When my Mum asked me if I would like to join her on a 10-day tour of Vietnam, I did hesitate. I had never really had any interest in visiting the country – or any Asian country at all actually, other than Japan – but a number of friends had been, some multiple times, and said that it was beautiful. So, I decided to go.

We toured with Wendy Wu – who are a fantastic company, if anyone was wondering – joining our guide Tom and 18 fellow travellers in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for the trek. The leg of the trip from Australia to Saigon was probably the worst international travelling experience I have ever had, topped only by the trip home. But I won’t bore you with those little details.

As I said, our tour started in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We weren’t sure which we were supposed to call it, but our guide seemed to favour calling it Saigon so we went with that. If you don’t know the story of why it is technically called Ho Chi Minh City these days, look it up because it’s quite interesting. My first impressions of Saigon were that it was dirty, there were millions of motorbikes and it kind of smelt weird. As the tour went on I came to discover that those three descriptions basically summed up the entire country, or at least, all of the parts that we visited.

While in Saigon we visited the Reunification Palace which was an absolutely beautiful old building. This was the scene for the final stages of the American War in Vietnam when a North Vietnamese tank bulldozed through the gates and the commander ran to raise a North Vietnamese flag from the rooftop. From there we drove to the War Remnants Museum. The outside was interesting as they have quite a large collection of American tanks, planes and helicopters left behind from the war. The inside, however, was awful. We had been warned that it would be confronting but we lasted only minutes inside before deciding we didn’t want or need to see anymore.

At the Reunification Palace in Saigon.

At the Reunification Palace in Saigon.

I found it particularly interesting to hear about the war from a Vietnamese perspective. Here we are raised to call it the Vietnam War – while the Vietnamese call it the American War of Vietnam because there had been a huge war with the French prior to this war – and to, for the most part, mindlessly accept that America was doing the right thing. Now I find myself wondering if Vietnam would have been much better off if everyone else had stayed out of it. Something to think about.

After lunch we went to the famous (although I had never actually heard of it) Ben Thanh Market. It was huge, loud, stinky and very overwhelming. It would have been nice to have a casual wander around and check everything out, but that wasn’t an option. You couldn’t look at anything outside of a stall without the salesperson thrusting things at you, grabbing at you, or trying to force you to stay there until you bought something from them. And if you did buy something they’d try and look in your wallet or convince you to give them more money. Bartering was a must and we did get a couple of good bargains, but it was exhausting and we didn’t stay very long.

The following day we drove down to Ben Tre, a southern province located in the Mekong Delta. The drive through the countryside was quite lovely; much nicer than inner-city Saigon. Everything was green and you could see families out working on their farms. In Ben Tre we were paddled in sampans (the worst possible mode of river transportation, I was absolutely freaking out the entire time) through a maze of small canals until we reached the place where we would board a larger boat to take us down the river to Turtle Island for lunch. Between boat rides we passed through a family home where they run their own business making coconut candy. I found the process quite fascinating and the end product was delicious. I even brought some home with me!

A family-run coconut candy business in Ben Tre, Mekong Delta.

A family-run coconut candy business in Ben Tre, Mekong Delta.

The Cu Chi Tunnels were definitely one of my highlights of the trip. We had the opportunity to hear a first-hand account of what it was like to live in the tunnels during the American War while being led around the site by a Cu Chi Veteran. For those who don’t know, the tunnel network was hundreds of kilometres long and extremely well-hidden. So much so, that even once opposing troops became aware of them they were only able to destroy approximately 10 kilometres in total. In some parts the tunnels are several storeys deep and they include trapdoors, living areas, storage facilities, weapon factories, field hospitals, command centres and kitchens. We were able to see how they hid the entrances, the traps they used in fake entrances to maim or kill the enemy and what the insides of some of the bunkers and tunnels looked like. I took the opportunity to crawl through part of a tunnel. It wasn’t very long, but it was hot and the air was quite thin even though that particular tunnel wasn’t very deep. I couldn’t even imagine having to live underground with little to no ventilation the way they did.

Where I entered the tunnel...

Where I entered the tunnel…

...and where I came out!

…and where I came out!

The following day we flew to Danang and made our way south to Hoi An. We visited China Beach, where the American Marines had a huge R&R base during the 1960s and 70s. We could easily have stayed there for the remainder of the trip. The weather was beautiful, the beach was beautiful and it was a very peaceful place. On the way to Hoi An we also went to Marble Mountain, where there was a fantastic view of China Beach and surrounds. We also climbed up a bit further from the lookout and went into a cave that had been turned into some kind of temple. It was quite beautiful with the slivers of light coming in through spaces in the natural ceiling.

The view of China Beach from Marble Mountain.

The view of China Beach from Marble Mountain.

Hoi An is probably the tourist capital of Vietnam. It is very tourist-friendly and much more pleasant in general compared to Saigon. It was still dirty and it still smelt awful, but the shopkeepers were friendlier and far less pushy and we felt quite comfortable wandering around the streets on our own, where in Saigon we had felt very unsafe and unsure the entire time. If shopping is your thing, Hoi An is the place to visit. Every, single person on our tour bought clothes or shoes in Hoi An, with most of us getting things tailor-made. My Mum and I bought pants, matching sandals that took only hours to be made to fit our feet perfectly and were then delivered to our hotel for us, and we each got a dress made by two lovely ladies just down from our hotel. Mum’s is a lovely blue and white sundress, while mine is a bit more formal in black chiffon with little red bows all over it. Now I just need somewhere to wear it!

We drove from Hoi An to Hue and this was again an area we could easily have spent more time in. Even though Hue is quite a large city, it wasn’t anywhere near as dirty or unpleasant as Saigon. We visited the Imperial Citadel and the Forbidden Purple City where we enjoyed a cyclo ride (like a tuk tuk for those that have been to Thailand etc). Most of the cyclo drivers were older men, but of course I ended up the passenger of the only young one. He was trying to teach me to say ‘thank you’ in Vietnamese but kept laughing when I got it wrong so I gave up. He was very friendly though and pointed things out to me as we went along. That afternoon we took a cruise on the Perfume River and our boat driver fell asleep! We almost ran-aground but he woke up just in time. It definitely make for an entertaining afternoon!

From Hue we made our way north to Hanoi, which was the hometown of our guide Tom. It was nicer than Saigon, but we still didn’t particularly like it there. We visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum which was an interesting experience. He’s actually in there, frozen or preserved somehow, which we didn’t expect. And the security! Wow! We had to go through metal detectors and once you were inside there were guards with guns making sure you didn’t make any noise or break out of the line. All very strange. There would have been thousands of people there too, all wanting to visit Ho Chi Minh. We learnt a bit about exactly who he was and what he did, and he was far from the most upstanding guy. He changed his identity countless times and made a lot of enemies. But when he returned to Vietnam after his worldly travels he changed the country in ways nobody else has ever been able to.  

On the final day of the tour we went to Halong Bay. It was a good end to the tour to spend the day on a relaxing cruise around the bay. There are said to be over 3000 islands (or giant rocks for the most part) within the bay. We saw floating villages – houses all joined together near the islands where people live and fish and sell their catch to the mainland. It would have been interesting to be able to get off the boat and see what the houses were like, but we didn’t get that opportunity.

Relaxing on our cruise around Halong Bay.

Relaxing on our cruise around Halong Bay.

Everyone always raves about how amazing the food is in Vietnam, but I didn’t find it particularly delicious at all. We did get to try a few things that stood out, but for the most part it was all the same. That may have had something to do with the fact we were on a tour and didn’t get to choose our meals, but I can’t be certain.

I am glad that I went with my Mum to Vietnam. It was a very interesting and educational experience like nothing I had ever done before. But there is absolutely no way I would ever go back. I really can’t understand why people do. But to each their own I suppose.

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Comments
  1. BigCountry says:

    Awesome

  2. BigCountry says:

    Thanks for the great write up, it was Awesome to read about your travels.

  3. have you ever seen the movies “the thin red line, platoon and or castles of war(with mike j fox mid 80’s). to me the best movies made about the Vietnam war

  4. risingwoman says:

    I was in Vietnam about 15 years ago 😉

    And yeah, I too didn’t really like the food (the food in Thailand now, that was a different story!) I found my time there to be OK, but I also feel no major urge to go back. I’m glad I went, I’m happy I spent some time exploring the history – but I am not drawn back….

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