Vietnam Going South

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Saturday, March 5, 2011

The journey from Halong Bay was a punishing 20 hour ride. Things started well when one hour outside of Halong Bay our driver suddenly remembered he had forgotten three people who were meant to be on the bus. Round we turned back to where we started and to add insult to injury the three passengers were Americans. Five hours later we arrived at Hanoi and from there I went to the train station for the 7.30pm night train to Hue. We pulled up at Hue at around 10am the next day, after managing to actually sleep on a the train for around two hours for once in my life I was obviosuly pretty shattered. I checked into another Lonely Planet hotel, showered and did some writing. Hue is described as Vietnam's 'intellectual, cultural and spiritual capital' and this was the reason I chose to go, there are other more interesting places to go, but some culture was needed to heal the capitalist wounds.  As it turns out Hue is pleasantly dull and while there are some sights thy oldest is only around 200 years and the main sites are honouring the slightly less interesting Kings of Vietnam's history. This makes it even more surprising that most of them are already falling to pieces. This is partly due to poor upkeep over the years, and partly due the original construction techniques, which weren't all that exceptional. The tombs were built by puppet emperors who had little real power, other than to sit around contemplating their own deaths and building monuments in anticipation of the occasion. That said, some of the tombs are located on large, beautiful grounds,  and the crumbling edifices exude a certain air of aesthetically-pleasing decrepitude So Hue is a failry nice place to take in several sights in one day. You go buy boat along the Perfume River and then by coach to the forests which surround Hue. All this for $6, excluding pagoda and temple entrance fees.

Starting on the river in a pretty tourist boat decorated with blue dragons heads on the prows of the boat, we left to start the tour Our host spoke excellent English and was very helpful with any questions you may have. We pulled into the river bank and after a short walk along a stream we came to a traditional Vietnamese Martial Arts display center where some younger students would be starting a display. After describing the history behind the martial art we watched them do some nice non contact moves with swords, numchucks, daggers, butterfly hand fan and other weapons. There was also the customary breaking of bricks with wrist maneuver and another queasy move I won't describe. I really enjoyed their display and the river setting added some extra ingredient to proceedings. After scuttling back to the boat we all went on to see three more Pagodas at different stages of the Perfume River and also inland.

Thien Mu Pagoda    is situated in a beautiful spot over looking the Perfume River, on the river road that runs along the north bank, about 3.5km west of the railway bridge. Possibly Hue’s most recognizable landmark , this pagoda contains numerous living and working buildings for its resident monks. Built in 1844 by Emperor Thieu Tri, it features some golden Buddha images at the base, along with a big bell cast in 1710, and a stone turtle holding a marble steel inscribed in the 17th century . In 1963 a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc shocked the world by travelling to Saigon, pouring a can of gas over his head, and lighting himself on fire, in protest of American interference in South Vietnam's self-determination. The image of a robed man, sitting cross-legged on the pavement, rocking back and forth in meditation as he was consumed by flames, was broadcast on American television. It was the first in many grim photos of the conflict which were beamed into American homes during the world's' first TV war' -- images that would eventually ignite a backlash against the war andled ultimately to America's defeat. The monk in question lived at this particular pagoda, which still functions as a monastery to this day. The Austin motorcar he used to drive down to Saigon is on display near the back and it was interesting to see because I remember that image of the burning monk at university and thinking wow. The car itself was not burned as the monk was sitting about 20 yards from the car.

We now headed to see the tombs and pagodas. First was the Tomb of Tu Duc. The final resting-place of this Nguyen Dynasty emperor and scholar was built before his death. A lake, pavilion and theater still exist on the grounds. Let it be said this King had around 330 concubines strutting around the pleasant grounds; the mind boggles. There was also a local gastro cook who insisted on 50 courses, with 50 chefs and 50 servants ready for his meals, nice. It gives a good insight into an oriental dynasty and its bizarre court lifestyle. The tomb is set in a forest with the living and spiritual quarter in the center surrounded by a small lake with water alleys flowing prettily around the banks of the lake. This was one lucky King, a Charles 1 type King I guess, minus the beheading.

Second was the Tomb of Khai Dinh . Emperor Khai Dinh (1885-1925) ruled Vietnam for 9 years. His tomb took 11 years to complete. Construction began in 1920 and was completed in 1931. Under Khai Dinh, Western culture and influence began to seep into Vietnam. The king himself visited France in 1922 and was unpopular at home as he was seen as arrogant and only ceeded no children as he was gay. Thetomb has many elements of Western architecture. Apparently of all the tombs, Khai Dinh's probably least resembles oriental architecture . Emperor Khai Dinh's tomb is built using concrete, its roof with slates and the gate is made of wrought iron. The builder made use of the lighting rod and electricity is used to light the place. Beyond these modern building materials and designs, the tomb had elements of eastern art mixed with western designs. The King himself is a less than impressive looking gay man but he pulls of the dynamic clothes the royalty wore at the time - think of a Vietnamese John Paul Gaultie r. The tomb is located in nice forests outside of Hue and sits on a hill side with three levels to climb before you reach the area at the top which affords beautiful views of the surrounding hills. Its all rather Gothic in a way. Finally we saw the Tomb of Minh Mang . Slightly more run down and in need of some restoration it still has a serene, flower-lined walkway leads to this Nguyen Dynasty emperor’s regal tomb, which is part of a complex including a summer home and lake. Again it is set in forest grounds and has a more dignified feel to it than the first tomb.

I was tombed out but happy to have committed a whole day to some culture. The idea of a beach and some completely different felt attractive so I decided to go to Nha Trang. This town  feels like Brighton with good weather: it is brash but charming . Sunbathing is never high on my list of priorities, nor is reading a book while heavily sweating. I was happy to just do very little and very slowly, which kind of works in Nha Trang. Remembering I had missed out on diving in Thailand and this is the dive and beach capital of Vietnam made it made sense to gt my PADI diving certificate so I could then dive at any time again the future. A helpful girl at the hotel told me somewhere to go and it was reasonable and professional enough looking. $265 four a four day course with one day pure theory and information, second day in the pool doing some mock drills and breathing, third day two dives in the sea and tests underwater and day four same again. Doing something with a goal like this is rewarding and keep you focused so I enjoyed the whole experience and dived in. Once you control your breathing through your mouth and get over any water depth fears you might have it is a fairly painless process. Getting up early and doing some good exercise as also was great. The dives themselves were fairly quiet as it had rained for two days when I arrived (obviously) and although visibility was good the fish were thin in numbers. Although we did see some interesting fish including a shoal of barracudas and a some other interesting creatures. Floating around in the water is a lovely feeling and once you breath and get comfortable its even nicer and you just float around this world you never saw before. Leaving Vietnam with a qualification also felt like time welt spelt for once

It was time to get to Cambodia though, I had a ticket for the 7.42am train to Saigon arriving at 4pm and after a brief chat with an English guy I jumped on the train. As a side note Vietnamese trains are pretty nice if you turn a blind eye to the rubbish food and fairly bad littering of carriages with plastic bags etc . You cam smoke in any corridor and the eating carriage is a nice place to get a quieter and colder position to view the scenery. Vietnam is certainly picturesque through the eyes of a train or bus.

As we approached Saigon the heat and humidity kept rising as slowly as we were entering the city. One hour of sprawling buildings, roads etc we reached the station. The expected taxi man latched to me and told me $8 to the hotel, I told him my truthful view on the expected fair of $4 and we left to go to another Lonely Planet recommended hotel. Perhaps I take back what I said a few weeks ago about Lonely Planet - the Vietnam version anyway; Laos still sucks. I wandered around for a couple of hours to see some of the city. I needed to get a t-shirt at the market. Amazingly this city even exceeds Hanoi for sheer traffic mayhem and lunacy. In Hanoi the mopeds usually break, change direction or swerve a little, but here they go for you. Great fun really. Wandering past boulevards with pleasant greenery and side areas for people to play games like badminton, feet ball (made that up) and a 50 strong dancercise with a lead instructor in the middle leading the way. Zoom out a back to wide busy streets where horns constantly beeping and a snake like procession weaves its way around the city . There are cocks sitting on motorbikes, streets thick with people and a nice humidity to keep the fire stoked nicely. After successfully buying the t-shirt at the market I wandered back to the hotel and bumped into another person I had met early in the trip, a French girl. Small world, a quick chat and bye and off to the hotel. Staying in my room for the evening considering I was stopping off for one day was not an option. Quick shower and to a bar close by for some drinks and local chit chat hopefully. A pretty Vietnamese in a bar I went to  granted my wish and we talked about this and that for a while. She told me she had a boyfriend two years ago but he was Buddhist and she is Catholic so it was not an option for the parents and she has been moaning about it since. I told her to get over it nicely and that funnily enough I was Catholic. It was also Women's Day in Vietnam and she had no flowers - sniff. The Vietnamese women are very religious and so a conversation and some fun is usually appropriate. We also got talking to the bar owner about some politics and corruption talk which was cool. It was nice to meet some people before I left. I threw myself into bed ready and looking forward for the morning bus to Cambodia

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Caroline on

Another great blog and some great photos :-) Keep safe and have fun. Looking forward to reading about your next adventures xxx

M&D on

Your blogs are wonderful - bring everything to life and in a very individualistic way. The videos get better all the time - the second one of the Martial Arts was absolutely compelling. How about some of you in action next time? Will await eagerly for the next instalment, and good luck in that Cambodian heat. Love M&Dxxx

Shents on

Loving your blog as always. And congratulations on the diving certificate (and beard!). Have fun in Cambodia. Check out the Tomb Raider temples in the forest near Angkor Wat, they're amazing. Take care. Big hugs. X

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