Friday 30 September 2016

Vibrant, Valiant Vietnam

Asian adventures

Published 27/06/2016 | 02:30

Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Deposit
Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Deposit
Temple in Vietnam

A trip to Vietnam is rejuvenating and it's not just because of the hot weather with its injection of sunshine and vitamin D; and the many stimulating visual delights which await the visitor.

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It's the way the locals greeted us, enthusing about our blonde (let's face it, dyed) hair, our (somewhat tired) skin, our blue eyes. On my recent visit with Wendy Wu Tours, vendors at the Mekong Delta broke off, from selling their delicious coconut toffee, made at the banks of the river, to marvel at our 'beauty' while kids and students clamoured to be photographed with us at Ho Chi Min's tombstone in Hanoi.

It's the novelty factor of course - they're black-haired, almond-eyed and sallow skinned, the opposite of us pale Westerners.Even though Vietnam has opened up hugely in the last few years, and Westerners are now exploring this fascinating country with its lush landscape, stunning beaches, ancient pagodas and delicious cuisine, we're still a relatively unfamiliar sight to the locals. Anyway, it's hard not to feel a little tickled by all the attention.

We noticed, though, that older people kept a little aloof; and who can blame them?

Vietnam has had a troubled history, and many people still bear the scars of the Vietnam War which waged for 20 years - 1955 to 1975 - during which a phenomenal three million Vietnamese men, women and children were slaughtered.

Appropriately enough, our tour, after we'd settled into our welcoming hotel in Ho Chi Minh city, started with a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, 50 kilometres from the city, which played a huge part in the war. Here the local people built a unique labyrinthine tunnel system. It's like a spider's web, which if laid out in a straight line, would, it's said, comprise 250 kilometers, and yet the tunnels are invisible from above ground with cleverly concealed entrances. These tunnels allowed the Vietnamese communists to mount surprise attacks on the enemy and then disappear into the ground leaving no trace behind. Five minutes crawling through one of the tunnel and I was hit by a wave of claustrophobia, yet the rebels lived and ate and slept in these tunnels for months on end.

Tourist Boats in Halong in Vietnam
Tourist Boats in Halong in Vietnam

Tunnel rats they were called, and whatever else, they were incredibly enterprising, creating extraordinary traps to ambush the American soldiers and even devising an unusual type of shoe from old tyres to put their enemies off their trail.

Later that afternoon, we visited the Remmants Museum back in the centre of Ho Chi Minh city (still called Saigon by many locals) where photographs by many of the most famous photographers of the time starkly expose the terrible injustice done to the people of Vietnam. Also on show were objects which hold horrible significance like a sewer donated by one bereaved family. This enormous pot-like object had been used as a hiding place for their three little ones but the US soldiers found them, stabbed two aged eight and 10 while they disemboweled the third aged six.

It was a sobering day, but as our guide Guang reminded us throughout our trip, the Vietnamese are a resilient people currently rebuilding their country.

Vietnam is unlike any place in Europe; a visit there is an assault on the senses, in a good way. The country is only five times the size of Ireland yet it has a population of 93 m It's said 90pc of the population have motorbikes and they all seem to be on them all the time. The traffic, particularly at intersections, is chaotic and it requires blind faith to walk across a road. All human and animal life seemed to reside on the back of a motorbike. We saw whole families - parents and their toddlers - on the one bike, we saw bikes with two people and a fridge, we saw a motorbike carrying air conditioning units, a motorbike carrying a pig in a cage, indeed we saw a motorbike on a motorbike.

They're an industrious resourceful people and nothing is wasted; the cities are full of shops selling parts of old cars and old bicycles, alongside the swanky new hotels, office blocks and boutiques that are mushrooming throughout. In the country, coconuts are used, not only for oil, coconut milk, candy, and mascara, but even the husks are used for fertiliser.

If they're not on the bikes or working, the people are eating. Gr eat restaurants abound too, but the Vietnamese themselves stick with their street food, and everywhere you go, street food cooked in pots on makeshift paint tins/stoves is available at every corner, the locals sitting on tiny plastic chairs tucking into noodles.

Mary in front of one of the pagodas at
Marble Mountain
Mary in front of one of the pagodas at Marble Mountain

Over 12 days, our merry band of 19 - five Brits, two Irish and 12 Aussies, all great fun - crisscrossed the country by bus and by plane. It's a big country, so the tour is called appropriately Vietnam At A Glance.The clever people at Wendy Wu Tours planned the trip really well, and while it was full on, it was varied; a day of culture was always followed by something more activity-based, like a boat trip, a trip to a farm or a cookery lesson, and our intrepid and knowledgeable guide Guang was always on hand to explain the significance of the many delightful places we visited.

At the Mekong Delta we piled into little boats and meandered down the Mekong river, its banks shaded by coconut palms and banana trees. Later we lunched under coconut palms while being entertained by local musicians strumming on their unique stringed instruments.

We visited the Marble Mountain which is home to a a host of Buddhist temples and shrines, some hidden in caves, some situated at the very top of the mountain where the views are spectacular. There are often seven layers to a Buddhist temple because, according to Guang, Buddha took seven steps the minute he was born. Buddhism is the chief belief system, while ancestor worship is widely practised; Guang told us that most homes would have a shrine to dead parents and ancestors, and we saw many such shrines on our travels, usually piled high with fruit and flowers and even tins of biscuits

We visited Hoi An, a wonderful town dating from the 17th century, which miraculously escaped bombing, -unlike a lot of their beautiful buildings elsewhere, which are slowly being restored - and so all its tiny streets, its ancient houses, pagodas and temples remain intact and are full of old world charm. It's faintly reminiscent of the scenes you see on willow pattern plates. The tiny town, which is a Unesco world heritage site, is accessed via a charming 17th century pink Japanese bridge, its arched entrance guarded on one side by monkey gods and on the other by dog gods. The town is famous for its colourful lanterns made of bamboo and silk, and at night the streets are lit by, it seems thousands, while it's also the custom to float candlelit paper lanterns down the Hoai river to pray for good luck, prosperity, and health. It's delightful to see these little lights twinkling in the moonlight, while all around locals and tourists alike are tucking into street food at the night market.

Hustle and bustle are the hallmarks of street life in Hoi An - apparently there are 600 tailor shops alone there and several of my fellow tourers were thrilled with the dresses they had made. However, in one of the old houses we found an oasis of calm, in a little café called the Reaching Out Teahouse, created because the owners wanted to share authentic Hoi An (which means peaceful meeting) through the tradition of drinking tea and coffee. The coffee house is furnished with authentic carved furniture, and the drinks are served in beautifully crafted pots and cups. The staff are all speech- and hearing-impaired and the whole experience is a celebration of silence. In the bathroom there's a sign saying 'a smile is worth a thousand words', and in the Reaching Out Teahouse, it's absolutely true.

Everywhere in the country we glimpsed the old way of life, particularly in an area known as Tra Que, renowned for its agriculture - men and women at work in the rice fields, still wearing the conical hat to protect them from the sun and the yoke straddling their shoulders, holding two buckets or two baskets, one balancing the other.

We visited Hue which was the capital of Vietnam during the Minh dynasty rule in the 19th century, and we explored the citadel which was the emperors' base, and is now a Unesco world heritage site. The purple city is located inside the Citadel, it's a forbidden city similar to that in Beijing, just as imposing, just as cleverly constructed,with many outstanding features, and Guang had fascinating stories about its origins and occupants over the years. We also visited the emperor's tomb in Hue and sailed up the Perfumed river, so called because once upon a time its banks were lined with orange and lemon trees; not any more, but it's still a delightful boat ride.

Weasel Coffee
Weasel Coffee
Lanterns

A highlight of the tour was an overnight cruise on Halong Bay in the North of the country. Halong Bay is home to over 3,000 rocky outcrops which look for all the world like mountainy sculpture jutting up out of the water. Some are too narrow to be climbed, others are an explorer's delight full of caves complete with extraordinary rock formations and vast stalagmites and stalagtites. We were able to go from our cruise ship into smaller boats and sail among the outcrops. It's an extraordinary, almost eerie sight, particularly as it's so remote and peaceful with the water around like glass - as one of my fellow tourers said, there are more ripples in your average bath

Throughout our tour, we stayed in excellent four-star hotels and ate superb food. Sometimes in Asian countries, while the food is good, you could be dying for a bit of bread or a pastry, but happily the Vietnamese are brilliant bakers; the French colonised Vietnam from the mid-19th century until 1950, and one good legacy is the gorgeous selection of croissants, pain au chocolat and baquettes available very morning. Lunch and dinner were gargantuan feasts of noodles, fish, chicken, pork and spicy sauces. A bit like Thai food, the staples of Vietnamese cuisine are fresh herbs - lemon grass, coriander, mint and basil - with plenty of chillis. Other staples include lime juice, fish sauce and, of course, coconut - coconut oil, coconut milk, grated coconut. Lotus flowers, seeds and stems are another delicious ingredient of their cuisine; the lotus features in many of the myths and legends of Vietnam and the designs of many buildings both ancient and modern are based on its shape

As I chatted to one chef and told him how much I liked the lotus stems in the deliciously fresh minty salad he had prepared as one of our lunch dishes, he said, "We Vietnamese are like the lotus, we are in the mud but we are determined, like the lotus to emerge from it and grow tall."

Go there now, before they grow out of us.

Take Three: Top attractions

Weasel Coffee

Cooking classes
Cooking classes

While the Wendy Wu Tour people advise travellers to bring teabags if they’re fond of their own particular brew, there are no such fears with the local coffee; it’s smooth and chocolatey and absolutely delicious. A particular delicacy is the weasel coffee which is made from beans eaten and regurgitated by the Vietnamese weasel. This coffee is surprisingly nice but you won’t get it easily as it’s rare and very expensive.

Cooking classes

Among the fun things we did on our trip were cookery classes. given at Tra Que Village farm, near Hoi An, by Chef Nguyen Thu Huong. Thu was as entertaining as any TV chef I’ve seen. He taught us to make  delicious rice flour pancakes and the simple but delicious canapes above of prawn, mint and pork wrapped in the green stem of a spring onion. I bought his book and hope to dazzle guests with his dishes.

Shopping

Our tour included visits to a silk factory where we were shown silk worms and the silk-making process. We were brought to a pearl factory and saw how the cultured pearls are cultivated. There are lots of beautiful things to buy — silks, lanterns, lacquer ornaments, pearls, jade — but it’s a good idea to have a list and an idea of western prices as it’s easy to be bamboozled by over-enthusiastic vendors.

Getting there

The 12-day ‘Vietnam at a Glance’ trip is available from €2,790pp with Wendy Wu Tours, including all international airfares, domestic transportation, departure taxes, all accommodation, all meals, entrance fees, guides and daily tours and visa fees for UK, Irish & EU passport holders.

A free inbound Business Class upgrade is available for travellers who book by July 4, when travelling from Heathrow with Vietnam Airlines.

Tour Highlights

• Experience Saigon’s edgy and evocative blend of past and present.

• Discover the legendary Cu Chi tunnel network used by the Viet Cong.

• Catch a glimpse of rural Vietnam in Tra Que village.

• Delve into Vietnam’s dynastic past in imperial Hue

• Soak up the charms of Vietnam’s fast-paced yet graceful capital Hanoi.

• Drift on emerald waters among the picturesque peaks of Halong Bay.

For more, see wendywutours.ie or call 0818 776 380.

Sunday Independent

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