A Journey from hoi an to ho chi minh city
april 3 - april 13, 2018
We fly to to Hoi An in Vietnam to attend a wedding. But true to our nature, we decide to extend the time there to explore the cities of Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City. It's our first visit to Hoi An, and we find a beautiful, historic and friendly city. This is also the location of the wedding, which is one of the wonderful highlights of this holiday.
Hoi An is located on the central coast of Vietnam, about halfway between Hanoi, in the north, and Ho Chi Minh in the south. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a wonderfully-preserved South-East Asian trading port, dating from the 15th century. We enjoy wandering along the quaint streets of the old town, admiring the mish-mash of architectural styles and we marvel at the friendly people. From our central location of Hoi An, we take a private tour to the ancient city of Hue. We also spend a day in the nearby Hue, the ancient capital.
We fly to Ho Chi Minh City, where we re-explore the city. it's unrecognisable after a ten-year break between visits. It is a dynamic and lovely city, but sadly, we find some of the traditional coffee shops, which have now been replaced by large multi-national chain stores. our centrally-located hotel provides the perfect location to walk to some of the best-known sites.
Vietnam is a wonderful country to explore independently. You don't need formal tours, as it's easy to pick up day, overnight, or mini-tours within the individual regions. Check out the local travel agents for available options. It's better to pick up tours once you arrive in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi when you arrive. This is one of the few countries in the world that one can travel safely across country and feel welcome.
DAY ONE: HOI AN
TUESDAY, APRIL 3, 2018
Highlights: Hoi An Ancient Town, Lantern Town Restaurant
Accommodation: Lantana Hoi An Boutique Inn and Spa , 9 Thoai Ngoc Hau Street, Cam Pho Ward, Cam Pho
Our journey to Vietnam had been in two steps; flying first to Ho Chi Minh City from Melbourne yesterday, then taking an early-morning flight to Hoi An. We are in Hoi An to attend the wedding of Natasha's school friends, Bec and Andrew. Natasha has already arrived from London and is staying at the same hotel as the wedding guests. For Natasha, this is an opportunity to also catch up with her friends and to tour the northern part of Vietnam.
We don't waste much time before donning sunscreen and hats and setting off to explore Hoi An Ancient Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The historic district is recognised as an excellently-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port, which operated between the 15th and 19th centuries. In fact, in the early18th century, Japanese and Chinese merchants considered Hoi An to be the best trading port in all of Southeast Asia. However, the silting up of the mouth of the river, along with conflicts between neighbouring dynasties may have contributed to the port losing its significance by the end of the same century.
We wander along the banks of the Thu Bon River before crossing a bridge and entering into the hustle and bustle of the ancient city, where the locals are already hard at work. A fruit vendor walks along the street, a pole balanced on one shoulder. At each end of the pole, there is a carefully balanced basket of fresh fruit and vegetables. Ladies are the main fruit sellers, adding to the colour and atmosphere of the city.
The first thing we notice is that most of the buildings are painted yellow. Each person we ask gives us a different reason for the unique colour of the town; yellow symbolises good luck and prosperity, it also symbolises royalty. Perhaps the most likely reason for the town's hue is that the yellow colour absorbs less heat, and is therefore better suited to Vietnam's climate.
Instead of exploring the labyrinth of narrow streets today, we decide to walk along this side of the river bank. With a gentle breeze blowing off the water, it feels a little cooler here. The bank of the river is a hive of activity. Herbs in flat baskets are drying in the sun; their owners periodically walk over and, with a quick flick of the wrist, the greenery jumps and settles back into the basket. This will continue until the herbs are thoroughly dried and can be packaged for sale.
A variety of vehicles scoot along the road; motorbikes, bicycles, rickshaws, and pedestrians all share the same space. Motorcycles especially weave in and out to avoid contact with other vehicles and people. A tour guide approaches and offers a tour of the river in his converted fishing boat. Quickly negotiating an agreeable price, we are assisted onboard and settle into our seats under cover. We wait for more customers, but there are none, so our guide casts off and deftly maneuvers the small boat into the centre of the the Thu Bon River. To me, these local trips provide more than a regular tour because they contribute to local people's income. Despite the difficulties in communication with our guide, we don't really need a commentary to see how the river provides an important lifeblood to the community. Our guide happily points out places of interest and we are just happy to merge ourselves into the life of the river. We float past homes, markets, fishing boats, and restaurants before leaving the main part of the town behind and I take an active interest in observing the signs of life onshore. Smaller homes and corrugated iron shacks built along the river bank, makeshift piers, cages filled with ducks, clotheslines with just-washed clothes flapping in the wind, are all indications life goes on as usual for the people living on the banks of the river.
On the water, it is just as busy as fishing boats, tour boats like ours, cleanup crews, and barges go about their own businesses, and I'm surprised at how busy the river is. All too soon, we are returned to the town and we disembark from the small boat and resume our walk through the busy streets.
We return to the ancient city centre as the sun begins to set. The first of the wedding parties is being held in the popular Lantern Town restaurant. We arrive in time to greet our hosts and mingle with the other guests before ordering our dinner. There is just one word to describe the food: delicious. Within an ambient setting on the bank of the river, cool breezes flow through the courtyard and into the main restaurant. We enjoy beautiful, fresh dishes, and agree that Hoi An probably is the centre of fine food in Vietnam.
As we leave the restaurant, we find that the town has been reinvigorated. Lanterns of all shapes and sizes decorate the streets and emit soft coloured lights. We don't immediately notice that no electric lights are being used inside the old town; the lanterns provide a special and magical atmosphere. There is a lantern festival each month to celebrate the full moon. The festival includes free outdoor entertainment including traditional lion dancers, poetry, music, lantern decorating, and traditional Vietnamese games. I'm sorry we're not here for the full-moon festivities. As we reach the Japanese bridge, I notice tiny lotus flower lanterns floating on the river. Hand-crafted by local artists, the Vietnamese believe that lighting and floating lanterns on the river can bring health and happiness.
We cross the bridge and find a market in full swing. Lantern sellers, food sellers, and other locally-made goods are displayed on brightly-lit stalls. We wander through the stalls, enjoying the vibrant atmosphere and the banter between the stallholders.
We've had a long day today, and it's time to return to our hotel.
DAY TWO: HOI AN
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 4, 2018
Highlights: Hoi An Ancient Town, The Field Bar and Restaurant
Accommodation: Lantana Hoi An Boutique Inn and Spa , 9 Thoai Ngoc Hau Street, Cam Pho Ward, Cam Pho
Hoi An Ancient Town is a maze of narrow streets, filled with traditional shop houses and temples. We have plenty of time to explore, so we take our time today, even venturing into the more modern town on the fringe of Hoi An's Ancient Town. Here, the atmosphere is completely different, less touristy and the retailers are perhaps more aggressive.
Just before 5pm, we are dressed in our finery and are awaiting a taxi to collect us from our hotel. The staff members here at the Lantana Hotel are excellent; friendly and always willing to help with the smallest of things. As we wait for our taxi, the manager stands with us then negotiates a price with the taxi before settling us into our seats.
A short time later, we are in the middle of paddy fields somewhere between the sea and the river. The taxi turns up an unsealed road and we can barely see above the height of the rice plants. Arriving at what appears to be a farm house, the taxi stops and the driver points to where a group of people are congregated. We have arrived at the Field Bar and Restaurant, and I cannot think of a better setting for a wedding. Here, we find our party; the groom has already arrived and is mingling with the guests. He assures us that his bride will soon join us.
Between the house and the river bank, tables are set and as I wander down to the water, I notice two old thung chai or basket boats, which are typical of this region. The basket boats trace their history back to the French colonial era when a tax was imposed on the ownership of boats. Most of the poor fishermen could not afford to pay the taxes, so they invented a new type of boat. Woven from bamboo, the thung chai is a type of coracle, a small circular boat used in parts of the British Isles, India, and Tibet. The fishermen who built them argued that they were not boats, but baskets, and it appears that their idea worked because they were never taxed on the boats. We are able to hire a guide to take us for a ride in town, but I'm a little unsteady and I would hate to be in one and cause it to either sink or tip over. I wouldn't mind seeing how they are made, though.
We catch up with Natasha and her friends just as the sun begins to sink; the sky displaying wonderful shades of orange and yellow. At this moment Bec appears, dressed in traditional Vietnamese clothes and joins Andrew, also decked out in traditional Vietnamese attire. Although they had already been married officially in Melbourne, a celebrant performs the service and their vows are repeated here in this beautiful setting by the water's edge surrounded by the sounds of insects and other riparian creatures and their friends, who have waited for this moment since arriving in Vietnam. I could not think of a better setting for a wedding.
As the inky-black sky descends, citronella candles are lit. Old fish traps have been converted into unique lanterns and they are strung on bamboo poles, creating enough light and plenty of ambience in this setting.
As the last of the speeches peter out, the air is filled with the delicious aromas of cooking food and we're asked to select whatever we wish to eat. Dotted around the outdoor space, stalls are set up, at which street-vendor-style food is being freshly prepared. Spices linger n the air as heat is applied to woks and grills and we wander from stall to stall selecting delectable bites of local cuisine. Chicken, port, and beef compete with all-vegetable delicacies and before long the hum of conversations is replaced with the sounds of contented grazing. To be honest, this wedding is perfect in every way, and our dinner guests, Natasha's school friends, provide entertaining conversation.
There had been an incident earlier in the day. One of the young men had his wallet and phone stolen from a bar and he and his friends called Bec to help them find the items. Like a scene from The Amazing Race, they tracked down the thief to a store, but they needed a translator to speak to the business owners. Within a few minutes, not only was the phone returned, but so was the wallet, albeit missing the cash. Fortunately the credit cards and other odds and ends had not been touched, so all ended well. I'm not too sure too many brides would be so accommodating first thing in the morning on her wedding day.
The beautiful night ends just before midnight and we call a cab to take us back to the hotel. There is a river cruise organised for the wedding guests tomorrow afternoon, but we've decided to spend the time exploring the rest of the town. We wish the bride and groom luck as we won't see them again before we leave Hoi An.
DAY THREE: HOI AN
THURSDAY, APRIL 5, 2018
Highlights: Hoi An Ancient Town,
Accommodation: Lantana Hoi An Boutique Inn and Spa , 9 Thoai Ngoc Hau Street, Cam Pho Ward, Cam Pho
We have the whole day ahead of us to explore the city, so we've started a little later today. We are now more familiar with the streets and we spend the morning wandering in and out of shops. The buildings here are very old and I'm glad that they have been preserved in this precinct. Being able to immerse myself into this old landscape provides an insight into the bustling port as it was centuries ago.
Last year, in November 2017, a typhoon with level 12 winds made landfall on the central coast of Vietnam. For fear that the rising waters would risk reservoir safety, hydropower dams released huge amounts of water for several consecutive days, causing extensive flooding downstream. Flash flooding regularly occurs during the wet season, but this 2017 event was catastrophic, causing waters to flood the old town. The traditional shophouses provide the ability to move goods and furniture upstairs during a flood, thus ensuring the protection of people and their livelihoods. We are quite shocked to see that this event caused about 150 centimetres of river water and debris to swirl through the riverside town. Many of the shop owners, whilst having repainted their stores and cafes, had marked the height of the flood water, probably as a talking point.
We meet Natasha for lunch and check each other's photos of the night. It's nice to sit in the fresh air and recap the lovely night we had. Natasha leaves us to join her friends for the sunset cruise, whilst we enjoy the atmosphere of the town. It's very easy to sit at one of the tables near the open full-length doors and watch the world go by. Vendors pop their heads in and try to sell trinkets, and we giggle as they call us 'Ozzie-Kiwi', as they probably don't want to offend anyone.
The Vietnamese people are kind, gentle people, many of whom have relatives living in Australia. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, many refugees from Vietnam fled by boat through waters fraught with dangers, like sharks and pirates, to live in other countries, including Australia. The flow of people continued right through until the early 1990s. It had been a humanitarian crisis, especially when those countries closest to Vietnam refused to accept the refugees. Australia accepted 108,000 Vietnamese refugees, both arrivals by boat and by air. Their contribution to Australia is profound. For us, this trip not only provides us a wonderful experience through attending Bec and Andrew's wedding, but we've actually had time to relax, enjoy our surroundings, and talk to the local people during our daily walks.
After lunch, we visit some of the Buddhist temples and one of the most iconic structures in Hoi An Ancient Town; The Japanese Covered Bridge. Built in the 18th century, it is a perfect example of historical Japanese architecture and it was built to span the river, providing access between the Japanese and Chinese quarters of the city.
Natasha is leaving in the morning to travel north to Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, before returning to London. We say goodbye to her with the promise that we will see her in a couple of months when we ourselves travel to Ireland to attend another wedding.
DAY FOUR: HUE
FRIDAY, APRIL 6, 2018
Costs: Hire of the car and driver through the hotel, $80 for the day
Accommodation: Lantana Hoi An Boutique Inn and Spa , 9 Thoai Ngoc Hau Street, Cam Pho Ward, Cam Pho
We are up bright and early today, on this last day here in central Vietnam. We've organised a private car to take us to the Imperial city of Hue, 126 kilometres north of Hoi An. We've been told that despite the relatively short distance, it will take several hours to reach Hue as we'll make some stops.
The Vietnamese people are early-risers, and even at 8am, the roads are clogged with cyclists, cars, trucks, and motorcycles as we make our way out of Hoi An, past paddy fields, cities, towns, and fishing villages towards the Imperial city of Hue. I watch the world from the comfort of the back seat of the car, but secretly would love to stop often to take photos. I take mental images of the sites from the window; the derelict mansions, the food stalls, the buffalo working in the paddy fields, the galvanised-iron humpies, and the smiling children.
We leave the coast road and start climbing up the mountains that border Vietnam and Cambodia. As we climb through the jungle, which is slowly being strangled by morning glory, we can see the coastline below. According to the driver, only fuel tankers, cars, buses, and motor bikes are permitted to use this road. At the top of the mountain, we are faced with chaotically parked buses and cars, food stalls, and shops. People are scurrying in all directions between vehicles and decaying buildings on a small hill opposite. We join the chaos as our driver stops briefly to let us out of the car. We have arrived at the scenic viewpoint of Hai Van Pass. Hai Van's name refers to the mists that rise from the sea, reducing visibility. Today, however, we have a clear 360 degree view of the sea below and the mountains around us.
The abandoned buildings at the pinnacle of the pass were once a border post between the Cham territory and the rest of the country. The gateway dates back to the First French Indochinese War when the lookouts were built to provide early warning of invasion, thus keeping the French-held city of Da Nang safe. When the French left, the buildings were left to decay.
Today, as I climb the remnants of a brick staircase, through the arch of the main gate, I admire the architectural engineering, which had been obviously built to withstand the ravages of climate and war. I walk along flat concrete roof of a bunker, and enter the second floor of the lookout. Emerging, I can see a newly married couple standing on the circular roof of a deserted water tower. Looking like a cake topper, they stand and pose for the barrage of photographers, including dozens of amateurs with their iPhones. Without warning, mist swirls in from the mountains, obliterating everything but the couple standing on the tower. I am in awe of the lengths that people go to get the 'perfect' wedding photo, and I applaud the tenacity of this couple, who have had to climb a ladder to reach this impossible perch, in full bridal attire.
Our next stop is a fishing village. A sandbar, only visible at low tide, extends out into the water. We walk along the sand and watch as a boat comes in, piled with crusted circles. A lady jumps out, collects armfuls of the large rings, drops them at a tent and makes several trips to and fro, gradually emptying the boat. On closer inspection, we realise that they are old bicycle or thin motorcycle tyres encrusted with oysters. A group of people squat under the shade of a large umbrella, expertly cleaning the tyres. The oysters are pushed into a pile, awaiting shucking, whilst the cleaned tyres are piled to one side. A little further up the road, as our car runs over small piles of tyres strategically placed in the middle of the road, I realise we are inadvertently assisting in the cleaning of remaining debris, readying them to be reused in the oyster farms. I can only admire the Vietnamese for their ingenuity as they work to improve their lives.
A high staircase looms in front of us as I pay the meagre admission cost. Climbing the steep staircase doesn't provide any indication of what is beyond. The Khai Dinh tomb is the resting place of the twelfth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. Built between 1920 and 1931, it is a blend of Eastern and Western architecture and the multiple levels are built into the side of the mountain, joined by a series of staircases, adorned with dragons. A courtyard onto which a number of concrete warriors stand 'guard' on either side of an elaborate concrete stele and pagoda is a mere prelude to the main attraction. At the highest level is a large building, the last resting place of Emperor Khai Dinh.
Khai Dinh was the 12th emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1916 until his death in 1925. He had closely collaborated with the French and was unpopular with the Vietnamese people, as they accused him of being a puppet of the French government. The tomb, completed six years after his death is ornate, millions of glass and porcelain chips make up the intricate designs that adorn the walls and columns, whilst the painted ceiling depicts nine dragons within clouds. The ceiling was painted by the feet of artist Phan Van Tanh. The gold leaf statue of Dinh's likeness, which sits atop of the grave was made in Marseilles, France.
We pull up outside the moated citadel of Hue. Built in 1801, the ravages of climate and war make the buildings within the huge Imperial City of Hue appear much older.
In 1789, Nguyen Anh had taken control of Vietnam and proclaimed himself emperor Gia Long. He had been recognised as emperor by China in 1804, when building of the Imperial City began.
The citadel measures two kilometres by two kilometres and is surrounded by a moat. The water in the moat is directed from the Perfume River through a series of sluices. We enter the complex through the main gate and find a number of traditional buildings within; including the Purple Forbidden City. Many palaces, gates, courtyards, and gardens make up the huge area.
During the Vietnam War, Hue had been a strategic location, sittin on the Northern side of the border between the Communist North and the Republic of South Vietnam. On January 31, 1968, as part of the Tet Offensive, a coordinated attack on Hue seized most of the city. The damage was huge and bullet holes can still be seen in the walls. Out of 160 buildings, only ten remain today, most of which are systematically being restored. The city was made a UNESCO site in 1993. After two hours wandering within the walls of the Imperial City, we reluctantly leave, as we have a long distance to travel back to Hoi An.
Although we take the faster road, through three tunnels, the longest of which is 6.3 kilometres, it takes just under three hours to return to our hotel. Our day trip provides us with new knowledge and a better understanding of the long and complex history of this central part of Vietnam.
DAY SIX: HO CHI MINH CITY
SUNDAY, APRIL 8, 2018
Highlights: Ho Chi Minh City
Accommodation: A & EM Art Hotel 31-33-35 Le Anh Xuan Street District 1 Ho Chi Minh City - ask for a room with a shower.
Our journey to Ho Chi Minh City yesterday had been uneventful, and we settle into our new hotel, which is really quite lovely. This morning, however, I realise that no matter how I try to work it out, there doesn't appear to be a shower in our room. There is a bathroom with a huge bath, but the metal snake-shaped hose is connected to the wall, but not to a tap or water outlet, which means that it's merely decoration. Aaaah! I can assure you that Vietnam isn't the sort of place where one can go without a shower for very long. It's also the first time since 1980 that I've had to pay an extra cost for a room with a shower. That time I was in Ireland.
After some discussion with the hotel manager, we eventually inspect a couple of available rooms on the same floor and agree on the room at the front of the hotel directly above the hotel reception area, or I should say, the bathroom is directly above the reception desk. More about that later...
This is our second visit to Ho Chi Minh City; the first being ten years ago. We had stayed in the Renaissance Riverside Hotel, which is situated by the river and from the window of our room, day and night, we had watched with fascination the constant activity of people and bicycles entering and leaving the busy ferry terminal opposite. It had been a very peaceful place. This time, however, we are a few blocks back within a busy hotel and restaurant precinct. I think that the rather reasonable daily tariff attracted me when I had booked the hotels recently, but I'm not complaining because this is a nice hotel and within easy walking distance of everything we need.
Instead of booking end-to-end tours this time, we decide to explore our local area and also revisit some local historic or places of interest on foot, so armed with a map and with runners on our feet, we leave the air-conditioned comfort of our hotel and step out into the heat and humidity and within thirty seconds, and whilst still standing on the footpath, almost come to grief with a motorcyclist. I had forgotten about the traffic in Vietnam.
The large Vietnamese cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, are defined by the traffic congestion and it is something that fascinates me. How come nobody seems to get hit by a vehicle? I'm told they do, but in the ten days we are in Vietnam, we don't see a single accident, and yet I am standing on a footpath outside my hotel and small motorcycles are weaving around me.
'You must walk across the road like a... like a... cow.' The tour guide's triumphant smile shows me that she's selected exactly the correct word for the situation as my face must have registered an understanding of what she was trying to tell me. To cross a road in Vietnam I need to step off the kerb with the utter conviction that I will make it to the other side unscathed and perhaps with a small feeling of victory for conquering the 'traffic issue'. That was ten years ago.
And things have not changed.
We approach the lights near the hotel and wait for them to change. As we step off the kerb and onto the road, the mantra is buzzing around in my head.
'Plod, plod... just like a cow.'
'Beep, beep.' A motorcycle toots as it swerves as it takes the corner at lightning speed.
Undaunted, I make it to the opposite side of the street and as I take the last step from asphalt to footpath without incident, I exhale. I have held my breath throughout this entire ordeal!
There is a distinct lack of traffic lights in Ho Chi Minh City, which is the largest city in Vietnam. With a population of over 15 million people, most of whom ride motorbikes or motor scooters, traffic lights are not really seen by the motorist as being necessary. After all, nobody obeys them. The 'green man' means nothing to drivers, nor do red lights, or pedestrian crossings. For insurance purposes only, I must use the designated crossings, just in case... But it's an experience.
Getting back to the 'cow' analogy, the theory is that if a pedestrian maintains the same pace as they cross the road, the drivers have taken that speed into consideration, enabling them to weave around the people without incident. However, when you vary your pace or freak out and stop in the middle of the road, the driver hasn't time to alter their speed and kerboom! I have another line of defence, though! By simply attaching myself to a local person like a limpet, and matching them step by step, I can cross any road with ease and without the related stress. In the absence of locals, the 'Cow Principle' comes into force!
We arrive at the famous Ben Thanh Market and the first thing I see is a t-shirt stall. As if to lure in the tourists, their best-selling shirt is in full view. The motif is a large, colourful scribble. The slogan says, 'Vietnamese Traffic'. I have a sudden urge to buy that t-shirt!
We are covering old ground today. During the last ten years there have been significant changes to the city. Gone are the traditional coffee shops, remnants of the French Colonial era, where coffee and French-style pastries are served from tiny shops. No tables and chairs, the patrons sit on red plastic stools on the footpaths outside the cafes and socialise. I'm very sad to see that these vibrant meeting-places have been replaced by Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf franchises. There is a local franchise with the unfortunate name, Phuc Long, in competition with the somewhat expensive American stalwarts, but even this place doesn't have the same vibe as the traditional coffee houses.
We arrive at the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. Constructed by French colonists between 1863 and 1880, it was initially called The Cathedral of Saigon, but the name, Notre Dame Cathedral, has been used since 1959. I'm sorry to see that the cathedral is closed for renovations, so we are unable to look inside. However, I had been interested to read that all the original materials used in its construction had been imported from France, including tiles from Marseilles and stained glass from Chartres. Since the war, replacement tiles are made locally. It's worth noting that in 2005, the statue of Our Lady of Peace, which stands at the front of the cathedral, was allegedly shedding tears. This had attracted thousands of people, so many in fact, that special traffic controllers had been brought in to stop traffic from coming near the cathedral. Despite the Catholic Church not being able to confirm the phenomenon, we are interested to see many people waiting in turn to have their photos taken in front of the statue today, thirteen years later.
Not too far away is another iconic building of French origin. Built between 1886 and 1891, the Saigon Central Post Office, the architecture includes Gothic, Renaissance, and French influences. Although the design of this magnificent building is credited to Gustav Eiffel, it was actually designed by Alfred Foulhoux. The exterior of the building is reminiscent of a railway station building with it's wide entrance, above which is a large clock. The freshly-painted yellow facade and green shutters provide a sense of refuge from the heat of the day; a feeling that is dispelled the moment one steps through the door because in the absence of a cooling system, the air is heavy and fetid. But I forget about the heat once I lift my eyes to the arched ceiling. This building could exist anywhere in Europe, with it's heavy hand-carved counters and real old-school telephone boxes; the only clue to its Asian location is the large portrait of Ho Chi Minh on the far wall. The counters are open and, like all post offices around the world, offer a variety of postal services. However, one icon, 87-year-old, Mr. Duong Van Ngo, is unique. Fluent in English, French, and his native Vietnamese, he writes letters for the illiterate at a rate of 50c a page between the hours of 8am and 3pm daily. This is a beautiful building and although it could easily have been turned into a museum, I'm glad that it still provides the services for which it was originally built.
When we were last in Vietnam in 2008, ten years ago, the Rex Hotel had been partially demolished as a new wing was being constructed. Today, we we arrive at the iconic hotel, we find it is again partially closed due to construction works, which have attracted high-end luxury stores, soon to be opened. The Rex Hotel is owned by the Saigon Trust, which is a state-owned entity. As we approach the hotel, the facade reminds us of an old-fashioned auto workshop; the type that are located on corners, allowing cars to enter the covered semi-circular porch whilst an attendant fills the car, cleans the windscreen and pops the bonnet to check the oil and water. There is one near our home in Malvern. The original building was constructed in 1927 as a two-storey auto dealership during the French Colonial rule, and operated as such until 1959, when a wealthy Vietnamese businessman purchased the building and with his wife converted it into a hotel and cinema complex. The first guests arrived in 1961, and the owners operated the hotel throughout the Vietnam War, opening rooms to US soldiers and war correspondents. It was also used to by the American Military Command to host the daily conference. At the end of the war, the owners settled in France, as Saigon's Tourist Board took ownership, renaming it 'The City Port'. The conference room here was used for the press conference, which announced the reunification of Vietnam in 1976. It was renamed Rex Hotel in 1986. With such a fascinating history, I would love to explore it further.
We turn our attention to the large construction site opposite, where an underground rail system is under construction. Perhaps this is a way of trying to reduce the number of vehicles on the streets and the congestion it causes, not only on the busy roads, but on the footpaths, where hundreds of motor bikes are parked at any one time.
Our fascinating walk down memory lane finishes at a restaurant, where we find traditional Southern Vietnamese food in an ambient setting. Walking back to our hotel, we find the streets have been transformed into a large night market and street restaurant as day turns into night. This city has an atmosphere, which I hope never diminishes.
DAY EIGHT: HO CHI MINH CITY
TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018
Highlights: City tour/War Remnants Museum - 28 Võ Văn Tần, Phường 6, Quận 3, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 700000
Accommodation: A & EM Art Hotel 31-33-35 Le Anh Xuan Street District 1 Ho Chi Minh City.
We wait in the air-conditioned hotel foyer for our tour bus to arrive and when it does, there is only one other couple aboard. By the time we have made the rounds, stopping at one hotel after another, the bus is almost full and we head for our first stop; the War Remnants Museum. Including exhibits from the first Indochina and Vietnam wars, the museum concentrates on exhibitions exposing war crimes, first those of the French then those of the Americans. The museum is made up of a series of themed spaces. Although there is an anti-American theme running through the entire museum, it includes an interesting array of exhibits and photographs. Yes, it's biased, but it's also a valuable view of some of the major events of the Vietnam War. Who can forget the photo by Nick Ut of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, who sustained terrible burns after being hit by napalm on June 8, 1972? Now living in Canada, her autobiography is a worthy story to read. Despite the underlying anti-American theme throughout, there is a also a strong anti-war message, which can be seen in the children's artwork and posters throughout the space.
I can imagine some people, especially Americans, taking offence at the material displayed within the walls.
Despite some uncomfortable elements, I feel that the museum provides an insight into the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese, and information that would not otherwise find its way into our mainstream secondary-school history books. But I believe the aim of the museum is to provide discomfort to visitors, especially those who contributed to the war. I suppose there are people who would rather stay outside than to be confronted with some of the exhibits here, but we should not shy away from the lasting after effects of war. The kindergarten for children with disabilities is a stark reminder of the fallout of the use of Agent Orange and despite children being used for propaganda purposes, they are at least given opportunities that perhaps wouldn't otherwise exist. I can never say I enjoy visiting museums such as this one, but in order to gain a tiny understanding of a period of history, it is necessary to push one's comfort zone to the limits. It's certainly not the most confronting museum I've visited.
As I emerge from the museum, disturbing images still pushing around in my head, our driver informs us that it's coffee time. I enjoy a cup of the black stuff as much as the next person and am looking forward to our next stop.
A gold Buddha sits on a shelf just inside the entrance. Just behind it is a board on which the ten benefits of drinking black coffee are listed.
Except that there are really only nine benefits. Blood circulation is so important, it is repeated - to be sure, to be sure!
But the real reason we are here is to find out about the best-selling and rather expensive weasel coffee.
Introduced by the French in 1857, coffee is now one of Vietnam's largest exports. However, it needs to be said, that the traditional coffee houses that we saw all over Vietnam in 2008 have been replaced with multi-national coffee chains like Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. This is a shame, as the tiny coffee shops with patrons sitting on squat plastic stools spilling out on the footpaths was an integral part of everyday life here. Now, people sip lattes, for which they've paid through the nose.
The local guide's demonstration and discussion about weasel coffee production finishes with a taste test. Despite some trepidation at drinking coffee that has passed through a strange, and somewhat ugly, weasel, I take the offered cup of coffee and taste it. It's surprisingly good. By now, I've come to the conclusion that the roasting process (hopefully) would have destroyed most of the bacteria, whilst the almost boiling water poured over the ground coffee would have sterilised whatever germs were still there - I hope so anyway.
I leave Cafe Viet Nam clutching a small bag of coffee, which I intend to gift to a coffee-drinking friend. Since the small bag wasn't so very expensive, I rather suspect that there is little weasel coffee inside.
Returning to the bus, we watch the driver as he negotiates the heavy Ho Chi Minh City traffic. There are all sorts of vehicles competing for space on this road; but mostly motorbikes, some with carts hitched to them, and small vans. To be honest, I am fascinated by the way the traffic flows, as there seems to be few rules. We don't see one accident either.
We turn down a busy street, and beyond a small courtyard is the Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu temple, which is dedicated to the Chinese Goddess of the Sea, Matzu. We enter through the main gate and find ourselves in an open courtyard, the pungent smell of burning incense permeates the air. Pink prayer offerings line one wall, whilst bamboo lantern offerings are hung on rails by temple staff.
One of the oldest temples in Ho Chi Minh City, the temple was first built in 1760 by the Cantonese community in the city. Of particular interest to me is the roof decoration, which includes small porcelain figures that represent themes from Chinese religions and legends. Whilst inside the temple, the smoky atmosphere is one of calm reverence; the total opposite of the noise and traffic chaos outside the gate of this very beautiful temple.
A short time later, we rejoin the noise and colourful chaos of the city streets and stopping a short distance from a busy market. Armed with instructions for meeting the bus later, we wander through the narrow corridors of the covered market. We're not interested in buying anything, but absorb the atmosphere and the frenetic pace of the vendors. To be honest, I don't think I've seen so much plastic in one place in my entire life and I realise that the bags, food containers, bottles, and other useful but disposable items are not necessities and vow that from this point, I shall make a conscious effort to cease our dependence upon disposable plastics.
Whilst waiting for our group to return, I watch the motorcycle riders load their tiny vehicles with piles of goods and wobble down the road as they make their regular deliveries. Behind the market are multi-storied galvanised shacks; home to some of the less fortunate city dwellers. Our tour ends after the market visit and we make our way back to and airconditioned coffee house, where, from my spot next to the large windows, I watch the traffic. In particular, I watch a lady push her food trolley diagonally across an incredibly busy intersection; slow and steady, like a cow, whilst vehicles of all shapes and sizes somehow move seamlessly around her.
I am enjoying exploring Ho Chi Minh City by foot. We haven't any more tours booked and intend to spend our last full day in the city wandering.
Maybe I'll have a massage and a manicure. We'll see!
DAY NINE: HO CHI MINH CITY
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 11, 2018
Highlights: Indochina Queen dinner and cultural cruise
Accommodation: A & EM Art Hotel 31-33-35 Le Anh Xuan Street District 1 Ho Chi Minh City.
After a fairly sedate day where we indulge in a massage and manicure/pedicure, we feel revitalised and spend an afternoon exploring the markets and specialty stores. In this frantically busy city, it's nice to be able to wander aimlessly - after all, we don't really have anywhere to go.
Tis is a good opportunity for us to wander through some of the streets we've not explored, absorb the sights and smells and at the same time observe the people as they go about their business. This area has changed a lot since our last visit, and as we make our way along the building site, which will one day in the future be an underground railway line.
But its also a good time to reflect on this short, but busy trip to Vietnam. This is our second trip to this wonderful country and although we've seen huge changes in Ho Chi Minh, the kind, gentle nature of the individual Vietnamese people is one of the most endearing memories I shall bring home with me. That, and their unflappable sense of humour.
We dress and take a cab to the river, where we board the Indochina Queen, a river boat dinner and cultural show. Along with a lovely array of traditional Vietnamese food, we experience a showcase of traditional musical instruments and song. Afterwards we talk to the musicians about the instruments and we are find a group of people who are only too willing to share their music with us.
Our ten day independent travel to Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City provides us with a lovely overview of this wonderful country. Our last trip to Vietnam was a decade ago, and although there have been many changes, the one thing that is constant with our two trips ten years apart is the open, friendly nature of the people.
I look forward to our next visit.