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Vietnam Photo Story

The end of my Vietnam trip has come and gone, so here’s the inevitable photo story from my time away. The pictures come from all over Vietnam from Hanoi down to Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon, if you prefer). Facebook users will probably need to click through to the original article link to see the video.

The rest of the photos, including the ones in the video above are on Blakepics, where you can also find a full quality version of this video. The music for this one in case you’re interested, is “Easier to Lie” by Aqualung, inspired by a recent episode of Lead Balloon.

The Road to Saigon

Yesterday afternoon I boarded the bus at Da Nang to Saigon. Taking around 16 hours – it’s the longest bus ride I’ve ever taken, the previous contender being the 8-10 hour trips around Turkey. Well, there’s an achievement.

It’s difficult killing 16 hours, especially once the battery runs out on the music/life-giving iPAQ. So here’s another set of notes like the last one, since Andrew liked the format so much ;)

Ho Chi Minh trail was closed due to landslides. Minh took me down about 20 metres of it, and past the sign so he still fulfilled the contract we made out previously.

Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh city after the war, an effort to crush the spirit of the people. The further south you get, the more people call it Saigon. Nobody told the people.

Likewise, prices are quoted in US Dollars a lot more here. Every time I ask “how much is that in Dong?”, they look impatiently at me, like I want to pay with snakeskins.

Food is important in Vietnam. During the 16 hour journey we all stopped for inclusive sit-down meals together twice. Rice, fish, meat, vegetables, all shared with strangers around 3 large tables. It beats National Express hands down.

Ignoring the motorbike drivers is the best policy. No more cheerful “No, thank you”, but a determined dive into heavy traffic as they run after you screaming “Where you phhhrrooom?” will stop all but the most determined.

Ceiling geckos will not eat you in the night. Unproven, but a reassuring initial trial.

All of the street restaurants have small plastic garden furniture for tables and chairs… I haven’t found a single place at that sells it.

I still find it strange whenever I visit an ancient site that’s under-construction. I’m sure the scaffolding is just for restoration or support … But you can never be sure.

It’s perfectly safe if your hotel room’s ceiling is held up by cellotape. I hope.

$12/night hotel rooms in Saigon are not opulent luxury.

As always, send to all you mates – and you’ll find eternal happiness, etc.

The Vietnam War. There was only ever one of them

Minh

Minh

You might have noticed I’ve not really mentioned The War. It’s a defining point of Vietnam’s history of the last century, and ultimately brought about the unification of the country as a whole for the first time since the French colonisation in the 1850s. So after great efforts to ignore it, as I head into the south of Vietnam, it’s time to catch up. My guide Minh was an officer in The War, and as promised gave me the background I needed for this post. I wanted something more personable than the history books, and Minh was invaluable in providing me with both.

Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho was the founding member of the French communist party, and believed in Vietnam for the Vietnamese. He was respected by everyone both in the north and south and is still considered to be a great man by everyone I’ve met. After World War I, France were trying to reduce the resources it was committing to its colonies, and the Indochinese Communist Party was formed, at a time when unemployment and poverty were at their highest. Not unsurprisingly.the Vietnamese welcomed the idea of change with open arms. The new Vietnam looked a lot more attractive than the mess they were in at the moment.

World War II hit, and provided Ho Chi Minh with the opportunity he had been waiting for. It demonstrated the weakness of their colonial masters, and saw the Japanese taking control of coal mines, rice fields and military installations. The Japanese were running high on “Asia for the Asians”, but this wasn’t enough for Ho Chi Minh, who wanted to give his country back to his people. Hiroshima, and the Japanese surrender kicked off the August Revolution, and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was established in Hanoi ruling North Vietnam.

“Who do you think the war was between?”, Minh asked me. “Russia and America”, I replied. “Yes, the communists and capitalists. Vietnam was just symbol, as Iraq is now.” He doesn’t consider it a civil war between the north and south, but two superpowers fighting it out in his country. America had been supporting the French war in Indochina since 1950. In 1955, they began funding the training of Diem’s army in the south. America believed that if Vietnam fell to communism, the entire region would follow – something they were very keen to avoid. Not least because of what it would mean for US access to trade routes, raw materials and markets. I was already drawing plenty of cynical parallels with Iraq.

In August 1964, America stopped providing just money and properly entered the war. At this time, Minh was attending university, he was given the choice to fight, or to carry on with his education. He chose, like many others to fight for his country. Being born and living in the south, he fought on the side of the Americans. It had nothing to do with belief, he tells me – simply where you were. By 1973, the Americans and the south were defeated. Giving power to the communist rule from Hanoi.

It wasn’t the end of the hardships for Minh and many like him. He was sent to a re-education camp because he fought on the losing side. This was a labour camp, and conditions unpleasant. It all depends on position in the war, rank, and what you did. But the length of time in the camps was different for everyone. If he had been forced to spend 3 years, he would have been automatically allowed to go to America when he left. Minh speaks with disappointment that he was only there for two years, and not eligible. “Would you still go now?” I ask him. “Of course”.

Once released, he’s not allowed to move city without prior government approval and forced to report to the police station every week. Minh still feels a bitterness towards having to give his every movement in detail. At the end of the two years, the police interviewed his neighbours to find out if he has changed, and has become a good person. Because of this, he says it’s very difficult to trust anyone, even now. Your neighbour, your friend could be reporting you to the police, or to your enemy. He’s still wary of the north, not that there is recognisable danger. But history has proven that there could be.

I ask the inevitable, “What do you see for the future? For Vietnam? For your children?” He sees both as the same. Minh endeavours to set a good example for his two sons. “Every day, we sit and we eat together as a family. Sometimes they are busy, they are grown up – family of their own. So sometimes once a week.” He believes the future relies on two things, education and experience. He uses these times with his family for education. “Experience,” he explains “they must learn that for themselves.”

Minh looks to the west for his countries future. He believes Vietnam has a lot to learn from America and Europe. “What do you think of the collapse of the world economy? Does it affect you?” Minh starts laughing hard, a long throaty laugh that spreads slowly across his face. “Financial crisis”, he chuckles. Minh doesn’t appear worried.

Into the heart of Vietnam

The bridge to the minority village

The bridge to the minority village

I am totally blown away. Just 20 minutes ago, Minh and I were walking through a minority village in the mountains to the west of Hoi An. A small group of people, across a high wooden suspension bridge separated from the rest of Vietnam living a nomadic lifestyle in well-built wooden huts suspended off the ground. Now I am sitting in my hotel room, soft clean sheets, en suite bathroom, television, electric fan and tiled floor, safe and dry from the unforgiving rain outside. This trip has been many things, all in various quantities – entertaining, humbling, frustrating, enlightening, depressing, insightful, informative, cheerful and uplifting. It’s such a short time to be away, but with everywhere I go, I’m forever grateful.

We started off at 8am this morning from Hoi An, with a short walk down the road for breakfast. Bread, eggs, and the strange omelette-type mix which involves a lot of oil and spices in equal quantity. So far, Minh’s promise to pray for good weather was holding out well for us. Not a drop of it in sight. Seven hours later and I’m drenched to the bone, and wondering if the wrinkles in my hands will stay with me forever. Having loaded up the bike, waterproofed my luggage and ourselves (thanks to Minh’s spare waterproofs, and visor/helmet), we were on the bike and away.

It didn’t take too long to realise that we would be spending a large part of the day negotiating floods, although we did skip the overloaded looking ferry that was loading up motorbikes on what used to be the road. Our first stop was a small village where I was taught how to make rice pancakes. Obviously I excelled at this particular task without trouble, accustomed as I am now to an entire range of popular Viatnemese jobs. I’m a little bit concerned that I was the only person invited to eat said-pancake … Perhaps I didn’t do a good a job of it as I thought. Regardless, they were too polite to say anything.

We then rode around in the rain a lot more, which was actually more more interesting and fun that it might sound. Covered head to toe in waterproof gear and speeding through the wind and the countryside was a fantastic way to see the country, it seems impossible to me now that it wasn’t always on my itinerary. We stopped for food, coffee, and for a tour around My Son – an old ruined Cham site, earlier settlers in Vietnam, the kings of whom are believed to have been buried at the site as early as the fourth century. In The War, Viet Cong based themselves at the site and large parts of it were levelled by American B52’s. the parts remaining are still definitely worth a visit.

From there, we went up into the mountains where if you weren’t already calling it “heavy rain”, you were now selecting all the thundercloud images from the bottom of the drawer, and slapping them onto the map. Ali may remember similar weather when we took an open-top jeep ride around the mountains of Gran Canaria. I’m genuinely beginning to believe that I shouldn’t go above a certain altitude. However, as Minh says – “we are together, we will be fine”, and I trust him to know his own country. He has been doing this 10 years, and promises me his story over dinner. Whenever we happen upon some particularly heavy rain, flooding, or disintegrated road, Minh yells a whooooop which I’m slowly discovering roughly translates to “oh my god, we’re going to die”.

While writing this, the water has taken out the power in the hotel and as far as the eye can see. Ironic, as the same water is generating electricity for the entire country at the dam we passed earlier. I had been watching two geckos on the ceiling fighting a moth, taking small bites from its wing whenever it gets too near. I call one Stan and the smaller one, Sophia. This is Vietnam :)

Hoi An – The town for walkers and primitive vehicle users

Hoi An - No motorbikes allowed

Hoi An – No motorbikes allowed. Heaven.

I waved goodbye to Minh, and set off on my own into Hoi An for the afternoon.  Hoi An is a UNESCO heritage site (as is My Son), which more than satisfies my quota for this trip.  At the mouth of Thu Bon river, Hoi An was a bustling sea of merchants from all over the world, although particularly China and Japan.  It is also famous for its high number of tailors who will make you fitted suits, shoes, and all other manner of clothing in as little as 20 minutes in some cases.  If you want some shoes with your name proudly displayed on the side, this is the place to come.

As I walked into the central area of Hoi An (it’s not very big), I came across a sign blocking the middle of the road.  “The town for walkers and primitive vehicle users”.  No motorcycles allowed.  I screamed with glee, and ran forwards into salvation.  I considered hiding out in Hoi An for the rest of my trip.  Ignoring Minh, pretending I was lost and sitting quietly against the nearest building until someone arrived to deport me.  Bit of a waste though.

“Excuse me”, a small voice sounded behind me.  “Crap, they just come in without their motorbikes, and drag you out!”, I thought to myself.  All smiles, I turned around, “Hello”.  “Hello sir.  You come to my shop now?  I make you very good suit.  You need suit?”  Shit.

I knew it was too good to be true.  I’m starting to think that Vietnam will not be happy if any tourist makes it out with less than double a years salary of debt.  I’m exagerating, but there is a feeling of “take take take”.  Perhaps it’s not totally unwarranted, and at least I hadn’t seen any beggars in the country so far.  Any money you do part with is for a service or goods, and earnt.  Which is rather refreshing when I think back to our own Welfare State back home.

As in Hue, there has been heavy rain in Hoi An overnight and the banks of the river are full to bursting.  Water floods the lower streets, and up to the edge of the lowest of the bridges.  Children are laughing, playing, and enoying themselves in the water, as cyclists try and manoveur through the water.  “Well at least it’s keeping them amused”, I laughed to an older english-looking lady standing on the corner watching.  “It’s keeping me amused, too” she replied.

I’ve been staying in hostels and mostly around young travellers embarking on South Asia tours between schools, or before a career has properly taken hold – everyone recommended Laos.  “You must go, the tubing is awesome”.  You might have heard of it, you take an inflatable tube down the river and visit bars alongside the riverside, staying in your tube, slowly drinking and making your way to liver failure, and the last of the bars.  “I had to drag my buddy back, because he fell asleep in the tube.  I threw up in mine.”  Sounds lovely.

So it was incredible to hear Avryl’s very different story.  She joined a tour of Laos last year with over 20 other people, which involved skipping about all over the place very quickly and very much sticking to the well-trodden tourist route.  Feeling a little short-changed, she contacted the same local tour guide and arranged another private tour within Laos for this year.  As the year went on, she arranged fund raising with the help of her local church and raised over 3,000 pounds to help a number of schools that the tour guide knew, and was somehow related to.  The money has been used to build school-buildings, and buy equipment to give the children a better future.  She spoke with such passion about how it felt to be handing over a simple notebook and a pen to each one of these children who had nothing.  Retired, she is now travelling through Vietnam and up to Hanoi – before returning home to continue the fund-raising and helping the children she has met however she can “in whatever time [she] has left”.

“Go, go to Laos.  Visit the local people.  You won’t regret it,” she advised me.  “I can give you the name of my tour guide.”  Touched by her story, I handed over my card and offered all I could think of.  “If you need a web site… For the fundraising.  Drop me a line – I won’t charge.”  It seems a pitiful offering in the light of her achievements, but it’s all that I have.

High-spirited by the interesting and varied people I’ve met in Vietnam, I explored the rest of the city by foot.  I’m looking forward to the tour into the mountains tomorrow, so I hope I can get a good nights sleep.