Category Archives: Vietnam

Vietnam – Halong Bay

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Our Vietnam tour ended with a two-day boat trip around Halong Bay, yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. Well, one day really, by the time we journeyed there and back from Hanoi.

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The weather had been pretty good until now – hot in Ho Chi Minh City and pleasantly warm in Hue and Hoi An, but now it turned seriously chilly. With so much cheap North Face gear for sale we both wisely invested in an additional layer of clothing before the trip.

Our ship, Galaxy Premium, with only 22 passengers on board, was comfortable and more than adequate for our needs, and we were well looked after by the crew and our multi-tasking guide. He did everything from wait at tables to teaching Tai Chi, and from karaoke singing to demonstrating the art of making Hanoi spring rolls.

I was amazed to learn there are some 400 tourist boats cruising around Halong Bay these days. They all have permits and are strictly regulated as to which overnight anchorage to use and which passages to take. Apparently, some time ago an order went out for them all to be painted white, no knows exactly why, but there’s plenty of speculation….

The cruise was both totally relaxing (for a start we weren’t sailing ourselves!) and filled with on board activities and outings. Our meals were delicious.

After lunch we were taken out in kayaks to see the Dark and Light Tunnels of Cat Ba National Park. We also spotted monkeys frolicking on the rocks. The breathtaking karst limestone scenery reminded us of our days aboard Merlin V in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand. A couple of intrepid fellow passengers went swimming and later also squid fishing but we chose the warmth inside.

Horror of horrors, a karaoke machine was set up after dinner and we all joined in the merriment. Not too many brilliant voices on board but lots of fun.

I was one of only two people who got up for Tai Chi on top deck before breakfast – what a treat to do this gentle exercise in such spectacular surroundings. After breakfast we visited an extensive cave system (with some interesting formations!) before an early lunch followed by the return bus trip to Hanoi.

And so ended our official tour…Luckily we had booked a few extra nights to explore the city on our own.

 

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Vietnam – Hanoi

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So we’ve now travelled almost the length of Vietnam reaching Hanoi in the north. Day 6  started with a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s very impressive and well guarded mausoleum. No cameras allowed, so my photos are of the grounds, the museum and his very modest house on stilts, taken with my iPhone. Most Vietnamese strive to see the mausoleum at least once in their lifetime to pay their respects to this humble man whose leadership led to the country’s eventual reunification and independence. The day we visited had particular significance on the lunar and was particularly busy.

Close by was the One Pillar Pagoda, founded by King Ly Thai To in 1049 and designed to represent a lotus blossom; now an important symbol for the people of Hanoi.

We also visited the ancient Taoist Quan Thanh temple and the Buddhist Tran Quoc Pagoda, one of the oldest in Vietnam.

After lunch we had a somewhat strange interlude where we spent an hour or so in a ‘pottery village’. A large seven-storey building showcased the various stages of pottery making and decoration while the street was lined with pottery-shopping opportunities! I suppose it was quite interesting but we took a photo break!

Another ‘shopping opportunity’ was the massive sheltered workshop (of which we saw several during the tour) which displayed for sale a huge variety of goods made by people with a disability as a result of the war. We were told some 3,000,000 such people still work in these facilities. Much of their work was very beautiful and I particularly liked the intricate embroideries, but this was a horrible reminder of the consequences of war. I wish I had taken a couple of pictures of their stunning art work.

This was such a full day – we also spent ages exploring the impressive Temple of Literature, Quoc Tu Giam. Beautifully set inside the perfectly manicured gardens is Vietnam’s first university, opened in 1076 to educate Vietnam’s elite and bureaucrats. The university remained open until 1779 when it was replaced by a new Imperial Academy in Hue. It was then used as a school for the district.

Our day should have finished with a visit to Ngoc Son temple on Hoan Kiem Lake but time was running out and we still needed to squeeze in the promised cyclo tour around the lake and back to our hotel. This turned out to be much more relaxing and interesting than we anticipated given the frenzied rush hour traffic. Our drivers were experts at weaving in and out of the traffic, even around a huge roundabout, and we were able to take in the scene. My favourite part was the ‘tin alleys’ in the Old Quarter where streets seemed to be organised into old craft areas. Here shop after shop displayed a vast array of every imaginable metal implement.

After our official tour we spent an extra couple of days exploring Hanoi by ourselves, but first a boat in Halong Bay starting the next morning.

 

 

 

Vietnam – Hoi An and My Son

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Days 4 and 5 were again jam-packed with history and culture. We spent the morning 55 km southwest of Hoi An at My Son, another UNESCO World Heritage site, this one owing its origins to Indian Hinduism. Beautifully set in the mountains, this area became a religious centre under King Bhadravarman in the 4th century, and was the religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom until the late 13th century, the longest period of development of any city in the Mekong region.

Unfortunately, the area was heavily carpet-bombed during one week of the American War and only around 20 of the original 70+ Hindu temples and associated structures remain, most of these now in ruins and standing among the bomb craters. Limited reconstruction is taking place.

We saw the remains of several temples built in fired red brick, with stone pillars and decorated with sandstone bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. They were dedicated to many Hindu divinities such as Krishna and Vishnu, but mainly to Shiva. We were told that Shivite Hinduism remained the state religion for the Cham people long after Mahayana Buddhism penetrated their culture.

According to UNESCO, these monuments are ‘unique and without equal in South East Asia’. The technological sophistication of the My Son temple complex is evidence of the advanced Cham engineering skills, and their elaborate iconography and symbolism provide valuable insights into the evolution of Cham religious and political thought.

A boat trip with lunch on board (not our best culinary experience in Vietnam but better than many Vietnamese have themselves!) took us back to Hoi An where we spent the rest of the day exploring the Old Town, our guide having mistakenly decided that we were not to be part of the afternoon’s city tour. Had we been aware of the details of our itinerary, we could have done something to correct this, but in any case, we were pretty glad to have the time to explore on our own at last.

And there’s plenty to explore in the Old Town of Hoi An, yet another World heritage Site! Picturesquely located on the river bank, once a major port, the town used to be an important regional trade centre.

Japanese merchant houses, Chinese temples and ancient tea warehouses have been transformed into museums, galleries, coffee shops, trendy wine bars or restaurants and attract millions of tourists annually. Despite the huge numbers of visitors it’s a fabulous place with a great ambiance through which we can catch a glimpse the glory days of the past.

Lucky for us, we were able to explore Hoi An again at our leisure the following day before a mid-afternoon flight to Hanoi.

Vietnam – Historic Hue

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On Day 3 we explored historic Hue in central Vietnam visiting various Emperors’ Mausoleums and the Imperial Enclosure dating back to the Nguyen dynasty, as well as seeing a brilliant display of martial arts.

I hadn’t realised that India and China had had such a profound influence throughout the Mekong region. Vietnam was under Chinese rule for a 1000 years with several periods of independence in between before becoming a French colony. 

It was the Chinese who introduced Confucianism, Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism, while the Indians brought Theravada Buddhism. During the Dark Ages in Europe Vietnam was already a blossoming civilisation with advanced scientific and medical knowledge.

The places we visited in Central Vietnam spanned a huge period in history from the early years AD to the present day. Today we saw three contrasting Mausoleums from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The first was for Minh Mang (1791 – 1841), one of Vietnam’s most powerful Emperors. His elaborate tomb was set in 18 hectares of picturesque grounds among 40 monuments including palaces, temples and pavilions. 

Emperor Khai Dinh’s Mausoleum, the last to be built and most extravagant of all, was built between 1920 and 1931 using materials from France, China and Japan to complete exquisite glass and ceramic details. 

Emperor Tu Duc enjoyed the longest reign of any monarch of the Nguyen dynasty, ruling from 1848-83. He apparently lived a life of excess with 104 wives but no offspring. Although his tomb is also very beautiful, the Emperor was never actually interred there for fear of grave robbers. No one knows his real burial site and those involved were beheaded.

The performing program of Vo Kinh Van An, Vietnam’s traditional Kungfu exponents, was quite spectacular.

Established as the capital of unified Vietnam in 1802, Hué was not only the political but also the cultural and religious centre under the Nguyen dynasty until 1945. Our afternoon was spent at the Citadel, the Imperial Enclosure where the Perfume River winds its way through giving this unique feudal capital a setting of great natural beauty. Much of this area was destroyed during the war and UNESCO funds are now contributing to its partial conservation.

Last tour stop was the seven storey Thien Mu Pagoda on the riverbank. Our guide explained the key difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. Mayahana Buddhism which predominates in Vietnam and China, teaches that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime and can be accomplished even by a layperson, while Theravada Buddhism, more common in Sri Lanka and western Indo-China, is more conservative, adhering to Pali scriptures and the non-theistic ideal of self purification to nirvana.

…And our very last stop after a hair-raising three-hour drive, which included a brand new 6 km tunnel through the mountains, was Hoi An ready for another early morning start….

Vietnam – Mekong Delta

Day 2 took us on a scenic bus trip past green paddy fields to the Mekong Delta where our first stop was the Vinh Trang Buddhist pagoda near My Tho.

This large temple complex, set in two hectares of magnificent, tranquil gardens, was built in the mid-nineteenth century and contains many statues of the Buddha as well as one of the Jade Emperor. Beautiful bonsai and amazing displays of pot plants were fast becoming a favourite aspect of the trip for me.

A boat trip up the Mekong took us Tortoise Inlet where we had a sumptuous lunch in a delightful farm and orchard garden.

Under shady coconut trees we cruised in tiny hand-rowed sampans through natural canals to another family farm where yummy, no-added-sugar coconut sweets were made. Here I jumped at the chance to hold a snake and we also sampled snake whiskey. A further stop took us to a honey farm with bonus cups of tea with honey accompanied by folk singing.

That night we were whisked off to the airport for our flight to Hue. 

Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City

Two months ago we set off on our whirlwind holiday in Vietnam. What an experience! Beautiful people and places, so much history and such a rich culture.

IMG_3199First stop, Ho Chi Minh City where we were whisked around to various places of interest: The Reunification Palace, previously the Presidential Palace,  now a museum and venue for Government special occasions.

Next, the amazing Central Post Office and nearby the Neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the late nineteenth century.

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Then the War Remnants Museum where various aspects of the Vietnam War (they call it the American War) are graphically displayed.

IMG_3318Here I learned heaps about the war and its ongoing repercussions. The country was totally destroyed and millions of people are still suffering the after effects, both in Vietnam (and its Indo-Chinese neighbours) and among those sent to fight there. During the war 3,000,000 Vietnamese were killed including 2,000,000 civilians, a further 2,000,000 were injured and 300,000 went missing. The Americans dropped 14,300,000 tons of bombs.

IMG_3368After this sobering experience we had lunch at a lovely local restaurant and then explored the Chu Chi Tunnels from where, during the 1960s, the Viet Cong were able to control a huge rural area only 30 – 40km from Ho Chi Minh City.

A week later, after our tour was over we had a couple of extra days to explore HCMC on our own.

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IMG_4577We walked through beautiful gardens and wandered along some of the formerly grand streets of the old French colonial era.

 

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IMG_4659I put on my explorers had and found a couple of the locations described in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American: the Rue Katinat, now the Duong Dong Khoi, and the old Hotel Continental.

IMG_4638By now we had the notoriously crazy motorbike traffic sussed and could cross the road with comparative confidence – walk forwards, don’t hesitate and don’t step back, the local motorbikes will pass behind you (wish the tourists on bikes knew this too).

IMG_4629After being totally decimated by the war, Vietnam, while still a poor country with a long way to go, is now very much a growing, go ahead economy, with a tremendous zest for improvement. American, Australian and Chinese investment is  welcomed by the one party Communist state.