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Published: December 25th 2017
Geo: 21.0243, 105.855
Hoi An is the place we liked most in Vietnam. A small town with an unspoiled old quarter, it is touristy but in a gentle way. We stayed four nights but would have spent more time if there had not been other areas to visit. The old buildings, including houses, temples, Chinese assembly halls (used for worship and business) and museums are all about two hundred years old, built when Hoi An was a prosperous trading centre before the river silted up. They can all be visited on a multi ticket but we also went to a house that has remained independent.
The owner, a retired maths teacher of 69 showed us around and then sat and talked to us about his family, past and present, the house and the changes taking place in Hoi An. He showed us the shrine to his father and other ancestors as well as photographs of his father's funeral which appeared to be a big event in the town as he had been a teacher of senior students for many years so they had attended en masse, representing a few generations. Then we saw photographs of his own burial space and he talked
about joining his family there shortly in a way we never do. It was fascinating. He spoke of the role of communism and was scathing (in a quiet way) of the present party and younger generations saying they knew nothing of ideology but were only interested in money. There have been huge changes in Hoi An. Ten years ago there were twenty tailors, now there are 700! He said his father put a covenant in his will preventing the sale of the house which has been in the family for six generations, and that he will leave the house to his grandson with the same covenant. He would never sell anyway, he said, as his father had died in the house.
After Hoi An we moved to the old capital Hue which was pleasant with some interesting sights but more of a city than Hoi An. We took a trip out to My Son, where there had been a large number of Cham towers and ruins but unfortunately the Americans had direct hits on the most outstanding buildings. According to the books the Vietnamese believed they targeted the towers deliberately. They only stopped when a number of eminent archaeologists wrote to
Cham tower at My Son
Bomb crater in front from American War
the US President.
From there we moved to Hanoi and tried to work out what else we had time to visit. We wanted to go to Ha Long Bay to the east and Sapa to the north-west but did not think we could fit both in. The manager / travel organiser in the hotel assured us it was not a problem – he could arrange it all. And to be fair, he did, we just needed stamina to survive it! The timetable was: Day 1 Coach to Ha Long Bay, kayaking, cave visit and night on junk, Day 2 visit pearl farm at sea, transfer to land, cycle to village 6 kilometres and back, hike to Hospital Cave (used during wars), overnight in Hotel on Cat Ba Island, Day 3 return to Hanoi for early evening in hotel then take overnight train to Sapa, Day 4 arrive Sapa 7am for breakfast then trek to hill tribe villages, Day 5 more trekking to different village, then walk round town and market until time to catch the night train back to Hanoi, arriving at 6am. Then we went to bed!
As soon as we made it down to breakfast the young manager was
Saga travellers on tour in tuk tuks
Living up to the 'Saga louts' label that night - very rowdy in the restaurant and disowned by one member of the group whom we spoke to the next day!
there talking us into taking a car around the city. He doesn't like people sitting still. He is probably only in his twenties as most of the population seem to be – it is a very young country.
The hill tribes are even younger. Our female guide for the trekking is 18 and she married at 15 (as is normal amongst the minority groups) and has two children, one three and a half and one eighteen months old. We have not felt especially old before coming to Vietnam but here everyone treats us as if we are ancient, trying to almost carry me on and off boats etc and the guide said we are 'very old people' and she was worried that we would not manage the trek. The return journey on one was a long walk up a steep hill (about 4k steep climb up a rough road) and moto drivers were constantly stopping to ask if we wanted a ride (at a price of course) but they didn't ask the younger ladies with us.
Both trips were fascinating with beautiful scenery and unusual sights like the pearl farm but we did have two little hitches. The first was
on the bike ride on Cat Ba Island. We disembarked at a jetty where there was a bicycle store and in a couple of minutes we were given bikes and set off on our ride. I realised immediately that the back brake was disconnected and the front hardly worked at all so when we climbed to the top of a steep hill I slowed on the crown thinking that I must keep my speed really low in order to be able to stop. As I started down, the brake wasn't powerful enough to have any effect at all, so I jumped down quickly before momentum built up. I just managed to stay upright but collected a few bruises. The guide swapped bikes as he was stronger and could put more pressure on the brake but it wasn't safe for him either. I think he walked down the hill on the way back.
The second hitch was more stressful. We returned to the hotel in Cat Ba about 8pm and took the lift (which was tucked out of the way at the far side of the building) to our room on the tenth floor. Unfortunately it stuck just below floor eight, and
stayed there. No panic, we just needed to press the alarm button with a reassuring bell sign on it. Of course, it was broken, so we could not raise the alarm. That was not a good feeling. We started thumping with our shoes on the metal frame and door, and shouting. No response. We tried to pace ourselves, making a noise for a couple of minutes then resting. I tried SOS in Morse in case someone recognised it. An hour later we started to feel resigned to spending the night on the floor and hoped that when our guide came to collect us the next morning they might work out where we were. I suggested Jim climb out through the ceiling, as the heroes of action films do, but he declined.
Then the lights went off. There was still a low level emergency light on but the air flow also went off. After a minute it came back on. I thought they might have done it to signal to us but decided not as they could have come and shouted from the nearest floor. We realised they had switched off to try and reset the controls. It didn't work. They
tried 8 or 10 times then obviously decided to give up for the night and switched off the power again, and this time it stayed off.
After a while the emergency light started to fade. I kept telling myself that if we were sleeping we didn't need a light on anyway, and looking on the positive side, Jim had only had one small can of beer with dinner. We had managed to prise the doors open about half an inch so if the air had become a problem we could have jammed a shoe in the door to keep it open.
We kept up the routine of thumping and shouting and after about two hours I heard voices echoing on the stairs. It was the two duty porters. I opened the door with all the strength I could and shouted louder than I have ever done in my life. Thankfully they heard me and 15 minutes later they managed to open the eighth floor doors, then the lift doors, we climbed up a few feet of lift shaft wall and then they hauled us out. I needed a strong drink and an apology but by the time we turned around they
Sleeping bus for overnight travel
Three rows front to back, two deep and a few bodies on the floor in the aisles (a little private enterprise on part of driver?). A reasonably comfortable way to travel.
had closed the doors and disappeared down the stairs. Great customer care!
Hanoi is more pleasant than the other large cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang. The old town retains traditional shops and is easy to walk around. We went to a water puppet show. They started about a thousand years ago as a form of entertainment when the fields were flooded. The puppets act out fables or aspects of rural life as they move on the surface of a large pool of water controlled by people using long poles out of view behind a screen. They are colourful and fun, backed by an orchestra of traditional instruments. Sadly we did not have the camera with us that afternoon.
The Ethnology Museum in Hanoi is well worth visiting as is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum. There are many documentary exhibits providing insight into his thoughts and plans as well as creative art exhibits reflecting the impact of war. I always think that Communist countries demonstrate an understanding of how art can be used to communicate with and unite people through powerful images.
Vietnam is the most complex country we have visited. It is Communist, although most of the
time this is not obvious. We saw very few police and certainly the roads seem to be a free for all with motorbikes travelling against the flow of traffic at will. They carry huge impossible loads and it is nothing to see families of four or even five travelling on one vehicle. In Hue we waited at our hotel to be taken to the bus station. It was raining heavily. Then two moto drivers arrived complete with plastic macs to take us. Can you imagine each driver taking one of us on the pillion in the pouring rain, and a large case sitting on the handlebars in front of him/her? (One was female) We couldn't. We called a real taxi which cost us 40 pence.
The impetus to separate the tourist from his money is so strong that it becomes wearing. It is necessary to be on guard all the time. Most people are pleasant enough but some become very aggressive if their attempts to get your cash fail. We took a river trip where a woman rows in the back of the boat directly behind my seat. She spoke French and kept up a constant refrain from behind me of,
'Madame, madame, would you like to buy something?', 'Madame, madame, would you like to buy a drink/gift/hat etc every 30 seconds. Eventually I resorted to, 'Je n'comprends pas'. Travel may broaden the mind but it doesn't necessarily make you a better person. I was very tempted to push her overboard and row myself!
We joined up with Tammy and Marla from Hawaii on the way to Sapa as they felt very uncomfortable travelling alone and we were going to the same hotel. We had berths in 4 berth cabins in adjacent coaches but wanted to change so that we could share. We asked the guard responsible for the two coaches and she was adamant that we had to stay in the given berths. She shouted at us, particularly poor Tammy, and then started smacking her on her hand and shouting, 'you go back, you go back NOW'. Scary! (On the way back we arranged a swap quietly ourselves). Marla and Tammy made the trip fun, especially when they were negotiating. I hope they managed to get the brooms they purchased home intact without causing too much havoc.
Having said that about the Vietnamese they are also smart, efficient, ingenious and very skilled
Dragon represents the power of the king
drivers. I think it is an speedy version of evolution. Only the clever and intelligent survive the roads in Vietnam.
Leaving the station was the only time I saw anything which reminded me of behaviour in the Soviet Union. All the guards, (all female), in very military style uniforms, stood to attention by their carriage door, a lantern at their feet. When the signal was given they all turned their lanterns to show a green light to the rear, then they picked them up and climbed aboard. As the train started to move they slammed their doors, bolted it, and fixed a padlock to the door before moving along the carriage to unlock the scarce and uninviting bathrooms.
Our travels are almost over now as we are in Hong Kong and fly home tomorrow. It has been an amazing year. I expected to see many different sights but I had not foreseen how many interesting and friendly people of all ages and backgrounds we would meet. That has been a real joy. I can honestly say that we have never felt lonely or isolated, and we would recommend the wandering lifestyle to anyone who wants to see more of the world.
For us it proved much easier and more fun than we could have imagined.
This will be the last blog for a while as we are going to visit family and friends all over England in the next three weeks. Then we are going to stay in Lanzarote, so Jim can benefit from the dry heat, visitors can come and stay as we will not be far away and while there we can plan our next adventure. I have Costa Rica, Botswana and Malawi on the list but who knows? When we set off last time we had no intention of going into South East Asia so anything is possible.
ps We are back in East Sussex now and in a week will be starting our round England tour.
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