Thursday, 16 August 2012

Vietnam - Part 2

Exactly 1 year after our first visit to Vietnam in 1994 we returned to find a rapidly changing country. Since the lifting of the trade embargo by the US government the previous year there was a noticeable change in a number of construction projects commencing in Saigon. Many international hotels were being planned in anticipation of the increase in tourism that was about to engulf the country. Our favourite hotel, the Majestic, a famous drinking hole for journalists during the war years, with its magnificent French Colonial architecture and the run-down interior was closed and being renovated. 

Ninh Binh
Minh Mang Tomb, Hue 
Tomb of Tu Duc, Hue
This trip didn't start off very well for us. A friend who was now working in Saigon was supposed to meet us but didn't show up and it was also a Tet holiday. So after a few days, we headed this time towards the Central Highland towns of Buon Ma Thuot, Pleiku & Kontum. It was while we were in Pleiku that we encountered our second setback. We had returned from Kontum in the morning and were preparing to venture out to have a look around the town of Pleiku when there was a huge explosion outside the hotel. Without going into all the gruesome details please read the story as written by an American journalist who was also in the town, although not in the Hotel at the time. Regardless of what the press reported at the time, we are pretty sure this was caused by unexploded ordnance from the war years. Needless to say, it was a terrifying experience however we continued our travels in Vietnam for another 5 weeks afterwards.

Visiting the north of Vietnam was definitely a different experience, in contrast, having been to the South twice. Not only did the cool weather hit us on arrival in Hanoi but the coolness of the local population was also evident. They were far more guarded than their cousins of the south. Considering that they were bombed continually during the war years and endured many hardships & losses of friends and family members, you really can't blame them for being standoffish when foreigners turn up. Regardless, we really liked Hanoi especially the 'Old Quarter'. It really showed us a different side of Vietnam that we hadn't seen before. 

Normally travellers go to Sapa in the north-west however we decided to visit Dien Bien Phu instead. Dien Bien Phu was the site of the Vietnamese battle with the French in 1954 which led to the eventual withdrawal of the French from Vietnam. The journey to Dien Bien Phu was hairy. The roads through the mountains were in a dreadful state and with some rain, it became extremely hazardous. Our driver didn't seem to understand that going down steep slopes in the wet with no guardrail should be done in a low gear!!. We think he was doing it to save fuel.

For anyone interested in Indochinese history, Dien Bien Phu was fascinating however not particularly picturesque. You can still visit the French bunkers, a museum and see the odd tank still sitting on the plain surrounded by mountain peaks. The French unfortunately underestimated the determination of the Vietnamese to transport their heavy guns up the surrounding mountains and paid the price for the mistake. From Dien Bien Phu we headed towards Ninh Binh (see top image). The return journey was very fortunate for us but unfortunate for a truck driver who overturned his truck while navigating the mountainous roads. Our guide managed to gain permission to stay in a remote town for 2 days while the locals tried to work out how to remove the truck wreck that now blocked the road. 

Tourists in those days were only allowed to transit the area and could only stay at government approved accommodation. As there were no hotels or guesthouses in the village we were accommodated in what seemed to be an old army barracks that looked like it had not seen anyone for a very long time. Later that day we ventured into the town market square and everything came to a standstill. The locals were very wary of Paul as he is 6ft (1.8m) and was a bit rough looking back then. We retreated to our 'barracks' and advised our guide of our problem. He said he would try to pave the way for us to visit again the next day which was market day for the local hill-tribe people. The following day was just as difficult however eventually we started to blend in a little with the locals but the hill-tribe women were absolutely terrified of Paul and many retreated rapidly. We managed to shoot quite a few rolls of film that day but it was extremely challenging and if not for our guides persuasive manner with the locals we would have been image-less (see image above right). We eventually got clearance to leave and we made our way slowly around the wrecked truck on the mountain road. We stopped for some photos and a group of hill-tribe girls were heading down the hill so once again our guide re-assured them into being photographed (see image above left).

Our last stop was Ha Long Bay where we hired a traditional 'junk' to cruise around the many islands but unfortunately, we encountered the worst weather and Paul ended up with a cold (strike 3). On departure, our booked transfer to the airport at 5:00am didn't turn up so we scrambled to find another taxi which managed to get us to the airport just in time for our flight. What a trip!!! We spent 3 days in a Bangkok hotel, eating drinking and recuperating. It was an awesome trip and we managed to get some amazing images which we will share in future posts.

Rural Scene in North-West Vietnam

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