Vibrant Vietnam - from a snake aperitif to Elephant Ear's fish
From a snake aperitif to Elephant Ear's fish, Pat Costello experienced more than he bargained for on his eclectic and eye- opening trip to Southeast Asia.
Typhoon, our guide, pointed to a huge bottle full of coiled snakes and asked: "Would anyone like a drink?" Two questions came to mind straight away. How did he ever get a name like Typhoon? And what on earth was the liquid in the bottle?
The answer to the first was quite simple: when his mother was giving birth to him, a violent storm had blown the roof off the house, hence the name.
The question of the snake drink was a little more complicated. The coiled reptiles were yellow and black, rust and ochre, and seemed to stare at us with a malevolent gaze. Typhoon turned the tap and poured us a glass of the shimmering liquid.
Earlier that day, in the Mekong Delta, I had sampled Elephant's Ear fish and carried the weight of a python as it wrapped itself around my shoulders. So I was hardly going to baulk at a glass of rice spirit fermented with snakes.
As I sipped the exotic potion, it stung the back of my throat like a very sharp ouzo.
Being the first of the group to drink the spirit was symbolic. It was my baptism of fire – the start of my travels, in my 60s, to far, distant places until such time as my legs will no longer carry me on to the plane.
I was in Vietnam – a land of magnificent pagodas, incense-fragrant temples, golden Buddhas and place names which ring with the horror of a war whose legacy still leaves the Vietnamese maimed but inspiringly resilient.
Our journey began in Dublin with a change of flight in London, and from there to Kuala Lumpur and onwards to Hanoi.
Our guide, Huong (Rose in English), wearing a traditional conical hat and slim cream dress over flared black trousers, was standing outside arrivals in Hanoi Airport clutching a placard with our names. With the sweetest smile on earth, she welcomed us to the city of the Rising Dragon and guided us to the car where our driver was waiting to bring us to our hotel.
I'm going to stereotype the Vietnamese now: they are gentle, generous and kind, and we met no exception. Even the policemen stopped the wild traffic to help us across the road. People just couldn't do enough for us. This was to be the pattern of every place we visited.
We spent three days in Hanoi, visiting the mausoleum of the country's former Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, and his modest house set in quiet, beautiful gardens.
We took a cyclo tour involving two elderly men pedalling in the searing heat, while we guiltily sat back under the awning and closed our eyes as motorbikes veered much too close for comfort. Our pedallers pedalled blithely, seemingly oblivious to the waves of whirring, beeping motorbikes. There are at least 20 million motorbikes in Vietnam, all cascading, zig-zagging along the roads, and carrying anything you can imagine from whole families to huge vases of flowers and enormous brown paper packages towering over the driver.
From the comfort of our cyclos, we careered down the narrow streets, peered into fabric and plumbing shops, looked into the cool gloom of family rooms, and gazed at locals eating on little plastic seats outside their homes or shops.
We wondered how slight, tiny women could balance two heavily loaded baskets on one shoulder and marvelled at how extraordinary it all was just one day away from Dublin.
Our drivers ferried us in the shade around Hoan Kiem Lake, and we stopped at the famous water puppet theatre, which is more than 1,000 years old.
Between the two crops of rice in the north of Vietnam, farmers fashioned the puppets that act out classical stories with wily dragons, frisky buffalo and exasperated rice farmers – all on a water-filled stage and accompanied by Vietnamese musicians.
We were entranced and bought little wooden puppets to hang on our Christmas tree.
The next part of our holiday was a two-day cruise on a stately, upgraded junk in Halong Bay, a Unesco World Heritage Site, with 300 spiky islands rising from clear, emerald waters.
The drive from Hanoi city via National Road No.1 was spectacular. Women in conical hats with their water buffalo worked the seemingly endless paddy fields. Patience and calm were the hallmarks of our driver as he weaved in and out of traffic, never seeming flustered as he faced a truck coming straight for us on the wrong side of the road.
I put my face in my hands and stifled a scream. The speed limit is 50km per hour and it took three hours to cover the 150km.
At Halong Bay, on board our luxurious sailing ship, we had a delightful lunch as we sailed through the islands, weighed anchor in a lagoon and swam in the warm water. Later that evening, we sat back on deck sipping cocktails before our evening meal – a feast of seafood, curries and many vegetables we had never seen before.
From Hanoi, we flew to Hue to visit the Citadel, and from there we were driven to Hoi An and the Swiss-Belhotel Golden Sand Hotel, where we relaxed by the sea in the longest infinity pool in Southeast Asia.
We did a cookery course, choosing the freshest of ingredients at the market and then came back to the hotel kitchen to cook a delicious meal.
Hoi An is a shopper's paradise. My fellow tourists had ordered shirts, suits and dresses and showed us their purchases with delight. We had our feet measured, chose a style and called back next day to collect our new shoes, which fitted like a glove and cost only €20.
From Hoi An, we flew to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City. This is a sophisticated city, a good starting point for a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels – an intricate underground labyrinth of 200km on three levels where the Viet Cong soldiers hid out, cooking, eating and sleeping during the grim war of the 1960s and 1970s.
Leaving Vietnam behind, we flew to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, where, with much unease, we faced another uncomfortable visit to the infamous 'Killing Fields', Choeung Ek, about 14km from Phnom Penh.
Using an earphone guide, we walked silently from one marker to the next, listening to first-hand testimonies of the utter terror visited on the Cambodians by their own countrymen.
On that warm day, as we silently made our way along that numbered path, shaded by trees, we were chilled to remember the more than 17,000 men, women and children who were exterminated under Pol Pot.
In the centre, a monument holds the skulls and clothing of those brutally killed there. We laid our flowers and bowed our heads in prayer.
From Phnom Penh, we flew to Siem Reap to visit Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and home to more than 100 species of birds, many endangered, and 200 species of fish.
Here, the local floating village has its own school, shops and medical centre, all on water. As daily life went on around us, we watched locals washing themselves in what looked like very muddy water, as we went by in our motorboat. Our next stop brought the highlight of our trip: the 1,000sq km complex of temples at Angkor.
The temples, built between the 9th and 15th century, are a sight to behold. They're a short drive from Siem Reap and you can buy a three-day entry to all of them, though that still wouldn't be enough time.
The most spectacular are those at Ta Prohm, where the roots of the silk cotton tree, some as wide as an oak, clamber and snake through the stone temples.
Overhead, the leaves cast shade over the tumbling stone, ignoring the destruction caused by the roots which cling to and clasp the buildings like some very amorous lover.
It was also where the movie 'Tomb Raider' was filmed and Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft battled the illuminati!
It might have taken me 60 years to get to Vietnam, but it was well worth the wait.