On our last morning we had arranged amongst ourselves for 6 of us to travel on a tour taking up the majority of the morning prior to the time needed to check out. It was slightly more expensive than some that we had looked at but it was pretty much the only one that we could feasibly fit in before we were collected from the hotel for our transfer to the airport. We were collected from the hotel and taken to a boat station where we boarded speedboats and having donned the oh so fetching life jacket. Soon we took off and sped down the river for a speedy trip out to visit the Tunnels.
We were given breakfast on route and some of us chatted, I was quite happy just to sit and watch the scenery as we sped out of Ho Chi Minh City heading in a northerly direction as the crow flies. I found it fascinating watching the speed boat weaving in and out of the water hyacinth, I wondered how often that got caught in rudders. It was wonderful to just watch life on the water just carrying on and to be away from the hustle and bustle of the busy city.
Once we arrived at the tunnels, we were even more grateful of the unholy hour that we had got up at as the car park was pretty much empty with perhaps a coach or two only in view and we realised that we would absolutely be viewing this historic site with very few other hangers on.
The Cu Chi Tunnels became legendary throughout the 60’s really I think when the Viet Cong took control of the 30-40km rural area down to Ho Chi Minh. It is thought that at its absoloute peak the tunnels stretched all the way from Ho Chi Min City right over to the Cambodian boarder. The network of tunnels themselves is thought to have been as long as around 250km in total. It utterly astonishing when you think about that in more detail. Several areas of the network of tunnels were also storeys deep and obviously included int eh construction were countless trap doors, living areas, kitchens storage facilities, weapons bases, forms of hospitals and nursing stations as well as command centres.
The tunnels apparently took around 25 years to build, starting back as far as the 40’s built by a poorly equipped peasant army for the French invasion of the area mainly for communications between villages but also to help the South Vietnamese evade the French troops. They were returned to for the war in the 60’s – extended and strengthened and repaired where needed. The Tet Offensive attached were actually planned from here in 1968.
Over the years the Viet Cong worked on making the tunnels difficult to both detect and also disable. Wooden trap doors were heavily camouflaged with earth and branches and some were even booby trapped. There were examples of these for us to look at on the site and the simplicity of some of the booby traps was unreal yet utterly destructive and maiming to its victims.
There was an opportunity to see if you could disappear down one of the tunnels quickly – most of us in the group looked at each other looked at the hole and worked out that we’d never actually make it in never mind out! We were shown how it was done within a matter of seconds and we did manage to persuade one of the group, a far slender gentleman than the rest of us to have a go as well. It was fascinating.
Because of the deception of the South Vietnamese by their careful and skilful creation of the tunnels they were able to evade so many troops who tried to find them in the area. As a result US and Australian troops launched large scale ground operations to try and identify the location of the tunnels by defoliating rice fields and bulldozed huge amounts of the jungle, evacuated villages and the Americans used a whole host of chemical bombs not he area including napalm and set fire to the dry vegetation but the intense heat interacted with the wet tropical air and created cloudbursts that extinguished the fires leaving he Viet Cong safe in their tunnels. Being unsuccessful in thier attempts to flush them out the Americans started sending down ‘tunnel rats’ who ended up in sustaining horrific injuries and thus casualties owing tot he underground fire fights and booby traps.
The Viet Cong were clever, very very clever, when the Americans tried sending down dogs into the tunnels to attack them, the Viet Cong started washing in US soap and wearing US Uniforms so as to confuse the dogs into not attacking them. Owing to the amount of dogs also killed or maimed as a result of the booby traps, which of course they could not spot, the Mexicans started refusing to sending their dogs to their death by going down the tunnels.
It wasn’t until the late 60s that the Americans gave up as such and carpet bombed the entire are with B-52s which destroyed a number of the tunnels as well as anything else that was around at the time. But it was seen merely as a symbolic gesture in the end as the Americans were pretty much on their way out of the war by this time and the tunnels had already served their purpose. It left the area devastated with chemicals left in the soil and water, leaving farmers and workers at risk and the crop yields depleted.
There was an opportunity to go through one of the tunnels but at 1.2m high and only 80cm across and unlit – I decided that I could get what it felt like from above ground without the need to crawl inside myself. I think that I would have found it far too clautrophobic for comfort.
It was an eye opening experience to put it mildly. To suddenly hear gunfire from the area where you were able to pay to fire genuine AK-47s as you were walking around the site was utterly surreal. None of our group fancied shooting the real guns for a small fortune but to just stand and hear the guns going off felt creepy in itself.
From here we headed back to the speed boat and sped our way back up to the terminal that we had left from where we were given some lunch and returned to the hotel in plenty enough time to change, shower finish packing and await our transfer to the airport and home. What a trip, action packed with such a variety of activities and a wonderful guide who really helped me to enjoy the country that in time I would like to return to to explore more of.
Thankfully someone did come up trumps on my emergency call out for Immodium. A great way to start the day, but I was determined that I was not going to miss the day as we were heading out to pop along to different places via different boats along the Mekong Delta and I was really looking forward to it. I managed to sip some coffee and have some toast to put at least something in the tummie as I felt TOTALLY drained from the previous nights events & was feeling a little weak and shakey.
We had a short coach trip to get to the boat that we would be initially heading out into the Mekong Delta on. It was fascinating once we had chugged out of the boat station to see the amount of what looked like rubbish floating on teh water, but on closer inspection and after askiing Hung we realised it was actually a growing plant which is a weed and in some areas is a nightmare to the local farming area.
Our first stop was to a Honey Farm (Bee-z) and a Chocolate producer. Both were fascinating though I am not sure that I really wanted to spend time holding a large piece of Honeycomb with all of the wasps (or were they Vietnamese bees?) still buzzing all over them! Others bravely did and we sampled some Honey tea and a coconut treat before moving on to see the raw cocoa beans and a brief sample of the process of the bean to bar. Having done all of the work with Menier Cooking Chocolate whilst working at Geometry PR it was fascinating to see it all for real rather than on the pages of a book or wikipedia! The chocolate was dark and bitter and delicious and whilst I could easily have taken some home, I pointed out to myself that it was ruddy warm out and that anything that I did buy would surely melt into some form of lump before it even made it back to my case in the hotel!
At the end of the trip to these establishments they were very keen to show us thier pet, clearly a hit with the tourists – a MASSIVE python who was aptly named Python! They were keen for people to pose with him around thier neck and for some unknown reason as no one else stood forward, I did. Why? Ive no idea as I detest snakes. They freak me out in Harry Potter yet here I was offering to have an 8ft one draped over my shoulders. Honest to god, I worry about myself at times! So photo was dually taken, it was fine – i do actually look like i am crapping myself in the photo and that was becuase I almost literally was (the loo was the final stop before getting back on to the boat) The snake was moving across my shoulders as I posed and it was SUCH a strange feeling as his muscles were put into action alonf his body as he moved. I say he, I have no idea if it actually was a he or a she?! I felt very proud of myself – another thing ticked off the random things to do list!!
The next stop was to visit a family-run business that made coconut sweets and some other items. They showed us how to get the flesh out to use in the sweets & they cracked open a large coconuts which was fascinating, if not rather dangerous looking!
Having purchased some of the sweets for work, thinking that they are less likely to be ruined in the heat of the rest of the day, we all tried a number of different fruits some which were delicious and sone that had just THE strangest texture to them.
From here we were taken by horse and cart through some of the local area to the next type of boat that we got to the stop for lunch which appeared to be in the middle of no where. But lunch was all laid out ready for us. As we were near the water, unsurprisingly we had fish for lunch. First course was prawns in their shells followed by an Elephant fish which was sort of filleted in front of us. Absoloutely THE last thing that I felt like eating I have to say! My stomachs turned at the sight and smell of it after the previous day/night’s experience.
During our meal, where all I had was beer, we were sat at tables of four and Chris and I were sat with Rosemary and Chris. Somehow we got onto the topic of Morning Glory and Rosemary clearly was not aware of the other meaning for it and was going on and on about the plant in her garden, with EVErY sentence she uttered the rest of us were in stitches, unable to control the giggles, especially as her husband kept trying to get her to stop aware that she was not clued up on the other meaning. I laughed SO much it hurt and I had tears streaming down my face, it was most definitely a case of you had to be there.
From here we were transported in tiny little boats through the amazing bamboo clad waterways to lead us back out to the main point on the delta to revised our larger boat back to the boat station that we had started from earlier that day.
Back at the hotel we had a short while to get ready for the final meal that we were going to have that Hung had arranged the location for, not too far from the hotel. It was above some shops and you walked through a sort of mini supermarket to a lift at the back which only took a couple of people to go up a few floors to get to the restaurant. There were very few others in there when we arrived and they were very slow at getting the drinks out let alone the orders for food. It was here that we gave Hung his tips and I was the one that thanked him for his time and information to help make the trip a great success. Unfortunately I started off by saying how we had all enjoyed our tome in Cambodia – WRONG COUNTRY EMMA!!! As the food had not arrived for many, several of us decided to leave, pay for what we had and try and find somewhere else to eat. We headed to the burger looking place just up from the hotel. Several were leaving early int he morning and so we bid our goodbyes to several, but some of us had all managed to book on to a trip tot he Chu Chi tunnels the following morning which was not part of the Explore trip.
It was lovely to make it to bed feeling a reasonable temperature, even if a tad delicate still and still quite weak. I was proud, and relieved that I had managed to last the day.
We made our way to Saigon by plane on an early flight after an early departure from our hotel in Hoi An flying from Danang. The weather was definitely warmer and incredibly humid in the capital city. You could tell it was far more cosmopolitan than the previous places that we had visited really and certainly not as quaint I felt. The room was wonderfully (and thankfully) air conditioned and a welcome relief from the sweat central heat of outside – with only such a short visit there was no chance my body was going to acclimatise in time!! It was quite a stark contrast to the previous temperatures that we had been in.
After about 10 mins in our rooms we were back downstairs for a walking tour and lunch out. I didn’t really feel the vibe of the city – it was quite hard to work out my bearings in general but with little more than 48 hours we did a pretty grand job of shoving everything in, well the major sights. There seemed to be even more bloomin mopeds on the streets and passing through the city from the airport was eye opening watching all of the mopeds at all of the traffic lights stops. Obviously being a much larger city there were bound to be more but it just felt as there were even more as the streets were wider than they were in say, Hanoi.
We headed out to wander the streets to see the sights and first off was to grab some lunch. The weather really was stifling and I was struggling a little, downing water like there was no tomorrow. Unsure of what to have to eat as I was always wary of ordering something that had the jolly old bell pepper lurking in it. I decided to go with another Cao Lau which I had chosen back in Hoi An and which was utterly delicious – Japanese style noodles seasoned with herbs, salad greens and bean sprouts, served with a slice or two of roast pork. I knew what it was & I couldn’t really go wrong with that choice. HOW WRONG COULD I BE??!!
Unfortunately my dish was a little dissimilar to the version that I had in Hoi An and most importantly atop of the dish was delicately placed a prawn in its shell still. This was not mentioned on the menu at all and Hung was excellent at explaining to the restaurant why I. Could not have the dish and how they simply couldnt just take it off the top and I eat the remainder of it. After much. Agitated discussion the dish was taken away and was being remade without the prawn on the top. I was incredibly suspicious of the second version and I was adamant that there was still prawn in it. Hung reassured me that the restaurant had promised that there was none in the replacement. I kind of had to take his word for it and so had a few mouthfuls before declaring that I really wasn’t that hungry after all and that it was probably because of the heat.
We walked past the People’s Committee Building which we, as tourists, were unable to enter. Its style was French colonial of course looking similar to a sort of Hotel de Ville as you would see in France. At one end of it is a huge statue of Uncle Ho and the other a ole Thor’s of construction where the proposed central city station will be for the new Metro station that is slowly being built/created in the city.
Other sites that we passed on our walk were the Opera House, which is near to the construction of the new metro system. We saw the Notre Dame Cathedral which was a rose brick colour and built between 1877 and 1883. Its based in an area of the city known as the city’s government quarter. Being so close after New Year and so close to Tet, we did find that most of the places that we were keen to see the inside of were not actually open, I think I would have liked the opportunity to explore the city a little more I have to say. The impressive towers of the cathedral, Hung told us were around 40m high and the top bits are iron spires. Its still an operating Catholic Church. The Central Post Office we did get an opportunity to look inside of and it was fascinating – a HUGE portrait of Uncle Ho (obviously) took the main position and line of sight as you entered the building.
I’m not sure that I could honestly say that it was the highlight of the day, more the most poignant part of the day was the visit to the War Remnants Museum which we had already been advised in our trip notes was to give us a very different version of the Vietnam (American) War than that depicted by the Americans. It was a gruelling visit. But a very. Necessary one to fully appreciate the more recent history of the country. It was already sweltering and I was feeling incredibly feint walking around all of the halls of the artefacts that were on display as well as the mass of photos of the atrocities in the other areas of the country during the 60s. The after effects of the chemical warfare and the clarification../realisation that actually millions died in this country for, as far as I could tell, very little reason what so ever. The descendants of those that were hit or came into contact with the napalm and other chemicals that the Americans exposed millions of Vietnamese to are still disfigured and disabled to some degree. Seeing some of the images of those that were effected first hand were disturbing to say the least but yet one wanted to soak it all in to truly understand the utter atrocities that took place in this beautiful country.
I couldn’t do all of the rooms, too emotional and was starting to feel not just too hot but really quite unwell. I came outside and perched with a bottle of water out of the sun and watched an American dressed in American clothes, many apologies to any American readers, sort of all saluting to and in praise of the army who spent a good 10-15 mins setting up a camera to take a photo of himself all thumbs up happy smiley posing next to the American built F-5E just that was used to bombs he Presidential Palace in 1975 and sits in the courtyard area of the museum. I felt sick. I mean I did anyway but I couldn’t honestly believe what I was seeing. It was certainly NOT the act of compassion or understanding of the atrocities and frankly murder or millions of innocent civilians in this country. I was INCREDIBLY close to going up to him and saying how inappropriate his actions were, but if Im honest I thought I might actually have thrown up all over him my stomachs was starting to churn something chronic.
We made it back to our rooms to freshen up etc before all heading out to supper – mainly tot he delicious sounding restaurant around the corner that Hung had suggested and booked for us all. Whilst ‘freshening up’ the idea of ANYTHING passing my lips at this stage bar itsy bitsy teeny weeny sips of water made me nauseous and I had spent quite a while not more than a step away from the bathroom. There was absoloulty NO WAY that there was no prawn in the second version of the lunchtime dish. This was typical of a shell fish reaction – GET OUT OF MY BODY by ANY means possible and via any entrance or exit point. Im present sure that I do not need to go into much detail. I binned the idea of going out for the meal and went through a FREEZING cold stage where i was literally shivering in my room, had ALL the clothes I had with me on pretty much in the bed, air-con off & I COULD NOT get warm. It was 33 degrees outside and yet I felt like I was in the arctic. I decided to have a bath, that might relax me if not warm me up. I sat in it as it filled up so that my body could get used to the heat, my body was BRIGHT pink front he heat of the water yet STILL I was shivering. Safe to say that I was NOT in a good way. I was really quite concerned and had decided that if it didn’t subside by the morning I really would have o go to hospital to get checked out as this was not actually funny. What with he head cold as well for the majority of the holiday I just felt like a massive bundle of feebleness.
I put out an emergency call for Imodium for the following morning as I was really looking forward to the day ahead but it was ALL on little boats out on the Mekong River and I honestly had no idea what to do if it continued into tomorrow as I couldn’t possibly make the trip out.
At some point I must have got to sleep, how Ive not idea and why, in hindsight, I didn’t just go and stand in the corridor outside my room which had no air on in it I have no idea! That surely would have warmed me up?!
It was lovely to have a day that wasn’t so scripted, to be able to chill a little and do my own thing. My lurgy was still raging but I decided that although I should probably rest up while I could there was also a town out there that needed exploring and you never know if/when you are going to visit again. I had my breakfast and headed out to do a spot of exploring at my own pace.
As I headed from the hotel on the walk into town I was stopped by a girl getting off the back of a scooter who walked with me as I ambled along the road towards the town. We chatted and of course she was wanting me to visit her shop as she was a dressmaker. Well that was job no 1 sorted – to find a dress maker and have some clothes made, because I could. As I’m still trying my hardest to loose some weight it was pointless in trying to get anything too jazzy or expensive and so some basics were on my agenda. Having been measured up to the nines on the top half, I chose a couple of tops including a traditional style top instead of a dress which had beautiful lanterns all over it – apt for the town I was in, it was a no brainier! As I was wrapping up my choices and paying I saw someone else having a try on of a dress that I thought might be quite useful too so I asked for that as well. From here I also went on to have some sandals made two the same and in different colours. An extravagance but I’m looking forward to saying that I had them made in Vietnam!!
From here I went to see the market as we were told it was better to go in the morning as there weren’t many trading in the afternoon. The heavens opened and I was glad to have managed to have got the pac-a-mac just in time else I’d have been drenched through. It was wonderful seeing all the fruits, veg and meat all laid out as well as the fish and other bits and pieces. I’m not sure that food hygiene is a massive thing out here, it all I could think of as well as how fresh everything looked.
Having had a further amble and understanding of actually quite how small the town is and how it was going to be easy to see the old part of it at total ease in a day. I headed back to the hotel to have my massage and pedicure that I had booked. It’s always pretty hard having a massage when you are totally blocked up but to the amusement of the masseuse I shoved a tissue up each nostril and put some more tissues by my shoulder and lay down ready for my full body massage. It was wonderful, really good to get some knots and tension out even if it felt slightly odd having the lady almost sitting on top of me while she did it.
I had a shower once is finished to get all the oil off and wash my hair and sorted myself out for the remainder of the day out and about seeing the sights of the town. Dosed up on yet more meds that were frankly doing absolutely nothing to ease the symptoms as far as I could tell.
I headed back out to have my afternoon amble and see some more of this quaint little place. I visited the Old Chinese Assembly Hall that Hung had recommended which was beautiful but TOTAL Death by Incense which properly got to the back of my throat. It was nice to be able to do things at my own pace I must say.
There is quite a Chinese influence in a number of the buildings as there as when the Chinese settled here they identified them selves according to their province back home and as a result each community built their own assembly halls which all remain today. There is also the Japanese covered bridge, first constructed in the 1590s by the Japanese community to link them to the Chinese quarters. It was flattened out for cars to use by the French but it has thankfully since been restored to its arched shape. There are alters or rather fairly weathered statues of dogs one end and monkies the other, thought to be because it was built in the year f one and finished in the other or because many of the Emperors of Japan were born in these years.
Because of the location Hoi An is totally vulnerable to flooding and the lady who encouraged me to go to her dressmakers was telling me and showing me how high it can come up and how quickly they have to move to stop all their stock from being ruined. It was fascinating and thankfully not something that we experienced while we were there. Here are some general photos of the town, hopefully it will give you an idea of how stunning it was & kind of why I fell in love with it.
On my amblings I ran into two of the group – Paul & Chris who had spent most of their day sitting and people watching in the same bar by the river in the sunshine. They were rather pink! I joined them for a few more beers and people watching tasting massive bits of ginger from street sellers and generally giggling lots before they went off for massages and a rest before coming out later to collect their jackets that they were having made that day as well.
I went to collect my clothes too and was really pleased with them & the shoes I’d had made too – I did ask for a couple of amends to the clothes, a chinese style traditional top needed letting out a little and the basic dress I had, I wanted the sleeves slightly shorter so they were delivered back to the hotel for me to pick up when I got back after supper.
Well New Year was a total wipe out for all of us apparently as not ONE of the group was there to se wit in with Hung who was apparently enjoying the free flowing wine until the early hours, well ok maybe until just after midnight!
Today was as a part travelling day as we headed further south to our next overnight destination of Hoi An – the town I’d heard most about from other travellers to Vietnam that apparently was a must see and do not miss place and I’d love it. Remembering the bumpy roads from Cambodia in the bus, I used my neck support from the plane to help ease the jolty movements and so cause my neck any unnecessary extra pain. I felt proud of my self as I really do think that it was a tremendous help. We took the Hai Van Pass which is a beautiful winding mountain road where you pass a great number of sights. Thankfully I was on the right hand side of the bus so I was unable to see the utter nut jobs on their bikes overtaking the bus on sharp bends. There were a number of shrines at the side of the road that I had full view of which I can only assume were for those killed in accidents on the roads. When we weren’t climbing the pass in the bus we passed the typical scenes that I was expecting to see and hoping to capture on camera (but have failed it appears) of workers or should I be calling them farmers out in the paddy fields.
It was on this road the Hai Van Pass that THE Vietnam episode was filmed for Top Gear, the one that I have never seen, yet have still put a link to, despite never having seen it 🙂 The pass was the boundary between Vietnam and the kingdom of Champa back in the 15th Century and until the war in the 60s was heavily forested. There is a fort at the top which we stopped at which is full of French bullet holes and was also used as a bunker later but the Americans and South Vietnamese. It was clearly also THE place to have your wedding photograph taken, as everywhere in Vietnam seemed to be!
If we weren’t in a bus we could have shaved an hour off our journey by using the Hai Van Tunnel but lorries, tourist buses, motorbikes and bicycles are banned from taking that route, mainly in case they get stuck apparently?
We headed to Thuy Son which is the largest and most famous of the Marble Mountains which houses a number of Buddhist sanctuaries, that were originally Hindu and pagodas which also gave some wonderful views of the sea. They were very picturesque and it was lovely to see some sights finally in some warm sunshine after a quick 10 mins on the beach in Danang to paddle in the frankly FREEZING waters of the South China Sea! Definitely not tempted to strip off and have a dip, that was for sure!
From here we headed on to Hoi An. Having checked into our hotel which was walking distance from the main town and, even better, had a massage & pedicure option which I was sure to be partaking in the following day! Hung took us on an orientation walk after a little time to ‘freshen up’ in our rooms. My word, having heard so much of the town I was certainly not disappointed. The atmosphere and lack of traffic was enough alone to make me want to stay here for longer than the 36 hours or so that we had. Sadly the photos of the evening walk did not come out well enough t really demonstrate the utter beauty of this place, Ill try adding a few though to try and give you an idea.
We had a delicious dinner in a restaurant called Banana Leaf where I sampled one of the traditional dishes of the area called Cao Lau which was delicious. In fact everyone had a delicious meal that evening and went to bed stuffed and ready to explore on our own the following day as we had a day at leisure, a day I was really looking forward to to potter and do my own thing.
Pronounced Hway or even Hey, Hue was our last stop of 2017. Exhausted from the ‘experience’ of the overnight train we thankfully were able to get into our rooms at the hotel where we would be for two nights. An interesting room. The bathroom was separated from the bedroom by a LARGE pane of glass and as far as I could see, absolutely no curtain to maintain dignity if sharing. I jumped straight in the shower relieved to feel slightly more awake and, well err clean. Slight issue on the exit from said shower – there were no towels in the room. I looked literally everywhere. Thankfully I travel equipped with a travel towel from the days of the Great Wall of China when we were told the towels were the size of tea towels just in case the same happens again in a foreign country – never needed to use it again until now! Blimey, the organised packing was TOTALLY paying off now!
On arrival at the hotel we were pointed to Mr Fix It who owned a little shop next to the hotel where was good for a basic authentic lunch and did laundry on the cheap and if you needed pretty much anything – Mr Fix-It was your man! This was welcomed news and I put in several bits of laundry and when I came to get a beer and lunch found the majority of the rest of the crew also dining there. What a lovely friendly chap and tasty lunch for very little, man just a sandwich, bag of crisps and a drink back at home was the same as a 3 course meal for two here with beer. Crazy. But then I am also a millionaire here (sadly only in Dong). It’s a nice feeling seeing in the new year as a millionaire!
We set off on a trip down the Perfume River before our walking tour of the Imperial City. By boat of course. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting but I think perhaps something slightly more picturesque and perhaps more floral along the banks? We thankfully had the boat to ourselves and we chugged down the river to the Thien Mu Pagoda which was built on a hill overlooking the river. This Pagoda is deemed to be another icon of Vietnam and symbol of the city of Hue almost as much as the citadel itself (which I’ll come to later). With a wide stairway leading up to the Thap Phuoc Duyen sits impressively at the top with its 7 storeys standing at 21m high and dedicated to a manushi-Buddha (one that appeared in human form).Originally constructed in 1844 the tower itself was a built during the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri. The Pagoda itself was believed to have been originally founded in 1601 by a gentleman called Nguyen Hoang who was the governor of the Thuan Hoa province at the time. Sadly over the centuries many of the surrounding buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt on numerous occasions and since the 60’s it has been a key spot for several political demonstrations. To the right of the tower is a pavilion which contains a stele which is thought to date from around 1715. It’s located on the back of a giant turtle – a symbol of longevity in Vietnam as I have mentioned in a previous post.
To the left of the tower stands a six-story pavilion which houses an ENORMOUS bell from 1710 which weighs 2052kg and can be heard from an amazing 10km away!
The actual temple itself is found in an inner courtyard past the triple gated entrance where there are three statues of Buddhist guardians stand keeping watch. It was a very serene and tranquil location and there were a few Buddhist monks around and at one point started a small ceremony in the temple which really was rather calming, I could have stood and watched the goings on for hours but sadly time was pressing on and we needed to see the rest of the site before moving on to the citadel in the centre. There were a number of monks tending to the trees pruning them ahead of spring and collecting wood and I even witnessed a class of children being taught as I peered over a wall at the sound. All of the different colour of robes denoting their rank or perhaps status is a better word within the religion. There were HORDES of people (well more than we had seen or even encountered at our other tourist spots) and trying to get photos without them in was quite an accomplishment to put it mildly!!
The coach picked us up outside and we headed towards the citadel which is based in the centre of the city. Built between 1804 and 1833 it is heavily fortified with 2m thick walls that are 10km long and there is a moat that is 30m across and 4m deep surrounding the citadel and it’s 10 gateways. There are several sections to it, the Imperial Enclosure and the Forbidden Purple City are deemed to be the most important and formed the epicentre of Vietnamese Royal life at the time.
We entered the Imperial Enclosure through the Ngo Mon Gate which faces the huge flag tower and reminded me hugely of the gateway to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The central passageway, noted by its yellow doors was reserved for the use of the Emperor only as was the bridge to it across the lotus ponds in front. Anyone else coming into the Imperial Enclosure came in through the other gates seen on the sides as well as the pathways around the pond. On top of the main gate is Ngu Phùng (Belvedere of the Five Phoenix) and a massive drum and bell right on top. It was at this gateway in 1945 when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated and the Nguyen dynasty came to an end. The Imperial Enclosure itself is pretty much a citadel within a citadel as the walls 6m high and 2.5km log walls surrounding the emperor’s residence, temples, palaces as well as the main state buildings. It was sadly bombed during the French and American wars and so what is left is sadly only a fraction of the original with 20 out of the original 148 buildings surviving in tact. It all felt rather run down in general, well what was left obviously, with weeds often popping out of random places, a lot of rubble and broken masonry but yet none the less I could almost picture the Emperor and his dignitaries wandering around in their gowns. We passed several places where small restoration projects were taking place – clearly wisely using the money that they had to the bed of their ability.
The Thái Hoa Palace (Palace of supreme harmony) dates back to 1803 and it was where the Emperor would receive guests on state visits as well as to welcome other important ceremonies and official receptions whilst sat on his the throne on a small raised platform in direct line to the entrance gate I mentioned previously. It’s essentially a large hall with a highly ornate timber roof all a deep reddy colour and amazingly the majority of it original, just a few pillars were in the process of being restored.
The seemingly most in tact area of the citadel was the To Mieu Temple Complex, mainly as it has undergone some significant restoration. The temple itself houses a shrine to each of the Emperors, identified by their photos. A solemn peaceful place of worship and respect to times gone by. Outside of this building stand the Nine Dynastic Urns which are dedicated to only one of the Sovereigns. They are HUGE things – standing around 2 meters high and weigh apparently 1900kg and 2600kg. They each symbolise the strength of the power and stability of the Nguyen throne at the time. I had my photo taken here next to one so that you can see how tall they really are. (The main photo of this in particular blog post). There were also some really random dragons in what looked like telephone boxes that I didn’t really quite work out.
We headed back to the hotel via one part of the Nine Holy Canons on the way out which are located either side of the flag tower. They were never intended to be fired and weight about 10 tonnes a piece – I’m not sure how many people it would take to move each of them into position if they did want to use them but it would certainly do my back in!
We went out to Elegant Restaurant, chosen by Hung, as our New Years Eve meal. It was in a street which was a hive of activity compared to our hotel a little out-of-town. They were gearing up to celebrate the New Year further down the street with THE MOST god awful singer RUINING a number of well-known ballads from across the years. I was THIS close to going over to either pull the plug or take over myself. Even Hung was getting wound up with it and went off to identify what all the racket was. After the meal we headed back to the hotel where a ‘party’ was being held by the manager of the hotel in the foyer to celebrate new year with all of the guests. There was red wine for all and we were given, very thoughtfully, a present each. Wrapped in a box that was totally different to the contents it was all rather bizarre. I got a compact mirror – as someone who barely looks in a mirror apart from to put contact lenses in or, more recently, pluck out the odd whisker off my chin, it was going to be hiding in a drawer never to see the light of day again. The gesture was gratefully received and we all stood round sipping the fairly offensive red wine that we were given and everyone kind of wanting to piss off to a bar or head back to where we had just come from to see the New Year in with some what more atmosphere than there was at the hotel. I, however, was blooming grateful and as a loather of New Year festivities when I’m just not in the mood for it found it TOTALLY acceptable to actually slip off to my bed. Tucked up I was by 1030pm enjoying the fact that the bed wasn’t constantly moving around & that it was quiet after the journey on the train the night before. I left a fair few of the group all ready to see in the New Year, somewhere. I’d be waking in 2018 with a clear head and rested.
The penultimate night of the year was spent on the overnight train from Hanoi down to Hue. A 10 + hour journey. We boarded the train for a 10pm departure, unsure of what jollities lay ahead, apart from the fact that I was highly unlikely to get much sleep!
Split into couples in one 4 berth, the boys (with Hung) in another, 4 ladies in another and the remaining ladies (myself included) in the final with a random stranger that could be male or female – there was no knowing. The higher priced tickets (that we had) involved a ‘soft’ bed in a cabin with bedding, water and a wafer biscuit included. I was VERY thankful that we weren’t in a lower class where we could have literally had a board to sleep on – oooo the thought!!!
Thankfully we had a lovely lady join us in the cabin who was the tour leader for a group travelling with Intrepid travel doing a similar thing to all of us. She had her work cut out though, come the morning time there were several of her group who had been drinking all night & were to be found in their bunk lying in the foetal position!! Her comment to it was, oh well, they are Australian (as if that explained their behaviour!).
We suddenly realised that beers were needed to be purchased before the train moved and spotted a little shop on the platform and so Paul, Chris and I darted off to go and get a few each. Not that we were planning on getting plastered but more that it might help us sleep. I didn’t really fancy the idea of getting up umpteen times in the night to try the loo. Many a giggle was had as doors were ‘jammed’ shut and the general hilarity of the sleeping conditions got too much. There was no elegant way to get up and down from the bunks and I was glad that I was a demanding madam and requested bottom bunk owing to my insomnia/ often need to visit the loo in the early hours – TMI? Oh well!
The morning came and I guess I must have got some sleep – amusingly the Fitbit begged to differ and recorded precisely none despite repeated synching as a result of not quite believing it! The night had been entertaining all round, mainly so on the comments from Hung who said that he didn’t realise that it was actually possible for anyone to snore louder than the noise of the train 😂 and that he had 2 hippos in his cabin ALL night!!
A fun must-do experience for sure but I’m not sure I’d want to travel a country purely by sleeper train like this as I’d get LITERALLY no sleep – even according to FitBit! One of the group was saying how he thought it would be a lovely peaceful way to travel – and he too was sharing with the so say hippos. Each to their own I guess!! I’m quite happy that I turn 40 soon & REALLY don’t feel like I’ve missed out in life by only encountering this experience whilst 39!
I’d seen so many photos of the Bay over the years and it always looked simply stunning. Our 5 hour trip out in a Chinese style junk boat did not disappoint in the slightest. The weather was perhaps not amazing as it would have been lovely to have had a bright blue sky but I thanked my lucky stars that it was not actually raining. We could have had it way worse.
The bay is formed of a lot of limestone structures or mini islands I guess with trees and so on on the top but whilst cruising along I was confused that there did not seem to be as many birds as I had anticipated seeing and hearing. Not that I was here as a twitcher – they just were noticeably absent. The word Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends to the sea’ and legend has is that this area was created by a giant dragon charged towards the coast with his tail gouging out the valleys and so on that now exist.
It was named a World Heritage site in 1994 with all of the mini islands, grottos or caves and beaches and is deemed to be the main tourist spot of Northern Vietnam. There are a number of grottos that are in the trusty Lonely Planet but I’m not sure that the one that we actually visited is in there.
It certainly puts the magic of Wookey Hole to shame I have to say. The natural formations inside the cave were simply unreal. The stalactites and stalagmites almost didn’t look natural in places and there were parts that looked like cauliflowers as well as draped blankets. Extraordinary sights to put it mildly.
We all talked about the idea of waking up on a boat out here on the ocean & what an amazing place it would be to have a night, of course we are restricted on this tour owing to the amount to do in such a short amount of time. I’m not sure that the comfort of the bed on the boat would really be all that appealing though thinking about it. And I’m also not entirely sure that I could cope with the seafood that would be breakfast!!
We ate off linen table cloths and the food seemed to just keep coming thankfully the peppers and the sea food/ shell fish allergies has been accommodated and we had been on the beers since 930 – oops – but we were on the boat pretty early in the morning and when in Rome right?!!
Next stop for us was back to Hanoi to recuperate (and as it worked out – have more beers) before boarding the overnight train to Hue.
The last stop in the complex was the One Pillar Pagoda built to express the gratitude of Emperor Ly Thai Tong to his wife who had produced a son and heir for him. It’s built of wood and on a single stone pillar (unsurprisingly) and designed to resemble a lotus blossom – the symbol of purity rising out of a sea of sorrow as it is surrounded by a small pool. Sadly it’s not the original as the French destroyed it before they left Hanoi in 1954. Now there is a Buddhist shrine at the top adorned with offerings.
After finishing up at the Ho Chi Min Mausoleum Complex we visited the Temple of Literature which is also known as Confucius Temple. Not so much a just a temple in itself but there were a variety of things to see. All beautifully calm and serene whilst the scooters manically circle around on the roads. There is a rare example inside of early Vietnamese architecture which houses the honoured amongst Vietnam’s finest scholars and writes with literary accomplishments. These are all carved into stone tablets which are held on the backs of turtles – one of the three most sacred animals in Vietnam along with storks and lions/dragons. There are a number of impressive gateways and one of them is a symbol of Vietnam and Hanoi and is found in one of the many notes (of money). There are lots of bonsai trees everywhere in pots and many of them seem to have stories in them with pagodas and little people in. Something tells me it’s the story of Confucius himself but I didn’t get clarity.
From here saw our last preplanned stop of the day before a visit to the Water Puppet Theatre which we had booked tickets for earlier in the day. The infamous Hanoi Hilton or as it’s real name – Hoa Lo Prison Museum. Nicknamed as such by American POW during the war as many were brought here. There were parts only that still remain which exhibits relate to the use of rooms up until the 50s and even included a French style guillotine which was used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries back in the day. One of the notable American Pilots kept here during the American War was John McCain (once nominated as a candidate for presidency in USA in more recent years) and there was a hugely thought provoking exhibition on memories after the war. There were the remains of the sewer tunnels that several of the Vietnamese prisoners managed to escape though at times. Tiny, tiny gaps. Fascinating & thought provoking but thankfully not such a hideous outing as the jail in Phnom Pen.
The Municipal Water Puppet Theatre was something that a few people in the group had been told not to miss. It wasn’t expensive and lasted an hour and sounded a bit different from the norm and so most of us went o watch. Originally created by the rice farmers on the Red River Delta about 1000 years ago. The puppets are made out of fig-tree timber and is always performed in ponds or lakes and so on with the puppeteers standing waist-high in water with the puppets on long sticks that create the story in front of a curtain at water level in front of the puppeteers. The musicians accompanying were all live and it was dark inside and pretty easy to fall asleep in given our jet lag and so on. One of the chaps I was sat next to did – only to wake up every time the section ended and there was clapping. I’m not sure it’s a not to be missed event but it was certainly something different.
The other restaurant that we tried was called Home – recommended to us by Hung. I wasn’t overly keen on one of the others that was recommended which was just one choice of a sort of fish hotpot. Traditional and like street food but I just felt I’d avoid fish whilst I had the option so I took 4 others off here – no idea what it was going to be like but it was utterly delicious I must say. By far the most expensive of meals that we would eat in this country but not really expensive for UK prices. Everyone’s (well mine didn’t) meal came on a bed of fire as it sat in a sort of Balti dish in front of you as you ate your way through it with the sticky rice accompanying it.
The other experience I wanted to try was the fresh beer. It took a while to try finding it but we got there in the end with help from a very helpful man who could see we were a little lost aimless looking around and trying to work out where the f*** we were from the guide book to the street signs. We weren’t that far off. Bia Hoi is Vietnam’s own fraught beer or microbrew which is similar to a light bodied pilsner and was first introduced to the country by the Czech’s. It’s brewed without preservatives and is meant to be enjoyed immediately. We went to the local Bia Hoi junction and found a few establishments with small plastic chairs to sit on similar to those seen in a Reception classroom. It was served in recycled glasses which made it look almost green in colour initially. It wasn’t that bad but the others were adamant that it would give them dodgy tummies – none of us wanted this so we only partook in the one to say that we had done it!
It would have been funnier if the chairs had sides as well as Paul and Chris (quite possibly myself as well) would potentially have needed cutting out of them!
A route via a stop in Kuala Lumper in Malaysia was how I finally made my way to my latest overseas adventure. Identified one of the group in the seat behind me on the second leg and we were met at the airport having made our way through both immigration and collected our luggage successfully without too much hassle. I’m sure when I checked I needed to get a visa to enter Vietnam & so had the extra sheet of paper which clearly wasn’t at all necessary after all but had sent my new travel buddy into a small panic as he had no paperwork re a visa. Ah well, better to be safe than sorry I say!
Arrived at the Anise Hotel about 2.30pm desperate to sleep but also, not wanting to knowing how badly I’d then sleep in the evening. I showered & managed about a 20 min power nap before venturing out to try familiarising myself with the locality of the hotel & what amenities we had close by. Having failed to have changed any money into dollars prior to my trip I was on the hunt for an ATM. I found two and was rather panicked that neither would accept my card. I was moneyless in a foreign country & felt very very vulnerable. I realised that despite all my prior research to the trip we in the guide book we were actually MUCH closer than I had initially anticipated to the Old Quarter. I was grateful to Mike (off of the Cambodia trip last year) for the introduction of maps.me which I recommend strongly as you can drop pins on where you are at a particular point in time and name them what you want etc. (helpful hint – download the map that you need on wifi and then you can use it off line as it works on GPS.)
Our initial meeting of the tour to tell us a little about Vietnam & to meet the others that would become companions for the rest of the trip, was held on the top floor of the hotel where the restaurant was – the 11th floor and only one away from my room. I’d say the views out were stunning but, as it was dark I’d have to wait until morning to find out. Already one of the ladies was clearly sticking out as one that would irritate not only me but the majority of the group in the fullness of time. Not listening to what our guide (Hung) was saying EVER & then asking him to repeat it as she didn’t hear. The temptation to point out to her & her friend the obvious was clearly going to come out of my mouth at some point this holiday without my being able to do ANYTHING about it.
Supper was a set menu in a delicious restaurant very close to the hotel called 5 Spice. Negotiating the puddles, pedestrians & potholes in themselves was quite some feat but add in the scooters factor and oh dear god – NIGHTMARE! I was catered for so that despite the set menu I was able to eat as the meals were tweaked accordingly, I was very impressed, and there was beer. Much needed beer.
Our first walking tour was in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, which was good as it was nailing it down with rain as we first walked out. Negotiating the traffic for every direction and of every form is something of an art form. In the UK we have pedestrian crossings painted on the ground and only on a few occasions do cars ignore them. Here THAT is the norm but it’s scooters, 15 years ago it would have been bicycles and it wouldn’t surprise me to see more cars on the roads here in 20 or so years. Hung told us that the average car price for nothing fancy was $25,000. In my book that’s A LOT when the average wage is around $150-200 a month. But there would be no room for them all anyway were they to start becoming more affordable. With the rain beating down they were all wearing ponchos that have a see through rectangle at the front that covers the handlebars and lights and so on. Clever. Here was one lady using the same that I spotted on a bicycle.
The historic Old Quarter was a maze of packed streets that were an explosion on the senses with the noise of the scooters to the smog from their engines. The sidewalks are crammed with parked scooters and the small shops were stuffed full of a plethora of goods which often spilled out and onto the side walk, then you have the shopkeepers making their simple meals on the pavements too – some selling food and some just creating for themselves. You have the street sellers passing with fruits freshly picked and presented in bamboo baskets and sellers on scooters with a record player shouting out what they were selling as they slowly made their ways down the streets. Food hygiene leaves A LOT to be desired and although Hung kept telling us the food would be ok but the issue with the hygiene would be more to do with how they washed the plates and so on rather than perhaps the food itself. We had heard their staple breakfast was a duck embryo boiled and still in the shell of the egg. None of us were keen to try, a step to far in my book. None the less Hung got one for himself and we all stood round in the rain as he showed us how it was prepared and how it was eaten from a street seller. My stomach churned and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one!
We continued through the streets taking in the sights and sounds, dodging the scooters from all angles. We passed what is believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the city originally dating from the 11th century but the current building dates from the 18th century. Bach Ma was originally built by Emperor Ly Thai To honour a white horse that led him to this very site where he chose to construct his city walls that now has evolved into this fascinating city.
Despite there, of course, being a number of other areas to the city I enjoyed spending the short amount of time that we had in this city just familiarising myself with the organised chaos of the Old Quarter. It felt all a bit too much on first view but once you got used to the different pace & way of life, I really rather liked it.
North Face jackets were on every street corner, blatant knock offs – some looked good & some looked & felt frankly shocking. None the less I wasn’t about to buy one for the sake of it. I don’t need one back at home & I had a perfectly decent pac-a-mac with me (nothing remotely like Mr Flatman’s almost famous black bin bag coat I hasten to add).
Popping out of the Old Quarter by the Hoan Kiem Lake we met our bus which would be swooping us up and ferrying us away from the hustle and bustle of the street and the peace of a bus – all kitted our with WiFi – too as we headed off through the busy traffic to the complex where we would see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and other sites on the complex. It was all rather surreal as you were literally allowed nothing as you walked around – everything had to be handed in and you were walked like working ants from the ticket office to the Mausoleum itself and encouraged just to keep walking around the frail body of Uncle Ho. I’m JUST not sure if it was/is him lying there or not?! He’s of course been embalmed (in Russia apparently where he returns for a month every year for ‘maintenance’) and lies in a sarcophagus surrounded by guards who are members of the National Army who were all wearing the ceremonial dress of white (this included white wellie boots which made me think of fish mongers or butchers) and we all thought that honestly they looked a little ridiculous – not that I was about to tell them that! It looked like they were cheap as sh*te sets from a fancy dress store rather than OFFICIAL uniform. I was pulled along at one point – still not quite sure why. A member of the group was asked to take her glasses off – they were those dark ones that turn into dark glasses and they had ‘gone dark’ and another was pointed at as we shuffled past as he had his hands in his pockets. The whole area was an open expanse and traffic free and you could tell that there has been a soviet influence in the design as there is plenty of opportunity for parades in front of the Mausoleum. What makes me so angry about it all with the pomp & ceremony is that it’s clearly been stated on a number of occasions that actually Uncle Ho was not in favour at all – his dying wish was that his ashes be scattered in a number of locations the length of the country. We also saw the stilt house where he actually lived in the gardens, he chose this over the Presidential Palace whenever he was in the city. It’s been preserved just as he left it and sits on a pond FULL of koi carp. The actual Presidential Palace is still used today and so visitors are unable to go inside of it but it’s a bright sort of orangey yellow colour and immediately reminded me of the building up on the hill as you drive out of the centre of Bristol on the M32. Apparently all of the presidential palaces are this colour throughout the country.