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Published: January 11th 2009
Hue, a smiling Buddha
After the excitement and open air of our motorbike adventures it was back down to earth with a bump. The overnight bus across the border to the city of Hue in Vietnam was a real ordeal. We arrived in the early evening at the bus station not wanting to be late, as normal we ended up waiting around for hours for the bus to arrive. It pitched up looking rather worn out and ready to retire from life completely, but after some swift negotiations we boarded.
It was packed full of locals, or Vietnamese heading back home after shopping trips to Laos where things are cheaper. Strangely there were only seats half way up the coach? The reason soon became apparent as literally every 5-10 minutes we stopped to allow cargo to be packed tightly into the rear of the bus. Primarily this was bags of charcoal, hundreds of them. When the back was full from floor to ceiling the roof was employed and yet more charcoal was piled on. To makes matters worse our chairs were unable to recline and we had hardly any elbow room meaning we barely slept. All this was a bit frustrating but we kept
The scene half way along the coach, it is full from floor to ceiling, jam packed full of all manner of goods! Primarily charcoal for some reason?
calm, this is South East Asia and it is only to be expected, though sharing your seat with some chickens in baskets is a bit much, especially when they poo everywhere!
Arriving in Hue tired and sore the city was a bit of a culture shock after Laos. It is a massive busy city with big concrete buildings and loads of traffic and it kept raining! We had been warned about the traffic and rightly so, crossing the road was an arduous task. Something we noticed right away was that everyone wanted to sell us something or other, all the time! It takes some getting used to but even then it is not pleasant to be stopped umpteen times whenever you leave your hotel by hawkers all looking for your money. In other countries vendors usually try to entice you into buying their goods by using their charm or promoting their products but here they simply yelled 'buy something!' It began to irk us somewhat.
The city used to be the capital until about 1945 and therefore has a rich history of various emperors living here and building their palaces and tombs providing some nice sights to see
Gateway to History
Hue, the walls of Kinh Thanh Citidel
on days out. The most famous sight has to be the citadel called Kinh Thanh, a former imperial city which was heavily bombed by the Americans and saw heavy fighting. Much of it still survives and we had a lovely morning wandering around the city walls, which are surrounded by a wide moat. We also visited the Hoa Palace which is again behind a wall, inside are many lakes and garden areas not to mention the old emperors residences and ceremonial buildings. All in all it was a pleasant excursion.
To make the most of things and see all the city's sights which are further afield we managed to haggle for a couple of motorbike taxi men to boost us about the area for a day. In most of the countries here you can find motorbike taxis for a small price, most of them speak great English and not only taxi you around but act as your guide for the day too. Without boring you we visited various tombs of former emperors and their families and a rather nice pagoda called Thien Mu which also houses a working monastery in its grounds. Here we also learned of the famous
Hoi An, this old lady makes her meagre living giving tourists a wee river trip
monk Thich Quang Duc who burned himself to death to make a political statement and protest at the policies of the then president Ngo Song Houng. It is this event which is often credited with helping Ho Chi Minh himself rise to power. The whole day was well worthwhile, as well as seeing some lovely old buildings and tombs we also enjoyed our ride through the country side getting to see a bit of rural Vietnam.
We did not linger long in Hue and soon moved on to the small town of Hoi An, which has a charming old town on the banks of the Thu Bon river. We have to say that we really did not get up to much here, it was enough for us to wander the old streets lined with great architecture, ambiently lit by coloured lanterns, passing by countless touristy shops and tailors for which the town is famous. The river itself was lovely, especially at night when it often flooded the lower streets making for some unexpected Venice like scenery. Hoi An is home to a very old Japanese bridge and visiting this is probably as close to seeing any 'sights' as we
Na Trang, street shops are set up where some kind person will happily cut your hair, carry out some dentist work, & clean your ears all for a bargain price!
made it. Very nice is was too.
After a few days relaxing, wishing we could get new wardrobes made up by Hoi An's tailors, we moved further South to the city of Nha Trang. It is something of a beach resort, where holiday makers and families as well as hardened travelers like ourselves arrive daily making it a busy place. Sadly the weather was a bit dull and it rained so there was no beach time for us but we did have a nice walk along the huge beach front which stretches for miles and is actually quite picturesque. Once again we busied ourselves wandering the streets, partaking in the odd filled baguette and generally pottering about doing not much at all. It was possible to venture further afield to see some of Vietnam's central highlands but, well, we really just could not be bothered, and it was expensive as well, everything seems expensive to us these days as funds dwindle ever more!
Further south the next stop was the massive city of Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as it used to be known. Here there really is a lot to see and do. It is a huge
Ho Chi Minh
The big man himself!
conurbation that is traffic filled and unbelievably busy, not to mention dirty. It is packed to the rafters full of tourists and travelers of every type. The central touristy area has brightly lit streets lined with shops selling your usual tat and a multitude of restaurants and travel agents. We could tell right away it was not our kind of place. But not to be disheartened we planned our activities. We took a visit to see the Reunification Palace which was build in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam's presidential palace. It is the sight where the communist tank crashed through the gate on 30th April 1975, the day Saigon surrendered. We had an interesting and informative free guide who helped make this an enjoyable place to visit. Of particular interest were the underground bunkers where the Southern Vietnamese ran the war against the Northern communists. Still in place is much of the old equipment and strategic maps used by the commanders.
Probably our favorite visit though was a trip to see the War Remnants Museum. This museum documents the atrocities of war with thousands of horrific and informative pictures, each accompanied by information about the Vietnam war. There
Ho Chi Minh, sorry to include this one but it is one of the most iconic images in Vietnam, and the story behind it is both sad and moving.
are also exhibits showing the weapons of war used and the conditions in which many prisoners were kept and treated. In the museum grounds there a many old war machines, tanks, artillery, jets and a Hue helicopter. But it is the pictures and information that you come here for and we spent a long time taking in the enormity of what had taken place in the not too distant past. Without holding back, the actions of the Americans can only be described as atrocious, appalling crimes against humanity were committed on a daily basis, visited on the innocent people of the countries in this region, and for what? Politics. We don't mind saying that there were tears in our eyes and that we left angry at many things. We must also mention the lovely temporary exhibition of children's paintings which were wonderfully rendered with beautiful bright colours. Some depicted the horrors of war, while others showed happier images. But the overall theme was forgiveness, peace and harmony for the world. It was very special and showed that the younger generation look to the future with great optimism. One thing that does come across in the Vietnamese people is that there
Hue, tomb of Minh Mang
does not seem to be any lingering resentment or feeling of victimisation, they have for the most part moved on proving what a resilient nation they are.
Cambodia was on the horizon but before we left Vietnam we took a jaunt on the mighty Mekong river one last time. We booked a two day boat into Cambodia all the way to Pnom Penh (the capital) which took us into the Mekong delta, then up the river to the boarder crossing. On route we made several stops, firstly we learned how rice paper is made in a wee village by the river, here they also produce coconut sweets which we must say tasted delicious. Then we cruised past a floating market, sadly it was not all that busy as the morning rush had faded but there were still plenty of boats of all shapes and sizes filled with produce being sold and bartered over. It was very interesting indeed, particularly to see how the people of the river live and conduct their everyday lives.
We spent a night in the town of Chau Duc, there was not really anything to see though it did have a bustling market selling
Mekong River, A woman cleans and guts the day's catch on the banks of the river
every kind of edible produce imaginable. The real fun was back on the river though, the next day we spent some time with the ethnic minority Cham people who are practicing Muslims. They have a mosque and their children study the Quran. Our visit was to a small village which had made the most of passing tourists setting up various stalls selling nice jewelery and yet more tat. Probably the most interesting thing we learned though was just how high the river can get in the rainy season... all the houses here on the river are built up on stilts and with very good reason, overhead on the stilts about 10ft above us was the high water mark!
Before we crossed the border there was just enough time to jump off the boat at a fishery where they provide a massive amount of fish to the hungry Vietnamese. Not a particularly memorable place but it was interesting. The border was uneventful, the boat stopped at the Vietnamese control and we then moved onto the Cambodian side further upstream. And that was that, we were in Cambodia. The Mekong knows no boundaries though and life just carries on as ever
Mekong River, typical houses of the Mekong delta.
for the people living on its banks, though we did notice right away that things became a little more rustic with houses made predominantly of wood instead of moss stained concrete.
Sat here writing this it occurs that we actually had a rather nice time in Vietnam, and we suppose this is very true. But that would be putting things a bit too simply. To sum up, the country really was not our cup of tea and neither were the people who, after spending time in Laos, just seemed that bit more stern and unfriendly to us. As we mentioned there is an overwhelming feeling that everyone wants to sell you something and that if you don't want to pay them for what they offer, they are upset, thinking that because you are a rich foreigner they are somehow owed something from you? While there are similar people in all the countries here, elsewhere they tend to take no for an answer and leave you be, unlike in Vietnam. We feel we have to mention as well that on top of this the people seemed disingenuous, you often can't get a straight answer and at other times we were
A scene much repeated over the last year! Tony waits for the bus to Vietnam.
simply lied to. We are used to bartering by now, however the price in Vietnam was often triple what it should be, and it felt like they were almost trying to steal our money at times by not being upfront. Things are done differently here in South East Asia, of course that's one reasons we love traveling here, but being outright lied to is not the norm we have experienced yet it happened several times in Vietnam. Maybe we were just unlucky? There were exceptions and we did meet some very nice people along the way. A large factor is probably that we were often in tourist geared areas. Also this is one of the countries we have spent the shortest period of time in and seen the least of so perhaps we just didn't get to see the best of Vietnam. But overall there is not much that would encourage us to revisit the country, which is a first on our travels! Och well, we still don't regret our flying visit, on to pastures new...Cambodia awaits.
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