WELCOME TO VIETNAM!
I was instantly bombarded by a sea of bodies and expectant faces on stepping off my Vietnam Airways flight from Kuala Lumpar and out of Ho Chi Minh Airport. It was the middle of the day and the steamy heat swamped me. Immediately I sensed I was entering into somewhere very different to anywhere else I had been to. This was Vietnam, one of those countries that I never really believed I would ever find myself in.
But this is a country with plenty to offer in terms of unique civilisations and spectacular scenery. In size Vietnam is slightly smaller than Italy, but has 80 million people and growing. The shape of the country is very narrow and S- shaped, like a bamboo pole supporting a rice basket on each end. Three quarters of the country is mountains and hills, despite its long coastline hugging the South China Sea.
Organised chaos would be a fair way to describe what I could see hustle and bustle of people and vehicles on the streets. This is one of the most densely populated areas in the whole of Asia, but Vietnam is somehow a little different from the rest of South East Asia. Unofficially the centre of Ho Chi Minh City is still called Saigon. The total population is around 7 million and rising fast. This place is the economic epicentre of Vietnam, where most of the investment and trade takes place. If you hold aspirations to make money, as many do, you come here. I changed my dollars into Vietnamese Dong and became an instant local millionaire a few times over.
Sprawling streets overflow with the activity of people selling something or other, day and night. Crossing the road is often an epic challenge as you inevitably get engulfed into and smothered by a passing stream of bikes, mopeds and people. Walking across the M25 in the Monday morning rush hour would be more straightforward and less life threatening.
Typically families will own a shop front and take turns to man it, often selling different things at different times of day to keep the money coming in. Stalls and shops are piled high with everything you could wish to buy cheaply. And this in a country which supposedly despised capitalism and free enterprise. It was thriving here well and truly.
The border with China is now well and truly open for business again and it seems to be pouring in. America lifted a trade embargo in 1994 and their companies were quick to invade. Growth also seems to be exploding with skyscrapers and hotels soaring up, bringing with them pollution, traffic and noise.
Saigon was originally captured by the French in 1859, but served as the capital of South Vietnam from 1956 until 1975, when it fell to the communists in the north. I set off for the Reunification Palace, where the communist invasion symbolically culminated. The pictures were shown around the world of a helicopter fleeing from the roof just minutes before the tanks arrived. Everything is preserved as it was, which adds to the effect, especially the tunnels and bunker rooms in the basement.
There is no escaping the fact that Vietnam is a country best known for war. This country seems to have been fighting wars against someone or other for most of the last two thousand years most recently the Japanese, the French and a brief, little publicised, yet intense war with China. The Chinese wanted to teach the Vietnamese a lesson, but withdrew after just 17 days in 1979. There were 20,000 casualties, but all is well now between the two, officially.
And the Americans of course in what we might know as the Vietnam War, but here they call it the American War, which is understandable! I visit a couple of museums. One used to be named the Museum of American War Crimes, but has now diplomatically changed its name to the War Remnants Museum.
Although it continues to demonstrate US Aggressive Imperialist War Crimes photos of children mangled by bombing, napalming etc. It is pretty brutal stuff both the nastiness of some of the weapons employed and the effects on victims bodies. But the worst was in another museum where I saw a photo of a monk burning himself to death in protest against the regime in 1963.
I spent the evening at the impressive Rex Hotel, a landmark in Saigon. From here looking down onto the streets below can be viewed the city by night. It is like one huge enlarged grand prix starting grid on the streets of Saigon. Swarms of thousands of mopeds are roaring around the streets again and again. It seems that this is what the image conscious youth of Saigon does for an evening of entertainment in the same way we might go down the pub or eat out. Whole families also cruise around neatly jammed onto one moped, looking like they could all be happily enjoying a funfair ride together. Quite a sight and quite a noise too.
The next day, after the novelty of noodles for breakfast, I set out to explore the Cu Chi Tunnels, where intense fighting and bombing took place during the American War. The underground tunnel network built here by the Viet Cong is as remarkable as it is extensive. Over 250km of tunnels stretched all the way from the city to the Cambodian border.
The tunnels were much more than one dimensional often several layers deep with specially constructed different areas for cooking, educating, making weapons and hospitals to treat the injured. Unknowingly, when the Americans first arrived they built a large base camp right over the top of the tunnels and it was quite a while before they realised why they were getting shot at each night.
Try as hard as they could the Americans could not destroy the tunnels and the people inside them. They tried everything, but the Viet Cong resisted. For instance the Viet Cong used pepper to distract Alsation dogs sent down to sniff them out. And they used American toilet soap to wash with to confuse the dogs further. Many dogs were also killed in booby traps
Ground operations against them proved ineffective, with the Viet Cong claiming high numbers of American casualties, mainly through surprise attacks in the dense jungle terrain. So the Americans resulted to carpet bombing everything and huge swathes of jungle were bulldozed. Ten per cent of Vietnams forest was destroyed in total during the war. Thirteen million tons of bombs were dropped in 350,000 air strikes. Only 6,000 of the 16,000 who fought in the tunnels here survived the war.
Today it is possible to crawl down into a small part of these tunnels and see for yourself what it must have been like to exist underground. I had underestimated the size and scale of what could be done underground. They are very low, narrow and generally devoid of air. Not to be recommended for claustrophobics. It was impossible to comprehend how people could spend whole harrowing months of their lives stuck down here. I could barely manage 5 minutes, unique and fascinating though those 5 minutes were. Sweat was pouring off me and I was desperate to experience the sensation of moving air again.
So it was on with the cycling, all the way from Saigon up to Vietnams capital, Hanoi, which was approximately 1,000 miles away. By bus this is a 48-hour journey, where you can opt for hard or soft seats. I only had one seat on my bike. There is also only one main road connecting north and south, known as Highway One. Most of the way it frequently greets you with smoke, exhaust fumes, road works and potholes all in reliably equal measures not exactly a cyclists dream.
North of Saigon is the Central Highlands, where a cooler climate prevails. Fertile mountains, lakes and waterfalls abound, making it an immediate pleasant contrast from the frenzied pace of life in Saigon. The soil is good for market gardening here and coffee plants are plentiful, amongst other growing vegetables and plants. Everything is evergreen, like one big park.
It is a bit of a climb up to the main town of the region, Dalat, which during the French occupation was known as Le Petit Paris and even has a slightly ridiculous looking replica of the Eiffel Tower in the centre. Nonetheless it was a cool and pleasantly scenic retreat. Much more appropriate is another name given to it, the City of Eternal Spring. So nice is it that during the war it seems both sides tacitly agreed to keep the fighting away from Dalat, in an attempt to help preserve its pleasantness a bit of a contrast to the Cu Chi tunnels.
Enjoying the very scenic and peaceful descent from Dalat, I also have to enjoy the view somewhat longer than I might have wished to by getting a puncture. There are many worse places to be temporarily stranded, I am sure. Further on another cyclist had been going uncontrollably fast and crashed horribly on the descent. She was knocked unconscious as I arrived. Fortunately I spotted a local on a moped and instructed him to go for help. She came around again, but was in a very bad way.
I continued the descent down through rural Vietnam all the way to the coastal town of Nha Trang. This is a developing resort town, which used to be popular with American servicemen. The setting of the beach, next to emerald waters and overlooked by lush green islands, is enticing. In fact there are no less than 71 islands offshore.
But it also has a sizeable population with all the city attributes you might expect as well. And with its scenic attractions and a transport infrastructure, it is not hard to see this place becoming developed for tourists like some of the places in Thailand next door.
The hotel had a very inviting pool and once more the food was excellent.
A boat journey out to see the islands was a necessity. The seawater was beautifully clear. We stopped at one of the islands to go ashore for lunch. It was something of a minor challenge negotiating the transfer out the boat into what was nothing more than a very wobbly round floating saucer, paddled by a local woman. I was too busy concentrating on not making a messy splash into the water when I missed what happened on another boat.
Apparently a rather horizontally challenged American lady was trying to get out of her floating bathtub on to the wooden quay with great difficulty. Instead of finding her feet securely planted on dry land she slipped and everything went up in the air as she found herself nestled into a large pot of crabs nearby. In no time a few loud shouts pierced the quiet lunchtime sky as people everywhere looked round. It seems the offer of seafood for lunch hadnt gone down too well.
I enjoyed some wonderful seafood for my lunch. No crabs, although even the snails went down quite well. After extra carefully negotiating my way back onto the boat again, on the way back I enjoyed a massage and a swim in the invigorating emerald green water.
My cycling progress north through the enchanting Vietnamese countryside continued. I bisected endless ricefields, which looked as if they had been manicured. I was surrounded by so many shades of green. For years and years peoples lives here had followed the cycle of rice growing. Here water buffalo ploughed and slogged away while people toiled with their backs bent over. Vietnam is now the world second biggest producer of rice after Thailand.
Washing was hanging out everywhere. It is not uncommon to see small children who can barely walk riding on the broad backs of water buffaloes. Smiling children yelled He-llo! at me from the edge of the roadside and I waved back Xin chao! (Hello in Vietnamese the only word I could master). More than half of Vietnams population is younger than I am.
Large mats with coffee beans were being held out to dry in the sun. Vietnam is virtually completely self-sufficient when it comes to tasty ingredients, for example also being the world second largest coffee producer now. Approaching the coast through wonderful small fishing villages and along undeveloped beaches, the hot wind starts to burn my skin.
A glittering expanse of beach and ocean dotted with thousands of small fishing boats lay before me. I passed fish farms in muddy, silty lagoons. At the end of the day my arms and legs, constantly being the most exposed bits of flesh for a cyclist are red raw. But I was enjoying the liberating sensation of ploughing along the coast towards the town of Quang Ngai.
At one point in front of me was a moped going very slowly so I decided to overtake. This was not a good idea as it turned out to be a policeman, who was waving frantically and angrily at me, like a teacher lectures a pupil, not to overtake. So I pulled back at the last minute. I suddenly remembered again that I was in a communist authoritarian state, where previously a couple of other foreign tourists had been put in jail simply for photoing a public dam.
Not far outside of Quang Ngai is the My Lai massacre site, perhaps one of the most sobering places I have ever visited. My Lai is an innocuous and reasonably pretty looking village in rural Vietnam. Yet this belies the tragic story it has to tell. It used to be a Viet Cong stronghold and many of the villagers here had been forced to offer food and shelter to VC soldiers. Several American soldiers had been killed and wounded in the area prompting a Search and Destroy operation that began in March 1968.
Fleeing villagers were shot and bayoneted. Hand grenades were chucked into homes, which were burnt. Livestock were slaughtered. A very large number of villagers were rounded up and sent to a ditch where they were gunned down by machine-gun fire.
American command helicopters circled overhead, while a navy boat patrolled offshore, but at no time did they come under fire during the entire operation. Unspeakable war crimes were committed. Women and children were assembled and executed. Up to 500 were slaughtered.
One soldier who shot himself in the foot to not become involved in the slaughter was the only American casualty of the operation. Troops were told not to say anything, but on returning to America several went public and a cover up at high levels was exposed. The publicity generated by these events had a major effect on the morale of the military and renewed the vigour of protests against the war.
Today, in monument to what happened, there are very poignant statues of women and children cowering in frightened surrender moments before they were shot. The skies above were heavily grey and overcast, which seemed appropriate for such a place. Inside a small building were detailed but simple descriptions in broken English of various incidents. My Lai was a very basic, uncomplicated sort of memorial, not at overrun with tourists. This allowed you sufficient time to digest some of the horror of what went on here, but only some. The rest is beyond the capacity of the human imagination. No one spoke here. They did not need to.
Over 3 million Americans served in Vietnam nearly 60,000 were killed, double the losses from the Korean War of 1950-3. By contrast over 220,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and over one million North Vietnamese soldiers died. Around four million Vietnamese civilians almost one tenth of the population at the time were killed or injured during the war. But still the greatest power and the greatest resources the world had ever known still failed to prevail.
Continuing on I reached a very pleasant beach as the rain really started to bucket down. It was time to pause for a cup of tea and a bit of shelter. Fortunately it was not too far to cycle back to my hotel through rural ricefields and villages. Watching Vietnamese television later in the evening, I caught the nightly weather forecast. I could not understand a word of it except that on a map of Vietnam it showed what I made out to be a typhoon approaching the coast in the part of the country I was directly heading towards.
My reading of Vietnamese weather forecasting proved to be surprisingly accurate the next morning. It was absolute throwing it down with torrential rain. But we had to head onwards over the rather daunting, heavily forested Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass. Here Highway One climbs to an elevation of almost 500m in the Truong Son mountain range right next to the South China Sea. Large granite boulders littered the hillside as the rain lashed down. The views were misty but spectacular enough
The Hai Van Pass used to form the border between Vietnam and the ancient Kingdom of Champa. It almost acts as a dividing line between the warm dry beaches to the south and the north, which at this time of year is often bombarded by wet wind from China.
The Hindu kingdom of Champa survived along the Vietnam coast from the second to the fifth centuries. Chinese rule was finally overthrown in 939AD and the Viet people began expanding southwards. Independent Vietnam was ruled by a long series of dynasties. From 1224 to 1789 invasions by the Mongols, Chinese and Thais were repelled.
Then it was on to the historic small museum town of Hoi An. A couple of centuries ago this place was one of South East Asias major ports, an important trading post for Dutch, British Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese ships. It traditionally has problems with flooding and it is not hard to see why, judging by the amount of rainwater still drenching the place.
As a bustling seaport, Hoi An was the capital of the Champa Kingdom. Foreign ships came here to buy high grade silk, as well as trade in other things like porcelain, pepper, Chinese medicines, elephant tusks and birds nests. It was the site of the first Chinese settlement in Vietnam. Its heyday was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
However, Hoi An dwindled as a port of major importance in the late nineteenth century when the river connecting it to the sea silted up. Remarkably during the American War it remained almost completely undamaged and is now a sleepy backwater of 20,000 people. Although the merchants and traders certainly left their mark, particularly the Japanese and Chinese.
It is not difficult to imagine the river wharf crowded with sailing ships. I take a boat trip on the water. Several houses, shops and pagoda have been preserved as they were. Other structures are being carefully restored to preserve the unique character of the city. I visited someones private home also a place for commerce as well as living in. Wandering through the morning fish and vegetables market on the riverfront was a delight. Here women vendors squabbled and jostled noisily as I walked through the colourful stalls almost unnoticed.
As well as having a charming old world atmosphere, Hoi An is also a very good place to be measured up for some clothes So I came away with a couple of shirts and a pair of shorts, helping to boost the local economy in a small way. Late in the evening I ventured out and discovered a backstreet bar with some Premiership football on a very small TV screen.
It astounds me how much over here they love English football and how much knowledge they have about some of the players. My guide Phuc, once I had got over the comic novelty of pronouncing his name, amazed me by being able recite more players from my team, Aston Villa, than I could myself, even though he was a Liverpool fan. They had recently lost.
Chelski wins Liverpool. No good. He told me unhappily
I had not kept track of any news from back home and was horrified when Phuc told me who would be in Englands group for the World Cup
Argentina, Nigg-area and Swuidg-in Phuc reliably informed me.
This would be the group of death Argentina, Nigeria and SwedenI think.
The next day with the rain still lashing down, like a continuous waterfall, and with newly tailored clothes which were not really suitable for cycling in, it was time to continue again north up the coast to Hue. One of the first stops was in the Marble Mountains, which rise sheer from the coast. Over time they have been host to Buddhist shrines, Cham temples and a refuge for the Viet Cong. They seem to carve absolutely anything of all shapes and sizes out of the abundant marble rock in the area.
Hue is one of the countrys major religious, cultural and educational centres. Maybe it was the weather, but Hue did not seem to have the animated life of some of the other places in Vietnam. The name Hue has evolved from a Vietnamese word meaning peace or harmony, but its history has been bloody.
The communists occupied South Vietnams third largest city for almost a month, a considerable period of time for a major city in the South. The communists rounded up around 3,000 people, including priests and monks, to kill in cold blood. 6,000 people in Hue died during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Most were civilians.
The women in Hue are reputed to be the most beautiful in the whole of Vietnam, but I could see limited differences between the ones here and elsewhere. In most countries a healthy tanned look is regarded as desirable, but not for the women here who go to any lengths possible to keep the sun off their white doll-like faces. This explains why so many wear the famous conical hats, especially when working in the field. Pure and unblemished white skin is the sought after look. My own colour had been a rather painful red, still recovering from sunburn days earlier.
The city is situated on the banks of the Perfume River, but the highlight here must be a visit to the Citadel. This construction was built in the early nineteenth century by the Emperor Gia Long of the Nguyen Dynasty, which ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1945 with 13 different emperors and an strong emphasis on Confucian values.
Catholic missionaries had a hard time and their persecution eventually prompted the beginning of military action from the French. In 1862 one of the Emperors signed a treaty with the French, which effectively made the whole of Vietnam a French protectorate and the Emperors became puppets of the French government.
The Citadel is well fortressed, but suffered plenty of destruction during the 1968 fighting. The complex has several buildings, but the principal one is the Thai Hoa Palace, which has an very ornate roof and many carefully carved columns. Outside Nine Dynastic Urns each represent a different Emperor, symbolising the power and stability of the Nguyen throne. Some intricate designs of Chinese origin on them are almost 4,000 years old.
Also on the site is the Forbidden Purple City, which was reserved for the personal use of the Emperor only. The only servants allowed into this compound were eunuchs who would pose no threat to the royal concubines. One monarch, Tu Duc, who reigned from 1848-83, had no less than 104 wives.
Further down the Perfume River is the Thien Mu Pagoda, seven storeys high and constructed in 1844. A pavilion to the right of the main tower is built on the back of a large marble turtle, a symbol of longevity. There is also a giant bell, which weighs over 2,000 kg and was cast in 1710. This temple was the centre of anti-government protests in the early 1960s.
Hue is also renowned for its excellent cuisine and does not disappoint. I think Vietnam must be the finest gastronomic country I have visited. The food here is wonderful and varied. Its a good job Im doing plenty of cycling each day otherwise it would be a bit of a squeeze fitting into that plane seat on the way home.
The next day I boarded the train north from Hue up to Vinh. There was a real edgy sense of changing atmosphere crossing from South Vietnam into the North. Minutes after settling down into my carriage I heard an uncomfortably close smashing noise and discovered that a rock had been hurled through the window of the next compartment along.
Some local children were running around outside, some still holding rocks, laughing and pointing. Apparently, this was their idea of having some playful fun. I was not too amused and was rather glad to see the train pull away and leave them behind.
Very early on a dark, miserable morning the train slowly chugged into the station and unloaded its passengers. It seemed to be the Monday morning rush hour and everywhere people draped in brightly coloured plastic capes were sploshing through the streets. This was Vinh and the first things I saw were dreary Soviet style buildings. After being bombed to bits by the Americans it had been rebuilt by the East Germans, not too prettily.
On the bike again I started to cycle through the persistent rain out into the countryside of North Vietnam, one of the poorest areas of Vietnam and also one of the least visited by foreigners. It was not hard to imagine a bloody conflict being fought out here.
Many of the villagers we were cycling through got more excited than normal on seeing Westerners. So backward and undeveloped was one village that they mistook us for Russians. They had never before seen people from the West and they stared at every body movement in wonder. They were also incredibly friendly and it was smiles all round.
Along the peaceful roads in rural areas I started to encounter one or two dog restaurants, which I had been told about further south. It still did not prepare me for the shock of when I saw what I thought from a distance was a dog lying on the roadside asleep outside a house.
But as I cycled closer it came into better focus and I could see it hairs were being singed in preparation for someones dinner. Further on was a stall with a couple of dogs hanging up, giving whole new meaning to the term Rover dealer.
The overnight stop was in the major northern city of Haiphong, Vietnams third major city and an important industrial centre and port. There were plenty of French style wide boulevards, but it was still very wet and raining. I managed to get some rather wet and muddy clothes dry cleaned, before continuing the next day from Haiphongs ferry harbour. The transfer to Cat Ba Island required a couple of transfers on rusty iron barges.
These ferries were crammed with locals making the same journey, although it did not take long to escape everyone as we took another boat onwards. This was a very pleasant way to travel.
On unloading the bikes from the boat onto the island a pump fell off one of the boats and sank into the ocean. Remarkable one of the local boys plunged in after it and dived down to scoop it up from the seabed.
Cat Ba is the largest island in Halong Bay, where over 3,000 islands rise up from the emerald water of the Gulf of Tonkin. It ranks as one of the natural marvels of Vietnam. Tiny islands of limestone have beaches and coastline shaped by the erosion of water and wind over the years.
It did not take me long to get a puncture though. After some reparations I was able to take in the breathtaking scenery of steep, lush evergreen forests backed in the distance by clear seawater. I encountered hardly any vehicles and only few people in remote villages in the hilly middle of the island. At the base of the hills are freshwater swamp forests. Most people earn a living from fishing the ocean here and small-scale tourism.
A few sandy beaches are tucked away amidst rocky cliffs. Most of the islands rainwater flows into caves and follows underground streams to the sea. The waters off its coast are rich in species of fish and coral reef. Evidence from dug up human remains suggests that humans lived here 6-7,000 years ago.
Cat Ba Island was only connected to electricity from the mainland in 1998. Although, it is clear that development is really starting to take off now with hotels shooting up and the waterfront of the main town, Hong Gai, becoming increasingly commercialised.
My hotel felt like they had just completed the building work two hours ago. But it had noisy generators, which are prone to regularly conk out. I was in darkness and without hot water for most of the evening, but there was nothing I could do. Still it just about retains enough charm, for now, to warrant comparison with a Mediterranean island. It is being discovered though.
The next morning a boat was waiting to take us on a tour of the islands in Halong Bay. It was disappointingly cold and my intention to swim in the water here in spectacular environs was now not too appealing. Instead from inside the boat incredible views could still be enjoyed over yet another fine meal and a few glasses of wine.
Ha Long translates as where the dragon descends into the sea. As a great dragon ran towards the sea its flailing tail gouged out the shapes and definition of crevasses and stumps. There have been reported sightings of a large mysterious creature under the sea, rather like the Lock Ness Monster.
The scenery was truly out of this world, everywhere you chose to look. Limestone rock islands shot up vertically out of the sea up to a couple of hundred meters high, each one different in shape. It all reminded me of the James Bond film, The Man With The golden Gun.
The caves and grottoes, steeped in history and mystery, also merited exploration. I always forget which way round stalactites and stalagmites are. One huge cavern was apparently used to store allied weapons during the Second World War. It had huge rocks shaped like wild animals and Buddhas. Quite a few caves have not yet opened to the public, although I am sure that will soon change.
Back on the mainland at Halong City, it was a days cycling north to reach Vietnams capital, Hanoi. On Highway One again it was rumbling, hooting trucks and clouds of dust and filth once more. I had the misfortune of another puncture and as I was walking along the edge of the road I was joined by four local lads who had clearly been out drinking the night before and were making fun of my plight in Vietnamese. I felt very uneasy before I came to a garage where I could shake them off and get my bike fixed for a few Dong.
On the way to Hanoi we stopped for lunch at a disabled childrens orphanage, run by Save the Children. A basic lunch was served up by the children themselves at a reasonable cost and there was also the opportunity to purchase things which they had made themselves. There is always someone worse off than yourself, I though. But what they were doing here seemed to be an excellent in a meaningful and profitable way.
Hanoi means the City in the Bend of the River and it sprawls along the banks of the Red River. The red River delta was the cradle of Vietnamese civilisation in 939 AD when the Viets shook off a thousand years of Chinese domination and expanded southwards.
The Red River is spanned by two massive bridges, which were inevitably bombed heavily during the American War. One bridge is for motor vehicles and the other for everything else. Everything else is quite a lot as I discovered as I joined the surging tide of bikes and pedestrians for a stunning and spectacular entrance into the Vietnamese capital.
It was Saturday afternoon, but the traffic on the main thoroughfares was a predictably congested and chaotic scrum. After fighting a way through the free-for-all of vehicles, I began to take in some of the sights of Hanoi. Having cycled such a long way, I was similarly determined not to be wiped out within sight of the finishing line by a dirty truck, or even a moped.
Hanoi is an impressive and beautiful city, worthy of the term capital. It has been called the Paris of the Orient, which is understandable as there is plenty of (good) French influence on its street layout and building design. You could even throw in the food as well. Hanoi seemed to have a more reserved and respectful air than the hurried brashness of Saigon. It was not at all what I had imagined, which was drab and dreary communist austerity.
Instead Hanoi offered enlightenment in the form of its magnificently regal lakes and elegant pagodas. The boulevards were mostly tree-lined. People were playing badminton in the parks.
Right in the middle of the city is the Hoan Kiem Lake, a place of wonderful calm stillness and tranquillity.
It is also known as the Lake of the Restored Sword, because of a tortoise who once grabbed a sword from a fifteenth century Emperor, which had been given to him from heaven to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. The sword was restored to its divine powers. I think the Vietnamese could have done with a fair bit of the swords divine intervention in a number of subsequent wars, but it never emerged again.
In the middle of the lake is the Tortoise Tower, topped with a red star and seen as an emblem of Hanoi. On another island in the lake is the Jade Mountain Temple founded in the eighteenth century, which connects to the shore via a delightful red wooden bridge. The watery sunset through a thin mist over the lake was magical, almost spiritual even.
Hanoi is also lively too, in the right places. In the late afternoon I wandered around the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, where bustling food markets were spewing out exotically addictive aromas and sights to stimulate the senses. The commercial quarter of Hanoi has emerged over a thousand years.
Each street in Hanois Old Quarter was named after what was being sold along it e.g. Silk Street. It involved what I loved doing exploring the maze of back streets and submerging myself into the local life. Strolling leisurely around the streets of Hanoi was much more appealing than doing so around the more frenetic and dangerous streets of Saigon.
The competing alternatives to relieve me of some of my thousands of dong notes were limitless. From Chinese lamp shades and copper pipes to herbal medicine and charcoal. From gravestones to straw rope, from leather belts to Buddhist statues - each little street seemed to have its own speciality. In a way it was like one giant sprawling Vietnamese department store spilling from one street to the next. It was hard to know where to start, or even stop, to look.
Time was becoming meaningless, but I had an appointment in the evening to go to the Water Puppet Theatre nearby. A bit more refined than Punch and Judy by the seaside this originated with poor Vietnamese farmers who foresaw a way to make a living. Despite being over 1,000 years old, this ancient art was virtually unheard of outside the country until a few decades ago. Performances used to be staged in flooded paddy fields with water-resistant fig tree wood.
Puppet production and performance supports plenty of jobs in very poor countryside areas. It is quite a skilful art operating the decorative puppets and getting the timing right to music being played. People stand behind a bamboo screen and the necessary operational skills have long been hereditary secrets. I could never properly work out quite was going on, but admired the skills on display. Although, the people sitting at the front looked as if they got a bit wet.
The next morning I could not resist the temptation to jump on the back of a motorbike and join the army of locals whizzing around the citys streets. It seemed to have a thrilling and adventurous appeal as the way to travel, and would make a very pleasant change from having to do all the pedal work with my own legs. So holding on tightly off we revved. I loved the sensation of the wind in my face, as I became an onlooker through Hanois streets. We passed around another impressive lake and a couple of Pagodas.
Then I set off to see Ho Chi Minh (the Bringer of Light) himself, which might sound a bit odd as he died in 1969. In fact this is possible because, in the same way as Lenin and Stalin before him, he still receives visitorsin the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. A long queue seemed to have formed way outside the official entrance as I wandered over to join it. However, I got turned away because I was wearing shorts, which the Bringer of Light might have taken offence at.
Ho Chi Minh was only one of 50 names different aliases taken by him. In his formative years he travelled surprisingly widely and could speak a number of different languages. Dying in 1969, he never lived to see the reunification of Vietnam in 1976. Ho Chi Minh was affectionately referred to as Uncle Ho by his admirers and the communist party have been reasonably successful in attempting to preserve his image. He is still revered by many.
Although I heard that his hands are still manicured and his face regularly balmed. He expressed strong wishes to be cremated but here he was on display like a stuffed animal.
Having been turned away without reaching the door, I ventured into to the Ho Chi Minh Museum next door. It seems you cannot go more than twenty metres in Hanoi without something or other being named after the great man. The museum was mostly full of state propaganda, which, even though I could not translate any of the Vietnamese language, I understood all too clearly what was being said.
After this I decided to go back to university where I could further my knowledge. The Temple of Literature, set in a shady retreat, is Vietnams first university. The Temple of Literature, which sounds esteemed enough, was built in 1070. This was four years after the Normans invaded us, giving a rough indication of which parts of the world were civilised and which parts were not at that time. It has been beautifully restored.
The Temple of Literature contains some well-preserved Vietnamese architecture. It is pleasant enough to stroll through its courtyards and gardens. In one courtyard I find myself walking straight into the middle of an Vietnamese school outing. Typically for schoolchildren in this country they are all immaculately dressed in white.
For some strange reason I was provoking a loud fit of giggling and excitement so I smiled back. Then two shy schoolgirls came over and very politely asked if I would please pose for a photo with them next to me. It was hard to turn them down.
But after doing this, a few more schoolgirls developed the confidence to ask for the same and I found myself posing for another three or four photos. I was being treated like some famous sport or film star. You Number One. Was all they could say to me in English. In the end I had to walk away from the excited crowd, rather bemused at all the attention generated.
In the afternoon I decided to spend some time just sitting by the lake taking everything in. Two girls came and sat next to me. They correctly guessed where I was from, which was reasonably impressive as I usually get Australia or Germany stated as the countries, which I am a citizen of. I dont take to either terribly kindly. Would I help them to practise their English? I was popular today it seemed. The conversation was typical.
What name mister? Where from?
No wife? No children? Why no wife?!
We want speak with you to make better English
Maybee later then mister? Maybee later.
Another guy came up from the other side and asked me to come and play pool with him so he also could practise English. It was the second request of that nature I had received today. I was now beginning to attract a sizeable proportion of Hanois youth population to where I was sitting as word quickly spread that I might be giving out free English lessons. They were throwing themselves at me, which was becoming too much for me to handle so I made some very polite excuses and left.
Everywhere people seemed to be constantly working day and night, whether it is leading cattle around, repairing some vehicle or other, or trying to sell something. Vietnam has a huge amount of ground to make up and is still run by communists, but they seem to heading in the right direction. It is hard to think of a country, where the people, however skinny and frail they might appear, are harder, tougher, more stubborn and single-minded (ok maybe France!), or more determined than they are here in Vietnam.
The next morning I made my way to Hanoi international airport for my flight to Kuala Lumpar. Remarkably for what is supposedly a very poor, backward developing country this airport is shining example of modern efficiency and comfort. It comfortably puts quite a few other airports I have had experience of to shame. This is not uncommon now in Asia.
I had a few hours to kill in Kuala Lumpar and set off to wander around Chinatown, a blinding array of exotic food store smells, neon lights and counterfeit goods every angle you turned. I dined out on the street and had some excellent street Chinese food. I saw the magnificent Presidential Palace and a lit up square. I visited a majestic Chinese temple, which was stunningly ornate and had some wonderful view of the city skyline.
I went to see the world tallest building, the Petronas Twin Towers. They were almost too tall to properly fit in a photo I had to keep walking back and back to do them justice. They were incredibly dazzling and majestic lit up against the steamy night sky.
However amazing and impressive all this might be, it was Vietnam which had undoubtedly left the enduring impression on me.