us full and satisfied as some locals performed a traditional music show to us afterwards. The next morning, after a good night's sleep on a surprisingly comfy open-air bed and a decent breakfast, we were off again.
Our next stop was Nha Trang, a coastal city further up the country. We went via Ho Chi Minh, where we once again visited the markets and enjoyed the feel of the city, before catching a pretty luxurious train onwards, watching 'Scrubs' on our cabin's TV as the evening drew to a close. Nha Trang was a welcome stop, boasting a very nice beach which we resolved to make the most of. We also embarked on a day boat trip to the local islands whilst we were there, jumping off the boat every now and again to snorkel and admire the local aquatic life, before enjoying a great lunch in one of the villages where we spoke to some of the locals who told us about the fishing trade and the ways and customs of the people. We also spent an interesting afternoon in some mud baths which was good fun and very relaxing, before heading out in the evening for our new group's first proper night out, the equivalent to Cambodia's 'Angkor What? Bar' night, an evening of group bonding and merriment. And bonding was certainly achieved, for some more so than others, the night giving way to a 'morning after' of embarrassment, shame, gossip and teasing. Luckily, I wasn't involved in any stories, although James unfortunately suffered the wrath of some particularly unpleasant Vietnamese individuals who left him slightly sore and in need of some flip flops. And so the scene was set for the infamous Nha Trang breakfast, a debacle which involved a lot of hopping (old charitable me having shared my flip flops with James), the occasional 'ooh' or 'aah' as pale feet touched scorching ground, an insatiable hunger, a very stingy breakfast (James' 'full english' including a mini frankfurter cut in half and the smallest piece of fatty bacon I have ever seen), a moody temper, another stingy portion, a misunderstanding, and an altogether unsatisfactory conclusion. Don't worry, we laughed about it afterwards. And so we moved on, the group having got to know each other that little bit better.
The next stop was Hoi An, a beautiful little town and world heritage sight, boasting pretty architecture from the centuries that it stood as a major trading port of south-east Asia. Famed for its tailors, who produce suits and the like for a very reasonable price, it also boasted a comprehensive market and a number of arts and crafts shops. I took a liking to it instantly and spent hours leisurely strolling through the market or enjoying some of the town's unique Cao Lau noodles whilst watching boats float slowly down the river, ducking under quaint little bridges as they carried their goods or called over to tourists offering boat trips around town. Our hotel also had a pool, a massive bonus, so a decent amount of time was spent cooling off in it after the day's activities.
The main group activity was a bike trip, which took us through local paddy fields (where our guide explained to us the finer details of seasonal farming), to a restaurant where a family exclusively produced the town's famous 'white rose' dumplings (absolutely delicious, by the way), on to a pottery production house (where we tried our hand at the craft), before heading to our local guide's parents' house for a delicious lunch. When we were satisfied, we cycled to the river where we caught a boat back down to the town centre after a fantastic afternoon, an education in rural Vietnam. We also managed to fit in a night out, catching a minibus down to the beach where we enjoyed a few drinks with some other travellers, a couple of whom, bizarrely, were in our year at Esher College. After a final meal at a very nice and stylish restaurant overlooking the river, we bade Hoi An farewell, having enjoyed a relatively quiet and relaxing few days in one of Vietnam's more picturesque towns.
Our next destination was Hue, the old imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty between 1802 and 1945. Upon arriving, we settled in a very nice hotel and went out to survey the town and grab a couple of drinks. We quickly realised, after spending some time in a local bar, that not all of Vietnam is as suited to tourists as the places we had thus far visited. For the first time, there wasn't an english menu and no one spoke the language, so we had problems even ordering a couple of beers. It dawned on me how complacent we had got during the tour, everything having been so easy. Once again, I felt that I needed to make more effort with the language, something I tried to improve on. In keeping with the city's royal history, our first night was spent enjoying a 'royal banquet' in the style of a Vietnamese court. We were all dressed up in traditional costume: I in the garb of a mandarin (a kind of court minister), most of the girls in the costumes of concubines, Andy as the court eunuch and Ian and Becs, the recently married couple, as the King and Queen, enjoying their own table and grand thrones. We spent the evening tucking into about 11 lavishly designed courses whilst the court music troupe played traditional songs in the background - a grand scene, it must be said. With spirits high and stomachs full, we spent the rest of the evening in 'DMZ', a local riverside bar, enjoying a couple of drinks before making our way to a very cheap street stall opposite our hotel where the drinking continued into the early hours, our conversation interrupted every now and again by a rat that occasionally scuttled past our seats. It could be said that our standards slipped somewhat during the night, a grand opening giving way to a rather seedy finale - can't say we're not experiencing it all to the full though.
Whilst in Hue, we also embarked on a motorcycle tour, each of us assigned a driver who took us through the countryside, past village markets, famous local sights, farmlands, an agricultural museum with a very energetic and eccentric old lady, old temple ruins, a monastery and a nunnery, where we stopped for another fantastic home-cooked lunch. Hai was my driver and we spent some time discussing our respective cultures and the unavoidable subject of premiership football, the league being incredibly popular in south-east Asia. Not surprisingly, Hai didn't know too much about Charlton. All in all, it was a really enjoyable day, one of our favourite of the Vietnam leg, a comprehensive insight into the country's culture and the regions in which its population have traditionally resided. Our last moments in Hue were somewhat chaotic. Essentially, there was a misunderstanding as to the time we were to meet at the hotel to go to the train station, the itinery having been changed, a situation which led me and James to arrive very late, the rest of the group already at the station with a few minutes until the train was due to arrive. Luckily, the train was late and we comfortably made it, although it caused quite a scare at the time. Looking back, I can't help but find it quite amusing that whilst Hai and the group were deperately trying to find out where we were, James and myself were leisurely making our way around the famous Citadel on cycle rickshaws, posing for pictures by the old royal quarter, casually checking our watches at intervals, sure that we were going to make good time. Although we only managed a quick whistlestop tour, the sprawling citadel contained some interesting old sites from the time of the Nguyen Dynasty, including grand palaces, neat gardens, libraries and other offical buildings. So, after a brief panic we were back on our way. Next stop - Hanoi.
The second largest city in the country, Hanoi is also Vietnam's capital, boasting a rich history that dates back as far as 3000BC. We had one full day there before moving on to Halong Bay, so decided to make the most of it and visit some of city's main sites. After an early morning orientation tour and a brief attempt at some sleep, a group of us got together and made our way to our first attraction - Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. In order to gauge the significance of this site for the ordinary citizen, one needs to first understand the respect that Ho Chi Minh, or 'uncle' as he is affectionately referred to as, holds in Vietnam. He is seen as the guiding figure in the foundation of the socialist republic, the defeater of colonial interests in the country, an altogether heroic individual, a man of the people who liberated the country and gave it back to its citizens. He is presented on t-shirts and the like as a kind of Che Guevara revolutionary, has his face printed on the national currency and even had a city renamed after him. The mausoleum itself was free and although there was a substantial queue outside, the crowd was constantly moving and we found ourselves inside relatively quickly. Once inside, we had to adhere to strict rules of respect which demanded a solemn expression, hands by one's side, a steady march and no talking. It was a surreal experience, pacing through the dimly lit room and looking at the body of the nation's founding father, a man I had seen pictures of everywhere suddenly lying there in front of me. His body was in incredible condition, a result of Russian Soviet technology, his face as fresh as if he were still alive, an impressive feat in preservation seeing as he died 40 years ago.
Afterwards, we crossed the compound to visit Ho Chi Minh's old living quarters which consisted of a very simple couple of rooms on stilts, a humble abode in keeping with the communist ideology. After walking around the lake which it overlooked, we collected our belongings and moved on to our next stop, the Temple of Literature, or 'Van Mieu'. After some commotion in the taxi on the way there, our driver's meter jumping at an absurd rate, an obvious attempt to scam us failing at our refusal to pay even a fraction of what he demanded, we arrived at about noon. The temple, which was more of a complex of neat gardens and study rooms (the building being Vietnam's first university), was very nice, something of a sanctuary amongst the constant stream of vehicles and choas outside. We stayed there for a good couple of hours, ambling around the site, reading of kings, mandarins and scholars, of educational rituals and traditions, of the rich history that lives amongst its finely designed halls, gardens and sculptures. When we had trailed every path and felt satisfied enough, we grabbed some lunch in a nearby restaurant before heading to Hoa Lo prison, a site that would later be dubbed the 'Hanoi Hilton' by its American inmates during the war.
Most of the prison was destroyed in the mid-nineties to make way for various building developments, so what remains now is merely a small museum that gives the visitor an idea of the prison conditions and its history. Established by the French during their colonial rule of the country for the purpose of detainment and torture of political prisoners, the first section is dedicated to highlighting the extreme cruelty and oppression of this period, depicting gruesome conditions and torture mothods, as well as documenting executions and successful escape attempts. The rest of the site informs visitors of the period in which the Vietnamese government used the prison to detain American POWs, although the propeganda spin is evident throughout. One room was actually dedicated to highlighting how much the soldiers actually enjoyed their time in Hoa Lo, pictures of POWs celebrating christmas, playing sports and laughing jovially perhaps somewhat detached from the reality of the situation.
Wheras, on the whole, the British government, for example, will admit its past mistakes and address state crimes with transparency, the Vietnamese communist government, having been attacked ever since its foundation, still feels the need to justify its conduct to its people and foreigners by way of propeganda and state control. I have a lot of respect for the Vietnamese socialist cause, but that respect dwindles in the face of blatent propeganda, a completely unsubtle twisiting of facts and the stifling of free speech. The museum was, however, very interesting, especially the section which contained John McCain's military uniform, acquired during the time that he spent in the prison. Although one has to take the 'facts' presented with a pinch of salt, Vietnam's museums, especially those in the cities, were actually pretty good. We returned to our hotel after a relatively tiring, but interesting, day. After getting a nice meal in a local restaurant and grabbing a drink at one of the many street stalls, taking some time to watch the evening flow past, we decided to call it a night, preparing for our early departure to Halong Bay the next morning.
Upon arrriving at Halong Bay the next day, we embarked on an interesting large wooden boat (search 'Halong Bay' on google images if you want to see one), exclusively ours for the day, before setting off. After enjoying a very acceptable lunch in the comfortable cabin, we all poured out on deck to admire the stunning scenery - huge, jagged, beach-lined rocks standing magnificently in the sea, hundreds of them lining the landscape, abstract sculptures bursting out of the calm, blue/green water, their forms casting dancing shadows on the water and brilliant angles of light, a curious, but undeniably beautiful, natural phenomenom. Every now and again we would anchor ourselves amongst the formations, diving off the boat into the sea, enjoying the almost surreal tranquility of the afternoon, the hours gently ticking by, fading in the warm comfort of the sunlight.
After a few hours, we stopped off at one of the many caves that the bay boasts, staring in awe at the huge stalactites and stalagmites that rose and fell all around, illuminted by various coloured lights that served to highlight their size and beauty, casting ominous looking shadows across the cavernous hall, adding to the interesting ambience of the structure, a kind of pyrotechnic light show that humbly served to remind us of the sublime beauty of nature. Indeed, that is what Halong Bay was - a fine example of the wonder, mystery and beauty of the planet on which we live. Once again, I bumped into some friends from back home, quickly sharing stories before embarking on our respective boats, all of us commenting on our appreciation of the bay which we found ourselves in.
As the day faded and the sun set over the bay, we silently made our way to Cat Ba Island, where we were to spend a night before returning to Hanoi, after a very acceptable day spent enjoying the idler pleasures of life in one of the most perfect spots to do so. After a nice meal at a local restaurant, the group convened in the 'Blue Note Bar' in the evening, where we all enjoyed a fair few drinks, James and myself enough to believe that the other had the key to our room, thus spending the night in other people's spare beds whilst our key waited mockingly at reception. James actually woke Ian and Becs up as he frantically knocked on our door, trying to wake me up (I was, in fact, fast asleep a couple of floors down). You have to laugh. Most of the group left for a kayak trip the next morning, but me and James, upon catching sight of the rain, and having already kayaked in Nepal, decided to give it a miss. When the others returned, we left for once again for Hanoi.
Back in Hanoi, we spent a couple of days meandering around the city's small streets, enjoying the sights, smells and sounds, visiting various shops, cafes and restaurants as we did so, stopping every now and again to watch life roll on by. During this time, a few of us also enjoyed a particularly interesting night out which took us to a couple of closed clubs, through a questionable area of town, past some a crowd of drag-racers, to a somewhat dodgy bar and finally to an establishment located near our hotel that we, desirous of a last drink, chanced upon when the owner peeked her head out from between a metal grating and ushered us in. Inside, it was surprisingly lively, although I couldn't hlp but feel that they didn't possess an after-hours licence, what with all the secrecy. Good fun nonetheless. During this period, we also bade farewell to Hai and the six members of the group who joined us for the Vietnam leg, an emotional, but also exciting time, as we also met the two new members, Lucy and Laura, the same day. Another girl was supposed to be joining us, but she mysteriously never showed up. After the latest group reshuffle, there were now seven gap-year students out of a group of twelve. We were also introduced to Ben (a female), our latest group leader, a great chilled-out individual who was also interestingly a published author. And so the next leg began.
We still had one more stop in Vietnam before we crossed the border - the town of Vinh. It really was a stop-off, however, and aside from a simple evening meal, a couple of drinks and a great buffet breakfast the next morning, we didn't do an awful lot before leaving for the border. Ian and Becs, who had left the group for a couple of days whilst we were in Hanoi in order to go on a trek up north, rejoined us and we were off. The landscape quickly developed as we climbed the mountains towards the crossing, flat paddy fields giving way to huge hills and luscious vegetation. The scene was set for Laos and Vietnam was behind us.
As with Cambodia, I loved my time in Vietnam. The experience, however, was very different, the history and people of the country altering our journey and setting it on an alternative path, coloured with Vietnam's unique culture. Politics played a larger role in this trip, as inescapable as the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge years were in Cambodia. I also found the rural life of the nation particularly enduring, the people I met outside of the cities much more friendly. I have to say that I think I saw more smiles in Cambodia, but perhaps that was because I wanted to. The natural beauty of the country will also stay imprinted on my memory. So, all in all, it was fantastic. The tour hadn't let me down yet, roll on Laos...