Of Disco Rickshaws and Simplistic Reputations: Vietnam’s Southern Treasures
1, 2, 3 – Good MOoooorniiiing, Viet-naaaaam! So many times did we hear this on our latest project, so many smiles and good natured jostling as our fellow travellers filled their lungs to whole heartedly proclaim these famous words in a country surprisingly still mainly defined by one war and a UK automotive TV program.
But we needn’t remind you, well travelled reader, that there is so much more to this long strip of land east of Cambodia and Laos, bordering China in the north. Vietnam has been around a lot longer than most other countries, probably longer than the one you’re living in (yes, we do have such an international audience!), with its first formation and declaration of independence from China having taken place in AD 938. That’s when the Romans were still blissfully unaware that their Eastern Empire might be crumbling away and gone in about 500 years time.
More than a millennium of retaining, fighting for, losing and re-gaining independence from various aggressors has made Vietnam a country rich in culture, history and spirit, so we joined a Stray Asia group and filmed the entire 1625km journey up the “Ascending Dragon” from Ho Chi Minh City (former Saigon) to Hanoi.
We started off in the city most well known amongst you young Apocalypse Now* educated crowd – as Martin Sheen’s character says in his opening lines: “Saigon…. shit, I’m still only in Saigon”. We certainly didn’t feel that way. Re-named Ho Chi Minh City in honour of Vietnam’s communist revolutionary leader, prime minister and president, Vietnam’s largest city boasts beautiful tree lined boulevards, impressive colonial style mansions, one of the best war museums in South East Asia and the Reunification Palace, previous home and workplace of South Vietnam’s president during the Vietnam War, which could seamlessly double as a Stanley Kubrick film set.
After dinner we enjoyed some of HCMC’s famous nightlife along Bui Vien road, a rather raucous collection of backpacker hotels, restaurants and bars that spill out over the road providing cheap local beer, nibbles, little plastic chairs and the occasional table to a great mix of locals and tourists, that have to be quickly moved out of sight when the police get bored and drive down the road to make sure ‘no illegal pavement seating’ is being provided. Whilst the chairs and tables move quietly, the customers have their fun complaining.
Don’t worry though, the experience that usually takes place about 5 times each night allows for priceless bonding with other beer lovers, and in the meanwhile flattened cardboard boxes are provided to sit on until the chairs come back out.
Our first stop was beautiful Da Lat, surrounded by lakes and rolling hills covered with pine forests and hydrangea, rose, coffee, cabbage, strawberry and avocado plantations. Its temperate climate, French style architecture and scientific research centres for biotechnology and nuclear physics made Da Lat our least expected stop, but nevertheless one of our favourites.
Ever heard of the Crazy House? And we’re not talking coo coo’s nests here. Imagine you let a 5 year old design their dream house – ladders, tiny walkways over the rooftops, a tree at its core and animals everywhere. Then you found a country in which planning permission would not crush those dreams of realisation. Da Lat’s Hang Nga guest house is this madness incarnate. We can’t even start to describe it, so you’re going to have to climb around it yourself.
Having never been canyoning before, we set off on our next Da Lat adventure to be captured: a treck through the hills until we arrived at the Datania waterfall where the action started. After thorough training (abseiling down a nearby rock) and brief by our fantastic support team Loc and Lee, we got the cameras going and filmed one of the most fun parts of our entire trip: abseiling down huge waterfalls, sliding down river rapids and trekking through the jungle.
Joined by fun-loving, travel-mad duo James and Lindsey (check out their blog!), the Rat & Dragon team took a leap or three of faith and several gulps of crystal clear mountain water, capturing every moment in the gorgeous afternoon sunlight. James and Lindsey were absolutely invaluable members of our on screen talent and action shot after action shot made production one of the most energetic to date.
After leaving Da Lat’s street markets, pastries and dramatic cloud formations behind the next day, we camped out at a secret hideout near Buon Ma Thout, staying in a traditional M’nong Longhouse on the banks of Lak Lake. Beautiful scenery, a quiet stroll through the local village, an impromptu game of Jianzi with the local kids and a boat ride through the sunset formed our most serene stop off, followed as antidote by a good old party in the local restaurant with a huge group of Easy Riders.
Oh, and not to mention the elephant (during the day – he failed to be invited to the party as it was collectively agreed that buying rounds would become prohibitively expensive, even in Vietnam).
A quick overnight’s stop off in seaside resort Qui Nhon (the highlight of which was a mixed fruit smoothie purchased in the middle of a 5 lane roundabout) saw us heading to one of the places we were most looking forward to on this trip – UNESCO World Heritage town Hoi An. And this little town is popular for a very solid reason.
Hoi An is stunningly beautiful. Even the fact most shops in the old quarter sell (sometimes very tasteful!) tourist tat doesn’t detract from the uniquely indigenous and foreign influenced architecture of this exceptionally well-preserved 15th century trading port. Small streets are lined with canary yellow painted 2 story buildings, and just the right amount of dilapidation makes every wall’s texture different and magical. Three times a day, the old quarter is strictly pedestrianised, but hiring a motorbike allows you to zip all around the town at other times, as well as head to one of the most beautiful beaches we had the privilege of filming.
An exhilarating, 10 minute northbound ride through breathtaking, water buffalo filled rice paddies, An Bang beach has a few restaurants/bars on it, and that’s it. After paying 5000 dong to an overly dramatic car park/dust patch attendant lady who burst out laughing as we played along with her ‘I can’t afford to feed by kids’ life story (100% mimed of course), we walked past circular fishing boats along the beach to the last bar, run by an enthusiastic Spaniard with a half shaved head – one of the many ex pats who have made Hoi An and Hanoi their home, switching cities for the best times of year.
Sunshine on our skins, and rushing into the clear ocean with our on-screen team Matilde and Cille proved to be the most indulgent shoot hour so far. Half way through, a whole herd of goats joined us, hustled along by their owner who couldn’t for the life of him understand why someone should be drinking in the sun whilst lying across his herding track, i.e. the beach. After unfortunately having to consume a prop Pina Colada due to our strong ethical convictions of not wasting food or drink, we headed back to the rice paddies for some hands-on animal action. Water buffalos were in our viewfinders and noses this time, and boy were they cool about being on camera.
Our final topic to cover was what Hoi An is famous for, apart from its architecture. If you have ever dreamed of owning your very own, tailor made, bright purple with orchid print lining three piece bell bottom suit, Hoi An is your new best friend. From the serious to the utterly ridiculous, Hoi An’s tailors will create anything your heart desires. Bright red matching jacket, trousers, waistcoat, socks, shirt and tie? All with Sesame Street’s Elmo embroidered? We have seen it and have photographic proof.
Leaving the charms of Hoi An behind (you can easily spend a week and a fortune exploring the town, its shops and its surrounding historical and cultural landmarks) was no easy feat, but we were consoled in the knowledge to be heading to the city at the geographical centre of this amazing country, and would find ourselves only a few kilometres from the notorious DMZ, the de-militarised zone between South and North Vietnam.
We know you are loving this country already. We also know that squeezing 2 weeks and an entire fascinating place into one blog post is a rather foolhardy endeavour. We also know that to fully enjoy the rest of our journey you will have to go pee at some point, or get yourself a pot noodle, or a stiff drink. Or all three. For this reason, and this reason only, we interrupt our account at this point, to venture further north to the seat of Viet-style communism, in part 2 of our Vietnam Adventure.
*On a side note: Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam. The film may be set during the Vietnam War, but is actually an interpretation of Joseph Konrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, a novel set in colonial Congo, the main theme of which deals with the perception of what and who is civilised, and what and who is not. It’s a great book, if you like that sort of thing, and if not, read the synopsis here. And watch Apocalypse Now again in a new light.