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Stall along the Mekong

We spent the morning in the Laos National Museum, the former French Governor’s mansion that was built in 1925. It was quite an entertaining mix of history, religion, and political propaganda. The downstairs rooms mainly focussed exhibits about the local landscape and geography. There were displays about dinosaur remains that they have found in Laos mixed in with statues from various different temples. Here though they were Hindu and not Buddhist statues which somehow seemed strangely out of place.

Upstairs they had a very small display about some of the local tribes in Laos. Traditional costumes were pinned up, there were some musical instruments and a bit of information about the lifestyles of the local people. Considering the variety of ethnic groups in Laos it was a very small display and I think we both walked away feeling we would have liked to know more.

The focus of the museum seemed to be the rest of the displays on the second floor. These were about the development of Laos from the turn of the twentieth century through the French occupation, the various different wars they have endured and up to the modern day. It was mainly a series of different photos showing soldiers in action and some of the political rhetoric of the day. Many had captions talking about the Imperialist US forces, which had both of us chuckling.

With time still to kill before our flight we camped out in the Scandinavian Bakery for a while for a spot of lunch. It had turned into a very warm day and with all the tables in the air con section taken we were left to sit it out under the shade of the umbrellas out front. For a while we were entertained by a very unhinged Italian guy who was pretending to speak on his mobile phone. He was talking total nonsense and which ever language he heard from the people walking into the bakery he mixed into what he was babbling to himself. The people from the bakery were giving him cautious glances, a mix of “he is mad” to “he better not disturb our customers”.

We slowly ambled back to our hotel taking in our last views of the Mekong River until we are in southern Vietnam. One of the buildings had a temperature display on the outside confirming that it was 34C, not surprising that we are finding it so hot. The hotel had arranged a taxi to the airport for us and we got there very early for our flight, so early that check in had not opened. We sat and waited in the new International Departures lounge, very modern and very different to the older domestic terminal. It has a traditional pagoda temple style roof.

Check in came and went and still with time to kill we went to find the Observation Deck which for some reason was closed. Shops provided a minor diversion with Stef adding another local music CD to his collection. We have not listened to it yet but I suspect it will join the ranks of never to be played again CD’s.

On the plane we chose where we wanted to stay in Hanoi, a city that sounds like it will be full of scams, certainly when you arrive. Lonely Planet warns about taxi’s trying to make you pay toll charges which are already included in the fare. There is also a big scam with hotels who have set themselves up with similar names to popular hotels. They are in cahoots with the taxi drivers who take you not where you want to go but to the “fake” hotels where they tell you the original building is full but this is their overflow hotel.

The first place the taxi stopped was obviously one of these scam hotels and we refused to be left there. He then headed into the depths of the old quarter, a bustling hive of human activity where at night you have no chance of getting your bearings or knowing if you have been conned. We were. The second place he stopped at sounded plausible as they gave the correct address, number of rooms, everything that would make you believe they were genuine. But they were full and took us to their second hotel. It was way out of the centre, and it took a while for me to work out where we were on our map. Asking the hotel was futile as they told us we were somewhere totally different to where we actually were.

Table-top fried fish in Hanoi

We got out of the taxi here and the taxi driver then started on his scam to try and get us to pay the toll road charges. Stef did not refuse to but kept on insisting that he would only pay the toll charges if he was given the ticket for the toll fare, which obviously the taxi driver did not have. He finally realised that we were not going to give him any extra money and disappeared. It was annoying though because we had chosen the company that Lonely Planet implied did not operate this scam so it shows how times are changing.

Now totally disorientated and wanting to just check in somewhere Stef checked the room which was fine. The building smelled slightly damp but the room was quite large with a reasonably comfortable bed. The bathroom was decidedly grotty but for $30 it would do for a night. The taxi and hotel scams combined with a quick whiz about parts of the old town did not create the best impressions of Hanoi for me and I was left with the feeling that we were in a dirty, dingy city full of people out to rip us off. I was wary about leaving our stuff in the hotel to go out for dinner but hunger won the day and off we toddled.

We asked at reception where we could go to eat as there were no suggestions in Lonely Planet near by. He pointed to a couple of corner stalls where a few locals were eating, squatted down on tiny plastic chairs and slurping away at a bowl of noodles. It was very atmospheric and local but I suspect guaranteed to give us both dodgy guts so we continued on to find somewhere else.

A bit further up the street were a few eateries and in the end we opted for Cha Ca La Vong which had a big sign outside saying it was a fish restaurant. Inside we were handed a laminated card in English which said “we only do one dish, fried fish, 70,000 dong per person”. A table was wheeled out of the back and set up for us with two chairs and within minutes food arrived. A small brazier was put on the table and on top of this was a large frying pan with fried fish and some vegetable bits in it. We were given small bowls of noodles, peanuts, fish sauce, spring onions and you put a bit of everything in your bowl, top it with fish and munch away. It was simple food but very tasty and certainly did the trick. They gave us a card from the restaurant which made us chuckle – it has three different locations but they proudly declare they have no branches!

Hanoi lottery ticket vendor
Beers overlooking the central lake

We woke early to the sounds of bustling activity in the streets below. Even though we have a glassed in balcony and have two sets of windows shut you can still hear the noise from the street. We had both slept well, although the room and the bed were definitely a little on the damp side, but we both agreed that this was not where we wanted to spend our time in Hanoi. Driving around yesterday we had passed another Lonely Planet listed hotel, the Galaxy Hotel, which is says is big with tour groups. It is more central than where we are, looks a little like an anonymous business hotel but is more the type of place where we want to stay.

When we checked out the staff were friendly and we did not get the hard sell to try and make us stay, which is what I had expected. A taxi took us to the Galaxy which turned out to be just a short distance away. Here we were met with a friendly smile and even though it was only just 9:00am, we were able to check into a room straight away. It was a total contrast to last nights affair and very welcome. We spent the morning planning out where we want to go and what we will see in our time in Vietnam. We did a total unpack, sent dirties to the laundry and pulled together another pack of stuff to send home as we do not think we will need thermals, hats and gloves for the rest of our stay in Asia and Africa.

It was quite late in the afternoon by the time we had done all we needed to and were ready to go out and explore. We ambled down from our hotel to Lake Hoan Kiem. It was our first introduction to Hanoi traffic which was quite an experience. There are few cars but the roads are chock solid full of scooters. There seem to be no rules of the road, traffic simply comes at you from all sides. The trick is to walk slowly as you cross any road or junction as it gives the people on the scooters time to see you and to decide how they are going to swerve around you to miss you.

It was a pretty hairy experience as just as you think you are clear a scooter comes from an unexpected direction. Trying to walk on the pavements is a no go. They are either full of overflow from the shops, people sitting and eating or they have been converted into a scooter park. You have no real choice but to walk on the road adding to the traffic chaos but being careful not to walk too close to the pavement which has a narrow open sewer running along side it.

We spent time hunting around trying to find a good camera shop to see if we could replace our lens that is full of water from its dunking in Laos. There are loads of camera shops in Hanoi but most sell slightly out of date point and click cameras and none have lenses for a digital SLR. We tried the five star hotels as well but still no joy. Not surprisingly Stef was getting a bit despondent and down hearted but was revived by a coffee stop by the lake. It was very strange sitting on a warm and sunny afternoon in an open air café surrounded by French colonial buildings watching the scooters whiz by.

From the lake we wandered up to the Kangaroo Café and booked a tour to Halong Bay for the weekend. We then decided that a night time view of the city was needed and headed to the City View café, the top floor of a building that looks a bit like a cruise ship that is on the north shore of the lake. We took up a pew outside and watched night descend. The darker it got the breezier it became and before long quite a stiff wind was blowing. It was a refreshing and cool end to what had been a sticky and hot day.

We decided to take a cyclo back to the hotel. It is basically a bike with a seat attached to the front like a rickshaw. The cyclos compete for space on the roads with the scooters and the few taxis and cars that make it into the old quarter. Everyone seems to have a sixth sense about what is coming and people pass by with literally inches to spare between them and the next mode of transport. I have yet to decide whether I think it is safer to walk or go by cyclo – it is certainly a close call between the two!

Bridge to Ngoc Son temple

Today we had planned to follow the walking tour of the Old Quarter in Lonely Planet. We started at the Ngoc Son Temple which is on a small lake at the northern end of the Hoan Kiem Lake. Walking to the temple we passed a smartly dressed lady burning piles of fake money and sheets of paper decorated with horses. These are offerings to the gods which hopefully will bring good fortune and will do so quickly.

The temple was small compared to others we have seen but it was colourful and ornate inside. In a room off to the side was a large model tortoise, allegedly found in the lake. Local legend has it that Emperor Ly Thai To was sent a magical sword by Heaven so that he could chase the Chinese out of Vietnam in the fifteenth century. After the war he came across a giant tortoise in the lake. The tortoise grabbed the sword and disappeared to the bottom of the lake, taking the sword back to Heaven. The lake was then renamed Hoan Kiem Lake which means Lake of the Restored Sword. A small pavilion towards the south of the lake is called Tortoise Tower.

We followed the walking tour up into the old town, past shop after shop selling shoes, all made for tiny Vietnamese feet. Off to the left was a small street market selling fruit, vegetables and general household wares. It felt like almost every other stall was one cooking and selling food. As I was just thinking to myself that the smells were overpowering and unpleasant but would make Stef feel hungry he popped up and said “smells good doesn’t it”. I suppose if you like the smell of cooking oil that has been well and truly used many times over frying slightly suspect bits of meat and vegetables then yes, it smelled good but it was not for me. The locals were quite happily squatting on low stalls and slurping away.

From here we joined back onto the Lonely Planet trail and wound round to P Hang Bac, one of the main streets in the old town. It was crammed full of small shops each with colourful displays outside but lots of western tourists ambling around and through. A small shop on the left was where people come to have memorial gravestones carved. They look like pieces of slate about thirty centimetres by twenty. What makes them unusual is that a picture of the deceased is carved onto the slate.

A detour up a side street took us to the Memorial House, which we both found a bit disappointing. The write up in Lonely Planet creates the impression that it will be a really interesting place to see how Chinese merchants used to live. The building has been beautifully restored but it is now just one big shop where they try to sell you paintings on rice paper, textiles, wooden boxes and all the other trappings of tourist souvenirs.

It was interesting to see the layout of the house though. Ironically, it had similarities to some of the houses we had seen in Victoria in Canada. Local taxes were levied on the width of houses at street level so they are all narrow but stretching back a long way. The front room was opened out onto the street and is where the merchant sold their wares. A small courtyard behind this provided light and ventilation. Beyond here was another room which led to a further courtyard which served as the kitchen. The roof tiles were all imprinted with a good luck motif.

Upstairs were the living and sleeping rooms of the family. The front room had very stately and impressive wooden furniture made in dark heavy wood that they called iron wood. A large table was flanked either side by a bench and against the wall a decorative sideboard was home to the house’s altar to the Ancestors, a central theme in all Vietnamese homes. On feast days and anniversaries the family all remember and offer prayers to their ancestors. The bedroom furniture was equally heavy with a solid wooden bed that looked incredibly uncomfortable to sleep on. Apparently though it is cooler to sleep on a hard wooden bed than a comfortable mattress, something that is no doubt quite important in the heat of summer.

We then gave up on walking around the rest of the old town and opted for a cyclo ride instead. It was a great way to get around and to see the different activities on the go. Each street was originally the home of merchants selling a particular type of commodity and to a large extent this distinction still holds true. We passed shops selling clothes, shoes, toys, Chinese style lanterns, bed and bath linen, tin boxes, bathroom cabinets and saw and smelled the herb and spice sellers. The cyclos wound around the narrow streets of the old town and this was definitely a great way to see it. It was a real profusion of exotic bits and pieces, a classic Asian cocktail.

Ye Olde Calligrapher

In the afternoon we took a taxi out to the Museum of Ethnology with the driver taking such a circuitous route that the fare was double what Lonely Planet said it should be. We had the same experience on the way home too. A French man who arrived at the museum at the same time as us loves and works in Hanoi and he confirmed that it is a frequent trick that the cabbies play on Westerners.

The museum was well worth a visit. It has extensive displays about the ethnic minorities in Vietnam, their ways of life, traditional costumes and culture. There was a large exhibit on the different types of pottery made in different regions of the country and how it had developed over time. Another display showed the technique for making the conical straw hats that you see all over the place. I had assumed that they were woven but no so. A conical frame is made and then wide straw leaves are stitched onto the frame with not a bit of weaving in sight.

In one of the upstairs galleries they had a large collection of wedding photos spanning almost one hundred years showing how the ceremonies had changed over time. It was a fascinating insight into the changing times in Vietnam but it also made me feel sad as well. The older photos were from a time when arranged marriages were still the norm. Weddings were simple ceremonies and at the end the bride was escorted to her husband’s house to become part of his family. Almost without exception the brides in these photos looked very unhappy and very apprehensive about what was in store for them.

As time passes, weddings started to take on a more Western feel with white dresses, flowers, cars and big celebrations. Somehow it seems odd to see Asian ladies dressed up in big meringue style wedding dresses. This though was not interesting as some of the photos from the early days of the communist regime. These all showed banners reminding the bride and groom and their assembled guests that the Party and the country were more important than the individual. Some of the pictures were from weddings taken during the war with bride and groom in their military uniforms.

Outside in the gardens are reconstructed houses typical to some of the ethnic minorities. The Cham house was a cluster of different buildings (storage, living, sleeping), all within a fenced in compound for one family. Another was an enormous long house from the Ede ethnic group, built from bamboo and raised off the ground on stilts. The stairs from the ground up to the level of the house were made from a tree trunk with large niches cut out. It was functional but not the easiest set of steps I have climbed. Inside the long house the floor was simply bamboo matting resting on bamboo poles. We were both waiting for it to cave in and give way but it did not. There was a large communal area for eating and then the rest of the forty metre long house was divided into smaller rooms for the families of each of the daughters and granddaughters of the extended family.

The Bahnar communal house was raised on a much higher platform, about four or five metres off the ground and in total from the ground was about twenty three metres in height. I wished there was someone who could explain why the house was so high because there were no separate floor levels inside. It was simply a rectangular pyramid shaped construction with just one open room inside. The Tay house, again on stilts and built from bamboo, the main room was in the centre of the house and round the edges were smaller areas, some with bamboo walls to give some privacy, for the sons, father, mother, daughter and newlywed couple.

The evening found us back in town at the Water Puppet Theatre, a typical North Vietnamese form of entertainment. A small orchestra were on one side of the stage and the rest is given over to a large pool of water, coloured green to hide the mechanisms for the puppets. The backdrop is a bamboo style house which hides the puppeteers from view. The puppets are made of a buoyant type of wood and are manoeuvred around on large poles with strings attached to some of their limbs for more animation. The puppeteers are themselves stood waist deep in the water for the duration of the show.

Lasting about an hour the show runs through different scenes from everyday village life and it is a riot of colour and laughs. The puppets, quite rough in design, are brightly painted and some breathe fire thanks to fireworks attached inside their mouths. A boy wanders across the rice paddies on the back of his water buffalo playing his flute, men are out fishing trying to catch very animated and golden fish. A fox chases ducks, lions and phoenixes dance, a student returns home after graduation and thanks his ancestors and boats race each other across the stage. It was great fun to watch and is a must if you ever visit Hanoi.

Today was one of those "necessary evil" days where we had boring stuff to do that took up most of the day leaving no time for sightseeing in its own right. We were still looking around to try and get a new lens for the camera and followed a recommendation from the hotel manager who is a keen photographer. We are not really sure if we did find the right shop and the one we did find did not have the type of lens Stef was after. They did though repair and clean cameras so we left our slightly soggy and fogged up lens with them to see what they could do. Ironically the lens was originally assembled in Vietnam so we hoped the repair route would work.

Needing cash we went to the ANZ bank which seemed to take forever. We still have left over currency from both China and Laos and tried to change it here with no success. Our next stop was the Post Office to send yet another parcel home where, after seeing us standing waiting for ten minutes they finally told us we needed to come back more than an hour later after one in the afternoon. We wandered on to Vietnam Airlines to check flight options down to Hue. There are three flights a day but on Monday there is only space on the one at six thirty in the morning, a bit too early. Tuesday’s lunchtime flight only has seats in business class, $20 extra.

Always time for a beer, a fresh Bia Ha Noi

We went to the café on the lake to consider options and decided to look into trains instead. A return trip to the Post Office was successful this time round but it took forty five minutes to send our parcel. As with China you turn up with what you want to send and they then find suitable packaging for you. That part of the process seemed to be quite quick. What took time was all the associated form filling, not helped as most of them were only in Vietnamese so we had to get translations as we went. Finally our bits and pieces were boxed up, wrapped in brown paper, labelled, customs cleared (subject to scanning) and ready to go.

From here we went out to the train station to find out about trains to Hue. As it is the run up to the Tet (New Year) Festival the trains are pretty busy and although we could go by train the only one with soft sleeper accommodation available leaves at three on Monday afternoon and arrives at four on Tuesday morning. It was certainly not ideal and much to Stef’s dismay, as he had got quite excited at the prospect of a Vietnamese train journey, we decided it would be easier, although more expensive to fly. Vietnam Airlines were quick and efficient and we soon walked out with Business Class tickets for the one hour flight on Tuesday lunchtime. It is a bit of a luxury but neither of us feel up to a long bus journey and we do not want a train that arrives so early in the morning. Compared to European prices though even our Business Class ticket is cheap costing about £70 for the two of us.

By this stage it was already late in the afternoon and we were both beyond the stage where we could drum up the enthusiasm for sightseeing. We tried to find one of the cinema’s listed in Lonely Planet but either we were in totally the wrong place or it no longer exists as we found the addresses either side of it but could find no trace of the cinema itself. We ambled up towards the Cathedral and stopped off for some lunch. Stef, already not a happy chap as we are not travelling by train, decided to get huffy because the café we went into was very definitely for Western tourists and was not a local place. We found yesterday that the affordable places that look hygienic enough for you to want to eat in them are so geared for tourists that you could be anywhere in the world, there is little Vietnamese food on the menu.

Later in the afternoon we went to retrieve our camera lens. It is now dry and demisted inside and sort of works if you focus it manually but it is a long way off being perfect. No doubt we will look again when we get to Ho Chi Minh City. Cyclos took us back to our hotel through what was the maddest traffic we have yet faced in Hanoi. It was as if the whole city was out on the streets. Our hotel is near a large traffic junction and with the volume of traffic trying to get through it had all just ground to a halt, despite the efforts of the local police to direct the traffic and keep it moving. Apparently it is the effect of more people coming into the city to make their final preparations for the Tet festival next weekend.

Entering Ha Long bay

We were up and out early today for our tour out to Halong Bay. As we walked through Hanoi just after 7:30am the town was still very quiet and just waking up. It is the first time we have seen shops closed and shuttered as people here seem to stay open late into the night. We made our way down to the Kangaroo Café where we ended up waiting until about 8:30 for our tour to leave. The cynic in me thinks that they only tell you to get there so early so that they have a chance to try and sell you breakfast before you go.

Our guide for the tour was a young chap called Hieu and he explained what we would be seeing over the next two days. In total there were eleven of us in our group and it was a good mix of people. There were three young Irish people, Vivien, David and Jason, who are also travelling for a year mainly in Asia, Australia and North America; a young French couple who kept themselves pretty much to themselves; Ann and Daphne, sixty year old British cousins travelling together for the first time; and two fortyish friends from Australia, Cheryl and Catherine who is doing voluntary work in Danang further south in Vietnam. It made for quite a convivial group.

The bus out to Halong Bay took about three hours. Once we were out of Hanoi proper there were signs in the countryside of the ever increasing population they have here (it has doubled in the last thirty years). On the outskirts of town large housing developments are going up with houses wedged up close to each other and not a lot of space in between. Hieu confirmed that it will mainly be poorer people who will be moved out here but that there are fast bus connections so it will be easy for them to get back into town.

Along the way many people were out busily working away in the fields. The area seems to be mainly used for growing rice and the fields spread out as far as you could see. Unlike in China and Laos the people working here had on waterproof waders for tramping through the muddy fields. They seemed to be taking seedlings from a small dense patch of green and spreading them out more thinly through the rice fields. It looks like boring and hard work as everything is done by hand with people bent over for what must be hours on end.

The only exceptions to the rice fields were odd splashes of colour where flowers were being grown. Bright yellows and reds brought a flashing contrast to the seemingly never ending green. The houses here surprised me by their size and their ornate style. All with balconies and painted in bright colours they looked as if they would be quite at home in a small Mediterranean village. At a few places we passed small graveyards on raised up patches in the middle of the rice fields. I decided not to spend long thinking about whether it was good to have rotting corpses so near to the main crop for the family.

Our route took us along the main motorways and at pretty much every junction motorcycle taxis were waiting to take people from the buses that stop along the way to their final destination. Once we were out of Hanoi the traffic thinned, but not so much people stopped using their horns every few seconds. It seems to be more a way of saying “I’m coming up behind you” than “get out of my way”. Whilst in town the rule of the road seems to be “go slowly and give way to anything bigger than you” the rules on the motorways seem to be less clear and Hieu confirmed that there is a high accident rate.

Most people who ride motorcycles do not like wearing helmets so accidents when they happen turn out to be nasty ones. The government are trying to change people’s mindsets to get them to wear helmets. Their tactic is to remind people that whilst helmets may stop the ladies looking beautiful while they are on their bike, apparently a main reason for not wanting to wear them, it is much better than being permanently disfigured due to an accident. The road was in pretty good condition and for most of the way also had two lanes so it was frustrating that a journey of less than two hundred kilometres took over three hours to complete. Because the traffic on the roads is so chaotic the speed limits are kept low so our average cruising speed was probably below fifty miles an hour.

At about the half way mark we pulled in for a pit stop and our first stage managed retail opportunity of the weekend. Our bus was one of several all full of tourists all on their way to Halong Bay. Hieu told us that the place where we have stopped was set up by the government to provide jobs for local people who have been affected by the Agent Orange chemicals dropped during the American war in Vietnam. It was very geared to tourists and there were clothes, textiles, bags, paintings, embroidery, pottery and jewellery on display and on sale. You could but anything from a traditional dress outfit to a large painting to decorate your home.

It was like a large warehouse full of tourists being pursued by people from the shop who were trying to encourage you to buy. There were signs everywhere saying that to protect their designs you could not take photographs but Stef sweet talked a lady into letting him take one photo. I think she was convinced he was going to buy an embroidered picture, which he had no intention of doing. I put a donation in one of the many conveniently placed collection boxes. There were few signs of people actually parting with cash but there were an awful lot of western tourists all with the same look on their face just wanting to move on.

Back on our bus we soon all started to feel a drop in temperature. The information for the tour advises you to bring sunscreen, hats, insect repellent and your swimming kit so we had come prepared for a warm sunny weekend. We soon realised that leaving our fleeces and socks behind in Hanoi was a bit of a mistake and that the cold, grey overcast weather we were seeing was not likely to change by the time we hit the coast. We were not alone in coming unprepared although I think we had the fewest layers out of everyone on our bus.

At Halong City the bus pulled up at a large hotel and we all tramped out for what was a very generous and tasty lunch. Inevitably here we saw all the same people who were at the shopping stop earlier. We headed down to the waterfront to board our boat which was an old fishing junk that has now been converted for tourism. It reminded me of the kettuvalam we had been on in Kerala in India although this was much larger and the accommodation was made of wood not bamboo.

With only a maximum of twelve in our group ours was one of the smaller boats in the harbour. Downstairs were the cabins and on top was the lounge/dining area and a small open area at the front where you could sit and enjoy the view. Our cabin was one of the ones at the front which meant we had a good nights sleep free from the diesel fumes smell from the engine. It was a small but comfy cabin with a bed, air con/heater and a bathroom with flushing toilet and a shower.

We were met by the crew with friendly smiles, warm towels to clean our hands and glasses of fresh juice and before long we were off, just one of many boats all leaving the harbour and heading in the same direction. Halong Bay is famous for the limestone karsts rising up from the sea, a similar sight to Yangshou in Southern China but much more spectacular due to its size. There are just under two thousand islands formed by the karsts in this area which has now been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This gives it protection from development which is now restricted to just a few islands. Most of the islands are uninhabited but they would be a rock climber’s paradise with sheer faces dropping down to the sea.

It is a hard sight to describe. Soon the other boats that had left the harbour at around the same time as ours had disappeared from view and we had the illusion that we were on our own sailing through this area. It is just full of limestone outcrops. Hieu confirmed that they had been created by natural erosion as the sea level used to be much higher than it is now. The only disappointment was that it was a grey and dreary day which zapped all light and colour away from the karsts. We did not complain for too long though as people who were here a little over a week ago could barely see anything at all the fog was so thick.

For about an hour or so the only other people we saw were local fishermen. They have moved away from their traditional bases living in caves on the islands and have now set up floating fish farms. They have a square shaped pontoon with the farm in the middle of the square. A small house is set up on one side of the pontoon where the fishing family live. Here they farm fish, prawns, crab and squid.

Our first stop, along with all the other boats, was at a network of three caves named by the French as Cave of Marvels. There is a reasonable climb up from the boat dock to the entrance before you reach the caves. The ceiling of the first caves looks like someone has come in and dug out the cave with a big ice cream scoop. It has a fresh water pool in it and the remnants of some stalactites and stalagmites, the columns themselves long falling foul of souvenir hunters. The second cave was much the same but the third cave was huge.

As you walk in you cannot help but see a very phallic looking piece of rock protruding from a large stalagmite in the middle of the cave. The artificial red lighting ensures that you cannot miss it as you go by. The cave itself stretches back a couple of hundred metres and it was cavernous. A paved walkway now trails around the cave and signs ask you not to stray off the path. It is a shame that it is so stage managed but from the number of tour groups ahead of us and behind us it is an understandable concession to safety, although it left you feeling you were on a tourist conveyor belt.

One section of the cave floor looked like an underground water tunnel had collapsed and caved in. Hieu confirmed that parts of the floor get flooded during the rainy season. He also pointed out to us various shapes and formation in the rocks around the cave, some of which you needed a good dose of imagination to make out. There was a tortoise, a couple kissing, and a woman praying to Buddha to name a few. These caves are where the fishermen who are now on the floating pontoons used to live. They not only provided them with shelter but also a source of fresh water. The official story is that they were moved out to protect the caves but I suspect it is more to do with the lucrative tourist business.

Thousands of tiny islands, Halong Bay

From the cave exit a viewing platform gave great vistas across the bay, and another retail opportunity. The path from here back to our boat was a raised boardwalk a few metres above the waterline and here too an enterprising chap was after tourist dong. He had a small boat lade with water, beer, soft drinks and snacks and was peddling his wares to the tourists on the boardwalk above.

More fresh towels and very juicy mandarins awaited us as we got back on board and set sail for our next stop. With conditions not being warm enough for a swim the alternative afternoon activity is a steep climb up one of the karsts to a small viewing pagoda at the top. Here, as we saw in China and Laos, the steps were pretty big and high, odd for a country that has such little people. It was a long climb up but certainly worth it for the views from the top. It must be an even more stunning sight on a clear day. Back down at sea level I crossed the small beach to dip by toe in the water and see if it was of swimming temperature. It certainly was not cold but it definitely was not warm enough to make me, or anyone else, want to go for a swim.

Back on board we cruised around for another hour or so until we ended up in a quiet bay, surrounded by karsts, where the crew moored up for the night. There were three or four other boats in the same bay but considering how many other tourist boats we had seen at the caves and island where we stopped we had a real sense of isolation and remoteness. We sat outside and chatted to the Irish Trio, Ann and Daphne while watching the night draw in, all trying to persuade each other and ourselves that it was a warm evening. The cold finally took its toll and we retreated into the comparative warmth of the lounge area.

Another generous meal was dished up in the evening and was washed down with slightly too much beer and wine. After dinner we started to play cards with Ann and Daphne but then abandoned our game to join up with the Irish guys to learn the game they were playing. It is called Twenty Five and suitably reinforces the reputation of Irish logic. What is in essence a simple trick taking game is made more complex by the ranking of the cards differing whether the suit being played is red or black. I am sure the alcohol fuddled our brains and made it seem more complex than it was but even so it was good fun and a great way to while away the evening.

I have tried below to explain the rules but I am sure there are variations and nuances that I have missed. Apparently it is a very popular game in the part of Ireland they come from, Galway, and normally up to nine people will play in each game. It sounds like it is a really popular local game and whole evenings are dedicated to playing with up to eighty one people playing in different games at the same venue in a night. Gambling on the side is not unheard of and in the run up to Christmas people play to win food and gift hampers as well.

The rules of Twenty Five, an Irish trick taking game

The game can be played by two to five players. Each person is dealt five cards and the top card of the remaining deck is turned face upwards to show which suit is trumps. The player to the left of dealer starts. Subsequent players must follow suit if they can, or if they wish they can play a trump card. The winner of the trick turns their card face down. Play continues until all five cards have been played. Five points are awarded to the winner of a trick and the winner of the game is the first person to score twenty five.

So far so good and the game seems straight forward and easy. What makes the game more confusing is the ranking of the cards. The ranking of red cards from highest to lowest is King, Queen, Jack, Ten, Nine etc down to ace as the lowest. For black cards it is King, Queen, Jack, Ace, Two, Three and up to Ten. The trump suit ranking differs again. The highest card is the five of trumps, followed by the Jack, then the Ace of Hearts (irrespective of which suit is trumps) with the remainder of the trump suit following the ranking as appropriate for black or red.

If you hold the Ace of trumps in your hand, you may pick up the card turned over that declares trumps and discard a lower value card from your hand. There are a few other special rules like this but we cannot remember what they are!

The game allows for a fair deal of strategic play. If you are to the left of the dealer and you have the five of trumps, it is the best card to start with as it flushes out most other trump cards strengthening your ability to win more tricks. As a player approaches the score of twenty five, the others all start to play strategically to prevent them from winning. There are also variations where you play the game with a partner.

Curious limestone formations, one looks like a man smoking a cigarette!
Back in Hanoi, colourful twigs for Tet

Having put our heater on to warm up before we got into bed we both slept really well, no doubt also partly due to excess fresh air and alcohol. We had a very western start to the day with banana pancakes and chocolate sauce, something that repeatedly turns up as a “backpacker” favourite in many of the places we have been to. As we finished breakfast the young lady who is part of the crew brought us our first retail opportunity of the day, three display cases of “pearl” jewellery, mainly earrings and necklaces. Despite working her way around all the ladies on board she did not manage to sell any.

It was another cool day but we braved it our for the most part opting to sit outside and enjoy the view. We stopped briefly at another cave which I left Stef to explore on his own as I did not fancy walking down the steep gangplank to get onto dry land. I was not alone and from the unimpressed look on Stef’s face when he got back I do not think I missed much. It was entertaining though watching the people from another boat getting back on board. As ours is small it was able to get close up to the island. Theirs was moored out in the bay and they had got into a small, flat bottomed boat to get to the island. I had expected only about six or eight people to get into this small boat but I think there were about sixteen in total. Out in the bay they then had to clamber over the side of their big boat to get back on board, not something I would have relished.

We cruised back through the bay to the harbour seeing more and more boats the closer we got to the mainland. A little way off were two boats from the same company as ours and as we pulled along side I had visions of having to clamber over and then get into a small boat to get back on to dry land. I was very relieved to find out we had simply stopped to take fresh supplies on board for the next trip. One of the boats was new and was still being finished off. It is slightly bigger than the one we were on with nine cabins rather than six, but this still makes it smaller than the majority as most of the boats had eighteen cabins.

Coming up to the jetty was an experience. There were loads of boats all cramming in and jostling with each other to get space to drop off their current passengers and pick up their next load. It seemed to be totally disorganised chaos with boats simply barging in and pushing others out of the way. Ours was trying to get into a space where another boat was coming out. Rather than just letting that boat leave and then going into its space the crew just kept nudging and inching their way forward until we finally reached the jetty. It seemed a lot busier than it had been yesterday and for the second time in two days I felt as if I was on a tourist conveyor belt.

We stopped at the same hotel as yesterday for lunch, meeting the group who were about to get onto the boat we had just left, and were then back on the bus to Hanoi. Midway we stopped at yet another retail opportunity, again a big warehouse type affair but this time they drop you at one end and you have no choice but to walk through it all to get to the other side where the bus picks you up. Hieu let slip that this was owned by the same person who owned the place we stopped at yesterday so it is unclear whether this is a government programme to help Agent Orange victims or whether it is an astute business person cashing in on the tourist trade. The same array of souvenirs was on display but here they also had large pieces of heavy wooden furniture. Signs everywhere reassured you that they can ship your purchases (that you pay fro with Visa!) to anywhere in the world.

The journey back to Hanoi was pretty smooth until we reached a bridge on the outskirts of town. Here the traffic was all snarled up due to people the other way stopping part way across. One of the rituals associated with Tet is for people to throw an offering of food into the river which they then hope ensures they will have adequate food for the year. The offering turns out to be a live fish and lots of people were stopping and hurling fish into the river which must have been ten metres below. I cannot believe that the fish survive the drop and it just seemed a strange sort of offering to make.

We were dropped off back at the Kangaroo Café where we said our farewells to our group, some of who we may bump into further south as we all seem to be heading to the same places. Having had a large lunch we stopped at a shop to buy bits for a picnic supper and then made our way back on foot deciding that cyclos would take too long. The streets were packed full of Tet shoppers and some roads had been blocked off to traffic which explained why others were so manic. On the closed off streets markets had been set up down the middle of the road selling flowers, decorations, cakes and all sorts of other Tet specialities. In the same way that we have a Christmas Tree people here buy branches of pink peach blossoms and small kumquat trees to decorate their houses. Although small for a tree they are still quite sizeable and they make a precarious load balanced on the back of a bike or motorcycle.

Back at the Galaxy Hotel we were met with a very warm welcome and had the same room as before but on a different floor. Our bags had already been taken up to the room for us so we had nothing to do but relax in the welcome warmth of our room and have a cosy night in with HBO and our picnic. A great way to end what has been a lovely weekend.

HCM's mausoleum
Colourful goo (hardware shop)
Incense-sniffing dragons
Noodles, lime and chillies

Today was our last day in Hanoi. We headed for the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum complex, knowing that most of the buildings would be closed but wanting to have a look anyway. Our taxi finally stopped to let us out after yet another circuitous drive that ended up costing much more than it needed to. They are devious little chaps but I suppose we are fair game as foreign tourists.

We were dropped by the Ho Chi Minh museum, a huge concrete monstrosity set in landscaped gardens. It was all locked up for the day but the staff were inside all munching away on a break. Close to the museum was a small pagoda built on one pillar. The original structure was about one thousand years old and was built in the form of a lotus flower. Before they left Hanoi in 1954 the French decided to destroy the pagoda so the current one is a recent reconstruction, something that is a familiar story in Vietnam. A small temple was by the pagoda with an enclosed garden courtyard full of colourful flowers.

Further into the complex is Uncle Ho’s mausoleum. For someone who wanted to be cremated he must be steaming mad to see what they have done to him. The mausoleum is a huge sombre building. People we met on the boat in Halong Bay made it inside to see him. His preserved remains are in a glass case with spotlights focussing on his hands and face. Groups of twenty people are allowed in at a time and have to walk slowly around the glass coffin, with heads bowed. Any straying across the lines marked on the floor is met with a swift rebuke from the guards. We looked on from the outside and timed our visit to see them changing the guard outside.

From here we walked down to the Temple of Literature. What I thought would be a short cut was not but it took us down a road selling pretty much everything you can buy in B&Q. Shops had big bags of brightly coloured paint dye lined up in rows out front. Another had big bowls of what looked like grease but they were all different colours so it must have been some type of grouting or sealant. Yet others seemed to be full of second hand power tools, all line dup neatly as if they were brand new. It made for an interesting diversion.

We ended up walking around most of the outside of the Temple before finding the entrance. It was a real surprise and great place to while away a few hours out of the hustle and bustle of central Hanoi. Founded in 1070 by the Emperor Ly Thang Tong it is a monument to academics. It was dedicated to Confucius and was the site of the first university in Vietnam. Wealthy families sent their sons here to be educated and to pass the exams needed to enable them to work in positions of high office.

The grounds are laid out in a number of courtyards with buildings off to either side. The first courtyard is gardens with two lotus pools either side of the path and flower beds that run down the middle. A gate leads through into a second courtyard which is dominated by a large pool. Either side buildings house large stone plaques which record the names of the people who successfully passed the examinations here. The next courtyard is a wide open square with a temple style building at the north end used for public meetings and performances.

As I walked through a small orchestra were playing traditional music. It was similar to the music we had heard at the Puppet Theatre and in southern China. One lady was playing a set of pan pipes but with a difference. These were large and were set horizontally on a frame. To play the pipes she clapped her hands in front of them, the resulting rush of air producing the sound. To me it looked as if it must be more difficult than blowing into them but I suppose it all just boils down to technique and practice. Behind this hall the final building was dedicated to Confucius with big statues of him and his key students.

The whole site had a calming aura about it and I could picture it being a seat of learning in previous times. It reminded me of the Confucian Examination house we had seen in Lijiang in China. Today though we had timed our visit just right. As we were preparing to leave we encountered a large tour group who were either from eastern Europe or Russia. They all had the same daypacks, issued by the tour company, and were pushing and barging through to get where they wanted to be irrespective of whether someone else was already on the spot of ground they wanted to be on.

From the Temple we started to amble back into town, stopping on the way for lunch. We found a really great place that is not in Lonely Planet. It is on Pahn Boi Chau just past the IpaNima shop which is in Lonely Planet. The restaurant was a large open air courtyard sheltered under a yellow parasol. Around the edge were lots of small kitchens, each specialising in a different type of food. There was a choice of tables, either low tables with Vietnamese bench style seats or more standard Western seating. We were the only non Asian people in there and it was fantastic. We had really tasty food, including a Vietnamese style Peking Duck (which had no duck). There were “pancakes” made out of rice paper onto which you put a small square of noodles, spring onions, peanuts, leaves of different types of herbs, star fruit, cucumber and small pieces of sausages. Once rolled up it was dipped into a vinegary chilli sauce. Delicious.

We decided we were all done in and headed back to the hotel. The traffic today was even more manic than yesterday so we walked back to the hotel for the last time and ended up spending another relaxing night in doing not an awful lot.

Kumquat trees for sale (for Tet)
Local drink, Bird's Nest with White Fungus

We had a late start this morning as we were booked onto a lunchtime flight to Hue. Our taxi battled its way to get out of town. The traffic was madness again even though we were on the main ring road. Along each side of the road stalls had been set up by people selling kumquat trees and peach blossom for Tet. It was a real hive of activity with local people precariously balancing trees on the back of bikes and scooters. Even though they are tightly strapped on it still amazes me how they manage to balance them and not wobble over under the load.

The flight that we had wanted to get was full except for business class so we had splashed out to travel in style, still cheap compared to prices at home. Business class check in was very fast and efficient and before long we were sat in the Vietnam Airlines lounge with memories of the days when Stef was travelling around on projects in Europe travelling Business Class. It makes for a much more relaxing travel experience when you get free refreshments in a quiet and peaceful setting before your flight.

Before long we were descending down to Hue, a small airport on the outskirts of town. With the Tet festival just a few days away we had asked our hotel in Hanoi to call ahead for us to book a hotel. They were slightly put out when we picked a cheaper option than the one they recommended but as we are splashing out at a beach resort in HoiAn it is a sensible choice. We asked the taxi driver to take us to the L’Indochine Hotel. At the airport they had a stand where you could pre-pay for taxis. We think there were probably minibus options to get into town but they were not offered to us so I suspect we got slightly diddled. We were also waiting for the taxi driver to try and pull a trick on us too but he did not and soon dropped us off at our hotel.

There is a large car park outside which makes it very easy and convenient for the inevitable tour buses to park. Stef went off to check the room, a bit surprised when he came back that the one he had seen was the superior room. It was clean and large but had a very grand name for what you got. The hotel reminded both of us of ones we had stayed at in China. It had an almost functional feel to it and was very Spartan with few decorative touches on display. The staff were friendly enough though and we were sure we would have a comfortable few days here.

In the afternoon we went in search of tour information. The area just north of here was the Demilitarised Zone and there is a lot of history about the American War in Vietnam and was related sites to visit. The tour booth at the hotel did not seem very bothered about promoting their tours and simply pushed a piece of paper towards us telling us the price and what was covered in the trip. Unimpressed we headed over the road to the Mandarin Café, a place which gets a good review in Lonely Planet.

We were met at the café by Mr Cu, the owner, who was very softly spoken and had an almost calming aura about him. He ran through the information on the tour he had available which simply lumps you together with lots of other people on a big tour bus. For extra cash though we could have our own private car and guide and this is what we opted for. It also meant that we did not need to be ready to go at six in the morning and the extra time in bed was a very welcome prospect! We also booked our onward travel to HoiAn on the infamous Open Tour service, opting for the slower bus that stops at a few places along the way.

Mr Cu is a well known photographer and samples of his work are dotted around his café. Exhibitions of his photos have been held in both France and Italy, something of which he is justifiably proud. We flicked through his photos (albums are available for every table in the café and you can buy prints if you want to) while having a drink. He has captured some really fantastic images of Vietnam with pictures of people in traditional dress and many photos of children at play. As a local person he has much easier access to get this type of photo than we do, for one thing he is probably not charged a dollar a click!

We headed back to our room more than anything to warm up as it was a surprisingly cool evening. In the evening we tried a Lonely Planet recommendation, The Tropical Garden Restaurant, which we both found disappointing. The food was a bit bland but the local traditional music offset this slightly. It was definitely a place geared to foreign tourists, most of whom seemed to eat early because not long after nine we were the only people left in the place. It is not somewhere I would go back to.

Remnants from the American War

We had an early start for our private tour which left at seven thirty, Stef in particular grateful for the extra time in bed as a dodgy tummy had kept him up for part of the night. Driving out of Hue we went past the Old Citadel, which we will visit tomorrow, the front of which for about two hundred metres had been turned into a large flower market in the run up to Tet. As well as the kumquat trees and peach blossom, there were pots of chrysanthemums, sunflowers, roses and displays of bonsai trees.

Today we visited locations associated with the American War in Vietnam. The background to the war was more complex that I had realised. It is wrapped up with the French leaving Vietnam after many years and the US supporting one side as they were concerned that Communism would spread throughout Asia. The country was divided into two zones North (communist) and South (republic) with a Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) in between.

When the DMZ was established local people had three hundred days to decide if they wanted to move north to the Communist part of Vietnam or South to the democratic republic. Around a quarter of a million moved south but only about eighty thousand moved north. This was not because there were much fewer people with communist sympathies but because they stayed in the south as part of the Hanoi government’s wider plan to gain communist control over all of Vietnam.

The US move into Vietnam sparked the war which in Europe we know as the Vietnam War but which here is referred to as the American War in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese army were pushing southwards along an extensive network of supply routes known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. These routes were the focus of much military action by the US and their South Vietnamese allies as they tried to cut off this supply chain. The Hanoi government then used the communists who had stayed in the southern part of the country to form a second army, more commonly known as the Vietcong. They focussed on liberating parts of southern Vietnam from the US so the US effectively became trapped between two armies fighting for the communist cause.

From what we learned today it seems that this war was not operated on a large scale military operations basis. Rather the tactics seemed to be much more like guerrilla warfare. Where today there is a road network leading between many of the sites during the war this area was mainly jungle territory which the locals obviously knew well and were able to navigate easily. For the US troops it was a more difficult task and support for the war diminished as casualty figures increased until the US finally pulled out in 1975.

What was left behind was a trail of devastation and destruction. In the thirty years since the war much of the landscape has recovered and the first part of our journey was along roads lined with rice fields. Unlike in Hanoi and Halong Bay where the plants were just starting to grow, here the warmer climate had already produced green shoots a good few inches long. Everywhere we looked there was water, not lakes and streams like in Canada, but rice fields and irrigation ditches.

Our first stop was at the ruins of a small church just outside Quang Tri. The church itself was quite small and built in an even length cross shape with the altar on a slightly raised platform in the middle. The roof was totally gone as were the doors and windows and throughout you could see evidence of battle. It is built of concrete around a steel wire frame, seen easily where bombs and bullets have penetrated the concrete and left gaping holes in the walls. The whole place was riddled with bullet holes and looked as if it had come under pretty heavy fire.

From here we carried on up to Quang Tri a town that was virtually destroyed by the war. The old town citadel is just outside of the current town. A high brick wall encircles the citadel and is itself enclosed within a moat. Inside there are no buildings left, the town was almost totally destroyed during battles between north and south which saw control of the town switch hands several times. A small museum houses pictures from the war and outside are old Russian army trucks and a rocket launcher. In the middle of the citadel a monument to the war dead has been erected on a large mound. The grounds have now been turned over to local families to use as farmland and a couple of ladies were out and about tending their fields.

It was a strange sensation standing in the middle of what used to be a vibrant town and seeing nothing around you. Driving through the newer part of town most of the buildings looked new and in good condition but one, which looked like a school, was still in the bombed out state it must have been in for thirty years. We could not understand why it had not been demolished and rebuilt like everything else around us.

At Dong Ha we stopped to pick up Vu, our guide for the rest of the day. He was very knowledgeable about the war and the various different battles and skirmishes that had taken place in this area. It is a harrowing tale of man’s brutality to man. We covered sites on both Route 9 and Route 1, our first stop being close to the Rockpile. This is a large hill, hence the name, and was one of the places where US troops came for a spot of rest and relaxation. It was a beautiful location, set in a lush green valley full of rice fields and tropical palm like plants with a small stream running along the valley floor.

Our route then took us on to the Khe Sanh combat base. For the US it was a key site to try and block the Ho Chi Minh trail but the Vietnamese just took a detour and simply went into Laos before crossing back into Vietnam further south. Two other US bases nearby provided protection for Khe Sanh, one closer towards Laos and the other further back along route 9. The irony of this site though is that the hills all around it were occupied by the North Vietnamese Army. The US would flush out the NVA but then a few weeks later they would leave the hills and the NVA simply came back. This was a conscious tactic on the part of the NVA who kept the US troops occupied in this part of the country leaving them free to successfully bombard a range of cities in the Tet offensive of 1968.

All that now remains visible of the base is located at a small museum on part of the old grounds. Outside the museum are some of the gun placements, odd bits of bomb and other weaponry, a crashed plane and two US army helicopters. Running behind the museum grounds is the old runway. There only seem to be western tourists here and an enterprising local tries to cash in by selling off old medals and dog tags that have presumably been collected from dead or “missing” servicemen. It was a pretty morbid display of bits and pieces.

What surprised me was that all of the information Vu was giving us seemed geared towards Americans wanting to know how badly they had been hit in the war. The casualty rate was low compared to the total deaths of local people. In Vietnam alone ten percent of the national population of forty million were killed, more than half of these being civilian casualties.

We stopped briefly on the way back to view a bridge donated by Fidel Castro. It spans a gorge with a river running below but there was not much else to say for the bridge. Here we ha dour first real experience of begging in Vietnam. A small group of boys followed us as we walked out onto the bridge and then back again to our car. Their clothes were ragged and had seen better days and they all looked like they would benefit greatly from a bath. Although they were persistent in following us they were polite and we had no trouble with them.

Another quick break gave us a look down onto a Bru tribal village. There were about forty or so houses in the village but the people here have few creature comforts and rely on the government to provide basic food and supplies. Somehow though the village men still manage to find money for alcohol, a common curse for poor villages in this part of the world and South America. The women of the Bru villages have a tough lot in life. Their husbands do not work so it is down to the women to do everything to feed and clothe the household. Husbands can take more than one wife and often do so that the family workload is split between a few people.

After a stop in DongHa for lunch we carried on further north driving through the DMZ itself. It was set at the seventeenth parallel and reaches for about five kilometres either side of the Ben Hai river. At the river the remains still stand of the old check point for crossing the border. The bridges are all new, although built in the style of the originals, but the control buildings were the originals (I think). On the south bank of the river the skyline is dominated by a large statue of a woman set against a backdrop of oversized coconut tree leaves. The story goes that a husband crossed over to the communist north during the three hundred day open period, telling his wife he would be back after the elections had been held. With no elections he became stranded in the north for eighteen years where he remarried and had a family. The statue is symbolic of his original wife’s wait for her husband’s return. Coconuts only grow in the south of Vietnam so the use of coconut leaves in the statue was also symbolic.

Tunnels of Vinh Moc, a whole village underground

Our final stop on the tour was at a small fishing village called Vinh Moc. This was an important supply base sending shipments of food and ammunition out to Can Co Island, a key staging point on the water based Ho Chi Minh Trail. As such, it was also a prime target for the US and South Vietnamese armies. The elderly and children of the village escaped the bombing raids and moved further up the coast but four hundred young people remained in the village which was obliterated by the war.

To survive, they excavated an underground network of tunnels which became their home for five years. It took them eighteen months to complete and in total the tunnel network stretched for about 1800m. Today only a few of the tunnels are safe enough to be accessed but we were able to see some at each of the three different levels they created. The first level is about twelve metres below ground and is really a series of access routes. The second level, fifteen metres below ground, was where most people lived. There were small cubicles dug into the rock literally a couple of metres long, about a metre wide and less than two metres high. The third level, twenty three metres below ground, was used for storing food, medicines, ammunition and everything they needed to survive and supply the trail.

It was pretty hot and humid in the tunnels, especially down at the third level. There were thirteen different entrances (of which seven faced the sea) and two ventilation shafts through which fresh supplies of air could enter and work their way around the network. These were also used to house key facilities for the underground village. Near one was a hospital and near another maternity room. Seventeen babies were born in the tunnels. One large room on the second level, which could seat about twenty people, was used for meetings, weddings or other celebrations. One tunnel which we did not go into was a deep bomb shelter that the villagers used when the tunnels were being bombarded.

Along the edge of the tunnel floors there was a small gulley to enable rainwater to run down and out rather than flooding the paths. There were a couple of fresh water wells but only one hole in the ground toilet for all four hundred people. The stench from such a high number of people living in such cramped conditions must have been quite horrific, all the worse for people who by nature were fishermen used to the open seas. Needless to say it was not a great environment to live in and the villagers had to contend with high levels of sickness on top of the threat of bomb fire.

It was a long day with a lot of time spent in the car travelling from one site to the next. We were both really glad that we had chosen not to go on the tour bus as we had caught up with them fairly early on in the morning. We were feeling pretty flat about the sites we had seen until we got to the tunnels which were definitely the highlight of the day. At the tunnels we also got to see a lot more than the tour groups did, another bonus.

“Cyclos in the rain” at Hue

We woke to another wet and drizzly day but at least we were not up at the crack of dawn for a tour. As with yesterday, the morning rush hour started at five o’clock and even though the hotel is set back from the road it sounded like the scooters were just below our window. Strangely all seemed to go quiet for a while before it started up again around seven.

Most of the day we spent in the old Citadel of Hue, much to the annoyance of a whole tribe of cyclo drivers who were all competing for our business. We opted to walk to the Citadel as I wanted to get a close up view of the flower market which lined the road. The colour of the flowers and trees was marred by the gloomy weather and I did feel for the people who had obviously been sat out in the damp for hours and would continue to be so until late into the night.

The Citadel site was pretty large site with a walk around the perimeter being about ten kilometres long. A moat thirty metres wide separates the citadel from the roads around it and ten gates provide access into the walled city. Built in 1804 for Emperor Gia Long, a large proportion of the site was occupied by the Royal Family. Today most of it is in ruins as it was heavily bombed during the war and agriculture now occupies much of the space.

Dominating the view of the Citadel is a large flag raised up flag tower which has been extended and enlarged each time it fell victim to a typhoon. Nine canons line the two main entrances, five at one entrance, four at another, symbolising the four seasons and the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth).  We slithered our way across the square behind the flag pole which had become like a skating rink in the drizzle and entered through the main Ngo Mon Gate buying our ticket for “foreign visitors”. The small Trung Dao Bridge led us to the start of the main compound.

As with Quang Tri, most of the citadel has been destroyed by bomb raids as Hue was a key city targeted in the Tet offensive. A few buildings are still standing but most are just ruins. The first building you visit is the Thai Hoa Palace, a large wooden building whose roof is supported by eighty decorated wooden pillars. Unfortunately no photography is allowed inside to capture the beauty of the building which is ornately designed in red and gold motifs, very reminiscent of Chinese buildings. A large courtyard in front of the building was where the mandarins paid homage to the Emperor, their position on the courtyard being determined by status and rank.

Inside the Citadel of Hue
"Yes, we do have bananas today!" Cyclos aren't just for tourists!

Behind this palace is another large courtyard, home to a couple of large urns full of water. This courtyard is flanked on either side by the Halls of the Mandarins, used by them to prepare for court ceremonies. We went round the buildings on the right which now house a small museum with exhibits on pottery and textiles. I had not realised how much symbolism was included in the clothes worn by the Royal family both in terms of the animals/plants depicted and the number included in a costume. Dragons were on the Emperor’s gown, unicorns for the prince and flowers and phoenixes for the Queen and Princesses. Different costumes were worn for different occasions resulting in an extensive wardrobe. In many villages where the high quality cloths were made, taxes were often paid in cloth rather than in cash.

Behind this courtyard were the ruins of the Forbidden Purple City where the Emperor kept his harem. There is now little to see here except the shape of the walls of this building, the Queen’s apartments and the Emperor’s own house at the back of the compound. Off to the right is a beautiful Chinese style building which was the Emperor’s reading room. The roof is covered in fabulous tiles as is the surrounding wall behind the building. It is now unsafe for visitors to enter so we had to content ourselves with a look around the outside. A little further on is the Royal Theatre building, which I think is a reconstruction. Inside a red decorated stage dominates the room and on the gallery above there is an exhibition about the orchestra that plays here.

The western side of the compound is the one with the most restored buildings. The Dien Tho Residence was the home of the Queen Mothers of the Nguyen Dynasty. The QM’s apartments are quite extensive and include a small pavilion overlooking a pond which was a pleasure pavilion. Temples galore also adorn this section, the most spectacular being the To Mieu Temple which is dedicated to the Nguyen Empowers. Really this is nine separate temples, one for each of the Emperors, all housed within one building. It is a spectacular building which has recently been restored. Inside elderly locals had come to pay their respects for Tet and fresh offerings of flowers and fruit were on display.

In front of the temple was a large open courtyard, presumably used for prayer. The southern side of this courtyard is home to Nine Dynastic Urns. Each urn is decorated in a different style in terms of ornamentation and the handles at the top and each is dedicated to a different Emperor. They are enormous, reaching over two metres high.

I would love to be able to turn back the clock and see the Citadel before the war. Many of the walls that remain have splashes of decoration and colour that give a tantalising glimpse of how fabulous the citadel must have been in its heyday. Started in 1804, new buildings have been added over the years and the damage from the war revealed that concrete has been used to build many of the enclosure walls, particularly on the western side. Nevertheless it made for an interesting couple of hours, despite the persistent rain and drizzle.

We opted for a cyclo to take us back to the hotel and spent the usual five minutes or so bargaining on the price. Even though we clearly agreed how much we were going to pay that still did not stop them trying to bump up the price by the time they dropped us off. You have to admire them for trying but they did not wait and hassle too long as we stuck to our guns.

The afternoon was devoted to diary writing for me, a snooze for Stef, and in the evening we went to the Orchid restaurant attached to our hotel. It was a very Chinese sort of place with bright lights and Spartan furniture. The only other people in there was a group of six western tourists who looked like three couples who had met up along the way. One Australian woman was very quiet at the end of the table, picking at food in front of her with a curled up mouth which clearly showed that she did not trust the food. More fool her because they turned out a very tasty meal for us.