Thursday 21st May

The flight from Singapore to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, HCMC) took just 2 hours. We were picked up by our Wendy Wu tour director Mien and ventured into the traffic to get to our hotel in central Saigon, the Lan Lan2. There are 21 on our tour, all Aussies except for us. There are 8 million people in Saigon and most of them are riding a motorbike at any given time!  What an amazing sight and what an adventure crossing the road. You choose a lull in the traffic and walk straight across and they flow around you!   

We went to a market and were accosted by everyone trying to sell us clothes and souvenirs. The sales girls grab you and won't let go.  In the evening we had Vietnamese food: very nice and light. All of our meals are included on this trip so we will be getting plenty of good food.

Friday 22nd May

First we visited the Presidential Palace and heard all about the Vietnam War. Between 1954 when the French departed and 1975 there was war in Vietnam. It was between the Communists in the North under Ho Chi Minh, and the South, supported by USA (and Australia and New Zealand). Soldiers and guerrillas from the North infiltrated the South and were hunted out by the Americans.  There were great atrocities and 3 million lives were lost. We call it the Vietnam War, but here they call it the American War in Vietnam. The Americans departed in 1973 and the war ended in 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks burst through the fence surrounding the Presidential Palace (or Reunification Palace). Today Vietnam is a unified communist country and has made great progress and is thriving.  Many now ask 'was the war worth it?'

Next we visited the Post Office and the Catholic Cathedral, both from French colonial days. We then went to Chinatown and saw the temple there.  There are 1 million Chinese in Saigon. Next we had lunch at a monstrous buffet restaurant. The food so far on this trip has been just great. Then it was on to a wholesale market. Wow. So much stuff!  

After this we visited the War Remnants Museum (previously called the War Crimes Museum). It documents graphically the atrocities that were committed against the Vietnamese, mainly by the Americans.

On our way to dinner in the evening there was a thunderstorm. Miraculously all the motorbike riders suddenly ponchos on!  Then the power went off across the whole city.  It was turned off because with all the exposed power lines it becomes dangerous.  We had our dinner by candlelight!  Later we went back to our local market and bought some clothes. (Genuine copies)!

Saturday 23rd May

We travelled 2 hours south of Saigon to the Mekong River. This area is the fruit bowl of Vietnam, and is a major rice and fish farming area. It is very flat and wet with rivers, canals and rice paddies everywhere. We went on a boat ride on the river and saw fish farms, boats removing sand and gravel, and many different industries on and along the river.  We stopped to see how they make coconut lollies and honey products, and tasted a range of tropical fruits.  This was accompanied by traditional Vietnamese singing. We then went on a sampan ride and saw the local people living out their lives in the swampy marshes.


After a nice lunch in a local restaurant (including a whole elephant’s ear fish from the Mekong) we braved the traffic and returned to Saigon. In the evening we went to the market and, once again, really enjoyed the rapport with the locals.  There was another major thunderstorm as we went to dinner at our fancy restaurant. We are eating a lot as all meals are provided, but fortunately, the food is really good and quite light so we are not feeling overfull.


Sunday 24th May

In 1945 Vietnam became independent from the French but there was war as the French tried to regain control.  Tunnels began to be built in Cu Chi to protect the local fighters. In 1954 the country divided into North (communist under Ho Chi Minh) and the South (mainly catholic).  Many moved from south to north as they wanted a better life. They often had two families, one in the north and one in the south!  During the war North Vietnam Army fighters came down the Ho Chi Minh trail through the mountains and were supported by local guerrillas, the Vietcong (Vietnam communists) in fighting the Americans. The Vietcong in Cu Chi lived in the tunnels and expanded them till there were over 200 km of tunnels over 3 levels. (There were tunnels like this all over Vietnam). Vietcong included children and had very basic weapons- made of bamboo, traps, and recycled American weapons. They became heroes when they killed Americans or blew up tanks. Only the locals knew how to get into the tunnels.  Sometimes they were in there for 100 days. The Americans completely destroyed the vegetation and killed countless numbers of civilians above ground, but they couldn't defeat the guerrillas.

In 1973 the Americans pulled out and the north won the war in 1975, creating a unified socialist state.  The tunnels were no longer needed and became a tourist attraction. We saw many aspects of life in the tunnels including weapon making, traps, shoe and uniform making and kitchens. The tunnels themselves are dark, narrow and damp. Not a nice place to live!
Next we went to Cao Dai temple to observe the midday service.  The temple is very ornate and the service was solemn. The Cao Dai religion is a mixture of Buddhist, Tao and Christian. It is about ancestor worship, but has more or less died out as so many adherents were lost in the war or left to go to other countries as boat people. There are few temples left now but the one we went to was big, set in an enormous complex.

On our way back to Saigon we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant and at a lacquer factory. Here they make beautiful hand painted, egg shell, or mother of pearl handcrafts. These are a specialty of Vietnam.

 Dinner was western style for a change and then we made some final purchases at the market.

We have really enjoyed Saigon.

Monday 25th May

We flew from Saigon to Danang in the central region of Viet Nam. Even though Danang is a city of 1 million it is much quieter than Saigon with normal numbers of motorbikes. After a western lunch we visited the Cham Museum. The Cham people lived in the central part of Vietnam between the 2nd and 14th centuries. There are still communities living in the central area.  We saw different Cham relics in the museum, although many of them, including temples, were destroyed during the war.

Next we visited Marble Mountain, just outside Danang. Marble from the mountain is
used to make all sorts of objects, statues and 'gods'. We climbed to the top of the mountain (in 31o heat) and saw temples, carved objects, caves and lovely views out to sea. The Vietcong lived in the caves and there were major battles there during the war, as there was an American air base nearby.



We then travelled to Hoi An, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and settled into our resort, the Van Loi Hotel. After dinner we had our first experience of Asia's hard beds. Hopefully we will get used to them!

Tuesday 26th May

We went on a walking tour through the town.  We saw the bustling markets, a temple, an old Chinese house, the Japanese Bridge and lots of shops and tailors.  We ordered some shoes and they will be ready tonight!

It is lovely interacting with the people in the markets and shops, but a little tiresome as they all use the same sales pitch.  "Please buy something. You will be very lucky as you are my first customer. Very cheap price for you. I have many colours.  What you want to buy?"  It was extremely hot and muggy so in the afternoon we relaxed by the pool.

Wednesday 27th May

Today we went on our first 'optional': a boat ride up the river to see a ceramic pottery village that has been there since the 16th Century. It was fascinating seeing how people live on and beside the river. There were fish farms, duck farms, houses, shops and industries all the way. Much more primitive and basic compared to most places. It was the same at the pottery village.  They used very simple techniques to produce a range of ceramic items. One of the specialties they made were small animal whistles.


Back in Hoi An we went back to the market and bought some beautiful handcrafts. The girls in the shop said we were hard bargainers!  We then recovered from the heat by having a rest and a swim. Dinner, for the first time on the trip, was at the hotel.

Thursday 28th May

We travelled north through Danang, over Cloudy Pass to Hue. On the way we saw China Beach which the Americans used for recreation, Monkey Mountain, Red Beach where the Americans first landed in Vietnam, a leper colony, the beautiful fishing village of Lang Co, and then on to Hue City on the Perfume River.

 Red Beach                                                             Leper colony                                                                 Lang Co

Hue was the capital of Vietnam between 1802 and 1945.  During this period there were a series of Kings ruling over the country.  We visited the Imperial Palace where they lived. It is modeled on the palace in Beijing and includes a Forbidden City in which the Kings lived (with their Queen, concubines and eunuchs). Many of the buildings were destroyed during the French and American wars, and during the communist cultural revolution. The palace is now a World Heritage site and many of the buildings are being restored.

                              Imperial Palace, Hue

After this we attended a cooking school and learnt how to make fried pancakes and spring rolls. Kat
hy sang 'Hine' while her pancake was cooking which the group appreciated. We are enjoying the Vietnamese cuisine and have come away with a couple of useful recipes for the future. We didn't eat the food we made in the cooking school but the pancakes and spring rolls were on the menu for our dinner and were exactly as we made them.

Friday 29th May

In the morning we visited the oldest pagoda in Hue. In 1963 a buddhist monk from here burnt himself to death protesting against the government's policies against Buddhism.  Next we went for a cruise on the Perfume River that flows through Hue and then visited the tomb of the 4th King of the recent dynasty, Tu Duc. He had 300 concubines but no children. His tomb was set in a magnificent garden with lots of lakes and was his summer house up till he died!

Then it was off to the airport for our flight to Hanoi. On arrival we were transferred to our hotel in the centre of the city, close to the Old Quarter. We went for a walk downtown and found it much less pleasant than the other cities we have visited. The traffic is a great flow of motorbikes with occasional other vehicles, but in Hanoi it is very difficult to get across the road. Also, in the markets they don't accost you (perhaps because we were the only non-Asians there)!

Saturday 30th May

We drove west in a bus to Halong Bay, the 'jewel in the crown of Vietnam'. Along the way we stopped to see a rice paddy. The landowners have only a few square metres of land that is theirs, and work cooperatively to care for the crop.  In some parts of Viet Nam they get two crops per year, in other parts three.  They put the rice out to dry on the side of the road.

It took 3 and a half hours in the bus to get to Halong Bay but it was worth it. Halong Bay is a World Heritage site and you can certainly see why!  There are 2000 limestone islands of all shapes and sizes, and countless tourist boats. We bashed into two boats getting away from the wharf but were soon out among the islands and the stunning views. There were all sorts of boats and an ever-changing vista of islands and beautiful scenes. Just gorgeous! As well we had a lovely seafood lunch, the best food we have had so far in Vietnam. We returned to Ha Long and only rammed one boat in getting to the jetty.

Then it was back onto the crazy roads for our return to Hanoi.

The rules of the road seem to be:

 -          always pass what is ahead of you regardless of what traffic is on the other side of the road

-          assume they will get out of the way if you are bigger than them

-          motorbikes don't count because they are small

-          use both sides of the road and go as fast as you can

-          motorbikes can be used to carry anything. We saw parents plus 2 children and bags; 2 pigs; a day’s harvest of rice; construction materials; 30 or 40 ducks etc.

-          push in and hope others will give way

-          toot your horn and blink your lights to make others get out of the way. The louder the toot the closer to an accident you are!

-          if you want to break into the flow of traffic or turn across it you just go, especially if you are big. Cars give way to buses and trucks, and motorbikes give way to cars.

 If you aren't aggressive on the road you won't get where you want to go.

Back in Hanoi it is such a contrast with all other parts of Vietnam we have visited. They had 21 years under communism when westerners were not tolerated and it still shows. They don't speak English, are rude, won't offer help and you get the feeling that you are an intruder. Quite different to the southern and central regions.

Sunday 31st May

We went on a tour of Hanoi. First we queued with countless thousands to visit Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum. It was quite a rigmarole: no cameras, no hats, no talking. The great man looked very dead!  He was the first communist leader of Vietnam, declaring the country independent of the French in 1954, and leading the north during the war. We also saw the Presidential Palace and the houses where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked. He died in 1969 in his simple 'stilt house'. The devotion to him, especially in the north is quite amazing.

Next we saw the single pagoda, that is the symbol of Hanoi. Then it was on to a Confucian temple that was built 1000 years ago and was the first Vietnamese university. Here we heard some lovely music played on the unique instruments of this country.

 Lunch was really western: ribs, pizza and ice cream on the shore of Hanoi's beautiful lakes. In the afternoon we went downtown to observe the traffic, shops and markets. What a flow of people!  We then went to Hanoi's famous water puppets. In the show the water puppets depicted various aspects of Vietnamese life. More food in the evening, this time at an award- winning restaurant.

Monday 1st June   

After a couple of hours downtown for last minute shopping we had a pho (noodle soup) lunch then headed for the airport.

 So what are the enduring memories of our stay in Vietnam?

 -          the lovely, friendly people, especially in the central and southern regions.

-          always feeling safe, aided by our excellent tour guide, Mien.

-          good shopping if you bargain well.

-          motorbikes everywhere carrying up to 5 people and all sorts of luggage.

-          the amazing flow of traffic with countless motorbikes, wild bus drivers, honking horns and chaos that results in everyone getting where they want to go safely.

-          a communist country that doesn't seem communist at all. Everyone is happily going about their business trying to make a living as best they can.

-          amazing sights, especially in Halong Bay and in our cruises on the inland rivers.

                                           The defining image of Viet Nam: 5 on a motorbike!

-          the lovely Vietnamese food. Even though we stopped for 3 big meals a day we were able to enjoy the cuisine and not get overfull because the food was light and nutritious.


-          gaining an insight into how people live in rural   areas where fishing or growing of crops (especially rice) dominates life.

-          gaining an insight into the history of Vietnam, especially when they gained independence from the French and then experienced the atrocities of the American war.

-          recognizing that much of what we heard at the time about the war on Vietnam was biased in favour of the Americans. We now understand the war from both the northern and southern Vietnam perspectives.

It has certainly been a pleasure and a privilege to visit this country and we would recommend a trip to Vietnam to anyone.

   Our tour Guide, Mien.

And our tour group: all Aussies, except for us.

Click here to see the video we made of our trip through Vietnam.


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