February / March 2010
After Uruguay and one week in Switzerland, I started my Vietnam trip in the Mekong Delta, in the very south of Vietnam. The Mekong flows into several tributaries from Tibet after 4,350 km into the South China Sea. Thanks to the alluvial sediments the soil is extremely fertile. This allows three rice harvests per year instead of the usual two. The delta alone can produce more rice than Vietnam consumes. The Vietnamese have covered the delta with innumerable irrigation systems and navigable canals, and so life takes place in and around the water. In the cities, the promenade is beautifully designed and is a popular meeting place, especially in the evenings.
The city of Chau Doc
A special experience was an early morning boat trip at sunrise to floating markets.
At the town of Can Tho
Island Phu Quoc
I traveled on to the island of Phu Quoc. This island offers everything that makes a tropical island: long, palm-fringed sandy beaches, crystal clear water and beautiful sunsets. Fortunately, the island has not yet been discovered by mass tourism. However, this will change in mid-2012 when the international airport opens, which can be served by all types of aircraft except the A380. For a traveler like me, this is a negative development that I have experienced in many places over the years. On the other hand, this development means more jobs and more prosperity for the people living there. Progress is unstoppable.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by most, is Vietnam’s economic center with modern buildings and millions of motorcycles. Everywhere and at any time of the day you can hear their rattling. For the Vietnamese, a motorcycle can replace a car, because on a motorcycle there is space for a family of 5 as well as large loads. Here you will find tranquil temples as well as roof-top bars in international luxury hotels and noodle soup kitchens. At night, a festive atmosphere prevailed in the city thanks to the lighting for the coming Chinese New Year. Ho Chi Minh’s bust with the five-pointed Vietnamese star is on display in the Reunification Palace.
The star is glued together with well visible, bright adhesive strips, as it would be acceptable with us for a children’s birthday. This small example shows that the Vietnamese are not perfectionists. In Saigon I learnt how to cross a Vietnamese road, even though motorcycles are always running through. You think it’s impossible, but it’s simple. With a lot of confidence you walk slowly into a small gap in the motorbike pack and keep moving while watching the oncoming bikes. The motorcycles anticipate the course of the pedestrians and drive past them. If you stop, you provoke accidents.
Tunnel of the Viet Cong
A special sight are the tunnels of the Viet Cong, which crossed the whole country and reached into the suburbs of Saigon. The tunnels served the Viet Cong fighters as retreats during battles, but also as communication and supply channels, dormitories, food and weapons stores and hospitals. Even for the slim Vietnamese, they were narrowly designed. Life in the tunnels was difficult. The fighters had to share the tunnels with ants, poisonous centipedes and malaria infected mosquitoes. Most of the time the fighters spent the day in the tunnels and came to the surface overnight to cultivate the harvest or engage in combat. To protect the tunnels from the Americans, the entrances were extremely narrow and well camouflaged. In addition, there were many primitive traps that reached their goal anyway. The Americans could never take the tunnels. They were simply too long and too complex.
Tunnel at Cu Chi
After this excursion into history I traveled on to the beach capital of Vietnam, Nha Trang. The beach here is wide and long. Not far from the city there are islands with extensive coral reefs and many exotic fish: A snorkeling paradise! As everywhere in Vietnam, this city has developed from a sleepy village to a tourist destination with international hotel chains. There was even a bar with its own micro-brewery with six different kinds of beer on the beach. There is no question where my favorite place of stay was in Nha Trang.
From the 13th to the 14th of February Vietnam celebrated the new year, based on the lunar calendar. Countless people marveled at the New Year’s fireworks from the beach and celebrated deep into the new morning. It was a special experience, also because of the countless motorcycles that gathered at the beach promenade. The Vietnamese are very superstitious and so there are countless rules for this festival. One says that the first house visitor in the new year determines about luck or misfortune for the whole year. In order to avoid surprises, the homeowner therefore leaves the house himself before the end of the old year to be on the safe side, only to enter the house first in the new year.
The Long Son Pagoda
Visit to a monastery near Na Trang
I continued my trip and visited Hoi An. Hoi An is a small town, whose old town fortunately was not damaged during the Vietnam War and has therefore largely been preserved in its original state. In 1999 it was even awarded the UNESCO World Heritage status. Unfortunately, this is not only a blessing, as since then, either souvenir shops, galleries, hotels or tailor shops have moved into the houses. Some of the original inhabitants have sold their houses and no longer live in the old town. But if you rent a bike, after a few minutes you are in another world, between rice fields and temples and are quickly invited by the friendly Vietnamese to a round of rice liquor or beer.
The Marble Mountains
The old royal city of Hue was my next destination. Here I visited ruins and the partly restored royal palace. Thanks to the many parks, buildings and richly decorated archways one could imagine the life at the imperial court vividly. A few kilometers away from Hue, along the perfume river, there are the graves of the kings. These are spacious complexes with pagodas, temples, parks and lakes, which the kings planned and built during their lifetime.
The Tomb of the Vietnamese Emperor Khai Dinh
For many, visiting Halong Bay is the highlight of a Vietnam trip. I was also fascinated by this island landscape which stretches over 1,500 km² and includes 1,969 islands of limestone rock. I spent three days with a junk in the bay. After I could enjoy a sunset on the first evening, the next two days were foggy. It was a very special, mystical atmosphere. Pictures say more than a thousand words. Unfortunately more and more rubbish is drifting in the sea. The day will come when the Vietnamese will have to clean up the area in order to maintain the tourist potential of this area and to maintain the status of “UNESCO World Heritage Site”.
The Hang Sung Sot Cave
Afterwards I took the night train to the mountainous north of Vietnam. First I visited Sapa, a tourist mountain town, where members of the mountain people sell colorful, homemade goods. I wanted to go on a hike to mountain villages. I was recommended to go with two women to their village. I organized that and it started immediately. One had tied her one-month-old child to her back. It was a great hike with views of mountains and countless rice terraces. On the way we passed a village where I was led into a house. I was allowed to express my condolences on the coffin of a young mother with small children. One of my companions told me that she herself had lost a child at the age of one. The mortality rate in these mountain villages is high. After three hours of hiking we arrived in her village. It consists of a few wooden and bamboo houses, rice terraces, a few chickens, two dogs and a fishpond. In the hut high above the fire a few bacon rinds and skin from a pig’s head dangled and were smoked. If the chickens don’t have to be sold, there’s a chicken on the menu. It turned out that these women walk to Sapa and back twice a day for three hours to sell their goods. Probably very few tourists are aware of the effort these women put into selling their goods in the city. It’s a hard life. The acquaintance with these two women made me think. The discrepancy to our life could not be bigger.
The markets of Can Cau and Bac Ha
The next day I travelled on to Bac Ha, another mountain town near the Chinese border. Every Saturday, twenty kilometres from Bac Ha, there is a mountain people’s market in Can Cau. It is a photographer’s paradise. The selection of the photos for the travelogue was difficult. By the way, there are only women in the photos, because only they wear traditional costumes. On Sundays the market took place in Bac Ha itself. This market was bigger and included besides food and textiles also everyday objects, animals (buffalos, pigs, chickens, dogs and songbirds) and agricultural products like ploughs. While the women took care of the clothes, food and small farm animals, the ploughs, buffalos and songbirds were the domain of the men.
Hanoi is like Saigon infected by motorcycles. Only at night and early in the morning is it quieter when many people do their morning gymnastics at the lake in the middle of the city. Worth a visit was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where Uncle Ho is preserved in the same way as Lenin, Mao and Kim Il-Sung, although he modestly wanted his ashes scattered in the mountains, also to save farmland. The Fine Arts Museum showed many impressive Vietnamese works of art from all eras.
An exhibit of the Fine Arts Museum
A visit to the Water Doll Theater can be found on every Hanoi itinary. It is a kind of Kaspar theater in the water, which has been practiced since the 11th century BC in the flooded rice fields. The figures are moved by rods and wire mechanisms hidden in the murky water.
I got to know the Vietnamese as a curious, funny and friendly people. Their business acumen is well known. They use every conceivable opportunity to sell something. Even the management of Vietnam Airline wishes “a pleasant and profitable journey” in their magazine. After the Vietnamese reunification, this trait can fully unfold again. However, Vietnam still has a long way to go before it reaches international standards, for example in the quality of goods and services and in environmental issues.
For the Vietnamese, rules and regulations do not seem to be binding. Photo bans in museums or tombs are simply ignored. In Hanoi’s Fine Arts Museum photography was also forbidden. 😉 If a motorcyclist is stopped by the police, hit and run is committed.
Ho Chi Minh has reached reunification for the Vietnamese. Otherwise one must draw a negative balance. His economic concept created less wealth, also for the poor, than the capitalist system. His party, too, does not show the integrity and popularity he had wished for, otherwise Vietnam would not be in 120th place in the world corruption index, on a par with Kazakhstan and Ethiopia. By the way, Switzerland ranks fifth after New Zealand, Singapore, Denmark and Sweden.
Next I travelled to Western Australia.
This text is an automatic English translation from the German original by deepl.com