2000 Indochina – Vietnam

On the 4th day in Vietnam my standard lens gave up it’s services…. That is the reason the pictures you find on this page are obtained other recourses on the net instead of ones I made myself (except for the ones from the water puppet theater). Although disappointed in the first moment I could not be bothered as after 4 days in Hanoi I had already made my mind up to return to Vietnam for a more extended visit. Vietnam has so many things to offer that I consider my first stay just as a taster which grew my appetite for more….

The pictures from the perfume pagoda and Halong bay trip are made by Mike and Lars, two friendly Americans I met during my trip. 

Vietnam was the last goal of my trip to Indochina.  It was a strange beginning of the end of a wonderful trip… First of all Silvia wasn’t there anymore, we had such a good time in Cambodia and Laos that is was certainly strange continuing the trip without her. However, I was not alone as I was now traveling with Norman, an Irish guy we met in Vang Vieng and Vientianne.

After an hour Lao Aviation “flight” from Laos to Hanoi the contrast could not have been bigger. First of all it was raining steadily and second I was not very impressed by the strict and almost unfriendly “welcome” of the customs at Hanoi Airport. The airport itself was also dreadful and looked like it had better times. As soon as our taxi approached Hanoi it was immediately clear that it was an extremely busy city. “People blithely ignore red lights (they just seem to be part of the decoration), stop signs and one-way postings. Someone wanting to make a turn will just cut through oncoming traffic, expecting that everyone else will yield to a beeping horn.”

As soon as we found a hotel in Hanoi’s old quarter we went on a walk, since it was still raining we remained in the old quarter and breathed some atmosphere. I was immediately hooked on it.  A beautiful lake was not far from our place, great colonial houses and trees everywhere in the streets. Really charming. Time passed by quickly. After a good meal we visited the water puppet theatre, an ancient form of northern Vietnamese entertainment. Both of us were stunned by the skills of the performers. Fire spitting dragons, processions and very humorous scenes made us forget the puppets were just of wood. Each of them seemed to have a character of it’s own.

Once the show was over we went over to the Jazz Club where we ended the night with a real good live band. Although jazz is not my favorite music style I really had a great time over there, must have been the atmosphere. 

The following days it kept on raining so there was not much to do besides sleeping in, shopping at the numerous CD shops (At a rate of a dollar per CD you just can’t stop shopping), having some good food and just strolling around in the old quarters. By coincidence we passed by the Hanoi Opera House, which is an exact copy of the Paris original.

The evenings were all jolly fun and turned into a massive pub crawl. Apocalypse Now, Spotted Cow, Golden Cock Bar and of course the Jazz Club, all more or less legendary places, great for a beer or two, three, four, well what the heck, many beers!!! We made a good habit of coming home last in the hotel and having to wake up the night guards to let us in.

Finally it stopped raining so our last day in Hanoi we could at least visit some of the sites. We took a rickshaw to our first stop, the temple of literature. It was a good example of traditional Vietnamese architecture and one of the few remaining in it’s style. It had five separate courtyards divided by walls and was located in a nice quiet neighborhood which made it an oasis in hustling bustling Hanoi.

From the temple of literature we walked to the one pillar pagoda which is built of wood on a single stone pillar and represents a lotus blossom. As it was pretty small it did not take long before we continued to the Ho Chi Min museum, which was located very close. Modern arts and displays and all dealt with the Vietnamese-American war. Although the message was clear I’m sure I’ve missed lots of the symbolism behind the art. Once outside we took a rickshaw back to the old quarters where we enjoyed another splendid meal in the cyclo restaurant. As a starter a terrine of aubergine, black olives and feta, followed by fresh salmon with Russian caviar sauce and as desert flamed banana. Not really Vietnamese but it was absolutely great.

For the next day we had booked a trip to the perfumed pagoda. For a change we had to wake up early and after breakfast we were picked up by the TF Handspan bus. After a short trip past some local hotels our group (three Vietnamese girls,  Mike and Lars, the American guys and Norman and myself) was complete and we headed  south west. The road was bad but that did not take my attention away from the breathtaking scenery which passed by after we left Hanoi. 

The second part of the journey was done in small metal canoes over the perfumed river. The landscape was spectacular. Rice paddies, limestone mountains with lush shades of green everywhere. I enjoyed every single minute of it. One hour, one lost and one broken paddle later, we moored at the riverside and we could start the last part of the trip.

So far the whole trip had been really easy going but now we really had to work! We followed a steep trail into the hills and every now and then we had a stunning view of the breathtaking scenery. It was awesome. After a couple of breaks to catch our breath we arrived at the perfumed pagoda. Once again our breath was taken, this time by the stunning beauty. The pagoda was built in a big cavern and incense smoke created a big curtain, together with the sun rays it was a fantastic sight. After having offered some incense ourselves we slowly headed back downhill.

After a great lunch we still visited a monastery and then it was time to go back. We arrived in Hanoi late in the afternoon so there was still enough time to enjoy the nightlife.

Another early rise. Besides the perfumed pagoda trip we also organized a 3 day tour to the Halong bay with the people from TF handspan. Once again we were picked up by bus and after short tour through Hanoi we headed north. It was a beautiful trip. On the way down there we stopped at a handicapped people’s handicraft center and after four hours we arrived in Halong City where we had lunch before boarding our boat. Halong bay, with over 3000 islands, is one of Vietnams magnificent natural beauties. The islands rise steeply out of the clear waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Although the weather was not optimal I totally enjoyed the stunning scenery. None of us was able to spot the legendary dragon which is supposed to live in the area but there was enough to enjoy.

We visited two caves. The first one, Hang Dau Go (The cave of the wooden stakes), had three magnificent chambers with stalactites and mysterious shaped stalagmites. Our guide pointed out several interesting rock formations and each of them had some kind of legend. Colored lights made it a bit kitschy but in spite of that I loved it a lot. The second cave we visited was a bit smaller and called the Drum Grotto. After our visits to the caves we searched a sheltered spot to anchor the boat. We had a refreshing swim after which a great dinner was served. The people onboard formed an international group and we had lots of fun so the night passed quickly, to quickly…

The next morning we sailed to Cat Ba island where we did a short trek. Our first goal was a little village. It was supposed to be an easy going trip over small paths but due to the heavy rainfall lately parts of the path were flooded and at one point when we had to pass through a man made tunnel we found ourselves wading in water which reached to our upper legs. We laughed about the situation and enjoyed the adventurous touch. Lunch was served in the village after which the second and more strenuous part of the trek was on the program. We crossed rice fields to the bottom of the island’s highest hill where we started our 331 meter climb. Some parts were really steep but once we reached the top we were rewarded with an outstanding view of the area.

When we came back to the boat we continued our trip to Cat Ba Village where we had a night off which ended in a local discotheque.

On last day of our Halong Bay tour we still had the possibility for a swim and to float on some tubes before heading back to Halong Bay City. From there it was straight back to Hanoi where we were dropped at our hotel so I could enjoy my last night with a pub crawl in Hanoi.

The next morning I took a taxi to the airport for my flight to Na Thrang. On arrival I found out that my luggage stayed behind which seemed to be pretty normal over here so I looked for a hotel, but more important, a diving school which I found right on the beach. Jeremy Stein’s Rainbow Divers seemed to be a well organized diving school so I decided to spend the next three days with them diving. It has not been a disappointment. Vietnam is not well known for it’s diving and I must admit the underwater scenery was not the best I had seen. But…. Thanks to my dive guide I saw things I never had seen before which made the diving absolutely worthwhile. On and off board there was a wonderful laid back atmosphere and time restrictions were unheard of. I have made the longest dives over here with the shortest one being 65 minutes and the longest one almost 90 !!! Both me and the dive guides seemed not to get enough of it. It was absolutely brilliant so I had a couple of nice and relaxing days in Na Thrang. On the second day my luggage arrived so that problem was solved as well and the rest of the days consisted out of diving in the morning, relaxing at the beach in the afternoon and enjoying good food and cocktails in the evening. What else can one wish for…

With having such a good time in Na Thrang I did almost not notice the end of my trip was coming in sight.  But all good things have an end and so did my 5 week trip to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. But… still one more place to go to so I boarded a bus to  Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) which took me all day. During the journey I spotted beautiful area’s which certainly deserve another visit as I had already made my mind up that I just had to return to Vietnam. Late in the evening I arrived in Ho Chi Min City where I found a hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao area. The place was flooded with nice restaurants and pubs, with other words, a great place to stay!

I only had two days to discover Ho Chi Min City, which was just enough to get a good glimpse and visit some of the major landmarks. The first day I spent walking in the area, did some shopping and just enjoyed the atmosphere. I immediately noticed that Ho Chi Minh City was a much more modern place than Hanoi. Skyscrapers, modern buildings and large shopping centers. Still the most popular method of transport were cyclos, bikes and motorbikes. Maybe because of this Ho Chi Minh City still breathed a relaxed atmosphere.

On my last day I hired a cyclo and the driver showed me some of the more hidden places in Ho Chi Minh City. The first stop was the War remnants museum which was once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War crimes. Remainders of a period which is fortunately over where shown and I can assure  you some of the items were not a pretty sight at all. It is an important part of the Vietnamese history but I am glad I was able to discover a much better side of Vietnam as well as it is developing today. The rest of the day I spend visiting numerous pagodas and temples which was an impressing event. In most of the temples I had tears in my eyes. Although the temples were stunning that was not the reason for the tears… They were caused by the constant burning of incense which covered the interior of the temples with thick clouds of smoke. A beautiful atmosphere indeed but also one that hurt… 

Time went by far to quick and before I realized it we we’re back at the hotel. Now it was time for packing, one last meal, a good nights sleep and then a taxi to the airport for the long trip home. One thing is for sure… Making a two week trip to Vietnam was a mistake since there is so much more to be seen. I could have spend weeks more discovering the wonders of this still relatively unknown country. Well, my mind has already been made up, one day I have to go back there. Hopefully it won’t take to long until I wake up and am able to say once more: Good morning Vietnam…