Notes from my travelogue ... On the road in Vietnam.

Vietnam 7

Facts about Vietnam

 Vietnam is about 1,700 kilometers from north to south. At the narrowest, in the middle, it is 50 kilometers wide. It is flanked on the west by Cambodia and Laos, and on the north by China.

 The Chinese ruled Vietnam for almost a 1,000 years and a strong Confucian society was established. The system of kings, landlords and taxation was introduced by the Chinese rulers, which plagued Vietnam till the modern age.

 The French war ships first landed on the shores of Vietnam in 1885. The French colonized the entire country within two years and ever since then, a struggle for liberation ensued.

  The French established industries that would help only themselves. They introduced rubber plantations with slave labor. One of the biggest and the most notorious one was Michelin. The working conditions were horrendous. It is on record, between 1927 and 1945 Michelin plantations employed 45,000 workers. In that same period, 12,000 workers lost their lives producing rubber for the emerging automobile industry of the West. Even today, the French ex-pats (those that stayed behind after independence), have remained the same; cold and indifferent. They treat the Vietnamese very rudely. They are demanding and act as if everyone is their inferior. Of note, the children of French and Vietnamese parents are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The young girls are strikingly beautiful, both in face and figure, and could easily be world class models.

 Hanoi is the second largest city in Vietnam and also the capital. It was established in 1010 BC and by 1428 was made the regional capital. The population of Hanoi is about 3 million and there are around 2 million motorbikes in use. There is just one brand of Petrol, and it costs approximately the same as everywhere else in the world.

 Hanoi is a cool mix of the old and the new. The old quarter is where all the action is. Eating places, shops, restaurants, flea markets, flower markets and museums, pagodas and temples. One of the rare ones to see is the Temple of Learning! No other country I have been to has a temple dedicated to education.

 There is good jazz in Hanoi for those who like this flavor of music. I do! Stephen Grappelli and Django Reinhardt are still hugely popular, even though this particular style is decades old and stems from the "Hot Clubs" of France in the 1930's. Hip-hop, is frowned upon, as is rap music. Unlike the acclimatized Vietnamese youth in the USA, the Vietnamese nationals consider it vulgar, and lacking in romance.

 Early morning women come out selling bagets, a crisp crusted bread the French developed, and left behind as a colonial legacy. There are also hundreds of noodle shops that serve delicious local food almost all day long. Around the many lakes of Hanoi hundreds of old and young people come out early mornings and practice Tai Chi and other eastern martial arts.

 There are plenty of war museums to visit, where relics from both the French and American wars are on display. You can see weapons from the smallest knives to the biggest aircraft used during the war, plus descriptions of how the Vietnamese fought the two giant nations, and prevailed. How wonderful is Jehovah's promise that one day soon, these weapons will be turned into plow shears.

 The museums are sad places to visit. The photographs on display depict immense suffering and death. I cannot begin to describe the horrors I saw. I was moved to tears. Yet, despite this horrible legacy of war, the Vietnamese people are surprisingly forgiving and tolerant. Some even approached me with tissue to wipe away my tears. Reminders of this legacy are everywhere. Extreme physical deformities left over from the effects of agent orange, are constantly in front of you, everywhere you go. However, the young, deformed youth that were plagued at birth with this horror, are among the most kind and most generous of all the people.

 The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a must for every traveler who enjoys learning about history. The Vietnamese people still revere him. His body is well embalmed and kept in a humble place. Next to it is the house where Ho Chi Minh stayed and worked, and which is even more simple. It reminded me of the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. Photography is prohibited inside, but if you are fortunate you can catch the changing of the guards whom sometimes turn a blind eye.

 At one point in the middle of the city lies a wreck of an American bomber, the B52! It is strange to see an aircraft tail jutting out from the ground of a vacant city block. It is one of the 3500 aircraft the US lost during its ten-year war.)

Stories from the road ... continued

 After arriving in Saigon, the next morning I found a monkey under my table at breakfast.. I wasn't sure if this was normal or not so I tried to ignore it, but kept thinking of that movie "Outbreak." I was digging for my camera when the owner of the cafe hustled over, grabbed it by the neck, and dragged it screaming and clawing into the restaurant. I have no idea if it was his pet or tonight's special. I’m in Asia, and it’s not just my breakfast that’s unusual. The word “intense” comes to mind when attempting to sum up my surroundings. “Total sensory overload” wouldn’t be an exaggeration either. Just crossing the street here is an adventure. Thousands of bicycles, tuk tuks and motorcycles dart around in every direction like a colony of ants under attack. It's not uncommon to see four people and a half dozen chickens zip by on a moped. There are also random nameless vehicles, as the locals can turn almost any animate or inanimate object into a mode of transportation. One guy wearing a conical hat and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt drove by on what looked like a motorized wheelbarrow. 

 Vietnamese Road Rules -                       Click to watch video: Vietnam Street Traffic

 These aren't written down anywhere, you simply learn as you go.                      

 1. Big always wins (makes sense really, unless you are suicidal);

 2. Bicycles think they are big;

 3. Water buffalo are big;

 4. Do what you want as long as you use your horn (there is a lot of beeping going on);

 5. At intersections don't look - just go, especially if you want to cross a major highway;

 There were four of us – Besides myself, Bao, a translator, and two local guides – Duong, a crazy young kid from Saigon, and Thuong, who spoke non-stop the whole trip. We were about to embark on one of the best travel experiences I've ever had.    As we started out, I just missed a collision with a bicyclist following rules 2 and 5. I was passing a truck and this old woman holding two babies came from nowhere and was right in our path... I had two choices:

    a) slam on the brakes and hope I stopped in time;

    b) speed up and hope we would go around her (the Vietnamese way).

 Fortunately, I chose the Vietnamese way and narrowly avoided hitting her. Bao wasn't so lucky - slamming on his breaks he slid right into the cyclist - the babies landing safely on top of him. My travel guidebook states discrepancies like these are either sorted out with money or fists. Figuring that she had no chance with either, this Vietnamese woman jumped up, grabbed her grand-babies, got on her bike and sped away hoping that Bao wouldn't be able to catch up with her.

 6. On the highway, choose whatever lane you want, even if you are going the wrong way;

 7. If you kill anything, either pay for it or eat it with the family. Number of near misses with animals approximately 1000  -  most notably pigs. Duong had to pay for one chicken;

 8. Stop wherever you want including in the middle of the road;

 9. Dress appropriately (an oxygen mask is preferable);

10. Have a beer (or rice wine) before you go!! The rest of the rules will make more sense.

 Motorcycles    Family-of-5-on-a-scooter


We flew North to Hanoi a few days after first arriving in Saigon. I wanted to survey some land for a potential factory site. Once there, we rented Russian motorcycles (125cc Minsks), then rode out of the city like a motorcycle gang. Like Saigon and Da Nang, Hanoi roads are scary - you are surrounded by a sea of bikes, trucks and cyclists. There never seemed to be any room, but somehow we managed to get through the traffic without being hit. The first 100 km the traffic was crazy, and passing slower riders can be an experience (don't look just go!). On one occasion I had managed to squeeze between two trucks going in opposite directions (nothing like a bit of adrenaline to wake you up). Thuong often commented that I drove like the locals - I am still not sure whether that was a compliment or not!

 Finally the traffic gave way to quiet country roads with spectacular scenery - rice paddies, mountains in the background while the evening sun glowed. It was magical. The last 15km was off (way off), road - muddy and treacherous with potholes so big I thought the bike might actually completely disappear into one. Fortunately it was dark so we couldn't really see what we were getting ourselves into. We survived most of it, except for one pothole I saw too late to avoid and I did this very impressive (according to everyone else), wheel stand. Duong, grinning through the mud asked "did anyone get a photo of that?" Not a chance!

 Thankfully we all made it in one piece to Mister LŰ's where we spent our first night in a traditional bamboo stilt house. Four generations lived here. Despite my lack of Vietnamese, the family was very welcoming and open. Within no time we were drinking the obligatory rice wine (it's impolite not to) - this stuff is like rocket fuel.

 Eventually nature called - toilets are always a bit of an adventure, although this description has to be the best: "The toilet is down the stairs, under the house, past the elephant, up some stairs, past the pigs and it is on your left". (They forgot to mention the chickens). Even when I travel in China, I never experience anything like this. It is such a different world and couldn't have been further away from my previous experiences. No toilet paper; no toilet period. Just a hole in the ground with a bucket of water and a palm frond brush for cleaning up afterwards.

               621084     toilet 2 

 The next day the riding was a little easier; the countryside was spectacular with lots of children screaming "hello" / "bye-bye" as we passed through villages. The only traffic this time seemed to be water buffalo (they are especially big when you round a corner and find them casually strolling in the middle of the road). You also have to be cautious of pigs, goats, chickens and sheep. There is no such thing as road kill, only questionable stew pot meat. Nothing is wasted in a country where everyone must work to eat. The alternative is starvation.

 Arriving at BaBe Lake - an emerald green stretch of water surrounded by mountains and forest - our hosts took us out on a low and unstable boat to a restaurant. If you think you are going to lose some unwanted pounds while on a trip like this, think again - the food is fantastic. As we headed back the setting sun made everything appear even more green and lush (maybe it was the rice wine!) Then a storm approached, one by one the mountains behind disappeared, eventually catching up with us as night fell. Half the trip in the dark and pouring rain added to the adventure.

 The next day upon arriving at Mr KiÍu and Madame Chinh's house - we drove our bikes through the lounge and parked them in the kitchen. Again we were welcomed into the family and adopted by the entire neighborhood. The people in the countryside are so friendly. At first, some were a little wary of this tall, white, strange looking old man, but all I had to do was smile, say hello and the warmth was returned ten fold. On one occasion we stopped off to harvest rice. Casually walking into the nearest rice field we were soon put to work - harvesting rice by hand. The family took a break to watch this crazy westerner carve up their field at snail's pace. However, they were so delighted at our gesture, we were invited for dinner and to stay with the family, should we ever return.

 We spent the next day in and around Quang Hoa, which is on the border with China. We spent one afternoon on a bamboo boat at an impressive waterfall on the border. I quite liked the idea of sneaking across to China so I jumped into the water and swam towards the shore. I didn't actually set foot on the land though, as the Chinese police aren't very friendly. Their Vietnamese counterparts, on the other hand, were - too friendly in fact, and plied us with rice wine, inviting us to stay the night.

 The last night we spent on Mt. Mau in a beautiful, but run down, French colonial style hotel with panoramic views. Finally we had a room to ourselves and our first hot shower in four days.

 We made it back to Hanoi in one piece in total awe of what we had just seen and done. I delighted in the look of surprise and the thanks I got when I did things the local way. If this is the only thing you do if you ever travel to Vietnam, you won't regret it.

 ... The only communication link I have to the outside world is through an unreliable "Wifi" connection at the hotel. Plus, because Vietnam is a communist country, they restrict internet access. I had to figure out a creative way to log onto various social media like Facebook. It is banned here in Vietnam.

 On the road in Vietnam ... continued

I arrive in Halong Bay at noon. The sun is high in the sky and burning bright. On the pier countless wooden junks, sailboats, speedboats and tiny bamboo boats bob in the water expectantly as tourists arrive from Hanoi in vans, cars and buses. After a four-hour motorcycle ride on a bumpy road, I’m dying to feel the sea breeze on my face and get into the water. I didn’t want to be left “sitting on the dock of the bay” for the best part of an hour, but almost instantly a speed-boat arrives with a flourish and as soon as I pile on board we’re zooming towards a large and handsome junk, the Indochina Sails, which the captain proudly announces is 44m long and 8.5m wide – and indeed it seems a fine, seaworthy vessel to me.

Vietnam 5   Ha_Long_Bay_Vietnam                                

In my past travels I’ve been on board a few shabbier junks. There is one point worth making: when it comes to visiting Halong Bay don’t hire the cheap junks! On board the Indochina Sails, there’s a restaurant, a bar, a massag

As we set off into the bay, I make use of my binoculars and survey the glorious setting all around me. A trip to Halong is first and foremost about relaxing, so within minutes every single passenger arrives on deck to sip drinks in the sunshine while basking in the brilliance of the bay. Due to an already over abundance of sunshine on this trip, I stretch out on a lie-low on the more shaded lower deck and listen to the sound of the boat chopping through the waves. As time slowly passes, I happily doze off in the salty air.

 Eventually a call for lunch stirs me from my light slumber. A Vietnamese five-course lunch is devoured by the hungry passengers even though we’ve hardly worked up an appetite. Afterwards, we drop anchor by Ti Top Island. The tiny island takes its name from the cosmonaut Ghermann Titop of the former Soviet Union, who came here on a trip with President Ho Chi Minh in 1962. To mark the significance of their visit, Uncle Ho named it Ti Top Island. Thirty-five years later, in 1997, Ti Top returned. Deeply moved, he wrote in the souvenir book of the Management Board of Halong Bay: “My deepest thanks to destiny, which has allowed me to come back to this tiny island.”

It’s a small island, but certainly one to be proud of. It has a quiet and airy atmosphere as well as clean white sand and clear waters. The beach is ideal for swimming nearly all year round. The island’s main attraction is possibly the pagoda-styled lookout point at its peak. After climbing the 427 stone steps that wind up to the summit, one is treated to a most incredible 360-degree view of Halong Bay.

 Heading back to my cabin to shower and change for dinner, I discover a card inviting me to a wine tasting. So I went up to the deck to sample the offerings of Chilean, South African and American grapes. I sip and savor the taste on my palate as the sun slowly drops behind the surrounding islands and the twilight dwindles – another perfect travel memory. Slightly tipsy after a sampling the wine, I’m happy to head for the restaurant and fill my stomach. Sweet melodies of a traditional Vietnamese dan bau (a monochord instrument) fills the air as I feast on an international buffet with Vietnamese sweet-and-sour salad, crab and corn soup, fried rice, BBQ crab, shrimp, oysters and cuttlefish as well as seasonal fruit and green-bean and lotus seed cake for dessert. With a canopy of glittering stars above me, a refreshing coolness in the air and flashes of fluorescent lamps from the cuttlefish boats in the distance, at night the bay is truly magical. It is pure bliss just to sit around with the other passengers and exchange stories. I’m tempted to try an adventurous night activity and join fishermen casting out nets for cuttlefish before heading for bed, but I’m perfectly happy to sit and quietly contemplate life with a nightcap.

 After a deep and pleasant dream-filled slumber, the voices of vendors who have rowed up to our junk to sell snacks, seafood, souvenirs and cigarettes wake me up. Once roused, I head up to the deck where I’m informed we are heading to Ngoc Vung Island before kayaking around Cong Do fishing-village. Aye, aye Captain. I disembark the Indochina Sails and clamber onto a smaller wooden boat to dock on the shores of Ngoc Vung island where I am offered a mountain bike for a cycling trip across this ruggedly beautiful island, which sits amongst the awe inspiring Halong archipelago. Ngoc Vung (Mother Pearl) island is 50km from Halong City’s Wharf.

 Once – or so it is said – all around the island you could plunge below and find a plethora of pearls, hence the name Mother Pearl island. You can also find the most incredible deserted beaches! From the wharf, I cycle along a coastal road that skirts the island’s hilly terrain while near the shore fishermen caulk their bamboo boats with tar. The road from the wharf to beach is rather short, just 5km. When I arrive, the white sandy beach sparkles and glistens under the sunshine. There is not a soul bathing on the beach – truly, for tourists looking for a remote hidden getaway spot this fits the bill. The island is 12sqm in area with over 1,000 inhabitants living mainly off fishing, farming, aquaculture and foresting. There are no bars or restaurants, no showers or toilets. But that’s why I’m here: to escape the crowds!

 After swimming and walking along the beach, I head back to the boat where my kayak awaits me. Again, taking a leisurely pace, I paddle around Cong Do, a floating fishing village in Bai Tu Long bay, 25km southeast of Halong wharf. Here you can find shrimp, crab, fish, squid and aquatic plants. If you’re not shopping for dinner, it’s fun just to soak in the incredible atmosphere of a true Halong fishing village. My stomach is now reminding me that I’ve been promised a seafood dinner tonight back on board the Indochina Sails!

 Full steam ahead captain!

As they say in Nam Viet ... "Chao." (Goodbye - just like in Italian). I'm off to Mongolia next. Will spend the night in a Yurt, burning Yak dung to keep warm, and drinking fermented goats milk. Maybe I'll find a Mongolian Princess to rub my feet and scratch my back, while I sleep under mounds of sheep skins and listen to the far off echoes of harp and tambourine music. Then again .. maybe not. The tribal chief may put an arrow in me just for thinking such thoughts. But I'm still grinning...