Vietnam, 2005

It’s easy to get the wrong impression of Vietnam. Switch on the TV and you find films showing vast areas of land being napalmed. Switch on the radio and you hear Paul Hardcastle. Even in books you see self-immolating monks.

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, Hanoi, Vietnam

But the place is not all about the Vietnam War (or the American war as they call it). In fact there was little sign of it in the parts that I saw. Insead you see a beautiful, enthusiastic country that’s full of contradictions. You see successful small businesses, you learn that health-care and education is paid-for yet you know the government is officially Communist.

Modern Vietnam really started with Ho Chi Minh. His mausileam was near the top of the list of places to visit on our first full day on the tour. Perhaps as you’d expect, it’s not very much like the rest of Hanoi. While the other streets are busy, crowded and chaotic — I was reminded of Kathmandu — with motor-bikes zipping in and out of pedestrians and other traffic in a suicidal manner, Ho Chi Minh’s resting place is expansive, clean and quiet.

At the centre of Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake which is a tranquil contrast to the buzzing mopeds heard through the rest of the city. Both locals and tourists hang out around here, and only a few locals try to sell you things! Why, when they see you writing post-cards or reading the Lonely Planet guide, do they try to sell you exactly the same thing? Is one copy of a travel guide not sufficient?

Trip in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Our time in Hanoi quickly comes to an end. We leave on a (delayed) train to Ha Long City, the disembarkation point for many trips around Ha Long Bay.

Our hotel overlooks the bay, so we are distressed the next morning when we open the curtains and can’t see anything past the road that separates us from the water. The fog is amazingly dense and I nearly decide not to head down for breakfast. What’s the point?

The fog lifts slightly over breakfast but I’m still not keen to set off.

Boys navigate down the Perfumed River, Hué, Vietnam

We board the boat almost in silence. Not only is the fog deadening the sound from the nearby town, but we’re all subdued imagining a tragically disappointing day. We were, however, wrong. While the boat sets off, the sun rises and starts to burn away the fog.

The first few glances of the limestone pillars that make up the UN-designated Heritage Site are atmospherically partially shrowded in mist. As the day progresses, the sky gets clearer and we see the bay in its full glory. We’re all glad we got up at the crack of dawn.

It’s mainly a day of travelling next as we first head back to Hanoi and them take the night train down to Hué. Hué is one of the highlights of the trip, featuring a lazy trip down the Perfume River (piloted somewhat worryingly by these boys!) and the Old Citadel. You can find plenty more about these famous sighs in guide-books so I won’t go into any detail here.

Sleeping Market trader, Hué, Vietnam

Local markets are always fascinating places, and the one in Hué is no exception. It’s possible to buy almost anything, but we mostly get offered T-shirts and baseball caps all, no doubt, at bargain prices. I am drawn to the fruit stalls. As a photographer I like the bright colours, shapes and textures. But this time I see a person, a sleeping stall-holder. I think it’s an amusing scene and decide to take a picture. Our sleeper dozes away but a nearby trader notices, smiles at me and laughs so loudly that my model stirs from sleep. She first glances at the source of the noise and then, following the now pointing finger, at me. Unconcerned, her hat returns over her face and she falls back asleep.

It’s seemingly a rushed trip as we quickly head further south to Hoi An, perhaps the most charming and pretty of the towns we stayed in on the whole trip.

My Son, Vietnam

The next day the tour group splits into two. An optional exchursion to see My Lai, the site of a war attrocity, is very popular and sees everyone but me head there and ignore My Son. My Son is a temple complex built by the same people who constructed Ankor Wat. It’s much smaller and less intact but since I wasn’t heading out to Cambodia after the Vietnam section of the tour I didn’t want to miss it.

The one thing I wish I could have missed was the rain. Everyone got drenched. While it was quite amusing to see the contrast between the anchient temples and the bright, modern umbrella’s, I would have preferred dry conditions. And so did my camera which stopped working for a worryingly long time shortly after leaving.

Continuing our journey south we stop in Nha Trang. From here we head up into the hills. Our destination is a crocodile farm and an impressive waterfall. Luckily we find something even more interesting en route.

Hilltribe Children, Vietnam

We stop near a “Hilltribe” village where a number of local kids are congregating. They obviously don’t see too many tourists around these parts as they are both curious and nervous of us. In this remote area they even speak their own language, making the (very) little Vietnamese I’ve learned no use here.

The tour finished in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is still called by many people. (One explaination I heard was that the central part was still officially called Saigon but not everyone agreed.) Arguably this would have been an easier start to the trip than Hanoi. It has a much more Western feel to it and even has a few familiar franchised fast-food outlets, which I only then realised I’d not seen anywhere else.

Inside Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

With the Western sheen it also takes an undesirable trait that you find in many new cities such as Abu Dhabi and Charlotte: no character. There’s nothing wrong with the place as such but, compared with the rest of Vietnam, it’s pretty dull. I did, however, like some of the decorations in Notre Dame Cathedral. The pictured neon-lit Mary statues left me speechless.

One other place of note is the War Museum. It is one of the few places that we saw that has any reference to the American War. Back home in Britain we normally see the US side of the story so it was fascinating to see it from another perspective.

It’s a shame I that I wasn’t so keen on Saigon as it gave a weak ending to an otherwise fascinating trip to South East Asia.