Arriving into Hanoi, nothing quite prepares your senses for the bombardment of sights, smells and sounds.
From the powerful odour of Durian fruit being transported in someone’s luggage – to the activity and movement of mopeds swerving around you as you cross the road – to the multitude of street vendors selling hot food or spare bike parts, low to the ground on every pavement you walk. This is a vibrant, bustling and alive environment, that requires you to be on your toes and thinking every step of the way.
“This is a vibrant, bustling and alive environment, that requires you to be on your toes and thinking every step of the way.”
The Maison d’Hanoi Boutique hotel was a welcome sight to rest a weary traveller. It was like a peaceful sanctuary, with a stylish Christmas tree in the foyer and beautiful French decor, I could feel Vietnam is really growing in terms of tourism. This was the starting point for meeting up with my G Adventures tour group for an 18 day trip experiencing some of the highlights of Vietnam and Cambodia.
I met two fellow Brits who had just arrived as part of the group and we ventured out into the city. The French colonised Vietnam in the 1800’s and made their impact on the country which carries on today in the country’s infrastructure, the plantations of pepper, tree, rubber and coffee and the architecture. It was still a suprise to see French style buildings and a huge lake surrounded by trees in the centre of Hanoi. Nestled on the side of the lake is a Vietnamese temple which we explored. It was so different to anything I had ever seen.
I saw a lady carrying smoking incense sticks and placing them on a small rocky outcrop which had a memorial for the ancestors. Ancestor worship and remembrance is very important throughout the country. Stepping through a rich red and black wooden doorway I saw a large altar- like table with food placed on it and flanked on both sides by wooden horses.
We carried on wandering around the lake and saw several Vietnamese girls posing in long flowing dresses for photos on the lake side. They had just graduated and this was a tradition they followed. We found the oldest ice cream parlour in town, which was delicious and full of hip and trendy young Vietnamese resting on their mopeds as they licked their vanilla cones. We followed this up with something that is done very well in Vietnam – coffee, sitting by the Opera House and drinking in this new experience.
The evening was our first proper meeting with everyone on the tour and our tour group leader – Erin, from Australia. She was an excellent guide who knew the area very well, she loves Asia and did everything in her capacity to ensure we got to see and do everything we possibly could in the time we had. We had a great mix of nationalities in our group from countries including Norway, Australia, France, Germany, US and Congo, but the key thing was everyone was up for an adventure and open to meeting new people, which was great.
Top highlights of Vietnam included an overnight boat stay and kayak at Halong Bay, a World Heritage site with hundreds of forested islands rising out of the sea, drinking delicious egg coffee – a speciality of Hanoi, clinging on the back of a motorbike for a whirlwind trip around Hue, enjoying the beautiful crafts and multi-coloured lanterns of Hoi An, learning how to cook delicious Vietnamese food and travelling on the Mekong river and discovering orchids, friendly honey bees and a pet boa constrictor which I held!
I discovered Vietnam is one of five countries left in the world that are still communist. The influence of this is seen more strongly in the North which is still quite supportive of communist ideals.
Travelling south to Ho Chi Minh, named after their original communist leader, things change. This is a city full of big name brands and sky scrapers. There is a popular coffee culture and image, status and consumerism are all the rage.
It is here I discovered more about the Vietnam war through visiting the museum dedicated to this and also the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were an underground network of hiding places for the Viet Kong. The museum highlights the complete horror of war, with photographs from the battlefield taken by journalists. The silence of hundreds of visitors absorbing the reality of the images was powerful as I walked around. The legacy of America is not a good one, and this side of the story is told very strongly.
Here is a short poem I wrote as I walked around those haunting images:
“Mud and blood and bombs and boots,
Decimation, defoliation, dehydration
Defamation of the human body,
However, as I continued on my journey we heard from a guide who was Vietnamese and worked for the American’s during the war and he told the other side of the story – the deadliness of the Viet Kong, the re-training brainwashing camps he experienced for many years and the discrimination he still faces today in finding employment.
“I came away seeing that no one side is right or just”
I came away seeing that no one side is right or just, that the problem has its roots in the colonisation by foreign powers, that Governments have several agendas that are not always noble and how terrible humans can be to each other when they perceive someone else as an enemy.