In Hoi An we ate ‘white roses’ – tiny shrimp fried in thin rice paper parcels. In Saigon we had spring rolls, greasy and spicy and still-hot from the pan. In Hué a speciality was bahn xio – shrimp, beansprouts and shredded pork wrapped in a crispy, crèpe-like pancake, while in Hanoi, we ate pho bo – a spicy soup of beef and noodles – almost every day, while steering well clear of Dog Meat Alley.
Vietnamese food is like that. As you travel from town to town you find that each place has its own repertoire of signature dishes, all made with ingredients fresh from the local market.
And the towns themselves are like that too. The six or seven that we visited during our three weeks in the country all had a very different feel from one another, each with its own distinct identity, history and culture.
Our first stop after Hanoi was Hué, the former capital city. From 1802 to 1945, emperors from the Nguyen Dynasty ruled Vietnam from here, for much of that time under the supervision of the French colonial authorities. The citadel that the emperors built was also the scene of heavy fighting during the Tet Offensive of 1968, when American soldiers holed up inside against the Viet Cong advance.
The citadel, then, was our first point of call in town, and it is indeed a good place to start. The war damage has been largely repaired, leaving an imposing, grandiose and, in places, still crumbling palace complex. The most obvious centre point is the throne room, from which the emperor issued orders to his generals and mandarins (but not apparently to his satsumas). There’s a lot of citadel to explore elsewhere though, with walled gardens, pagodas and a confusing array of palaces-within-palaces, so much so that it’s easy to find yourself suddenly wandering around on your own.
The next day, we took a motorbike tour around town as part of a small group, with each tourist sitting on the back of their own driver’s mount. Once you get used to being out in the somewhat unpredictable Vietnamese traffic with absolutely no control over steering, braking, or whether you live or die, a motorbike tour is actually a pretty good way to see Hué.
Our drivers took us first to a pagoda just outside town, where the monks were in full song at morning prayers. In the grounds, a couple of football nets gave an indication of how they spent their less contemplative hours. We also visited a ‘Vietnamese Colosseum’, where fights used to be staged between tigers and elephants, and one of the thirteen whacking great tombs that the emperors built for themselves along the banks of the Perfume River.
At the Thien Mu Pagoda, we watched monks hard at work in the garden and admired the holy wedding cake-like architecture. Built in the 17th Century, this was the home of the monk Thich Quang Duc, who publicly burned himself to death in Saigon in 1963 to protest against the policies of the South Vietnamese Government. Also harking back to the Sixties was the American gun emplacement that we visited, set at a strategic point overlooking the river and the border with Laos. In the distance was ‘Hamburger Hill’ where heavy fighting in 1969 left hundreds of locals, Viet Cong and American troops dead. Our guide tells us that tribespeople in the area are still so angry about this – and who can blame them? – that anyone who looks American and wants to visit the hill has to travel with police protection.
Our next stop, via train and taxi was Hoi An which, if anything, was even more laid-back than Hué. Hoi An used to be a thriving port town, and today gets by on its reputation as the tailoring capital of Vietnam. We tried very hard to do cultural things – visiting the nearby Cham ruins at My Son and a few of the town’s various temples and pagodas – but most of the time it was too hot and humid even to walk to the corner shop. The evenings were more bearable, and were spent sitting by the riverside, sipping a cold drink and watching the bright lights and crowds of the night market on the opposite bank.
A little further down the coast is Nha Trang, which we travelled to by night bus. In theory, the rows of beds on the bus allow passengers to get a good night’s sleep while being whisked somnambulantly to their destination. In practice, unless you’re under 5′ 5” and can sleep through the regular honking of the driver’s horn, you’ll be sore and sleepy the next morning. Nha Trang was, to quote a maxim popular all over south-east Asia, ‘same-same but different’. It’s a nice enough place to spend a couple of days but is a little bit touristy, with pizzerias, burger bars and a strip of golden, cigarette-butt-strewn sand.
It was still ridiculously hot, so we did the only thing we could think of and headed for the hills. To be more precise, we headed to Dalat, or ‘Da Lat’ (it’s written both ways) in the Central Highlands. Dalat’s chief selling point is that it’s a good 10 degrees cooler than the coast, with temperatures rarely rising above 25 degrees C. The surrounding area is something of a veg basket for the rest of the country, with all manners of fruit, vegetables and coffee being grown on the cool upland slopes. There’s even wine made here although the results, based on the few tastings that we did, are not as yet fantastic.
Dalat itself is not exactly Shangri La – it’s much bigger and noisier that we’d expected. The surrounding countryside is very pretty though, as we found out when we set out on an 18 kilometre trek one day. Our route took us up pine-covered hills, through coffee plantations and hill-tribe villages and across a couple of extremely rickety bridges.
After Dalat, we headed to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City – the two names are used fairly interchangeably – which we reached after an inexplicably long bus journey (8 ½ hours to cover 200 kilometres!).
Saigon is a less obviously charming city than Hanoi but less chaotic too, with wide boulevards in place of the capital’s network of tiny, twisting alleyways. It’s also more obviously a centre for commerce and business, with shopping malls and shiny new buildings dotted amongst the old.
On our first day in town we went to visit Reunification Palace, formerly the seat of the South Vietnamese Government. An iconic moment came on 30th April 1975, when Viet Cong tanks broke through the palace gates forcing the final surrender of the South Vietnamese. We took a free English language tour with a family of corpulent, stair-avoiding Indians and saw, amongst other things, the operations bunkers where the South Vietnamese met and planned the war, the apartment where President Diem (assassinated in 1963) lived with his family and the rooms where foreign allies, including Henry Kissinger, were received.
Given how much the Viet Cong and the Vietnamese in general suffered during the war, the tone of the tour and the exhibitions in the palace was surprisingly measured and non-aggressive.
Next we headed to the War Remnants Museum, a collection of photos and artifacts from the American War, as ‘the Vietnam War’ is called here. There are some pretty horrific images, as there should be, of the effects of U.S. bombing and the use of Agent Orange, and of the massacre of civilians. A tourist ahead of me takes photos of the most harrowing images on his mobile ‘phone. Luckily for him there’s no-one around to administer a good kick up the backside.
The next day we went to see the famous Cu Chi tunnels, 40 kilometres or so to the north of the city. The Cu Chi tunnels form part of an underground network that extends for 200km in the area, right to the Cambodian border. Construction was started during the war against the French and continued throughout the American war, with the network gradually expanding, giving the Vietnamese the ability to launch surprise attacks before disappearing without trace.
The first tunnel that we take a look at has an entrance so small that only some of the Asian tourists and smaller European women can fit in. Later we have the opportunity to crawl along a 20 metre section of slightly (and I mean only slightly) larger tunnel. We’re on the topmost of a series of three descending levels, each hotter, darker and more cramped than the last. Nevertheless it’s pretty claustrophobic, and not a nice place to be. Although better than being shot at by Americans, I suppose…
We also saw some of the homemade booby traps that the V.C. used and had an opportunity to shoot an AK47 rifle on a nearby firing range, an opportunity that, in the end, I didn’t take. Something just doesn’t seem right about loosing off a few rounds for fun in the middle of a former war zone, no matter how enthusiastically you’re encouraged to do so.
As if to underscore this, on the way back our tour bus stopped at a government-run craft centre for victims of Agent Orange, the chemical used by the U.S. to defoliate much of central and southern Vietnam. Physical and mental disabilities are still common among children born in the affected areas. The craft centres give working-age victims the change to earn a living by producing handicrafts for the tourist trade. We didn’t have room for any handicrafts in our backpacks, but we did buy a cold drink or two before heading back to town.
In Saigon, the traffic whirred on regardless. Vietnam today is an overwhelmingly young country, with its eyes set firmly on the future rather than the past, or at least that’s the impression we had. The majority of the Vietnamese we met, at least in the towns, were born after the war. They owned scooters, dressed fashionably, used the internet, and worked long, long hours. In Hanoi we even saw a teenage girl wearing a top emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes. She didn’t seem to be trying to make a political point; it was just a nice design to wear. At the same time, in the countryside farmers work the land with the ox and the plough. And newspapers reported recently that a well-known Saigon lawyer had been arrested for ‘undermining the socialist system’ by openly criticising government policy. A country of contrasts then… and beyond that, I’ll say no more for now.