Friday 28 July 2017

Visions of Vietnam

The magnificent walled Imperial City at Hue, built for the Imperial family in the 19th century
The magnificent walled Imperial City at Hue, built for the Imperial family in the 19th century

Deborah Spillane

Vietnam bombards all your senses the moment you arrive, says Deborah Spillane.

Vietnam bombards all your senses the moment you arrive there.

From the intense heat when you step off the plane to the thronging, milling crazy traffic you hit as you leave the airport you are plunged into the country's frenetic way of living, whether or not you are ready for it. I wasn't - but I found it captivating from the get go.

Our Wendy Wu Tour was called Vietnam at a Glance, and I was collected from the airport after the long-haul flight and brought to meet the rest of the group for our briefing about the tour. The comfortable Muong Thanh Hotel was our base. It provided great service and had a stunning rooftop pool overlooking the city of Ho Chi Minh, also known as Saigon. Swimming there offered great vistas by day and night, with swallows swooping in the early morning and a dramatic neon display lighting up the darkness.

Our guide, Quang, was incredibly enthusiastic from our first meeting. He was diligent in outlining what we would need for each day of the tour - water, hats, sun block - he even specified what footwear we would need and reminded us to take repellents for the dreaded mosquitoes.

Our first day was packed with activity. We were up at 6.30am for the two-hour drive to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels as we were hoping to avoid the intense midday heat.

I had slept well, and after tackling the enormous and mind-boggling selection of Asian and European food on the breakfast buffet felt I was definitely set up for the day ahead. Quang outlined the history of the Cu Chi Tunnels en route. He described how the landscape we would be seeing was now green but had resembled a lunar landscape during the war because of ceaseless bombing and deforestation by Agent Orange deployed by US forces. The tunnels of Cu Chi are a 121km-long network of underground passages that were used by Viet Cong soldiers. They served as hiding places, hospitals, food and weapon caches, and living quarters. The system was of great importance in the Viet Cong's resistance to American forces.

Life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and they were infested with poisonous insects and vermin. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, soldiers would be forced to remain underground for days at a time. Sickness was rampant, malaria being the second largest cause of death after battle wounds.

Visitors can experience the tunnels first hand and crawl around the safer parts. Some tunnels have been widened to accommodate the larger size of some of us Western tourists.

Lunch was as with all our meals - local, fresh and really flavoursome. I had a bowl of great chicken noodle soup with leafy green herbs and a selection of chillies, and a cold local beer. Dessert was a delicious medley of pineapple, coconut and mango.

The Vietnamese really can cook - and street food is very popular. Small, family-run restaurants pop up everywhere, and are fascinating even just to watch the preparation and the activity they create.

It was extremely hot - around 37-40 degrees Celsius and about 90pc humidity. If you are planning to visit - and I really recommend this - you should consider what time of year best suits you. I really struggled at times but good food and lots of water helped maintain my flagging energy.

Fully restored after lunch, we went to the fascinating but chilling War Remnants Museum.

Here, the history of the war (1955-1975) and its effects on the people is recorded from a huge collection of work by war correspondents and photographers from all over the world. It is really very disturbing; the devastation depicted unimaginable. Three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans were killed.

When you travel in Vietnam, this history is everywhere. You can't visit the country without engaging with it.

Before the war, the Vietnamese were colonised by the French and the imprint of the French style is everywhere also. The Post Office and Cathedral of Notre Dame are both fine architectural symbols of the French. While really impressive, they are constant reminders of how these people had been oppressed for centuries.

After a quick swim back at the hotel we headed out for another lovely evening meal. I was gradually becoming more adept at using my chopsticks and slurping - a skill in itself! Meals gave our friendly and easy-going group (everyone else was from England or Australia) the opportunity for a good catch up. Everyone was profoundly moved by the tunnels and museums.

The next day's tour had a lighter mood as we took a wonderful trip into the rural world of the Mekong Delta. This vast fertile area is stunningly beautiful. Since the American trade embargo was lifted in the mid 1990s Vietnam has very quickly become the world's third largest producer of rice, coffee and cashew nuts.

Driving there we encountered, yet again, albeit from the safety of our coach, the completely demented traffic. Vietnam has a population of 90 million people, and 90pc of them drive motorbikes.

I saw a pig on a motorbike - not driving obviously, and families made up of children, grannies and grandads all being driven at speed, while the driver was often texting.

You have to abandon your Western sensitivities here and embrace the lemming-like madness of crossing roads with bikes flying all around you. I found closing my eyes actually helped.

So a gentle paddle along the Mekong's huge network of rivers and canals offered a calm and quiet break from the earlier insanity. The odd glimpse of kingfishers and other exotic birds among the swaying jungle was bewitching.

We were given traditional cone-shaped hats to protect us from the midday sun. They are by far the coolest headgear to wear - catching the breeze and cooling your head while shading it from the sun. I strongly advise getting one to use there. At our destination on the river, we visited gorgeous local homesteads and were met with some great hospitality. We were presented with delicious fresh fruit refreshments while listening to wonderful sean nos-esque music performed by traditional musicians and singers. The contrast to the frenetic pace of Ho Chi Minh City made it feel much further than a couple of hours away.

Another boat ride and we arrived at a wonderful riverside restaurant called My Tho - at Tan Thach. Wendy Wu Tours selected local restaurants to promote a strong sense of the cuisine and customs of each area we visited. Lunch was theatrically presented with dishes of Elephant Ear Fish, fresh prawns and lime prepared in front of us.

Later, we were served with the restaurant's signature dish, a delicacy called Dinosaur Eggs. These huge egg-like, sweet and sticky structures were a strange yet delightful concoction and they went down well with the Vietnamese beer 333.

Our return journey was broken with a visit to the stunning Vinh Trang Pagoda which was full of statues - all representing various stages of the Buddha's life. Inside was wonderfully calm with an abundance of shrines. Each deity was wafted by heavy smells of incense and fresh flowers with ornate gold and red prayer towers decorating each altar.

As it was our last night in Saigon we headed out into the vibrant city. The Hotel Rex, famous for its Robin Williams movie Good Morning, Vietnam, offers wonderful cocktails and 1980s disco-style music. Under the very warm night sky we marvelled at how much we had seen and experienced in the first few days of this tour. We tempered both our delicious cocktails and dodgy dance moves as we had an early start to fly to Danang and then on to Hoi An - which we were told more than any other place in Vietnam retains a feel of centuries past.

Hoi An is captivating and it makes you feel like you are in a time warp. It was once an influential port along the infamous Silk Road. For more than 500 years merchants from China, Japan, France and Portugal settled in the prosperous town resulting in a distinctive blend of culture, cuisine, religion and architecture.

We explored the wonderful Japanese Covered Bridge - built in the 1590s. This stunningly beautiful structure is a working treasure with a constant stream of tourists and local people pouring over it day and night.

While this ancient place was full of sights, sounds and flavours to explore we pushed on over the spectacular Hai Van (Cloudy) Pass to Hue.

Here lay the Imperial Citadel at the heart of what had been the imperial capital from 1802 until 1945 when the last emperor abdicated. My expectations were nowhere near what we were about to encounter.

This walled fortress is modelled on the Forbidden City in China. Built for use by the Imperial family, their concubines and eunuchs, it is full of many wonderful pagodas, temples and contains the Grand Tombs of the Nguyen Emperors. It is vast and with so much to see we were limited only by time. I would advise giving yourself at least a day to see this wonder.

Quang was impressive in his knowledge of the Citadel. He told the history carefully and with great pride as we explored every temple, garden, courtyard and pagoda within the moat-surrounded walls. This is definitely one of the most stunning places we visited on the tour.

And we were only just a little over the halfway mark into our trip. The mystical Halong Bay lay ahead and I couldn't wait to take a boat trip to explore it.

Getting there

The 12-day ‘Vietnam at a Glance’ trip is available from €2,690pp with Wendy Wu Tours (www.wendywutours.ie, 0818 776 380) 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. 

Book by 28 November to save €300 per couple with Wendy Wu Tours’ earlybird offer — www.wendywutours.ie/earlybird.

When travelling outside Europe it is a good idea to check your passport expiry date and the passport and visa requirements for all the countries you plan to visit. 

Take three: top attractions

Local crafts

Check out the local craft factories. These offer you the chance to see craftspeople at work and save you from the haggling of the high streets or markets. Prices, though startling in the local currency of the dong, which has ridiculously high numbered denominations, are, when recalculated to euros, very reasonable. Look out for great bargains in silks, lacquer work, jade and pearls.

Traditional foods

We enjoyed many delicious traditional Vietnamese meals which are made up of many dishes, a little like tapas, and while individual dishes may look small you always end up eating plenty — in fact usually much more than you need.

Vietnamese cuisine makes ample use of herbs, spices and coconut, and if you enjoy seafood, duck and fresh vegetables you will find plenty to enjoy.

The welcoming people

The Vietnamese really make tourists feel most welcome and offer many interactive experiences. On a trip to the Mekong the local community showed us traditional farming techniques and we were all given work clothes and the traditional straw hats so synonymous with Vietnam. Then we all worked at preparing the ground and planting which was great fun when you’re only working at it for a day.

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