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From Saigon >> till >> Hanoi

The Vietnam War unraveled while I was studying at the Military Academy and influenced the way war was conducted. Many tactics and equipment were a response to the fighting there. In fact it shaped the US and NATO policies for a long time. So long after the war ended it was a good opportunity to see the country that suffered so much during the battles and eventually victory of the communist armed forces. The plan was to travel 2 weeks in Vietnam during Mariska’s Christmas holiday, staying in 5 cities for a few days and exploring the area from there. Due to the limited time we took 2 domestic flights.

The holiday started in The Hague, where we had to get through a cumbersome procedure, 3 very expensive visa for Vietnam. If we had known that in advance, we would have booked an other trip.

We flew with a Boeing 777-200 of Singapore Airlines to Singapore, a flight of more than 10.500 kms. As always the service on board is excellent with this airline, served by friendly smiling beauties. After a short stay at Changi Airport, where we had the opportunity to buy a new Pentax camera. When we were back we discovered that this camera was much cheaper in Holland. We boarded for a flight to Ho Chi Min City (HCMC), also known as Saigon. The first thing you have to do is find an ATM to pull money out, as you cannot buy the Vietnamese Dong (VND)outside the Country. The first feeling you have is to become a millionaire, in fact a multimillionaire, as I took out for the first week ten and a halve million VND. After that you have the feeling to be a real Big Spender as you throw out the money with tens of thousands at the time. Some 15.000VND buys you a can of Coca Cola.

We made ourselves comfortable in our hotel room and checked out Saigon. As you cannot drink tap water, you must have lots of bottled water. The first surprise was the traffic. More than 7 million people living there and most of them seemed to be here in the centre. A never ending stream of motor bikes, scooters and cars, taking full possession of the streets. They did not stop, not even at the zebra markings, meant for pedestrians. The advise we got: just follow a Vietnamese if you want to cross the street. Anyhow, there was no Vietnamese crossing the street so we stayed at our block, where we were happy to find a mini store, where they sold water at a price one tenth of the price charged in the hotel. In the evening we were guided through the traffic to a great restaurant. It was still tricky to cross the street. If you stayed together as a block there was a reasonable chance to survive. The advice was keep walking slowly, eventually they will not stop, but just turn around you.

Initially we think that the people we see at the other side of the streets must have been born there, as crossing the streets seems to be life threatening. But now and then we see someone risking his life by an attempt to cross the street.

The restaurant offered chopsticks and it was an excellent opportunity to master the trick of eating with chopsticks. Mariska was very talented and managed to empty het plate witch chop sticks. After dinner again came the survival tour to cross the streets again. By crossing as a closed group you enhance the chance to survive.

Next day we had a cyclo tour through HCMC. A cyclo is tricycle pedaled by a lean Vietnamese, with a comfortable seat, from which you can comfortably observe the town, traffic and the highlights of Saigon.

The first stop was at the church of Jeanne d‘Arc, situated at a mini park. The trip went further to a 300 year old Chinese Temple. The Giac Lam pagode was in reverence to the Gods who saved Chinese refugees, fleeing out of China over the seas. Many believers were there, burning incense. The area was filled with smoke, sending messages to the gods. At least it burned in your eyes. Bright colors were impressing. And many statues were visible. Mariska took the opportunity to light incense. And put it in giant containers. Chinese people offered goods to their gods.

The mopeds are the preferred alternative to a truck. Next stop was the market. An enormous building stuffed with thousands of merchants, selling anything. Only not to us, as many seemed to be wholesalers. The next trip was to another temple, the Giac Vien basically more of the same. Of course many statues and lots of smoke After that we boarded our cyclo again for the next leg, to a funeral centre. People are hiring a space, mourning for 3 days, then the body is transported by a decorated funeral car to the cemetery, or cremated. Vietnam is not exactly the safest place on earth and you are advised to take to Vietnam only with you things you can afford to lose. You tightly have to strap camera’s and bags to discourage the criminals on motor bikes who are specialized in grabbing valuables.

Were that the highlights of Saigon? Judging to the guide, indeed. So we are happy that we can go next day to the Mekong Delta. We never have made a city-tour holiday but this holiday is programmed in such a way that we see only towns. Holidays like this are organized by a local agency, as a package deal. Judging to their enthusiasm, it must be a communist state agency.

In the evening Birgitt wishes not to try to cross the street, so we stay on the block were the hotel is located. We are happy to find a nice little restaurant where we enjoy a nice Vietnamese soup, the famous pho, you can eat everywhere, with lots of fresh vegetables.

Next day is a trip to the Mekong Delta. After a two hour trip through the rush hour, we board a boat in Can Tho. The Mekong Delta is formed by the Mekong river which split in 9 rivers that spread out over the delta. The boat makes a trip of an hour, along fisheries, in which fish is grown. Or kept alive after the catch. The fisherman’s family lives above the cages. Sometimes he has to go completely under water to work with the fishing nets.

We end up on an island with a full program for tourists. Including presentation of bees, fiddling around with a 20 kgs python and a singing performance. Part of the event was a trip on a horse cart. The next attraction is being transported back by small boats through a muddy channel, bordered by water palm trees. These are used for roofing. We visit a factory where coconut sweets were produced On approaching the city again we see a huge, modern bridge.

Next day we had a long trip to Nha Trang, en route the children had a short break to play on the beach. Mariska finds a nice piece of coral. Nha Thrang is the beach capital of Vietnam. Everywhere high rise hotels are available and being constructed. Along the coast are many resorts and many more in development. This will be the Benidorm of Vietnam. The business is tourism and many Russian tourists enjoy Vietnam. In Nha Thrang we kill our time with walking on the beach, shopping, making a 10 km run at noon in the hot sun and so on. In the evening we try to find a diveshop, and that is not difficult as there are twelve. Nha Thrang is the diving capital of Vietnam. It seems to be not too interesting, but we ask a diveshop. Hard luck, the dive shop owner said as the visibility is one meter, so no diving. On the internet I find additional information. Of the 15 dive locations, 10 are closed, destroyed by fishermen with explosives, poison and overfishing.

Part of the optional program is a boat trip. First we go to an aquarium, build in a bogus shipwreck, constructed of concrete. How far can you go to please tourists with a bad taste? Next was a floating fishery, but the business seems to be making 10 minutes trip in a water jet scooter. Next we disembark on an island, where we can buy a lunch. To my surprise, we see a kind of dive facility and the question is of course: how is the visibility here? It is 7 meters, and we launch from a boat. Not very good, but enough. And the price was 300.000 VND, about 15 USD, so not bad. I have my dive camera and computer with me and decide to give it a shot. However, when I have to pay it is half a million VND, (still a bargain, but not as agreed) and after someone ran away with my money, I dressed in the dive suit and checked the equipment. It looked not too good, It lost air and the pressure in the bottle was already down to 180 bar. The duty dive master said it will be not a boat dive but from the beach and the visibility might be less. Enfin, in the water the visibility turned out to be less than half a meter and unless you were scraping the bottom, you could not see anything, only a grey murk. No piture as may underwater camera just showed a pale yellow color. The few interesting things I saw were spiny sea orchins. The guide tried to show on but I hit the spiny creature in his hand and got 10 spines deep in my hand. They are risky as they usually get inflamed as they are difficult to remove. Soon I had enough of it and skipped further diving. A lady with needles and pincer tried to remove the spines, unfortunately not all. After a lunch we sailed to a fisherman’s village and were transported with a kind of giant bamboo basket to the village. After walking to the end of the village we returned to the boat, again in bamboo baskets. The bamboo baskets were impregnated with polyester to reinforce them and to make them watertight.

In the evening we visited a glamorous mall with all the luxury you expect in Paris. Mariska was fascinated by shoes with glittering LED lights, so why not spoiling the little girl with these shoes, that are definitely safe when crossing the dangerous streets.

Next day is a good opportunity to make a run along the coast. The 10 kms in tropical temperature around noon was too much, I could feel my muscles for days.

Next day was the flight to Da Nang. We passed lots of building sites where resorts were build. The building of roads in the bright white sand was completed. The Airfield Cam Ranh is a refurbished American air base. The trip to Da Nang with a Vietnam Airlines ATR-72 was uneventful. Thelanding was smooth Waiting for our checked baggage we met a friendly Vietnamese family, the daughter informed where we bought the Mariska’s shoes with flickering LED lights.

By bus we travelled to the next destination, Hoi An. Due to the well preserved architecture it was in 1999 designated by UNESCO a World heritage Site. It is a little town, the 1254 heritage buildings as old as from the 16th century, are basically in original state. Apart from the fact that all houses in the center were transformed in tourist shops and restaurants. Tourism was clearly the business and busloads tourist were dropped at the many hotels. Last year 1,5 million tourists arrived. Why not have the business run by Disneyland? Our Hotel was situated between the old city and the beach. That looks convenient, but is pretty useless as you have to walk 2 kms either side to enjoy the town or the beach. We were lucky that a courtesy mini shuttle bus was available. It was New Years Eve and the hotel offered a discount. After the lunch and evaluating the quality of it, we decided to leave the discount for what is was, and for the dinner we went to a restaurant that indeed offered better food.

But first we checked out the old city. There is a complex system of buying several expensive tickets, so you could see the buildings that were interesting. The prices were here five fold of the prices in Can Tho, but still cheap. To see Hoi An is absolutely a must for people who like to shop all day for tourist rubbish. The market had delicious fresh food. There was a ferry, virtually overloaded with people and bikes. We strolled through the old town and bought in a pagode some Chinese lamps.

Next day we boarded bikes to see the country side around Hoi An. At first we bought a helmet for Mariska and that was needed as Mariska fell backward from the bicycle when athletic Birgitt took off rather brisk.

The farmers were used to tourists and realized that the tourists made the area wealthy. The huts were replaced by houses. We passed along rivers and ponds. The water was full of “kam” a water palm, the leaves were used for roofing. The guide told that the kam were used as hiding place by the Vietcong, to hide from US helicopters as the stiff leaves were not blown away by the rotor wash of the American helicopters. Take it for what it is worth, as helicopter pilots are not such idiots to fly so low to search for terrorists, you are just too vulnerable for gunfire. The guide had more interesting stories about the liberation of Vietnam from the Americans. We would find out soon more about her. We contnued the day in rain. We stopped once in a while , enjoyed cemetries and agricultural activities of course we passed along pagodes.

Around 50 kms from Hoi An is an ancient temple complex named My Son. The guide told that since the tourist boom, 23 groups of the agency were here, but only once the complex has been visited, so a good reason to rent a minibus and see My Son. It was a very interesting trip over roads without any tourist. Upon approaching the temple complex the similarities with the Maya civilization in we saw in Mexico and Guatemala were striking. Exactly the same technique was used to build the roof structure. No arches but a cantilever roof (overkragend, in Dutch) The buildings were constructed of masonry in bricks, a precision job. There were many structures, many of them still hiding in the jungle. There were even steles with inscriptions of a mysterious writing. Excavations are still in progress. Lots of artifact were damaged by Vietcong during the Vienamese war By surprise we met the same family with the daughter we met in Danang. This must have been a chance of one in a million! A distant butterfly is a good moment to check out the zoom capability of the little Pentax camera. Not too bad, this butterfly is at 5 meter distance. We spent some hours at My Son, till we have seen all interesting objects. A very interesting trip, beyond compare to another tourist shopping spree in Hoi An.

Next day was a trip planned to Hue, the old Emperor city. The trip guided us over the Hai Van pas, the "Pass schrouded in clouds" was indeed shrouded in clouds and rain. We do not see anything. A trip to the Marble Mountains was cancelled due to weather. However there was a display of marble and other material like onyx. Incredible giant semi precious stones were sold for prices, we could not believe our eyes. Of course we bought some, a “cats eye” with a brilliant luminous band in it. Upon arriving in Hue, we make ourselves comfortable in the hotel and set course to the Forbidden City of the Emperors Palace. First we have a problem, we have to cross the roads. And here it is as problematic as in HCMC. Good that we still not know how the traffic is in Hanoi. With the courage of a kamikaze fighter we manage to survive and after almost an hour walking we are at the Forbidden City. Outside there are antique cannons. The Vietnamese had something with cannons, after one of the battles the French captured tens of thousands canons. In the palace we are greeted by colorful koi fish, which are fighting for food.

The remains of the Forbidden City are still huge, but only a few buildings are in an excellent shape. Then a surprise, we meet again the Vietnamese family we met twice before! A one in a billion chance! This must have been a sign of the Gods of the Emperor. So we promised to exchange the pictures we made.

We see the Emperors throne and it is possible to picture yourself on the throne in authentic (???) clothes of the Royal family.

We return to the hotel, it is rainy weather. The food in the hotel for lunch was a good reason to look for another restaurant and by coincidence we found Villa Hue, a classy restaurant run by the school of Tourism, that offered classy food of supreme quality.

Next day the sun was shining again and by bus we travelled to the tombs of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. The first was of emperor Kai Dinh. It was build early in the 20th century, finished in 1931. More than 11.000 men constructed it, 4000 of them died and are buried in the terraces. Lots of artifacts were displayed and even a life size bronze statue, made in France. The population must have suffered to be taxed for monuments like this. No wonder that the Vietnam population could not wait for the royal reign to end. That happened after the Second World War. The next tomb was of emperor Tu Duc, build in the 19th century. According to some reports the craftsmen building the complex were killed after their job. Part of the complex were the houses of the spouses of the emperor, 104, exactly two per week. He had concubines as well. After his dead, the women were locked up in their quarters till they died. It must be a sacred place for people liking a monarchy. Of course there were thrones and lots of artifacts. My new camera had a special mode that gave more or less colorful results, the HDR mode. Indeed it gives interesting results.

After that we boarded a boat, a catamaran dragon boat over the Perfume river. A wide yellow river, in no way resembling perfume. The lady on board immediately started a sales pitch for her touristic rubbish, but unfortunately we could not resist to buy some. We left the boat at the Tien Mu pagoda, a Buddhist revered place. From this the munk left to Saigon in 1963, where he burned himself in protest to the suppression of Buddhists by the government.The monastry was a quiet, green place

We speeded back to the hotel to drop a few that would not participate in a 3 hour trip to the Vinh Moc tunnels at the DMZ at the 17th degree N. The guide was in her element as she was a dedicated Vietcong guerilla. Here were the famous shelters and tunnels, in which the population lived for a few years. On approaching the area there was a strange flora. Vaguely green grass and thin trees. Most likely the result of Agent orange, the defoliation fluid sprayed by the US forces to deny the Viet cong the shelter of trees. If this is the result of spraying 40 years ago it is alarming. However the main active ingredient, 2.4-D (2,4-dichloorfenoxyazijnzuur) is used extensively in commercial agriculture all over the World. Lots of diseases and birth defects are attributed to Agent Orange. However it is difficult to imagine that it is still active in a tropical area after 40 years. The effective time according the instructions is only a few weeks. The area we were, was a touristic attraction and I would not be surprised that the strange fauna was kept in that shape more or less artificially. After buying a ticket we were shown the attractions. The hideouts were replica’s; for instance the wooden spars were replaced by concrete, simulating wood. We entered the trenches and tunnels, rather narrow. The map of the tunnels showed ventlation shafts as well. A display showed lots of American unexploded bombs, however all the labels indicating the bomb types, were wrong.They better had asked an expert on bombs.

The Viet Cong guide was at her best. Stories about the American war came out like a machine gun. They won the war and the winner writes the history of course. So the war was now confined to the battle against the 550.000 Americans stationed here at the peak of the war. In our part of the world we thought it was more a war of the communist North Vietnam atacking the independant republic South Vietnam. The Americans supported South Vietnam. The American War dragged even on for two years after all the Americans left. The story of our guide had no explanation for the fact that, after the Communist victory, many millions Vietnamese fled the country, the communist paradise led by Ho Chi Min, risking their life in whacky boats.

After a long trip we returned to Hue, to pack for the flight to Hanoi next day. We checked the weather in Hanoi on internet and it showed 9 degrees, so it looked like a mistake, as we were in subtropical Vietnam. The flight was uneventful until the very last moment, a very hard landing. The pilot almost crashed the aircraft on the runway by a poorly executed crosswind landing. My estimate is the landing gear approached its structural limits. Respect for the design of the Airbus 320! Later I send an email to Vietnam Airlines to report the event, but got no response.

Upon disembarking we noticed that the forecast was right. It was as cold as in Holland. We could not resist the temptation to have dinner in a real Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, and is was exactly as you can expect. Next day was a cyclo tour through Ha Noi (as they write it). A million people cramped in a small area. Now we discovered that traffic in Saigon is for beginners, here it was much worse.

Later we did some shopping and bought sophisticated hand embroidered silk for such a low price that we did not dare to bargain. It was extremely busy on the streets. The sidewalk was occupied as parking place of light motorbikes and mopeds, and the balance was filled by mini open air restaurants, consisting of plastic mini chairs and someone cooking meals above a charcoal briquette. So if you liked to move, you had to walk over the street and that was impossible as the streets were overloaded with traffic. Hanoi must be a paradise for people enjoying the busy traffic and daredevils who like to risk their life by crossing a street.

The last night is usually a big event but this time some participants preferred not to attend. Any how, we had a beautiful 7 course dinner and enjoyed that quite a lot.. When we walked back to the hotel we saw a bicycle loaded by a loading artist with an increadible amount of clothes

Next day we were glad we could leave. Thailand has 50% revisits and Vietnam has only 5% revisits. No surprise for us. As long as they charge you a fortune for a visum we definitely belong to the 95% who will not revisit the country.

The trip back was uneventful. The stop in Singapore was rather long but that offered the opportunity for shopping. However, the prices were not encouraging. The long flight to Amsterdam, stretching more than a quarter of the Globe was pleasant, with the perfect service of Singapore Airlines.Mariska managed to break a record on a game. Anyhow we arrived in the dark early in the morning and arrived at home at 9 o’clock in the morning, still sleepy from the long trip and the jetlag.

We are looking back to an interesting trip and we can cross off another country of our wishing list of must-see countries.

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