Vietnam - H.C.M.C. - Dalat - Nha Trang - Hoi An - Hue - Hanoi - Halong Bay - Sapa

 Ni Hao


  ... thanks to some grovelling to the visa authorities in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville on the part of my visa agent, I've suceeded in entering Vietnam and making Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City (H.C.M.C.) my first stop. H.C.M.C. and Vietnam in general is a country of proud and courageous people and a country constantly on the move, and I'm not just referring to the hoards of terrorising 'xe om' (Scooter) drivers. Many of the places I've travelled to and through are under urban renewal or renovation. Vietnam has been on the tourist route for a while now, but in my humble opinion I foresee it becoming a major attraction on the South-East Asia itinerary, reaping some of the valued foreign currency which would othewise enrich Thailand. Many backpackers I've encountered had pleasant things to say about the country but were intimidated by the aggresiveness and persistance of some of the touts and traders. Personally I cannot complain about any aggression and can only compliment their persistance. More about that subject later ...   ... historically Vietnam has been attacked and invaded many times and by many nations. But it has never been conquered or colonised in it's entirety. Unfortunately the remnants of the last war, in which the U.S. had a major role, are still visible to this day in the form of deformed and/or crippled people. On a daily basis you may encounter some of these unfortunate people. As far as I am aware and as far as I can see, not much has been done for their welfare ...   ... H.C.M.C. - it was an auspicious day when I entered Vietnam, primarily because it coincided with the longest solar eclipse to occur this century. We were not privileged to view  the spectacle in Vietnam though. H.C.M.C. is Vietnams' busiest city with millions of people on xe oms racing to get somewhere. The roads are congested with all means of vehicular transport and every body is rushing to get their rice or noodle fix. Annoying hooters toot throbbingly, making South African taxi drivers' tooting sound like a symphony. Driving, riding or walking across the roads for the inexperienced is dangerous if not suicidal. Accidents occur regularly and can be fatal. Alas, that is a small part of the H.C.M.C. experience ...   ... whilst in H.C.M.C. I joined a tour to the tunnels in Cu Chi. These are a network of tunnels dug by the Vietnamese to escape and hide from the Yankee and allied oppressors. We had a knowledgeable guide who was fairly fluent in the English language. He relished describing to us how the Vietnamese made a mockery of the better equiped and trained U.S forces. But there was also a sadness to his explanations. The history and politics of the war are fascinating though morbid. I don't envy any of the participants to it though. Our guide first took us to look for a concealed entrance/escape hatch on the muddy, leaf carpeted ground. We would not have found or even noticed it had we not been directed in which area to look. Once we found and opened it volunteers were encouraged to get in and out of the narrow opening. The rectangular opening was a mere 35x25cm and a challenge to wriggle in and out of. As our guide said, the probability of any of the 'McDonald's Forces' squeezing through was very slim. Later we were encouraged to clamber down into a section of the tunnel network which had been widened to accommodate tourists. Other tunnels remain in their original conditions. We all gained an empathetic, if not claustrophobic awe for the people who spent weeks below ground ...   ... what was more terrifying though were the spiked bamboo traps that were designed to inflict maximum pain if not death and/or disability. And ofcourse the Americans made prolific use of carpet and cluster bombing entire forests, farms, villages and towns. The piece-de- resistance was the indescriminate use of the famous chemical 'Agent Orange'. The War Remnants Museum which I visited the next day had some horrifying details of the human and ecological devastation caused by agent orange. It was so potent and deadly it wiped out entire forests and made them into deserts. As mentioned before, the history and statistics behind the Vietnam War makes for some interesting though gruesome reading ...   ... that evening I just wandered about town, taking in the sights, sounds and aromas. I checked into the backpacker part of town which has a similar vibe to Hillbrow from days gone by. Many days. As I strolled along I was approached by many dainty and dazzling looking females for some 'company' or a 'massage'. They were very comfortable walking the evening streets or riding a xe om and stopping to liaise with me. Unnaturally, I turned them down and courteously moved on. Remember though I spoke about 'persistance' earlier on? Well, some of the seductive ladies were very charming and persistant and approached me several times. I'm not sure if it was my rugged, unkempt look or just the fact that I was a single guy walking the streets non-chalantly that attracted them. And there was the minor issue of $10. I found the best way to turn them down gently (Why?) was to smile and say that I had a girlfriend. They could see right through my lie but smiled back and let me wander on. On a complimentary note, the Vietnamese woman are by far the most vivacious of the South-East Asian populace ...   ... the War Remnants Museum reinforced everything our guide had told us with more details, descriptions and graphics. There were many tourists there, Yanks included, who were clearly mortified by what had taken place in this beautiful country. Getting out of H.C.M.C. proved more of a nightmare than getting in. Our driver was all over the road and sidewalks. He changed lanes faster than his indicator light could keep up. He even stopped in the middle of the highway to pick up passengers. I made the error of sitting right up front. I could handle the reckless driving but the obsessent tooting was excrutiating. We arrived in hilly Dalat late in the afternoon. The place was congested with local and foreign tourists. Dalat was developed as a French hill station and has now become a tourist resort. Due to it being a holiday in Vietnam as well as a weekend most of the hotels and guest houses were fully booked or expensive. After wandering through several guest houses I was left with no option but to settle for one of them. It cost more than I had bargained for but was the nicest of any guest house rooms I've stayed in. After checking in I put on my jacket and went for a walk about town. Dalat was a hive of activity, day and night. It has a snaking lake which is frequented by many visitors. There are many roadside stalls where one can purchase something to eat or drink ...   ... in the vicinity of Dalat are many waterfalls, and the Lang Bian Mountain. Innitially I considered cycling to the mountain. But when I considered all the hills we crossed on the way up I decided to hire a xe om instead and rode out to the mountain which I hiked up and along the ridge. Thereafter I rode to some of the waterfalls where I could do more hiking. Dalat has a lot of activities to keep one busy and entertained. There is even a cinema which is rare in most parts of South-East Asia. From the hills I headed down to the coastal town of Nha Trang. I skipped Mui Ne which is also on the coast because I wanted to do some diving in Nha Trang. We were fortunate to have wonderful weather and a small group of divers. The dive sites could have been better but I enjoyed just being in a fluid environment again. We even got to swim through a little tunnel. After the dives I was tired but still had sufficient energy to take a walk to the ancient ruins 3 km away and back with Sultan, a fellow diver. From Nha Trang I took an overnight sleeper bus to Hoi An. Hoi An has a similar vibe to Malaca in Malaysia and is also recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site (U.W.H.S.). Hoi An is a living museum with narrow lanes and eloquent architecture. My main reason for travelling to Hoi An was to visit My Son. Before any confusion arises I just want to clarify that My Son is the name of a town and not any offspring of mine. My Son is an ancient Cham city and another U.W.H.S.. The ruins, which are reputed to be older than those of Ankor Wat, are nestled in a lush valley and surrounded by rolling hills ...   ... from there I travelled to Hue which comprises yet another U.W.H.S., The Citadel. The Citadel is, or used to be, a moated imperial city. Unfortunately it was bombed by the Americans and a lot of the structures had been damaged or destroyed. Presently the authorities are attempting to renovate the place to its past glory. Within the imperial enclosure is the Forbidden Purple City. It was reserved for the private life of the Emperor and for his pleasures ... Next stop, an overnight bus to Hanoi. It was meant to have been Ninh Binh, a little town 93km south-west of Hanoi, but to simplify travel arrangements I travelled to Hanoi and returned along the highway the same morning. I was off to see the ancient capital of Hoa Lu and the 'Halong Bay on rice paddies' of Tam Coc. It was 11:00 when we arrived at Hoa Lu, and very hot. Most of us quickly lost interest in the tour and sought out any shade available instead. After lunch though we recuperated and hopped onto a paddle boat for a scenic trip on the Ngo Dong River to see the karst caves, grottoes and lime stone mountains of Tam Coc. Though it was hot we enjoyed the hour-long ride. There are huge developments underway to make this area a major tourist destination ... back in Hanoi I wandered the streets a while to get a feel for the place, and because I was still trying to figure out how to get to my guest house. Hanoi is similar to H.C.M.C., just not as busy but fast-paced none-the-less. The next morning I was meant to go to Halong Bay but due to some miscommunication with the hotel and the travel agent I had to spend another day in Hanoi instead. There wasn't much to do so I just wandered the streets and backroads ...   ... the tour to Halong Bay, another U.W.H.S., was organised chaos. Our tour guide came to our hotel to pick up one person for a one-day tour of Halong Bay. Twenty minutes later he returned to pick me up for the three-day tour. When we got to the Halong City Wharf the people on our bus were divided into little groups and asked to join other guides and groups and board different boats. I was isolated from the bus group and placed with a completely alien group. Our boat floated out of the wharf and than we waited half and hour more for two more passengers to arrive. Most of the other boats had already left the harbour and made their way to two caves on one of the islands. From a positive view we avoided the rush and crowds expected there. When we did get to the island there were still boats moored at the dock. Our boat captain just barged his way in between, scraping the boats alongside without any concern. The first cave we visited was huge, well lit and the formations colourfully highlighted. The second cave was even bigger but it was more of a cavern. My tour group suceeded in losing me. As a result I was last and late  in returning to the boat. There after we cruised among the numerous limestone islands and pinnacles protruding from the emerald green water of the Gulf of Tonkin. The liquid environment was serene and tranquil, disturbed only by the junk boats passing through or a bird of prey swooping down to catch a fish. As we passed some pinnacles more would present themselves ahead and those behind would disappear in a haze. The vegetation covered pinnacles provided many photographic opportunities. We docked at a wharf in the north-west of Cat Ba Island where some of the passengers disembarked and stayed overnight on the island. Than we went to a floating fishing village where we kayaked among the limestone grottoes and pinnacles. Although it was hazy we got to see a memorable hazy sunset before anchoring the junk boat and jumping off the 6m high roof deck ...   ... the next morning we disembarked onto Cat Ba Island and wasted two hours avoiding locals trying to sell us snacks and waiting for the bus. Again we were divided up and made to join other groups. Our fist stop was at a national park where we had the option of hiking or biking. I hiked up through the tropical forest to a watch tower on the summit of one of the many hills. The view from there was spectacular and worth the litres of sweat. Next we were taken by boat to a private beach on Monkey Island to do as we pleased. After lunch I hopped into a kayak and paddled along the periphery of Monkey Island and to some of the other islands and pinnacles. The water was cool and calm for the most part. I did my bit for the environment and collected floating plastic bags and litter, carfeul not to mistake a bag for a jellyfish. Along the way back the current was against me as was the wind. But I made it back to the beach in good time. While everyone else stayed overnight on the island I was returned to a hotel on Cat Ba Island ...   ... it would have been nice to stay on the beach resort but I preferred that I was taken to Cat Ba town as it allowed me the opportunity to climb up to a transceiver tower on a hill overlooking the bay and harbour area. I also got to see birds of prey soaring at eye level again. It was uplifting just watching them. The evening was spent wandering the streets with locals and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of the harbour esplanade. Early next morning I was rudely roused from my sleep by the tour guide. A typhoon was expected to hit the Gulf of Tonkin and we had to leave the island or risk being stranded on Cat Ba for another day or two. Many of the guests from other groups were already waiting in the lobby. As a result of the typhoon we didn't get to do much that day except get to the mainland soon as possible. We were fortunate we atleast got to see and experience some of the magic of Halong Bay. Other people who had made bookings had no option but to cancel or postpone their trip ...   ... the same afternoon I returned to Hanoi I had to rush and catch an overnight sitting bus to Sa Pa, another town in the hills. Sa Pa is similar to Dalat but has many authentic people from the surrounding villages that come to town on the weekends to sell trinkets, food items and purchase necessities. They are very friendly and persuasive sales people. I wouldn't usually visit villages as most of them are show pieces for tourists, but in this instance I set aside a day to visit one village 15km away. The surrounding landscape, lush green mountains and valleys with occasional streams pouring over rocks to refresh yourself were very scenic. As for the village, it is a mix of old and new developments. Sa Pa and the surrounding areas are developing, though the people are attempting to hold onto their traditions and culture. I fear materialism is creeping into all areas of Vietnam and traditions will soon disappear. There are many hiking opportunities in Sa Pa and the surrounding Fansipan mountains. Since I would be doing many hikes in China and Nepal I thought it would be wiser to save some money for those places instead. I only stayed in Sa Pa for one evening because I had to travel to Lao Cai, the border town with China. Earlier on I had been informed by two helpful Japanese I met about crossing over to Hekou and travelling to Yuanyang from there. There were only two morning buses available. One of the factors I had to consider though was that China was one hour ahead of Vietnam. That meant I had to get across the border early in the morning. As a result I couldn't afford any delays from Sa Pa and hence had to stay a night in Lao Cai ...   ... 'the formal history of Vietnam may read as a litany of foreign aggression and great victories against all odds, but when Vietnamese tell there personal stories the focus is more prosaic and human - tales of hunger and plenty, famines and feasting. The country is still mostly agricultural, indeed 80% of the people still work the land and live in part by the rhythms of rice-planting and harvesting. In the bustling cities it seems half the population is engaged in providing sustenance or refreshment to the others.' - Shadows and Wind, Robert Templar.    ... I've made it into China comfortably. It's provong bit of a challenge as most of the places do not have English sub-text/names, and most people do not speak English at all. My priority is to obtain a permit to travel to Tibet. You cannot enter Tibet without it and there are many police checkpoints as I have already encountered. From what I've been informed by tour operators in Kunming travelling to Tibet is expensive, and getting to Nepal even more so. I may even have to cancel any ideas of visiting Tibet altogether due to cost factors. I have spoken to some backpackers as well and they have given me hope of getting into Tibet within a more realistic budget, though I would still have to obtain the permits through an agent. Keep your fingers and chopsticks crossed ...