Aidan Lawes ventured to Vietnam and quickly fell under the country’s spell. Read about his oriental odyssey all this week exclusively on CD-Traveller
I had few preconceptions of what Vietnam would offer. The food scene is currently very en vogue, Halong Bay is a world-renowned natural wonder, but the overriding association is still with the American Vietnam War (interestingly the largest nationality to visit Vietnam is Americans who dwarf the rest of the top 10) and films such as Full Metal Jacket depicting the horrific slaughter of seemingly innocent civilians. My knowledge of this war was patchy at best, and like all good travelers, I told myself that I would try and learn more.
I had decided to join a small tour, starting in Ho Chi Minh City (from here on Saigon – no one calls it HCMC). From there we would go south to the Mekong Delta and then back through Saigon heading north, flying out of Hanoi. At nearly 200km in length, Vietnam is a long narrow country with plenty of good internal flights. There is also the reunification express train which runs from Saigon to Hanoi, with useful stops along the way such as Nha Trang, Da Nang. Fans of rail will probably enjoy the journey: the trains are comfortable and, compared to other trains in south-east Asia, are very clean.
My guide on this trip was Thao who at 28 is only a year older than me. Married with a young son, leading trips up and down the country meant that Thao had missed hearing his son’s first words. For all this, he thought that being a tour guide was the best way to get on. “These days”, he told me “my generation is more interested in the future than looking back. Now there are opportunities”.
Saigon, our first port of call, is a crowded metropolis where crossing roads is a real art. The trick seems to be to step into the oncoming traffic and keep walking at a regular pace. As this is what is expected, mopeds will go round you. Never stop, take a backward step or change pace!
The War Remnants Museum is a must – a reminder of the atrocities unleashed on an innocent people so recently. Saigon’s other sights are relatively few for what is such a large city. The Catholic church designed by the French is a famous landmark, as is the nearby post office, but the rest of the city is lacking in accessible sights. Foodwise, however, it’s fascinating. Thao joked that in Vietnam everything with four legs is eaten except the table. One menu we came across contained the items ‘Grilled bloody clam with fat and garlic,’ ‘Braised ox penis, deer shin, beef marrow, pig brain in hot pot” and last by not least ‘Braised chicken testicles in hot pot’. I did sample some standout dishes on my trip – Caramel squid in Hanoi was a highlight, as was steamed flower crab with lemongrass in Halong Bay. All meals are washed down with rice wine: served neat in shots, it is similar to Japanese sake but cloudier and far rougher. Locals buy in bulk and decant into smaller half-liter bottles. The custom is to drink all the rice wine before you start dining!
About an hour north west of Saigon are the Cu Chi tunnels which have been turned into a tourist-friendly introduction to the life of the Viet Cong during the war. The most exciting part is a 150m tunnel which you can go through. Despite being nearly twice the size of an actual Viet Cong tunnel, you could not walk along it comfortably. Being very dimly lit, and in many places pitch black, the tunnel snaked with no warnings of bends to come. The Vietnamese fighters had no option but to live in such cramped conditions but for modern tourists, it’s an unnerving experience and a relief to finally crawl into the daylight.
Read Aidian’s account of The Mekong Delta tomorrow