Of Bustling Communities and Buffalo Soldiers: Vietnam’s Northern Mysteries
We know you have missed us terribly. Like being forced to wait an entire week for your next fix of Breaking Bad/Whale Wars/My Little Pony you are probably wondering what you should do with yourself, your life and indeed who you are in this terrible vacuum. But fret not, for we shall jump straight into the second part of our Vietnam Adventure. If you are new to our blog, we recommend the first part first, but it is entirely up to you – the world is your oyster. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin.
Vietnam’s most famous division during what is locally referred to as the American War between 1954 and 1975 (there have been quite a few other conflicts with other nations the Vietnamese have managed to dissuade from taking their land and resources) saw the stand off of two seemingly opposing ideologies that were already in global fisticuffs. Communist North Vietnam and capitalist/colonialist South Vietnam, with heavy interference from the United States, fought one of the most controversial wars in modern history.
We were about to cross the former border between South and North, marked by the De-Militarised Zone (DMZ), a strip of land 5km north and south of the Ben Hai River at the geographical centre of the country designated in 1954 to be military-free. This was going to be without doubt the epicentre of all things Charlie vs. Captain America, and a humbling experience it certainly was.
Before we crossed into Vietnam’s northern territories however, we had the absolute pleasure of discovering some of the country’s most beautiful palace and temple complexes in the former imperial capital of Hue. Not to be mistaken for a tone of colour or a certain bumbling actor otherwise known as Mr Grant, Hue’s (pronounced H-oo-ey!) status as UNESCO World Heritage Site and long standing imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty made it a stop off you would not want to miss. You see, if you are a Nguyen, it would not do to have a simple castle. A 2km by 2km walled Imperial City was constructed in 1804, moat and all, filled with water from the Perfume River. Oh, and lawnmowers were so last year, so elephants were brought in to do the job (but strictly kept away from parties).
Walking around the half restored, half dilapidated remains of Hue’s Citadel was lovely despite the drizzle, and our guide explained all about the royal colours (yellow is the way to go) and where the emperor, his wife, his mother and his wife’s family lived. The emperor’s father was of course nowhere to be found, as regency was passed from father to son only upon the last emperor’s death. As the French put it, “The king is dead, long live the king!” How the elephants felt about this remains uncertain.
Much to our Rat’s delight, it was off to one of her favourite places (if not THE favourite place) – the rumbling, leaning, exhilarating seat of a motorbike. With only an afternoon to spare in Hue, we set off with the entire group on a thrilling bike mission through the city, its most famous landmarks and local secrets in surrounding rice fields and villages. Our on-screen team Denver and Vicki gave it their all, completely forgetting about the rain as we gleefully whizzed through tiny countryside paths dodging overhanging branches, over train lines (not dodging trains), around Hue’s bustling city centre and maze of old quarter next to the Citadel. Chauffeured by our very own trusty motorbike guides who patiently put up with our antics, we were entertained with snippets of information about their home town ranging from “this is the Thien Mu Pagoda, built in 1601” to “oooh, loooook!!! Wateeeer- buffalo. Tasty!”
The Hue-in-a-nutshell motorbike tour proved a great respite from travelling by bus, as did walking around the Vinh Moc tunnels the next day, which was however a rather more sombre affair. Located in the DMZ just north of the Ben Hai River formerly dividing North and South Vietnam, the three-level, nearly 2km long network of tunnels housed over 60 families who had previously lived in villages on the surface, that were being intensely bombed by US troops, who suspected the villagers of supplying food and armaments to the North Vietnamese army.
The tunnels, the presence of land mine clearing units still active today in large regions of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and a previous visit to the museum and grounds of the My Lai massacre brought home the terrors of war, and the long term effects violent conflict has on regions, people and human prosperity. The war having been so recent, and in living memory of many locals and overseas soldiers, it is moving, troubling and important to visit sites, museums and memorials, to learn first hand that what we read about in text books happened to real people, in real places, and should not be taken lightly or rationalised into statistics when deciding which political action is to be supported by our very own countries when faced with international conflict.
The complex stories behind the Vinh Moc tunnels and My Lai village are best experienced yourself by visiting both places. Note though that the My Lai village memorial screens one of the most sensationalist and insensitive ‘documentary’ films we have ever seen – this should however not distract you from appreciating the horrendous events suffered by the village (only one of many), that was massacred entirely by US troops. If you can’t visit in the near future, you can read more about Vinh Moc and My Lai online.
Considering the events that impacted this country so heavily in living history, Vietnamese people are incredibly open and willing to discuss with anyone (including US tourists) the effects the war has had. They also lack the bitterness and resentment you can sometimes find people feeling out of principle towards others. No “I hate the Japanese cause my granddaddy fought in the war” or “I won’t talk to you cause 300 years ago your ancestors tried to invade my country” here. Vietnamese people simply get on with their lives, neither heavily relying on and pandering to tourists nor resenting foreigners for ‘not being from these parts’.
Vietnam has a thriving national tourism industry (previously mentioned Da Lat is the country’s wedding capital), and our next stop was at a wonderful guesthouse at the shores of a beautiful lake, where international and local tourists mixed to enjoy the regions natural wonders together. The aptly named ‘Lake House’ near Dong Hoi was also a handy 1 hour drive from the spectacular Thien Duong (Paradise) Cave, one of the biggest limestone caves in the world.
The 31km long, 150m wide tunnel was only discovered relatively recently in 2005 by a local, who must have initially been worried he’d been licking too many frogs. Explored further by the British Cave Research Association (undoubtedly sampling frogs along the way) and opened to the public in 2010, the cave’s breathtaking stalactites, stalagmites and columns reach 100m into the ceiling above a 1km walkway that shepherds gawping tourists through the now tastefully lit cavern. The local contingent of gawping tourists got doubly lucky as they cornered us at the end of the 1km walkway and practically made us pose for family photos – with the entire extended family.
Relaxing from the experience over fantastic chicken wings ( from high-grade Vietnamese ‘walking’ chickens, a lot tastier, we were informed, than our bloated European ‘sitting’ chickens) at the Lake House, we clambered into our bamboo bunk beds and settled down to sleep amidst the jungle sounds which obviously proceeded to stop us from reaching anything close to sleep. It proved a magical experience nonetheless, as our group spent the hour before we did finally drift off trying to identify the different gnawing and scuffling noises in the framework of our hut.
A long drive was ahead of us – 400km along dusty, bumpy, windy roads in the middle of nowhere, without even the most modest of views to enjoy. Thankfully we finally got the DVD player to work and indulged ourselves with a mixture of Father Ted, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Without these creature comforts we may well have ended up eating one another, … hang on, let’s not get overdramatic. Considering the strain of travel and the fact a week ago we had been complete strangers, we were getting along incredibly well. It was undoubtedly all thanks to everyone’s great attitude, sense of humour and patience, as whilst the Stray Asia experience is a tour, it’s ethos attracts open minded tourees who are genuinely interested in the people and places around them.
We survived the 11-hour non-stop bus ride thanks to a good dose of fatalistic humour, to arrive at the outskirts of Ninh Bin, a city surrounded by dramatic karst mountains. Our hotel was 9 stories high, so we prepped kit in advance and ran straight from the bus all the way to the roof to catch the last rays of sunlight before it set, only to find that the view had been blocked by an enormous billboard advertising the hotel. We managed to film through the low railings underneath it before settling into our room for 5 minutes before dinner.
6am – it was another early morning, and whilst we missed exploring Ninh Bin, we were rushing for a reason, namely to get to a very important place before it closed at a handy 11am. Cuc Phuong National Park, apart from being the country’s largest nature reserve and one of the most important sited for biodiversity in Vietnam, also houses various conservation programs, including the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. Established in 1993 with help of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, the sanctuary provides shelter to over 100 animals, amongst them the critically endangered Grey-shanked Douc langur, Delacour’s langur, Golden-headed Langur, Tonkin Snub-nosed langur and Black Crested gibbon.
Never had we imagined such beautiful monkeys existed, and doubtlessly they thought the same of us. Unlike other monkey ‘encounters’, the sanctuary does not allow to get closer than 2m to the enclosures, however for the good reason that the animals they care for have been rescued from poachers and animal shows. The nearby turtle sanctuary did allow us to get close and personal without risking harm to the animals (unless you step on them), which we thoroughly enjoyed. The looking, not the stepping.
Thanks to our wonderful tour guides Shane, Tuan and driver Phan, who’s enthusiasm and invaluable support throughout production made our film possible, we were afterwards able to find our way out of a locally suggested ‘short cut’, without which we would still be in the jungle. The national park and sanctuaries are doing invaluable conservation work, so if you are in the region, you should swing by. Before 11am mind you, and not via the short cut.
Our second to last stop found us in the picturesque village of Mai Chao, where choosing the right bamboo stilt hut to stay in turned out to be key. On previous visits, one of our team had experienced a wonderful interactive home stay, which included cooking and eating together with their hosts, before bedding down in the same hut after enjoying the serene view across the rice paddies beyond. Our ‘home stay’ this time proved to be somewhat more commercially minded, if this equates to showing little interest and overcharging for everything. Nevertheless, our group enjoyed a wonderful bike ride and beer between (and later in the middle of) mountain framed rice paddies. In stitches and having sacrificed a couple of flip flops to the mud, we called it a day, had dinner, tucked in our mozzie nets and set off to Vietnam’s bustling capital the next morning.
In simple terms, Hanoi will blow your mind. Without ever having been, there is no way to comprehend the madness of motorbike traffic, the beauty of its half crumbling, patched and decorated buildings and the bustle of people who do everything, and we mean everything, on the street. We struggle to remember whether we have ever been in any other place to date that has given us this ease of insight into people’s lives, as you can’t help but trip over it at every corner. Mechanics, shops (all specializing in just one thing), cafes, youth clubs, athletic unions, bars, tailors, restaurants, hairdressers, beauticians, doctors – all run perfectly functioning businesses and services without having to be attached to an address, simply by setting up shop on the pavement.
Don’t belive us? Wanna see what it all looked like? Check out Saxon’s street-side haircut Place Cake:
The city that marked it’s 1000 year anniversary in October 2010 is interspersed with huge lakes, that offer respite from the bustle of the maze of old town streets crammed full with motorbikes, people and tiny plastic chairs to eat Pho Bo and drink cheap local Bia Hoi from. Hanoi’s streets offer unbeatable opportunities to enjoy Vietnam’s famously delicious food, nearly always cheaper and often better than what is served in flashy restaurants.
World Famous Ha Long bay is 4 hours drive west, but we recommend staying on a boat at least overnight, as offered day trips end up equating to 8 hours of sitting in a bumpy bus to enjoy 2 hours of often foggy boat trip, which could easily detract from enjoying an otherwise stunning natural wonder. Unless you’re into bumpy busses of course.
Ending our trip here was a little painful – not just for our backsides after 2 weeks on a bus, but because there is a whole other chapter to be written about the deep north of Vietnam, home to numerous hill tribe minorities, adventurous cliff face roads and some of the most stunning landscapes in the country. One of our team had already explored these extensively by motorbike (guess which one!), but this time it was good bye to the Stray bus, our newly found friends, and this incredible country. For now.