A spoonful of the purple monster

Trip Start Jul 2003
Trip End May 2005

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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Number 20 (26th July 2004 - 27th August 2004): a spoonful of the purple monster

Crossing the Friendship Bridge from China into Vietnam meant less of, "is that really edible?" and more of, "wow, look at all those hats." Re-entering a former colony also seems to mean damaged self-esteem and mass overcharging (are some countries just too proud for that?). On arrival we opted for the great, mountain bus ride to the tourist trap of Sa Pa. Despite the committed touting from the picturesque H'Mong tribespeople herded into town to entertain the tourists, we found some beautifully lush and green hillsides around this badly over-developing town. Having got used to a liquid diet of curry, rice and dhal over the last 7 months, thanks to the Parisienne influence we welcomingly tore our mouths to shreds on crunchy bread.

To summarise Vietnam's last 70 years of war, it would appear that most of the French ran away when World War II was under way, leaving their largely unsuccessful colonisation to the mercy of Japan. Ho Chi Minh and his Communist forces fought Japan (and greatly assisted the US in this effort) and when the war ended, he declared independence. France, however, then came to collect and could only get the southern half. The anti-communist, Catholic leader of the South, Diem, refused to hold full-country elections (Ho Chi Minh would obviously have won): lots of Communists headed for the North and two Vietnams were created. Diem, a brutal man, was assassinated by his own troops in 1963 and the Russians and Chinese said to the North, "be Communist, here's some guns." In 1965, the USA and others (answering a call for help from the South) said, "don't be Communist, here's some guns." By 1973 most people were dead (reputedly 58,000 US and 3,000,000 Vietnamese), and the West (represented by the USA) left. By 1975, Ho Chi Minh and his north Vietnamese Communists had defeated Saigon and the South, and hundreds of southerners fled (boat people). Those who stayed were 're-educated' in the ways of Hanoi and the North. In 1978, following repression against the Vietnamese-Chinese and a war against Cambodia, China invaded. In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vietnam and the west spoke again. And for us, it would seem, tourists pour in, prices rocket and we have to budget (ouch).

So this is a country which defeated the Japanese, then the French, then the Americans; the Americans may have well been the Martians (or the notably absent British). To quote Ho Chi Minh, "we stood shoulder to shoulder with the Allies against the fascist threat," but that appears to be as far as the friendship went. He may well have united two very opposed parts of the same country, but wouldn't just leaving it as the two countries of North and South Vietnam have saved millions of lives? Was it really necessary for him to invade the South? Ho Chi Minh (literally, 'Bringer of Light') was a seriously committed man, and if it wasn't for his adoption of the political big C, America would probably have been his greatest ally. The American pilot 'guests' at the Huan Lo Prison (aka the 'Hanoi Hilton') certainly took full advantage of his wise and clever PR (previous 'guests' weren't quite so lucky at the hands of the bitter and somewhat irrational French). As we walked round looking at the 60's/70's glass-cased shirts of those US pilots who came down in Hanoi, all we could think of was their apolitical classmates who, at the same time, were living it up on the Afghan/Indian/Nepali hippy love trail we'd just travelled through'.

Hanoi old town is an impressive place: treelined Parisienne suburbs have simply been lifted, dropped in Asia and filled with mopeds and thousands of Vietnamese crouched on tiny plastic stools at every cafe dominated zebra-crossed junction. Little attempt was made to merge colonial architecture with local building expertise (unlike the unique Indo-Saracenic style seen in India), but there are some beautiful streets to get lost in. And some of the buildings are amazing, the 11th century Temple of Literature dedicated to Confucius, for example. Ho Chi Minh's Moscow-style mausoleum sits in the impressive European style estate of the former Governor-General of Indochina. Only open for a few hours each morning, sneaking in through the exit and joining the end of a group didn't seem to cause any problems amidst the confused security. And seeing Ho Chi Minh lying in hi-tech state is rather breath-taking with a Star Trek quality (all against his wishes, as apparently in his will he specified that his ashes be buried in urns on three hilltops in Vietnam, saying, "Not only is cremation good from the point of view of hygiene, but it also saves farmland"). And despite the millions of litres of Agent Orange dropped, most of Hanoi is wonderfully tree filled. It's one of those few cities we could have lived in. Crouching around a mud fish, prawn and tofu hotpot on a hot and sticky evening with a bottle of 'new rice' vodka, some smiling and laughing locals and trains rumbling past was extremely enjoyable.

Seven hours south east by train and rusty boat took us to Cat Ba island. Halong Bay is full of strange, vegetation topped, rocky outcrops which appear to float on the deep green waters of the bay. It was hard, humid work with the sun hiding behind a thick cloud duvet for most of the day, but when we rounded the last lump of rock we, and a boat load of over-excited Vietnamese weekenders, were rewarded with a sunburst on the little, mini-skyscraper town of Cat Ba. With most of the island recently designated a National Park, development is restricted to a very small area. Great floating restaurants reached by boat or long and scary floating walkways, with fish caught to order from pens suspended underneath. And terrifying oysters at least 8" across. Fisher families appear to live in floating villages where their boats dock. Very scenic. Returning to the mainland to Haiphong we witnessed pleasantries from needle filled toilets to junkies slumped on steps: the most visible hard drugs problem we've seen to date. Ninh Binh allowed us to float through caves and picturesque rice paddies: classic Vietnamese scenery but just short of a tourist carnival. And are those tiny little boats really made of concrete?

The strange thing about Vietnam is that there is an extremely well trodden 'tourist beaten path'. If you step off it for just one pace, all the tour groups disappear and you appear to be in the middle of nowhere. At Dong Ha, famous for it's siting on the edge of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), its former use as a huge US military base and the meeting of the famous Highways 1 and 9, we caused some confusion by getting off the train; at 4am on a dark, windy platform we were utterly alone. We watched a huge lorry full of dogs bark past, before finding a well spoken 're-educated' gentleman taking his morning exercise. Since the destruction of the base in 1972 no one really stays, so we arranged a peculiar room and local tour of the DMZ. After watching most classic 'American War' movies ("we've had so many wars we name them after the country we're fighting"), driving through defoliated mountains to the Laos border and standing on a windy hill amongst some broken tanks and helicopters where thousands died is all quite moving. And names such as 'Khe Sanh Combat Base' and 'Fire Bases on Highway 9' and 'Height 241 at the Southern 17 Parallel' can make the hairs stand on end. The Ho Chi Min trails, found all over Vietnam, appear to have been the key to the Vietnamese success: amazingly intricate networks of tunnels, roads and bridges. A bridge bombed in the morning had been rebuilt by women and children by lunchtime, and by the afternoon supplies were on the move again: even the eldest had never known anything else but war.

On the way to Saigon we partook in a mud spa (baths of pancake batter with a hint of rosemary and a touch of sulphur) before laying about on some good beaches. Then we reached Saigon. It's not a bad place if you like concentrated pockets of westerners and ex-pats buying you drinks, but by comparison Hanoi was wonderful. Saigon is, however, the entry point to the Mekong Delta and boats to Cambodia so we took the free drinks and didn't complain. The 'War Museum' in Saigon has the most incredible collection of photos from the American conflict, mostly in memory to the journalist/photographers who were killed. Most photograph sections finish with, 'His/her last photograph', or 'The last sighting of them as they set off for a VC checkpoint'. Or most moving, 'A chaplain reading her last rights'. You are constantly aware that 'only the victor writes the history' and the story of the South can never be told in Vietnam, but these photos are real.

Whilst travelling from the north to the south there really appears to be two different countries here, from the hill tribes and formerly socialist North to the business-like South. There is, however, such community bonding everywhere in Vietnam that has nothing to do with Communism. Everyone is very touchy-feely and appears to enjoy close contact: never before have we been patted and prodded so much. People don't get up early, and frequently we were told on arrival at 6am to "come back in the morning". Everywhere, so many people seem to be employed to do the same task, resulting in nothing actually happening (no-one taking our money in the post office). We did have the feeling that people here are really quite genuine, and given the opportunity really do want to speak with you without wanting much in return.

Now it's a boat up the Mekong to Cambodia.

Ho Chi Willy and Agent Emma

p.s. this month's strangest food:
You know how some edibles only smell good because you know what they are (eg cumin = sweat)? Well, Hanoi's famous dish of 'cha ca' comes with a very-purple sauce so specifically strongly smelling of something that we were checking our shoes as it approached our little plastic table (the floor wasn't very far away). Mam Tom it's called, and if anyone can tell us just what's in it we'd be grateful (unless it has anything to do with what it smelled like).
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