Getting in the festive spirit in Northern Vietnam

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January 3rd 2011
Published: March 10th 2011
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Dragon carving on a staircaseDragon carving on a staircaseDragon carving on a staircase

At the tomb of Khai DInh

Hue - Vietnam's Ancient Capital

We made the short journey north from Hoi An to the town of Hue and instantly upon arrival, our impressions of the Vietnamese were significantly restored from the slightly soured version we had on leaving Hoi An. Hue is a bustling workaday city, where tourism has minimal impact; people are incredibly friendly and smiling and would spend lots of time chatting to us, interested to hear about us and what we were up to. This kind nature even seems to extend onto the roads (quite an achievement in Vietnam), where people don't drive motorbikes like maniacs. Courtesy is even extended to the large number of cyclists in Hue - we took to two wheels without actually fearing for our lives!

Hue is the ancient capital of the kingdom of Vietnam prior to the French invasion, and was the seat of the most powerful and influential emperors of the country. And it was relics from these emperors that filled most of our time in Hue, paying a visit to the ancient Imperial City in Hue (the seat of the emperors while they were living), and then some of the many tombs of the dead
Mandarins guard the tomb of Khai DinhMandarins guard the tomb of Khai DinhMandarins guard the tomb of Khai Dinh

Don't tell anyone, but they were easy to get past, pretty slow off the mark
emperors that line the wonderfully named Perfume River.

The imperial city, located in the centre of the old town of Hue, is a walled citadel in which the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty lived and carried out their imperial duties. The front section of the city, with a huge ceremonial gate leading through to a number of temples, has been very well restored and is similar in nature to the Forbidden City in Beijing. Further back though, where the emperors' had their personal quarters, most of the area is now in ruins as the Viet Cong held out here for 25 days during the Tet Offensive in 1968, leading to a heavy bombardment as US troops tried to root them out and drive them North again.

The citadel was an unexpectedly tranquil delight. The rear area has only been partially restored to date and is very atmospheric to walk around. We felt it perfectly illustrated the old meeting the new in Vietnam and sums up many aspects of the country. The beautifully old, half decaying buildings in the green, grassy setting are really peaceful to wander through, before then reaching a more recently restored palace once again as
Thien Mu Pagoda near HueThien Mu Pagoda near HueThien Mu Pagoda near Hue

A 7 tiered pagoda
a reminder of the imperial grace that once dominated the country.

It seems though that many of the Hue based emperors spent a significant part of their living life planning for and designing the tombs that would ensure them safe passage into the next life, and would serve as a fitting reminder of their achievements in this life. The tombs are extravagant to the extreme, in huge landscaped grounds, with lakes, pavilions, temples and of course an elaborate tomb to contain the body of the emperor at the back of the complex. If the emperor was lucky enough to outlive the construction process of the tomb complex, he would live in it and see out his final days in his perfectly designed utopia.

Many of the tombs are dotted south from Hue, along the Perfume River, and we took a boat trip to visit 3 of them. The boat trip was a bit of a touristy nightmare but the tombs were incredibly peaceful places to spend some time and to walk around. The buildings are all ornately constructed, but it is the landscaping that is most stunning, with two of them having man-made lakes dug out on the sites and huge trees that surround them, swaying in the wind. The designs are all heavily influenced by Feng Shui, and very soothing and aesthetically pleasing. It is quite hard to believe that all of the extravagance of the building was to honour a single person really, so vast are the complexes.

However, the last tomb of the Nguyen dynasty was a source of some amusement, and proved that some of the emperors had more human than God-like qualities! Emperor Khai Dinh (died 1932) gambled away and lost most of his fortune (casinos must have loved it when he had a night out), and spent most of the rest of his time smoking opium. When it came to building his tomb, he had no money left so he simply raised taxes to fund one (the austerity measures of their time perhaps?). He must have made a fair bit from the tax rises as it's still a fairly ornate tomb. The mosaics near his tomb include parts that are made out of Japanese beer bottles. He was obviously the playboy emperor of Vietnam, possibly an earlier incarnation of Prince Harry we wondered?!

Hanoi for Christmas

After exploring
On your marks, get set....On your marks, get set....On your marks, get set....

Motorbikes clog the streets of Hanoi more than any other place in Vietnam
Hue for a few days, it was another overnight bus north to the capital, Hanoi, where we arrived on Christmas Eve. Hanoi has a very atmospheric old part of town, which on first impression is a mass of crowded chaotic narrow cobbled streets, clogged with a vast number of motorbikes which regularly cause gridlock. The crumbling buildings support little balconies rising up many rickety floors above, contributing to the French colonial feel. An ancient peculiarity had it that tax on a house was judged on its width, and so properties are as little as about 3 feet wide, but go back incredibly far and up several floors, so can still accommodate a business at the front, and a home at the back. The tightly packed houses loom above the streets, as motorbikes swarm round wizened-faced street vendors, who calmly balance two baskets of produce on a stick over their shoulders, unperturbed by the roar and fumes around them.

Not being a Christian country, Christmas is not a Vietnamese festival and the only celebrations in evidence were purely for tourists' benefit (or rather, Xmas themed stuff is for sale as another good business opportunity for the locals!) . Christmas Day
Berti, Laura and Helen getting in the Xmas mood!Berti, Laura and Helen getting in the Xmas mood!Berti, Laura and Helen getting in the Xmas mood!

And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day!
is a normal working day for most Vietnamese, and around Hanoi, a minimal amount of decorations or trees were present, mostly in bars and restaurants frequented by tourists or expats.

Being keen to find somewhere with a slightly festive atmosphere in which to celebrate, we managed to find a hostel in the Old Town run by a couple of Aussies, who arranged a little drinks party in the hostel cafe for residents on Christmas Eve evening. This was great as it got us chatting to some of the other travellers and we all headed out for some more food and drinks to experience the Hanoi nightlife. It was one of those nights that just took off, and we ended up having a brilliant night, drinkin' and dancin' around the bars of Hanoi old town (particular credit here to two new friends and officially best ever all-night dancing queens, Berti and Laura!). We toasted in Christmas Day at midnight with cocktails, and got the DJ at the bar to play all the western Christmas classics we hadn't heard for a year. Needless to say, Christmas Day was a fairly quiet affair, involving recovering a bit and getting up late, followed
Locals enjoying Bia Hoi (Fresh beer) in HanoiLocals enjoying Bia Hoi (Fresh beer) in HanoiLocals enjoying Bia Hoi (Fresh beer) in Hanoi

Mixed with motorbike exhaust fumes, a perfect combination
by a Christmas Dinner of Bun Cha (noodles and pork in a broth with spring rolls) on a street corner. Not quite a roast turkey, but just as tasty and we weren't quite so stuffed afterwards! For both of us it was probably our least conventionally festive Christmas ever, but very memorable all the same for being so different.

Hanoi is known as a gourmet city, and this was absolutely our experience. While street food is a staple throughout Vietnam, here it is taken to a higher level, in terms of quantity, variety, and quality. Everything is available from Pho, to noodle stir fry dishes, to small individual barbeques on which you cook raw meat and veggies. All of the food is eaten while squatting on tiny plastic stools, on small tables set up on the footpath or in a small, open restaurant. Street stalls are so established that some stalls even have extractor fans installed over their little cookers! We had most of our meals on the street in Hanoi, as apart from being delicious, it's just always fun to eat knee-to-knee with the locals!

A lovely Hanoi feature is Bia Hoi. Literally translated as fresh beer,
Christmas lunch Hanoi styleChristmas lunch Hanoi styleChristmas lunch Hanoi style

Bun Cha, eaten on the street naturally. Better for you than roast turkey and just as filling
this is draft beer from a keg that is delivered from the brewery in the morning and consumed that very day (it has no preservatives). Each Bia Hoi stall will have a keg and once it runs out, the stall closes, so it is an early evening tradition. Although the beer doesn't really taste great, particularly when mixed with motorbike exhaust fumes, the atmosphere from sitting on the street corner, eating street snacks like rice crackers from sellers as they come past, and watching everything going on around can't be beaten. At 10p a glass, you can't really complain about the quality anyway, this must surely be the cheapest beer anywhere in the world!

Paying Respects

While in Hanoi we also took our chance to view another dead but pickled communist leader. After seeing Lenin in Moscow, it was our chance to view the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh (Uncle Ho, as he is affectionately known), seen as the father of Vietnam, who led much of the communist struggle. He is preserved in an air-conditioned glass casket in a huge mausoleum which is patrolled by a slightly excessive number of soldiers. On entering the mausoleum, cameras must be left behind and everyone is directed to proceed in single file, hands by your sides and not in pockets, on a prescribed route through the tomb and past the white-skinned, mannequin-like body - no stopping to look, and no sudden movements or one of the four guards around his casket might panic and raise his rifle towards you. Despite all the formalities, many Vietnamese and foreigners queue each day to view the body, probably out of curiosity as much as respect. We were in line behind a huge school group of 8-10 year olds, probably making the obligatory visit as part of their key-stage 3 Vietnamese history studies!

After seeing the body, we were filed through the house where he spent his last days, past his impressive car collection (no self-respecting communist leader is without his trusted tank-like monstrosity to get around) and then on to the museum constructed in his honour, which particularly glorifies the resistance of the communists against the Americans during the war.

The other big attraction for Mike in Hanoi was a trip to see Hoa Lo prison (Helen had had enough of death and torture for the time being), better known to us as the Hanoi Hilton, the name it was given by the captured American pilots who were held there throughout the war. Much of the site of the former prison has been levelled and a large hotel and shopping complex built in it's place (that's progress for you!), but a small section has been left untouched to show the prisons' uses both during the French colonial period (a full size guillotine is on display) and the American war. Another fantastically biased video explains at great lengths the comforts that Americans POWs enjoyed during their incarceration, emphasizing that that they were absolutely not tortured (might the American POWs disagree slightly?!). They also proudly display relics from the captured pilots, including a case containing the suit worn by John McCain when he was shot down and captured (he was held here from 1967-1973). There is a marked sense of triumphant gloating about this, particularly when they highlight that he later ran for US President!

Overall we really enjoyed our time in Hanoi. It is a city that on the surface is hugely noisy and chaotic, but beneath all this it has a real charm, more so than Saigon in the south. There is a lake in the centre of town (with a resident turtle which we caught a glimpse of) which is great to stroll round and people watch, and the narrow streets of the old town always provide something colourful and interesting to look at. We were sorry to leave.

Halong Bay

A few hours to the north of Hanoi is the beautiful Halong Bay, an almost endless number of limestone pinnacles that tower out of the water. We travelled up to spend a couple of nights on a converted traditional junk, sailing through the bay and between the rock towers, spending our days kayaking or swimming in the warm, clear waters.

We were definitely back on the major tourist trail at this spot as it is really the 'must see' destination of Northern Vietnam, but for good reason as it is breathtaking scenery. Despite the huge numbers of people who travel to see the area, because it is toured by boat, it gives the feeling of getting away from the others during the daytime as we were only in close contact with the other 15 or so people on our boat. The only time we were aware of how many others visited the bay was at night, when we anchored in a bay along with all the other boats, and during a visit to some caves. Otherwise, it was possible to escape the crowds and appreciate the scenery all around us.

We were lucky when there that the weather remained sunny, keeping the days warmer than they would normally be during the winter, making activities on the water really pleasant. Kayaking through a floating fishing village allowed us to appreciate the simple life people living on the water lead, while on the second day, when we went much deeper into the less visited parts of the bay, we could really take in just how stunning the scenery really is.

However, Halong Bay did bring back some of the more negative aspects of tourism in Vietnam again that we had experienced previously. Despite paying in advance for full board for 3 days, most of our time on the boat seemed to involve attempts at cost extraction for extras, particularly drinks. We were also shuffled around 3 different boats during our 2 day stay, a practice that seems to happen regularly between the companies on the bay to keep boats full, but didn't help us to relax and enjoy our stay. This made it a little bit more tense a trip than cruising through beautiful bays should have been. The place was still a highlight for Mike, and while the Bay is so gorgeous that we both agreed it is still worth going, the cut-throat quest for tourist dollars soured the experience a lot for Helen particularly.

Sapa and the Northwest of Vietnam

Our final stop in Vietnam was an overnight train journey northwest of Hanoi to the small, former hill station of Sapa. Being located at 1,650m in altitude, it is described in our guidebook as "having an Alpine feel with impressive natural views down the surrounding valleys". We are forced to quote from our guide here as after spending 4 nights in the vicinity, we have absolutely no idea about the views, as the town was shrouded in thick fog during our entire stay. The cold, drizzly dampness and miserable visibility, sometimes down to only a few metres, meant it was a fairly depressing visit to the northwest highlands.

This was compounded by being constantly hounded during our
Messing about on Halong BayMessing about on Halong BayMessing about on Halong Bay

The best way to take in the bay was by kayak
stay by minority village ladies offering various village handicrafts for sale, often acompanied by the charming sales pitch - "Buy from me!" (short and to the point!). Sapa is surrounded by a number of minority tribal villages and a particular reason that many people visit the area is to stay in homestays in these villages. The attraction of increasing tourist dollars in Sapa itself has drawn many tribal women to leave their villages and work the main street of Sapa, trying to sell handicrafts to the tourists.

We have seen this before and in principle we have no problem with villagers looking to profit from tourists visiting, providing some additional income for the family. But in Sapa it has just gone too far. On leaving the hotel, we would be surrounded by several villager ladies in traditional dress who would then follow us along the street to wherever we were going, continually hounding us to buy something. Clearly some women have made money from this and now everyone has jumped on the bandwagon and the small town is mobbed with villagers all peddling exactly the same wares - and they won't take no for an answer. Tourists could be seen through the fog coming towards us along the street by the advance posse of short colourfully dressed women surrounding them.

This reached a peak on our organised village trek for two days, with an overnight homestay. We hoped that doing an organised trek with a guide would be some dissuasion to the peddlers. On joining our group in the morning for the walk, we left the hotel to meet our four fellow trekkers, only to realise that the group of ladies around them intended to accompany us on the trek, and this was all part of the deal as far as the guide was concerned! All of them only as tall as Mike's chest at most, they walked with us all day long, taking the opportunity of every break in walking to tug our sleeves and try and flog us their wares. At each village, one batch would be replaced with the next batch of ladies, almost like a relay of attrition. It really was unrelenting and totally took away from any enjoyment we might have had from walking along these valleys through the rice terraces (which we couldn't see anyway because of the fog!).

Overall it was a fairly unsatisfying visit to this area of Vietnam, and we were just grateful for the several coffee shops around town in which we could take refuge from the hassle and try and warm up by the little fires they had going indoors.

The end of our month in Vietnam

We flew south again and back to the warmth of Saigon before our boat trip along the Mekong River and into Cambodia. On leaving Vietnam we have mixed feelings about the country. We had very high hopes before arriving and in some ways it lived up to these. There are areas of real natural beauty (in particular Halong Bay and the Central coastline), mixed with a fascinating historical side which is not just limited to the American war. In the truly rural areas of the countryside that we saw, especially the Central Highlands, there is a genuine warmth to the people who seem very content in their lives. The food on the whole is really good and quite different to other areas we have eaten within SE Asia. Vietnam is obviously on the upswing of a major increase in tourism, and there is a real buzz and optimism everywhere - everyone is always busily working, and the feel is very much of a prosperous country, whose people are focused on leaving their recent painful history behind and seizing new business opportunities, big or small.

But on the other hand, tourism is bringing with it a hard edge of commercialism and in some places we were viewed as walking cash-machines by the locals, who would expect us to buy anything or offer ridiculously high prices for things. This isn't done with any grace or charm and would grind us down after a while when buying anything would become a struggle. Things are changing in the country rapidly and in the heavily visited area around Hoi An we fear that this development is at the cost of preserving the naturally beautiful areas of the country. It's all too easy to ignore the long term implications of building huge resorts along the coast when there is the lure of large amounts of dollars to be made in the short term.

Trying to leave Vietnam - One last sting in the tail...

Back down in Saigon and we had planned a rather glamorous exit from Vietnam,
Where's Wally?Where's Wally?Where's Wally?

Mike auditions to be mandarin guard
on a fast boat travelling through the Mekong Delta and across the border into Cambodia. This was a very pretty trip, allowing us to watch life along the river as we made our way upstream and was quite different to sitting on yet another bus for the journey to Phnom Penh. However, one last unpleasant experience awaited us.

Our multitude of visas and many recent stamp-happy border officials had added up and Helen's passport had no space left. After a rather stressful and convoluted (and expensive) process, I did manage to get a new one while in Vietnam. Despite having checked with Vietnamese Immigration in advance that I was authorised to leave the country on a different passport than I entered it, the border official when we got there had other ideas...or rather, he was not slow in seeing the opportunity to extract a bribe at the slightly unusual situation. Faced with holding up the boatfull of people, or returning back whence we came, we had no choice but to pay it. The nasty taste that left, combined with the beauty of the day, did sum up the contradictions we found in Vietnam in a nutshell.

Additional photos below
Photos: 47, Displayed: 36


A traditional junk in Halong Bay at sunsetA traditional junk in Halong Bay at sunset
A traditional junk in Halong Bay at sunset

It was a boat like this that we stayed on overnight in the bay

11th March 2011

Did you really see the mega-turtle? I thought it was like Nessie, a myth invented to keep people staring into a perfectly still lake. I completely agree with you about the kindness of the people in Hue, the charm of Hanoi and particularly the great Xmas eve celebration. Hope you are having a great time where ever you may be these days.
11th March 2011

But of course the turtle is real! It was a cause of great excitement, people were abandoning their bikes at the edge of the road and running to join the crowd to see her poke her head out!
13th March 2011

Thats a hell of a farmers tan you have going on there
16th March 2011

Tan Lines
"Do you want to see my white bits" takes on a whole new meaning!"
28th March 2011

Ha ha hanoi xmas!
Hey lovely people, I only just managed to read this as I've been off internet mostly (in Thai paradise). Happy to get a mention and a photo and to be reminded of that bizarre but fantastic Xmas eve! Fond memories and new friends! Hope all is well and happy/safe travels.... L xx

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