Mind blowing Vietnam

Hanoi – 28th to 30th October 2004

“This is a mindfuck”, I think as I stare at the motorcycle labouring along next to our car. “We have scarcely left the airport and here, on the highway, is a 110cc motorcycle stacked with three huge, pink pigs”. Three horizontal shelves, attached to the rear of the slight driver’s seat, stack up into a pork pyramid to support the animals. The pigs themselves, wrapped in wire netting, stare out unperturbed at the traffic stream as if this is just another regular day in the life of an Asian swine.

For me however, this is my first visit to Vietnam, and it certainly does not qualify as an everyday experience. It is a country unlike any other country I have visited, and the unbridled energy of the place hits you as soon as you set foot outside the airport.

Hooters blare, trucks rumble, lights flash, and thousands upon thousands of motorcycles tumult past as we approach Hanoi. I foresee a flurry of accidents, fender-benders, at least a fatality or two, but none happens. And that is the rub, the weirdness of this place where Oriental and Indian history rushes headlong into a shared culture.

“Balanced chaos” or some similar dichotomy (contradiction in terms) probably describes the atmosphere best. Imagine a million hornets humming around a hive, and you’ll have some idea of Hanoi’s rush hour. The traffic is like an endless, choreographed action sequence of close calls, near misses and split-second decisions. But there are no accidents. Despite honking and gesticulating, the stops and starts, there are no mishaps.

Push-bike, cyclos, motorcycles, cars and pedestrians weave in and out amongst each other amidst the stunning French architecture, characterising the northern capital of Vietnam. “One beep; I’m right behind you. Two beeps; I’m coming through. Three beeps; now I’m getting a bit irritated”. This is how Ahn, our guide from Destination Asia, translates the incessant ‘Hooterese’. He also comes up with a précised version of Vietnamese history as we head for the Safitel Metropole, a sublime hotel set within the heart of old Hanoi.

In present-day Hanoi, being a tourist is all about trust. To cross the roads, you have to centre your chakra before you serenely step into the demented traffic stream. Walk slowly, yet purposefully into the rush and marvel at how it divides and flows around you until you reach the safety of the opposite side. When you order an item at a local street café from a beautiful girl who speaks no English, you have to trust that it is indeed chicken. And when your cyclo driver pedals you into the delightful decay of the Old Quarter, you have to trust you will find your way back to the hotel.

Also, forget about the one-sided portrayals of Viet Nam as per a hundred Hollywood movies. It is time to re-train your senses, get them ready for the unexpected. Savour the tastes of tantalising ton won or frog steamed in a clay pot with garlic and ginger. Revel in the willowy curves, angular faces and coal-dark eyes of people so beautiful you’re tempted to touch their lustrous skin just to make sure they’re real. And from every house, shop, hotel and street corner this continuous and delicious siren song of sights, sounds, tastes and smells will surreptitiously tempt you deeper and deeper into the wonderful world that is Viet Nam.

So how would one spend a day or two in Hanoi? Easy enough, as there are a whole list of cultural must-do’s. Add these to your list: a visit to the Ho Chi Min mausoleum and his spartan home; wander amidst the Confuscian glory of the Temple of Learning and try to assimilate a smidgen of the many ages of Viet Nam history; marvel at the tranquillity of the One-Pillar Pagoda; and be sure to visit the Lang Thruong Water Puppet Theatre, a traditional performance art portraying a slice of life scenes from local culture.

No visit to Hanoi is complete without a visit to the Old Quarter. Here cobblers, ceramicists, tailors, ironmongers, cooks and all manner of craftspeople go about their daily business. In many cases the tools and methods they use are the same as those their grandfathers’, or maybe even generations before that, utilised. Perpetual motion, incessant stimulation, intercultural connectivity, down-loading along every synapse into the central nervous system, into the brain, into the soul.

And when you decide it is time to chill out, book yourself in for a traditional Vietnamese massage at one of a slew of holistic health centres. Chances are you won’t understand a word your masseuse says, so just lie back and let her hands do the talking. A combination of manipulation, deep-muscle massage and pressure point stimulation will leave you relaxed and ready for your next flight.

Da Nang – 30th to 31st October 2004

From the hubbub of Hanoi, we fly to Da Nang, once the headquarters of American operations in Viet Nam. It is a short drive through to Hoi An, where we’re booked into a hotel right on the edge of the enigmatic Old Town. Sprawled along the banks of the … Thu Bon River, this historic village has recently been declared a World Heritage site.

After 2 days in Hanoi, the tranquil village streets and slow pace of life offer a refreshing change. Lose yourself (and a handful of dollars) as you navigate the narrow alleys lined with tea houses, lantern shops and some of the most famous tailors in Viet Nam. Despite its “tourist hot spot” status, Hoy An is a shopping Mecca and a combination of affordable prices, good quality and slick sales talk will soon have you waving your dong around. An exquisite silk shirt costs as little as $6, while embroidered handbags start from $2.

One of the best ways to experience Hoy An is from a traditional rowing boat. These archetypal Indochine craft (known locally as sampans), line the riverbank, with an assortment of black- and gold toothed sailors clamouring for your attention. I hook up with a gleeful old scarecrow of a man, who promises to show me the world and more for 15 000 Duong (approximately $1).

While I sit cross-legged in the prow, he chatters away while working the boat up-river. We pass sampans, only slightly bigger than a kayak, where fisher families live with only a rolled reed mat to protect them from the elements. Taxi boats, piled with black bicycles, baskets crammed with chickens and a posse of passengers tuk-tuk-tuk along the brown river.

The attraction of Hoy An is very much its leisurely pace of life and, once you’ve shopped, been to the temples and craft shops, and seen the Japanese Bridge, your mission should be to do as little as possible. Adventure options await those in search of an adrenaline fix, however, with various beach resorts offering activities such as parasailing, wet-biking, aqua sports and boat trips to the nearby Cham Islands.

Ho Chi Min City (previously Saigon) – 31st October to 2 November 2004

Our time in Hoi An is soon at an end, with Ho Chi Min City looming large on our agenda. Previously known as Saigon, this is Viet Nam’s largest city by far. And with more than 8 million people and a plethora of major industries, it is also the country’s busiest metropolis. The fact that there are 3 million plus motorcycles humming along the streets, you feel as if you’ve stirred up a hornets nest when you buzz into the rush hour traffic of Ho Chi Min City.

If Hanoi is to Viet Nam what Durban is to South Africa, Ho Chi Min City is unarguably the country’s Johannesburg. Even though the people are still friendly and warm, they go about their business with a sense of purpose. Business cards are a must in this amazing metropolis, and the first thing you do when introduced to someone is to exchange business cards.

We are based at the Majestic Hotel, overlooking the industrialised sweep of the sluggish Saigon River. Up to just after the Viet Nam war (when a north Vietnamese tank burst through the gates at the Re-unification Palace), the city was known as Saigon. It was only in 1976 that the name was changed; but most locals still prefer Saigon, although people from the north and central regions use Ho Chi Min City.

A day or two gives one more than enough time to visit the various tourist spots in and around the city. The HCMC and War museums offer a disturbing glimpse of American atrocities during the war years, while the Palace of Re-unification gives additional historical insight. For a more hands-on experience of the life and times of the VC, a visit to the Cu Chi area is a must.

The area, a VC stronghold during the peak of the war, constitutes an extensive tunnel network used by guerrillas to fight the Americans. More than 200kms of underground crawl-space were used during daring attacks and tactical retreats during an extended period of allied bombing. Ground operations of the enemy were further slowed down by a series of ferociously vicious jungle traps, with anything from poisoned bamboo spikes to barbed swing-weights set along the forest footpaths.

Extensive use of defoliant and other chemicals in the area, combined with carpet bombing raids came to naught in the Cu Chi area. During the day, the villagers tended their fields, but when night fell, they would link up with the rebels in the north via the Ho Chi Min Trail system. Legendary fighters were born here, and many of these heroes are revered to this day by the people of Viet Nam.

In 6 days, we barely scraped the surface of this seductive country and its beautiful people. To the north lies the La La Lói ?? hill tribes and incredible trekking routes of the Sapa region. Cat Ba National Park and the breathtaking karst islands of Halong Bay await discovery. On the Mekong Delta, travellers may lose themselves amongst floating markets and thatched villages built on stilts. And then there are the people; 54 ethnic groups with a combined culture seaming through decade upon decade of a diverse and rich history. Always welcoming always beautiful and always smiling, they are the most precious attraction a country could wish for.

Captivating Cambodia

Of all the destinations within South-east Asia, Cambodia is probably the one you will find on any serious traveller’s hit list. The country is best (and often only!) known for the gargantuan temple complexes centred around Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. It is therefore not unusual to find travellers jetting into Siem Reap from Viet Nam for 2 to 3 days before continuing on to Thailand, Laor or Myanmar.

Our flight from Ho Chi Min City on Vietnam Airlines takes just 45 minutes before we touch down in Siem Reap, at first sight a rather unimpressive jumble of brash buildings surrounded by jade jungle on all sides.

If Siem Reap is unimpressive, it is only so as to lull you into a false sense of somnambulance. Drive beyond the straggly urban sprawl and get ready to be blown away. The main temple at Angkor Wat rises up from the steamy jungle like a vision from a scene from Planet of the Apes, all towering spires and tumbling rock walls. It’s not big, it’s not huge, it is absolutely humongously gargantuan.

Archeaologists estimate that approximately 1 million people lived here at the apex of the ancient Khmer empire. A veritable village, metropolis spread for many sq. km around the various temple complexes, shaping a city larger than any contemporary in Europe at that time. It was only during the 15th century that the Siam empire (today known as Thailand) conquered the area near Angkor, forcing the Khmer to move south and establish a new capital where Phnom Phen stands today.

King Sihanouk?? and his followers might have been forced to flee Angkor, but what they had left behind stands testimony to this day of their once mighty empire. Our first stop is at the Pro Tham complex, an overgrown temple dedicated to Buddha and famous from many of the scenes from Tomb Raider, which Angelina Jolie filmed here.

We follow Thuc, our guide from Destination Asia, into a fantasy world of carved rock and contorted tree roots, with our footsteps resonating with the footfalls of thousands of monks and worshippers who walked here for many centuries. Incense wafts from dark corridors where headless statues stand guard, and once or twice we glimpse the blood-orange robes of monks hurrying along amidst the shadows. Time seems poised in a precarious equilibrium where rock and tree and humanity cross over the ages, and I feel a sense of helplessness in trying to somehow capture this on film and describe it in words.

An hour (or a few?) flit by in the blink of an eye while I wander amidst the breathtaking spectacle that is Ta Phrom, and then we set off to catch the sun setting behind the spires of Angkor Wat. While races from right around the globe stream past me, I try to somehow capture the end of an extraordinary day in this otherworldly setting.

My task is made simpler by the arrival of Phremm, a young Buddhist monk swathed in robes of vivid orange. We start chatting and he soon agrees to pose for a few photographs. With his serious face, round glasses and shaven head, he looks a little like a young Ghandi as he perches on the age-old moat wall. Later that evening, Phremm and three of his colleagues arrive at the hotel to collect a CD of the photos I promised him, and we sit and chat for an hour while I show them images from my travels around the world.

As spectacular as Angkor Wat is at sunset, the best time to experience the temple’s innate spirituality is at dawn. Which means a 04h30 wake-up call and a torch-lit walk into the ruins itself. It is so worthwhile though and I guarantee you won’t miss your bed for one second. Hundreds of people amass within the 500km² grounds of Angkor, but a perceptible hush descends upon the gathering when the sun tints the eastern horizon in amber hues. Twenty minutes later, it ascends like a ball of fire, hovering for a short while above the jungle haze before firing up the sky.

Although Angkor Wat may be Cambodia’s flagship temple, many other await your discovery. Within Angkor Thom (or Big City) you will find both Prean Khan and the incredible Bayon, rated by many as the highlight of any visit to Siem Reap. Then there is also the arresting pink marble of Bantaey Srei Temple, approximately an hour away, and a host of other, lesser known sites.

Just in case you’re wondering, Cambodia offers a host of pleasures beyond the scope of its undeniably awesome temples. A drive out to Tonle Sap, South East Asia’s largest freshwater lake, gives you the opportunity to explore the fishing communities stretching along the shoreline here. Two floating villages, one Cambodian and one Vietnamese, migrate with the retreating waters of this lake as it recedes during the dry season.

The Vietnamese, who stayed behind when their country’s soldiers departed after 10 years of fighting against the Khmer, remained and have to a large extent been assimilated into the local community. They have however retained their cultural identity, and the smells, sounds and sights of their village transport you to the Mekong Delta. Everything floats, from schools and general stores and restaurants to a Catholic Church and a crocodile farm. Kids paddle by in plastic buckets and pigs grunt contentedly in sties bobbing on the gentle swell of this amazing inland lake.

Around 250km up-river, life is lived at a very different pace in Phnom Phen, the frenetic capital of Cambodia. One’s first impressions are of a hard-nosed and unapologetically materialist city trying to rise above the social problems so often plaguing a developing nation.

Like with Saigon, the city serves as the primary driving force to the nation’s economy, with a burgeoning garment manufacturing segment exporting goods all over the world.

Break through the people’s big city defences, however, and you will immediately tap into the gentle and welcoming nature resonating within all Cambodians. It is this innate spirituality that stands at odds with the many atrocities committed here during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. There are stark reminders to his reign of terror everywhere, from the chilling hallways of S–21 to the tragic largesse of the Killing Fields unfolding approximately 1½ hours from the city.

It is therefore no wonder that both of the afore-mentioned places feature high on most visitors to Phnom Phen’s ‘To-Do List’. Our first stop is the sublime Royal Palace, an immaculate architectural conception in the Buddhist building style rising above the leafy avenues of the city’s riverfront. With views across the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers, this must rate as the world’s most arresting Royal residence. Beds of yellow chrysanthemums, perfectly manicured bonzais and kabuki-styled shrub surround the breathtaking palace, banquet hall and the residence of King Sinamuhafi and his father, former King Sihanouk. Lush gardens, dotted with stupas (to keep the ashes of former Kings and Royal), stretch beyond the palace grounds to the Silver Pagoda, where the power and glory of the Khmer history shines forth from a seminal collection of artefacts spanning 1000’s of years.

A more recent history of Cambodia, and an altogether more chilling one, awaits you within the bare rooms and subdued corridors of the Tuol Sleng Jail. Universally known as S-21 (for Security Office 21), this is where the brutal and feared Pol Pot regime incarcerated, tortured and murdered thousands of people during a reign of terror lasting from 17 April 1975 to the end of the 1990’s.

Under a ‘plan of unprecedented ultra-communist social engineering’, an estimated million or more Cambodians died while the utter fabric of their society unravelled. Money was abolished, intellectuals and their children were exterminated and the general populace were driven from the cities to form ill-equipped and imminently doomed agricultural communes. For more than 2 decades, social decay and military offensives against Cambodia by Viet Nam, saw the Khmer people reach one of the lowest points in their long and illustrious history.

But this is a resilient people and even more than 20 years of utterly unspeakable terror could not extinguish their easy smiles and innate kindness. All you have to do to experience this is to wander through the Russian Market, a buoyantly bright and gratifyingly fragrant pot-pourri of spices, earrings, knock-off Levi’s and pirate DVD’s, and you will understand why the Khmer nation remains one of Planet Earth’s greatest civilisations.