Our February/March 2006 holiday
Vietnam Laos Cambodia Malaysia Local Culture
"The countries of what was formerly French Indo-China are lands that still stand apart from the rest of Asia, though they no longer make such tragic headlines. Even as they are being modernised by the West, they remain aloof, tragic, beautiful and provocative, a bewildering medley of the senses".
"River Of Time" by Jon Swain
In recent years, Roger & Vee have become increasingly adventurous in their travelling and this was our fifth 'big' trip, the previous ones being to China [click here], South America [click here], India & Nepal [click here], and Southern Africa [click here].
Essentially the holiday was a tour of Vietnam with an extension to Laos and Cambodia but, while making an prolonged connection at Kuala Lumpur, we were able to embark on a very brief foray into Malaysia, so in all we saw something of four countries in the region. This took Roger's tally of countries visited worldwide to 44.
Of course, it was a holiday but, unlike any other we have experienced, this had a strong political flavour since, for our generation, this region of the world is indelibly associated with the Vietnam war and so many Hollywood movies. Two of our guides were personal participants in the tragedies of the region and there were constant reminders of the human and physical cost of the bitter and protracted conflicts in the region.
We booked the holiday through Voyages Jules Verne (VJV) [click here], with whom we have travelled several times before, but all the arrangements locally were made by Asian Trails [click here].
In the course of the trip, Roger read three books on the recent conflicts in the region: the novel "The Sorrow Of War" by the former North Vietnamese soldier Bao Ninh [for review click here]; an examination of the detention and death of the Laotion royal family by the Australian Christopher Kremmer in "Bamboo Palace" [for review click here]; and the take-over of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge and other wartime incidents by the British journalist Jon Swain [for review click here].
For a millennium, what we now call Vietnam was effectively a province of China. More latterly, the territory of present-day Vietnam was divided into three cultural zones: that of the Khmer in the south, that of the Cham in the centre, and that of the Vietnam in the north. The country was unified as Vietnam in 1802 and led by the Nguyen emperors until 1945.
Throughout the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, France was the dominant force in the country and then from 1960-1975 there was a war to reunite north and south of the country in which United States forces played a substantial, but ultimately failed, role on behalf of the south. In what the Vietnamese call "the American war", one million Vietnamese soldiers and two million Vietnamese civilians lost their lives, while 58,000 American soldiers were killed and four times as many were wounded.
The two parts of Vietnam were formally reunited in July 1976 and since 1986 a process of economic liberalisation has been in operation. Today the population is 82M, some 70% of them farmers. Although a communist country, religion is widely practised with 60% of the people following the Buddhist tradition. The local currency is the Dong. The local language uses the Roman alphabet - thanks to a 17th century French Jesuit priest Alexandre de Rhodes - but is unpronouncable by westerners because of its tonal basis.
BBC country profile click here
French song and Vietnam images click here [note : takes time to download but is worth it]
Vietnamese travel site click here
The holiday commenced on a Friday with the first of many early starts, as we had to be up at 6 am in order to reach London's Heathrow Airport three hours before our flight departure time. We flew in a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 747-400P. The flight took almost 11 hours and we reached Kuala Lumpur at 7.20 am local time. Fortunately our wait for a connecting flight was only a couple of hours and then a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 737-400 took us on to Ho Chi Minh City in a flight of just an hour and a half. Since there is a 7 hour time difference between Britain and Vietnam, locally it was 9.50 am when we landed.
Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam with an official population of 5M and an unofficial population, including the sprawling suburbs, of 8M (putting it on a par with London). Before the reunification of Vietnam, it was called Saigon and its new name is the adopted name of the leader of the North Vietnamese forces during the war for reunification. However, it is still widely called Saigon.
As we left the bustling airport, the heat hit us, although it was 'only' 28C/82F. We were met by our local Asian Trails guide Phan Bao Thang [note that, in all the countries we visited, the family name comes first and the given name last] and started the process of getting to know our fellow holidaymakers. The group consisted of 21 in all, although six did not take the extension to Laos & Cambodia. Most of us were similarly aged (mostly late 50s/early 60s) and all of us were seasoned long haul travellers with a great love of seeing other countries and cultures.
It was only a short journey from the airport to our hotel - the Novotel Garden Plaza - because the hotel was actually on the outskirts of the city. First thing, we grabbed an hour or so's sleep to get over the jet lag. When Roger woke, he stared at the ceiling and recalled the opening words of Captain Benjamin L. Willard in the classic film "Apocalypse Now" [for a review click here]: "Saigon... shit; I'm still only in Saigon... Every time I think I'm gonna wake up back in the jungle."
Then we took a taxi into the centre of town to orientate ourselves. There are almost 4M motor scooters (mostly just 100cc) in the city, so the traffic is horrendous and the scooters swarm everywhere like angry gnats. Nobody stops for pedestrians, so the advice on crossing a road is simply to walk straight and walk slowly and magically the traffic flows around you.
We were keen to see the War Remnants Museum which did not appear to be on the official programme, so this was the focus of our free afternoon. Professionally the museum is not impressive, but then there is little money for such things. Politically it is utterly one-sided (it used to be called the Museum of American War Atrocities), but that is to be expected in the country that won the war and remains communist-controlled. However, it is a fascinating, if disturbing, venue with images from the infamous My Lai massacre and gruesome pictures of victims of torture, nepalm and Agent Orange including two deformed foetuses in glass jars. In the small grounds, there are a few samples of military hardware including a F5A jet, a Huey helicopter, an M48 tank, and a BLU 82 seismic bomb.
Sunday morning at 8 am and the official part of the programme commenced. The VJV group travelled 40 miles (65 km) north-west of HCM City to Cu Chi [click here], site of the underground tunnel network used by the Vietminh (the League for Vietnamese Independence of the north) and the Vietcong (the National Liberation Front in the south) during the conflict with both the French and the Americans. Constructed between 1948-1973, this is a complex of 217 miles (350 km) of tunnels on three levels - respectively 3 metres, 6 metres and 10 metres deep - in an area of 162 sq miles (420 sq km). All around are dips in the ground which are the remnants of bomb craters.
In an article by Tom Mangold and John Penycate, they wrote: “The district of Cu Chi was the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated, and generally devastated area in the history of warfare.” Today two sections of the tunnels are open to the public. The Ben Binh tunnels remain unlit and unreconstructed, making it difficult for larger westerners to negotiate. The Ben Duoc tunnels, however, are renovated and open to tourists.
Our journey to Cu Chi was broken by short stops to see local rice paper making and rubber collecting and then, once at Cu Chi tself, we spent two hours looking over the site and the exhibits. First, in a thatched shed, we were shown a 15-minute black and while film about the role of the tunnels in the war. This was a very amateurish and propagandist work in which the American soldiers were described as "a crazy bunch of devils" and the best of the Vietnames soldiers were said to be proclaimed "American killer hero". Then we saw demonstrations of the fiendish and fearsome booby traps and mines used to block access to the tunnels by American forces. Around the site, there are various model tableaux of soldiers in authentic uniform and so-called 'Uncle Ho' sandels (made out of old tyres).
We were shown how easy it was to disguise an entrance to the tunnel network - a small, flat cover and a few old leaves did the trick. The entrances were incredibly small, since Vietnamese are tiny and slim. Finally we were given the opportunity - taken by Vee & Roger - to enter one small section of the tunnels which has been widened to accommodate westerners. It was unbelieveably tight and dark down there and Vee suddenly felt claustrophobic, but Roger made good use of a small torch that he had taken with him and helped her continue the crawl. There was simply no way that one could go back.
Later we heard a story that may be apocryphal or may be true. In 1995, the Cuban leader Fidel Castro - a really big guy - visited the Cu Chi tunnels. The story goes that he attempted to enter one of the tunnels and became so wedged in the narrow space that a rope had to be tied around his arms so he could be hauled out.
Once out of the tunnel, Roger & Vee were pleased to partake of green tea and cassava dipped into peanuts, salt and sugar and Roger & Vee even sampled some snake wine which is said to be good for rheumatism and 'sweat of the limbs'.
Back in the centre of HCM City, we went our separate ways for lunch and Roger & Vee ate in a splendid restaurant called "Lemongrass". Then followed a short city tour which included seeing the Opera House (French-built and once home to the National Assembly), the City Hall (now home to the People's Committee and fronted by a Ho statue), the Notre Dame Cathedral (built between 1877-1880 and rising 131 feet) and the City Post Office (a grand affair designed by France's Gustav Eiffel).
Most time was spend touring the Reunification Hall. This was originally the site of the French governor whose residence was built in 1868 and then it became the Presidential Palace of South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem before it was bombed in 1962 and rebuilt. It seemed stange to spend so long here: it is politically interesting with a Chinese T-59 tank and a Russian T-54 tank stationed in the grounds, but the building itself is utterly unremarkable and even austere. Finally - although not on the programme - we visited the War Remants Museum. Since Roger & Vee had already been here, we took the opportunity for a rest and refreshment which is when we first met fellow VJV travellers Trev & Tess Jessop from the Isle of Wight. Trev is an artist and Tess is a librarian. At the museum, Trev introduced us to iced coffee, which we found really refreshing, and, over the following days, Trev & Tess became our closest friends in the group.
Monday morning was an early start: up at 6 am and off at 8 am. As our coach weaved its way through the multitude of scooters, it became evident that HCM City is one big market place. Outside the immediate centre, there are no supermarkets or department stores, so every street is lined with specialist shops selling meat, fruit, vegetables, groceries, shoes, clothes, furniture, cabinets, lights, fans, toilets, matresses, tools, engines, hardware, tiles, tubing, cloth, rubber, wood, chipboard, cement, doors, windows, sinks, bikes, scooters, tyres, motors, sewing machines, televisions, and even coffins. Especially lively is the Chinatown district of Cholon (which means 'Big Market').
Our destination was the Mekong Delta, but first we had to traverse the countryside. Vietnam really is covered in rice paddy fields and the green is stunningly vibrant. The workers in these fields really do wear conical hats. Scene after scene looked liked pages from the "National Geographic" magazine. We broke our journey at the village of Ben Luc to visit the Cao Dai Temple. Cai dai - which means 'high place' - is a new religion established in 1926 [for more information click here]. It seeks to combine the great religions and the flag consists of slabs of yellow for Buddhism, blue for Taoism nand red for Confucionism.
Eventually we reached the Mekong Delta. The Mekong is the third longest river in Asia. It rises in the Tibetan plateau, journeys through China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Cambodia, before flowing through Vietnam and splitting into a myriad waterways that form the Mekong River Delta, home to some 18 million Vietnamese. The Vietnamese call the river Song Cuu Long (the Nine Dragons River) because there are nine branches of the famous delta. The delta area is referred to as “Vietnam's rice bowl” because the land is so fertile. As well as rice, many fruits and vegetables are grown here, notably sugar cane and coconuts.
Our arrival point was My Tho, an important riverside market town of 200,000 on the banks of the Tien River, a tributary of the Mekong. For just over two hours, we went out on the river and visited Unicorn Island. It was immediately apparent that this is very much a working river with tugs and barges carrying soil and sand and lots of fish farms and floating homes. On the island, we were given local refreshments, including rice tea, and treated to a short performance of traditional music using the single-string 'dan bau' [click here], the 16-string 'dan tranh' [click here] and the violin-like 'dan co' [click here]. Finally we all donned conical hats and four by four climbed aboard sampans with local women guiding front and back for an atmospheric trip down a canal back to the river and our boat.
Before lunch, there was one more stop at My Tho to see the Vinh Trang Pagoda. This was originally built in 1849 but has been renovated five times. It displays an odd mixture of architectural styles: Chinese, Vietnamese and colonial. We were ready for lunch at the "Trung Luong restaurant" just outside My Tho. It was an exotic meal which began with the serving of a whole fish standing vertically on a plate. The fish is called locally 'elephant's ear' and is deep fried.
We were back at our hotel at 4.20 pm, so there was time to relax and freshen up before dinner. Roger & Vee joined six others from the group to go into the city centre and eat local food. The place we found was called "Vietnam House" which was located in a colonial building and added further atmosphere with local music. We ordered a special seven-course menu consisting of fresh spring rolls with shrimp and pork, barbeque shrimp with preserved bean curd, deep fried soft shelled crab, deep fried duck breast with pepper sauce, seafood soup, sautéed glass noodles with crab meat, and ice cream, washed down with local Saigon 333 beer - delicious.
Tuesday morning and off to another part of Vietnam. Boarding an Airbus A300 China Airlines aircraft loaned to Vietnam Airlines, the VJV group flew from Ho Chi Mihn City north to Danang - a journey of only 50 minutes. It was markedly less hot: 25C/77F. Danang is Vietnam's third largest port and is situated on a peninsula of land at the point where the Han River flows into the South China Sea. It is the fourth largest city in the country with a population of 850,000 and, during the war, it was major centre of US forces.
We were met by our local guide Le Huy Vu who rapidly turned out to be as interesting as the places we were visiting. He was a member of the Vietcong from 1960-1975 and was wounded three times, once in the Tet offensive of 1968 and twice in 1972. Indeeed he still has a piece of metal in his upper leg and finds it difficult walking down stairs. He was in the Cu Chi tunnels in the final offensive of 1975 and finished up with the rank of captain. He was clearly very proud of his military record.
From the airport, Vu took us to Danang's Cham Museum. The powerful kingdom of Champa was one of the most glorious in ancient south-east Asia. Cham art developed from the 4th to the 14th century (the kingdom was finally eradicated in 1471) and was at its peak in 9th & 10th centuries. Built in 1915 by the French, the museum contains the largest collection of Cham art in the world and houses some 300 rare objects from the Champa civilisation. Sadly we were only there about half an hour while Vu explained some of the major iconic features of Cham art including the lingam (a stylized phallus worshiped as a symbol of the god Shiva).
From Danang, we drove south past the Marble Mountains which are in fact limestone crags with marble outcrops. The five peaks are named after the five elements: metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. Vu told us that, during the war, Thuy Son (the water mountain) housed a Vietcong hospital. We passed lots of local workshops producing marble coffins and grave stones and, in the Ngu Hanh district, we stopped briefly at the Tien Hieu 2 marble works [click here].
It was 2.40 pm when we arrived at Hoi An [click here]. This was a small town 2,400 years ago. Originally a Champa seaport known as Faifo (2nd-10th centuries), it was taken over by the Vietnamese in the 15th century. For centuries, the port was the major centre for Japanese, Portuguese, Dutch, Arab, Chinese, and French merchants until it silted up by the 19th century. Today it has a population of only 6,000. Largely undamaged by the war, it has more than 850 historic structures. Many of Hoi An's most attractive buildings are located either on or just off Tran Phu Street which runs west to east, from the Japanese covered bridge to the market, parallel to the river. We all loved Hoi An, but it is clear that it is being changed rapidly and irrevocably by the impact of tourism.
Our time in the town started with a visit to the Thang Loi silk and lantern works where one of our group ordered a silk waistcoat.
Then our walking tour of the town commenced at the picturesque Japanese covered bridge. This was built by the Japanese community in 1593 to link its quarter with that of the Chinese and there are a pair of dog statues at the west end and a pair of monkey statues at the east end. There had been no time for lunch, so we welcomed the opportunity for a snack at the "Cargo Club & Hoi An Patissserie" where Roger indulged in a tasty caramel cake.
Next door is the delightful Tan Ky House. The Tan Ky family originally arrived in Hoi An from China and, from the late 18th century, occupied this house which is a mixture of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese styles. Seven generations of the same family have lived here; two generations still inhabit the house; and we met one of the elderly women occupants. Next stop was the Fukien Assembly Hall. This was established by the Chinese people of Fukien about 1690 and is dedicated to worship of the goddess of the sea Thien Hau.
It was 5.40 pm when we reached our hotel, the Pacific [click here], on the outskirts of the town. We were personally welcomed by the manager Anthony Phan Cong Anh who told us that the hotel had free Internet access (a unique feature of our time in Indochina) and "a private bitch" (which we thought refered to the beach). We all had dinner on the top floor of the hotel because there was a show of local culture. Roger & Vee ate corn soup with crab meat, white rose special dumpling, stewed fish in a clay pot, stir fried pork with lemongrass & red chilli, pan fried beef cubes with cucumber, onion & pineapple, stir fried mixed vegetables, and baked banana with chocolate sauce - what a feast. The show involved six dance routines, including the distinctive aspara, and then an example of Vietnamese opera with strange singing and wonderfully grotesque masks.
Next morning (Wednesday) started cooler and windy but brightened up. At 8.30 am, we set off on the day's touring. Travelling west past egrets in green paddy fields and stalls selling ancestor worship items, we stopped briefly at the village of Tra Kieu to view the local market - an exciting display of all kinds of foods with much mincing of fish.
Our destination was the My Son ruins. This site was the spiritual centre of the Champa kingdom from the 8th-15th centuries. Located in a remote jungle valley and only 'rediscovered' by the French in 1898, today it consists of more than 70 monuments and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. My Son is broadly contemporaneous with Angkor in Cambodia, but the Cham kings were less wealthy and powerful than the god kings of Angkor, so the red brick monuments are smaller and more personal.
The area was damaged during the war and one could still see bomb craters. However, access to the ruins is intimate and it is clear that, as tourism develops, physical proxity to the structures will have to be limited to preserve them. Our guide Vu led the group from one set of ruins to another, but Roger was keen to wander and take photographs - which is how he became detached from the group and totally lost. For the next few weeks, he hacked his way through the jungle as he slowly weaked from starvation and thirst. Well, perhaps this is a slight exaggeration - but, retracing his steps, it did take him around half an hour to re-establish contact with the group, as it was about to leave after two fascinating hours at the historic site.
We returned to Hoi An for lunch at the "Miss Ly Cafeteria 22" where Roger & Vee ate wonton, spring rolls, and the local delicacy cao lau (a soup made with noodles, pork and greens that can only found in the town of Hoi An). After lunch, we had a 70-minute ride on the Thu Bon River. It was by now pretty chilly, but Roger warmed up by taking over controls of the boat for around quarter of an hour - another new experience in a holiday full of them. The trip involved a short visit to the Thanh Ha village where local families still make pottery in the old-fashioned way, spinning the pottery wheel with one foot and crafting the clay with two hands.
In the evening, some of us returned to the "Cargo Club & Hoi An Patissserie" for more local food. Roger had strips of chicken stir fried with garlic, shallots, fish sauce, black pepper, chilli, brown sugar, lemongrass, onion and green bell pepper.
Thursday morning and another early start: alarm at 6.30 am and off at 8.30 am. It was much cooler as our coach headed north from Hoi An, back past the Marble Mountains, and through Danang. North of the city is the beach where in March 1965 two US marine battalions landed to secure the airfield as the first of hundred of thousands of American troops to be based in the country. We stopped for a photograph of the coracles used by local fishermen. Who would have thought four decades ago that Western tourists would be visiting in such circumstances.
Beyond Danang, the coach worked its way up Highway 1 through the Hai Van Pass (the name means 'Pass of the Ocean Clouds') through a finger of the Truong Son Mountains that juts eastwards. At its highest point, the pass is 1,650 feet (496 metres), so the views of the bays below are spectacular, while some of the hairpin bends on the road were hair-raising. Most of the road is at an 8% incline and signs warn "Go slowly. Foggy street". Even here, evidence of war is present: French brick bunkers and American concrete bunkers. Much more picturesque is the view of Lang Co village noted for fishing and seafood restaurants. On a comfort stop, Roger & Vee tried sea horse wine.
Over the pass and past shrimp farms, at 12.20 pm we reached the Perfume River Hotel at Hué. Located on the Perfume River, this city was the capital of the Nguyen dynasty and its emperors from 1802 until 1945. Originally known as Phu Xuan, the city has been ravaged on many occasions, notably by the French in 1885 and during the Tet offensive of 1968. It is located only just over 60 miles (100 km) south of the 17th parallel, the division of the old north and south Vietnams.
As soon as we had been allocated rooms and dropped off our suitcases, we left the hotel and went to the "Hoa Vien garden restaurant" for a lunch which included the wonderfully-named fuk soup (apparently made of pumpkin). It was now really chilly and we had to don jackets before boarding the boat which took us up the delightfully-named Perfume River to the Thien Mu Pagoda (the name means Elderly Goddess). This was originally built in 1601 by Nguyen Hoang, the emperor of Hué, after an old woman appeared to him and said that the site had supernatural significance. It was destroyed by a typoon in 1904 and rebuilt. Notable features of the site are the seven-storey Happiness and Grace Tower, the two and half ton (2,200 kg) Great Bell cast in 1710, the monstrous marble turtle with a huge stela carved in 1715, and the Austin Morris car in which Thich Quang Duc - the first monk to commit suicide through self-immolation - travelled to Ho Chi Minh City (he came from this pagoda and carried out his protest in 1963 [for more information click here]).
We returned to the city by coach and went to see the famous Imperial Citadel. This was built between 1804-1832 on the orders of the Emperor Gia Long and it is modelled on the Forbidden City in Beijing. Six miles (10 km) of ramparts and a moat 130 feet (40 m) wide with ten entrances surround three enclosures symbolizing three sources of power: the Capital City (Kinh Thanh) was the domain of the mandarin hierarchy, the Imperial City (Hoang Thanh) was an intermediate space for grand official ceremonies, and the Forbidden Purple City (Tu Cam Thanh) was the private sector reserved for the emperor and the imperial family (but this section is largely in ruins).
Between the Hien Nhon and Chuong Duc gates, there is the massive flag tower from which the flag of the National Liberation Front (Vietcong) flew for 24 days during the Tet offensive of 1968. Our guide Vu was a member of the unit that conquered Hué and pointed out the location at the citadel where he was wounded by US marines. Of course, he told us nothing of the incident recalled by Jon Swain in his book "River Of Time": The discovery after this withdrawal of the hastily-buried remains of thousands of Hué officials and their families in mass graves, massacred out of vengeance, tarnished for ever this vision of Vietcong patriotism ... The Hué massacre by the Vietcong ranks with My Lai among the most disgusting atrocities of the war." [For more information on this incident click here]
As soon as one is through the Royal Gate of the citadel, one reaches two large ponds full of red koi carp. As Roger reached to the digital camera fastened to his belt in order to photograph the fish, he dislodged the notebook in his jacket pocket and it fell several feet into the pond. Other members of the group had been joking for days about how Roger was noting everything in this book but, for him, it was a prized possession - the basis on which he would write his personal diary and his public web account of the trip. Therefore he stared in horror as the notebook temporarily floated as a result of the plastic covers and the fish prepared to devour all his detailed records. Ripping off his clothes, Roger dived headlong into the churning waters. Well, he would have done so within seconds if our guide Vu had not called an attendant who used a long-poled fishing net to hook out the notebook. Back at the hotel a little later, Roger spent almost an hour drying each page laboriously with the hotel's hair drier.
While at the Imperial Citadel, we saw such highlights as the Great Rites Courtyard and the Palace of Supreme Harmony, but sadly the Purple Forbidden City was almost totally destroyed during the Tet offensive of 1968. On the west side of the palace, though, there is still the Temple of Generations, built in 1821 and containing altars honouring 10 of the 13 kings of the Nguyen dynasty.
We still had a morning (Friday) left in Hué. South of the Perfume River and up in the hills are the Imperial Tombs of Emperors: seven tombs of 19th & 20th century Nguyen emperors, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Leaving the hotel at the unusually respectable time of 9.30 am and finding the weather now pleasantly warm, we visited two of these tombs. The first was the Tomb of Tu Duc. This was built in a pine forest between 1864-1867 for the man who reigned from 1848-1883 and had both a wife and 104 concubines. In the Minh Khiem Theatre part of the tomb, one can dress up in imperial garb for photographs and several of our party did so. The other mausoleum was the Tomb of Khai Dinh. This was built in modern cement and metal structures in 1920-1931 for the father of the last king who reigned from 1916-1925. A total of 127 steep steps lead up to the Honour Courtyard with its serried ranks of stone mandarins.
In between these two tomb visits, we stopped at a local craft stall where they were selling incense sticks in a marvellous array of colours.
At lunchtime, we travelled to the airport at Hué in order to travel further north. There were shops to buy traditional goods, but virtually no refreshment facilities whatsover. The best Roger & Vee could do was to buy Mars bars and chocolate chip biscuits until we boarded the Vietnam Airlines Airbus A320 when we had a very light meal. Landing at Hanoi, we found that our third guide was our only female one: long, black-haired Le Thi Thanh Hieu spoke excellent English and had a delightful sense of humour.
It took us over an hour to struggle through the traffic of Hanoi and take to the countryside on our way east to the city of Hai Phong. It did not matter - the view from the coach was utterly fascinating. We crossed the Red River where the main bridge was bombed 14 times during the war. We drove through a city where life is lived on the streets and there are even barbers working away on the pavements. The city is dominated by so-called "skinny houses" because land is expensive and so most homes are narrow and tall (and usually pastel-coloured). Once in the countryside and travelling along Highway 5, there were the inevitable paddy fields - seemingly even greener than in the south, although in the north there are only two crops a year compared to the three in the fertile Mekong Delta.
It was 7.20 pm when we eventually reached Hai Phong (the name means 'high defence'). This is Vietnam's third largest city with a population of 1.7 million. It has the country's largest harbour which is why it was a major target of American bombers during the Vietnam War.
We checked into the Harbour View Hotel [click here]. Roger had an upset stomach and needed to make an early and prolonged visit to the bathroom. Nevetheless he joined Vee for a meal in the hotel with other members of the VJV group. Once the food was consumed, about 10.30 pm Vee left Roger to have coffee and a chat with the others and went to their room. Suddenly Roger felt really rough again and slipped away to use the toilet off the hotel reception area. It was an unpleasant visit and he feared that he was about to pass out, so he decided that the best thing was to reach the room and lie on the bed a while. That was the last thing he remembered before the world went B-L-A-C-K.
In her room, Vee was already undressed and in bed when the telephone went and she was advised that Roger had had an accident in the hotel reception. She pulled on some clothes and rushed downstairs to find Roger passed out on the floor. He had crashed to the deck, knocking off his glasses and smashing the left side of his face onto the floor. Hotel staff had already mopped up the blood from his nose and called an ambulance. Roger was badly concussed and, when he came round, kept muttering "Where am I? What's happening?". When the ambulance arrived, Roger was accompanied by Vee, VJV group member Paul Vincent, local guide Le Thanh Hiue, hotel manager (British) Mark Heather, and hotel staff member Vietnamese Tran Van Trung.
The CT scanner at the local hospital was not working, so the ambulance took them to a private facility where the scanner confirmed that Roger still had a brain and it was in reasonable order. The ambulance then progressed to the public hospital where Roger was put in a room in the foreigners' section - a private but bleak affair of blank white walls, a metal-framed bed with mattress, and nothing else. Fortunately Roger was still in his clothes and the hotel staff had brought along a duvet. Young Trung agreed to stay with Roger during the night, sleeping in a similarly bare adjoining room, while the others returned to the hotel. Various things were done to Roger in the night but he really cannot remember much about it all and slept fitfully.
About 6.15 am on Saturday morning, Roger woke up in his new and strange surroundings. He hurt everywhere on his left side: his knee, his mouth, his cheek, and above all his eye which was swollen, black and bloodied as if he had been in a boxing match. He wandered out of his room, through Trung's room, and found himself on a small terrace, the exit from which was barred with a locked gate from floor to ceiling. Fortunately Trung soon woke and contacted the hotel and Vee and Hiue came round about 7.15 am. The hospital wanted to keep Roger for observation until a doctor could see him later in the day, but Roger was adamant that he wanted to leave the place and rejoin the group before they left for the morning tour of Ha Long Bay. So Vee signed some discharge papers in Vietnamese and paid all the outstanding bills - the total cost was over one and half million dong (which in fact was only around £50).
It was approaching 8 am when a taxi dropped Roger & Vee back at the Harbour View Hotel. For Roger, there was no time to shave or even change; he simply had a quick wash and a light breakfast and staggered onto the bus at 8.30 am. It was 9.45 am when we reached Ha Long city and embarked on the boat ride on Ha Long Bay.
The name Ha Long means 'descending dragon' and the legend is that the bay was cut from the rocks as an enormous beast thrashed its way to the depths. It covers around 1,500 square metres with 2,969 rocky limestone islands (980 of them with names and 20 of them inhabited). The bay in the Gulf of Tonkin is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some 400 tourist boats plough the waters but, so immense is the bay, that one's own trip still feels very personal. The weather that morning was quite misty, but the experience was nevertheless magical and mysterious.
We stopped once at Dau Go Island, famous in Vietnamese history as the location where Tran Hung Dao stored the wooden stakes before he used them to stud the bed of the Bach Dang River to destroy the boats of the invading Mongols in 1288 [for more information click here]. On the island, we saw the Thien Cung Cave - discovered by accident in 1993 - with its stunning stalagtites and stalagmites. Later we were served aboard with a seafood lunch of crab, prawns, fish rolls, vegetables, and rice. It was 1.30 pm when the boat deposited us back at Ha Long city.
The afternoon was spent returning to Hanoi. It was strange for us to see so many graves in the middle of paddy fields, but the Vietnamese like to have their ancestors' remains close at hand and a lot of money is spent on building the most attractive graves than one can afford. We stopped briefly at Sao Do to visit the workshop of something called the Sincerity Humanity Beauty Company which employs workers with mental disabilities, and at the wood carving village of Dong Giao.
It was 5.50 pm when we reached our destination at Hanoi. Originally called Dai La, the city is built on the Red River. Ly Cong Uan – the founder of the 200-year long Ly Dynasty - moved his capital here (then called Thang Long) in 1010. Hanoi was the capital of French Indochina from 1887-1954 when most of the once-elegant buildings in the French quarter were built. Since the defeat of the Americans, Hanoi has been the capital of all Vietnam. It has a population of around 3 million (half that of Ho Chi Minh City) who own some 1.6 million motor scooters. It still has many architectural delights from the eras of Chinese and French colonialisation and it is distinguished by its 32 lakes. Some 500 of its streets are named after famous people and, in the Old Quarter, many are named after the goods originally sold there.
When the group booked into Guoman Hotel [click here], Roger found that he was totally drained and his left eye was bruising into a fair replication of the shape of Vietnam, so he crashed asleep for an hour and a half. An SMS message from our brother-in-law advised that it was snowing in London.
It was Sunday and our last day in Vietnam - a day to explore the capital Hanoi. As we had travelled further north, the weather had become cooler and now it was raining. Leaving at the respectable hour of 9 am, first stop was the Temple of Literature. In 1070, emperor Ly Tanh Tong dedicated this temple to Confucius and six centuries later it became the first university in Vietnam. It contains 82 stone turtles (originally there were 117) bearing stelae (recording the names of successful candidates for the imperial civil service) created between 1484-1779.
Next we visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum [click here]. Nguyen That Thanh – later known as Ho Chi Minh – was the son of a mandarin who visited London and the USA before settling in France and becoming a founder member of the Vietnamese Communist Party [for more information click here]. He read out a declaration of Vietnamese independence in Ba Dinh Square (in front of the mausoleum) in 1945 and led the Vietminh forces during the war against the French and the Americans. He died in 1969 and, contrary to his wishes that he be cremated, his body was embalmed by the chief embalmer of the Soviet Union. The mausoleum, which is modelled on Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow, was opened in 1975.
Roger has visited Mao Zedong's mausoleum in Beijung and this was a similar experience. No cameras, video cameras or telephones are allowed into the building and there is a special place to deposit these. More of Ho's body is on view than that of Mao, but it looks just was waxen. In fact there is a suggestion that what visitors see is indeed a wax replica and that the real body is preserved for private view only by special dignatories. We also saw the Presidential Palace which the French governor occupied, the house where Ho worked from 1954-1958, and the simple, traditional House On Stilts which was built especialy for Ho and located by the side of a carp-filled lake.
Final stop of the morning was the next-door One Pillar Pagoda. Originally built in 1049, according to legend this was erected by the emperor Ly Thai Tong in gratitude for the birth of his son following a dream involving the goddess Quan. The wooden structure stood for almost 1,000 years, but was destroyed by the French when they abandoned the city in 1954. It was restored, but with a concrete pillar replacing the original wooden one. The pagoda is shaped like a lotus and sits in the centre of a water-lily pond and it is one of the most revered temples in Vietnam. Before lunch, we visited another pagoda full of trees and flowers: the Everlasting Happiness Pagoda.
Lunch was at "KOTO" located at 61 Van Mieu Street in the Dong Da district of the city. This is a not-for-profit restaurant that provides a training programme for street and disadvantaged youths in Vietnam under the slogan "Great food for a great cause" [for more information click here].
After lunch, we were able to spend an hour in the nearby Fine Arts Museum [click here]. This was orginally built in 1932 as a Catholic monastery and converted into a museum in 1963. The ground floor has a wonderful collection of normal and fasting buddhas. The upper floors have collections of Vietnamese lacquer paintings. Many of these have wonderful politically-correct titles such as "Heart and gun", "The rear base at night", "A sponsoring mother in the resistance war", "Admitting a new member into the party" and "Uncle Ho on a military campaign". However, there are other pictures which, at first sight, look like attractive and impressionistic versions of jungle vegetation, largely in ochre, but they manage to be politically correct by adopting a militaristic title such as "Hanoi youths setting out to combat the American aggressors", "Hauling a cannon to Dien Bien" and "Troops marching across a stream".
Finally we travelled over to the Old Quarter of the city and left the coach by the Lake of the Restored Sword [click here]. According to legend, in the 15th century during the Chinese occupation, a golden turtle living in the lake gave a sword to a local fisherman called Le Loi who used it to defeat the invaders and then returned it to the turtle. Apparently the lake still contains a couple of large turtles today.
By the side of the lake, we attended the small Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. This art form dates from the 11th century but almost died out until the tourist trade provided the impetus for a revival. Known as mua roi nuoc [for more explanation click here], such shows are specific to the Red River region. The programme consisted of 16 short items, mostly based on rural themes, with titles like "catching frogs" and "rearing ducks". We found it both skilful and delightful.
After this show, our guide Hieu took us on a short walking tour of the Hang Be food market in the Old Quarter. This section of the city is located between the Lake of the Restored Sword and the Red River and it has been a shopping venue since the 15th century. Its 36 narrow, crowded streets are named after the goods once sold along them: such as Rice Street, Silk Street, Cloth Street, Paper Street, Oil Street, even Pots and Pans Street. We loved the colour and bustle of the market and passed through three of the goods streets: Shoes Street, Pullovers Street and Hairbands Street.
For Roger & Vee, it was a very special evening in Hanoi because we met Roger's cyber-friend Tran Manh Phong, a 25 year old finance worker [for his weblog click here], and his female friend Do Phuong Linh, a 23 year old clerical worker. Months before Roger & Vee decided to go on holiday to Vietnam, Phong made e-mail contact with Roger because he had found his web site useful and they had maintained a regular e-mail exchange. It was wonderful actually to meet and Phong kindly agreed to our request that we should visit his home and meet his family before we took Phong & Linh out for a meal.
Phong's father is Tran Manh Dung, a construction engineer with the Vietnamese Army who carried supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail during the war with the Americans; his mother Nhu Thi Thanh Nhan is a nurse and was in fact away working at the hospital; his sister is 18 year old Tran Hong Van who is a Britney Spears fan. We exchanged gifts, looked around the flat, and drank tea. They gave us a Vietminh hard helmet and a Vietcong soft hat plus a beautiful hand-embroidered tablecloth & 12 napkins.
Phong & Linh then took us to the "Sen Restaurant", by the West Lake at number 10, alley 431, Au Co Street. It was a huge place full of Vietnamese families enjoying the enormous choice presented by a buffet with no less than 75 dishes. Among the traditional Vietnamese food on offer was Hué fresh noodle soup with beef, noodle in crab chowder, noodle soup with snail, steamed snail with lemon leaves, noodle soup with beef, rice pan cake, plain rice flan, sticky rice with pork, Hanoi grilled chopped fish, fresh noodle with tofu, grilled maize, grilled sweet potato. Other dishes on offer included grilled pork Russian style, grilled camel’s brisket, grilled fermented pork roll, roasted pork stomach with coco milk, grilled eel fish, pig’s trotter, Hongxiu beef tail, sautéed vermicelli with eel, steamed clams Thai style. Really Roger & Vee had little idea what they ate - they just kept trying things. Phong & Linh were wonderful company; it was so much fun to talk to young, local people and to compare Vietnamese and British culture. We will certainly keep in touch.
It was time to leave Vietnam after nine fascinating days.
The country was originally known as Lan Xang (which means the Kingdom of a Million Elephants) when it was founded by the legendary Fa Ngum. It gained its independence from France in 1954, but became embroiled in the Vietnam war since the Ho Chi Minh trail ran through it. By the end of the Vietnam war, the American carpet bombing campaigns had given Laos the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country in the history of warfare. Some 3M tons of explosive were dropped on the country - one ton for every person. There are still tons of unexploded ordinance in the fields and jungles.
At the same time as the North Vietnamese took over South Vietnam, in Laos the Vietnamese-supported communist Pathet Lao took control of the country and detained all the members of the previous establishment, including the royal family, in so-called re-education camps where most of them died of malnutrition and ill-treatment. Since 1995, notionally there has been a democratic system of government, but there is still an authoritarian approach to many matters.
Slightly larger than Britain, Laos only has a population of 6M, so it is very sparsely inhabited, and some 80% of people are still involved in agriculture, so it is a very rural society. The local currency is the Kip. The local language uses a non-Roman alphabet derived from Sanskrit which is utterly unintelligible to western eyes.
BBC country profile click here
“Vientiane “Times” click here
Monday morning started very early because the alarm sounded at 5.30 am so that we could pack and have breakfast before our departure at 7.30 am. Flying on a small ATR 72 aircraft of Lao Airlines, we left Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, to travel to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It was only a flight of 1 hour 20 minutes, but it was a major change. Hanoi was raining and misty, while Vientiane was 31C/88F when we arrived and hotter as the day went on. Hanoi is a bustling city of 3M, while Vientiane is a sleepy town of only 600,000. In Hanoi, there are few cars but everyone has a scooter, whereas in Vientiane there are more cars but the three-wheeled motorised scooter (known as the tuk-tuk) is the ubiquitous form of travel for many. This has been the capital of Laos since 1563 when King Setthathilat moved the capital from Luang Prabang. It was sacked by the Siamese in 1828, so few buildings pre-date that experience but there are some 120 temples.
We were met at the airport by our local guide Lat. Many Laotion men spend a period as a monk and Lat was a monk from the ages to 10-13. Our hotel rooms rooms were not ready, so we went straight to lunch at the "Tamnak Lao Restaurant" [click here] where we had a mixture of delicous local dishes. Following the meal, we visited two wats, located on either side of Setthathirat Road which runs west-east, parallel to the Mekong River. So what is a wat? It is not simply a temple or a monastery. It is simultaneously a place of Buddhist worship, a school, a hospital, and a meeting place. All wats are built on the same pattern with the temple or sim at the centre housing the main image of Buddha.
First, we checked out the Wat Si Saket [click here]. This was built in 1818 by King Anouvong so it is the city's oldest edifice. It was spared by the Siamese in the sacking ten years later when 19 temples were destroyed, possibly because it was designed in a Siamese architectural style. The cloisters shelter 120 large Buddhas with many more tiny ones in the walls behind, while the sim houses more than 7,000 Buddha statues of all sizes and all materials. It was here that we first came across the portrayal of the naga snake which is so important to Buddhist culture and iconology [for more information click here].
Next, we visited the Wat Phra Kaeo [click here]. This was originally built by King Setthathilat in 1565 to house the Emerald Buddha (Phra Kaeo). However, the Emerald Buddha was removed by the Thais in 1779 (it is still in Bangkok) and Wat Phra Kaeo was destroyed by them in the sacking of Vientiane in 1827. The building was expertly reconstructed in 1932. Here we first came across the three-headed elephant feature of so many Buddhist structures, known in Laos as Airavata [for more information click here]. Locally the three-headed mythic elephant symbol came to represent the former small kingdoms of Vientiane, Luangprabang, and Xiengkhoung.
A short ride north-east, there is the That Luang Stupa [click here] on a small hill. Built by King Setthathilat in 1566 and plundered by the Thais and the Chinese in the 18th century, it was restored by King Anou at the beginning of the 19th century and further restored by the French in the 1930s. The Great Sacred Stupa represents a lotus bud, topped by a stylized banana flower and an umbrella. It is the city's most important site and the holiest Buddhist monument in the country. It is a brilliantly gold monument and, in the afternoon sun, it was simply glorious.
On the way back into town, at the top of Lan Xang Avenue, we stopped to photograph the Patuxai Arch or Victory Monument [click here]. This triumphal arc was started in 1958 and finished in 1969. It commemorates the Lao who died in the pre-revolutionary wars and it is inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Apparently one can climb the stairway to the top but we had no time for that.
At 4.40 pm, we checked into the Novotel Hotel [click here] (where the lift carried a warning against child sex tourism). Here the telephone directory is not called Yellow Pages but Golden Pages and there is no Bible but instead "The Teachings Of Buddha". For our evening meal, Roger & Vee joined three other couples - Trev & Tess Jessop, David & Raye Monkham and Paul & Jen Vincent - and took the hotel's courtesy bus into the centre of town where, at Fountain Square, we decided to eat French food for a change and went to "La Cave Des Chateuax". It was fun to see little geckos on the walls. Roger had breast of duck with mango & lemon sauce followed by banana flambé with rum & sorbée.
After only one day and one night in Vientiane, we were on the move again next morning (Tuesday). We were off to Luang Prabang, a journey of 250 miles (400 km) which takes an astonishing 10 hours by the very poor Highway 13 but only 35 minutes by air (the Lao Airlines other ATR 72 - the airline only owns two aircraft). So at 11.40 am, we had an exciting approach through the hills to the delightfully-named Luang Prabang.
Located at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, the city was established as the royal capital of Lan Xang by Fa Ngum in 1353. For the first two centuries, it was called Muong Swa and it obtained its current name of Luang Prabang (City of the Buddha) in 1563 when King Setthathilat named the city in honour of the Pra Bang, a Sri Lankan-made gold Buddha brought here by Fa Ngum from Angkor. Today it is still the centre of Laotian Buddhism with more than 600 monks inhabiting its 30 pagodas. Although the second-largest city of Laos (after Vientiane), it only has a population of just 200,000.
Our local guide met us at the airport as usual. This one was 25 year old Xaikongpheng Khamvieng whom we called simply Vieng. He took us straight to our hotel for the next three nights which was in fact situated just outside town. The Villa Santi Hotel [click here] was easily the best accommodation of the 8 hotels on our trip and probably the second best hotel that Roger & Vee have known in terms of location and ambience (nothing beats the Royal Livingstone Hotel at Victoria Falls click here). It used to be called the Princess Hotel because at one stage it was the home of the king's daughter. Today it is a collection of two-story buildings set in lush, well-tended grounds and the service is really warm and attentive.
As soon as we had unpacked, the VJV group was taken back to Luang Prabang where we had lunch outside (it was 30C/86F) with views of the Mekong River and food from the "Khemkhong Restaurant" - heaven. Suitably refreshed and enthused, we spent most of the afternoon visting wats.
First was the most exceptional and oldest pagoda in Luang Prabang, the 16th century Wat Xieng Thong (the Golden City Temple) [click here]. It was built by King Setthathilat in 1559 and is one of the few buildings in the city to have survived the successive Chinese raids that marked the end of the 19th century.
Second was Wat Aham (the Opened Heart Temple) [click here]. The date of the founding of Wat Aham itself is not known, though there was a wat on the site before King Manthatourath (who reigned from 1817-1836) constructed the fine present Luang Prabang style sim in 1818. Third was Wat Visoun (the Animals Temple) [click here]. This is a replica of the original wooden building constructed in 1513 and destroyed by Chinese tribes. It contains the largest Buddha in the city - a huge cement structure covered in gold - and has a big stupa, commonly known as That Makmo (melon stupa), built by Queen Visounalat in 1504.
After all these wats, we drove a little way out of town to visit a village called Xangkhong Posa whose residents specialise in making paper handicrafts and weaving clothes and other materials. We then returned to town to climb the 328 steep steps of Mount Phousi which is the spiritual and geographical heart of the city. At the top is That Chomsi, a tall stupa constructed in 1804 and restored in 1914. This is a favourite spot for viewing the sunset over the Mekong. Unfortunately we found too many people and too many clouds to enjoy the experience to the maximum.
Sunset was around 6 pm so, by the time we had returned down to the north side of the hill, we were able to wander around the famous Night Market which occupies Sisavangvong Street each evening from 5-11.30 pm. Traffic is banned during these hours, so all the goods are laid out on the street with each seller having a naked bulb illuminating the handicrafts such as silk scarves, embroidered quilt covers and multi-coloured lanterns. It is an astonishingly quiet market which adds to the laid-back atmosphere.
We returned to the Villa Santi at 7.10 pm. Trev & Tess Jessop were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary quietly together, so Roger & Vee joined two other couples - Paul & Jen Vincent and Roger & Carol Dean - for dinner at the hotel. As we walked from the hotel's main building to our room in one of the chalets, there was a cacophony of sound from the cicadas. It was difficult to imagine that such small creatures could generate such loud noise.
Wednesday was International Women's Day which is a big event in south-east Asia. We set off from the hotel at 8.30 am on what proved to be another very hot day. First we took in a fourth wat: Wat Pha Baht Tai [click here]. This is one of the most distinctive, and perhaps somewhat garish, of Luang Prabang's monasteries, as it combines elements of Thai, Lao and Vietnamese style with even some hint of historic European religious architecture. For the faithful, it is noted for being the site of a huge footprint of the Buddha.
Most of the day, from 9.30 am - 3 pm, was spent on the Mekong River on a wonderful boat ride. Since it was the dry season, the water was low and one could see on the river banks exposed roots of trees, but it is still a wide river even at this season. Fishermen at work and children swimming in the river and little villages along the banks made for a succession of delightful scenes. We stopped three times.
First, we visited the tiny village of Xang Hai which used to specialise in pottery making but now concentrates on distilling rice whisky (45% proof!). Next we went to see the famous Pak Ou Caves [click here]. Located about 15 miles (25 km) upstream from Luang Prabang, opposite the mouth of the Mekong's Nam Ou tributary (Pak Ou means 'Mouth of the Ou'), these caves are situated in the side of a limestone cliff and are studded with thousands of wood and gold lacquered Buddha statues – 2,500 in the lower cave (which is open and light) and 1,500 in the upper (which is closed and black). The two sacred caves are said to be have been discovered by King Setthathilat in the 16th century, but it is likely that the caverns were associated with spirit (phi) worship before the arrival of Buddhism in Laos.
Finally, on the opposite bank of the river to the caves, we had lunch in the open air - a mixture of hot dishes with the usual sticky rice and then a mixture of pineapple, mango & melon pieces.
Back at the hotel at 3.30 pm, almost all of the group wanted to rest and relax, but Roger & Vee were happy to take up the option of an extra trip and one other member of the group, Ian Stewart, joined them. Since it was such a tiny team, our guide Vieng brought along his 21 year old girlfriend Noy and the minibus driver brought along his 20 year old girlfriend Noypent. The trip was to Kwang Si Falls which is some 18 miles (30 km) west of Luang Prabang along a dusty and bumpy road. These waterfalls are on a tributary of the Mekong and flow over limestone formations and collect in several tiered, turquoise pools. The biggest fall is 196 feet (60 metres). It is a beautiful location and Roger and Ian enjoyed swimming in one of the pools before the girls cooked up some refreshments for us all.
Strangely enough, we had heard little music on our holiday and Roger & Vee loved the fact that, on the way to the falls and back, the four youngsters entertained us with tapes of local music played really loud. Especially memorable were a Lao disco version of "I Will Survive" (orginally by Gloria Gaynor), a rap version of "Yesterday Once More" (originally by the Carpenters), and a rude song in khap style, Lao's most characteristic folk genre which is a unique call-and-response singing style [for more information click here]. Back at the hotel after a really fun three hours. Roger & Vee had dinner with Trev & Tess. Roger began the meal with a drink called banana rama (banana, milk & honey) and finished it with banana split.
Thursday morning was the last in Luang Prabang. If we had been staying in the town itself, we might have risen early to see the 6.30 am procession of saffron-cloaked monks, but instead we had a leisurely breakfast at the Villa Santi and left the hotel at 9.30 am. First we were given some time at the Phosy Market. This is a huge covered market selling everything, but especially meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. There were fish swimming in water and meat swarming with flies.
Then we went to see the Royal Palace which was built for the Laotian king by the French in 1904. Since the 1975 revolution, it has been a museum. As for the king and his family, the official line is that they "disappeared". In fact, as documented by Christopher Kremmer in his book "Bamboo Palace", they were detained in so-called re-education camps in such appalling conditions that they all died of ill-treatment or malnutrition. The palace remains: the entrance hall with its gold-painted throne surrounded by red walls with Japanese glass mosaics in a lacquer base and the original Golden Buddha or Pra Bang that gives the town its name.
Our time in Luang Prabang was at an end and, early in the afternoon, we made the flight back to Vientiane in an ATR 72 with faulty air conditioning which caused us all to sweat profusely. In Vientiane, it was 36C/97F. That evening, Roger & Vee - together with Trev & Tess - returned to the French restaurant "La Cave Des Chateaux". Roger's choice this time was aubergine stuffed with goat's cheese, roast duck with caramel wine sauce, and banana sorbet with rum.
At the height of the Angkor empire, Cambodia covered parts of Laos and Vietnam. Modern day Cambodia gained full independence from the French in 1953. Following a five-year civil war in which the Americans backed General Lol Non, the Communist Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and, over the next 3 years 8 months and 20 days, a massive collectivisation programme resulted in the death of maybe 2.5 million of the 7 million population through forced labour, starvation and massacre (another million are believed to have fled abroad). This period was depicted in Roland Joffe's 1984 film “The Killing Fields”.
The Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown by the intervention of Vietnamese troops with UN-sponsored elections following in 1993. However, Vietnamese still have a right of entry to Cambodia and there is much resentment by Cambodians about Vietnam's influence in the country. The Khmer Rouge period is still raw in people's minds and indeed the current Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen is a former Khmer Rouge commander who subsequently went on to oppose them. The population is up from a mere 3.5M in 1979 to over 13M today.
Link: BBC country profile click here
It was Friday morning and our earliest start of the whole trip. At our hotel in Vientiane in Laos, we were up at 4.15 am (!) to leave at 5.15 am (the hotel gave us packed breakfasts). Our Lao Airlines flight made a one and a half hour hop to Paxse (still in Laos) and then we flew on to Siem Reap in Cambodia which took just under another hour.
The only reason that anyone goes to the small town of Siem Reap is because it is the gateway to the wonders of Angkor. This is a both a blessing and a curse. In 1985, the town of Siem Reap hosted just 565 visitors. In 2004, there were 676,809. This year (2005), figures are expected to increase by another 50%. Locals say the town is failing to cope with this influx. The number of hotels has grown from two in 1990 to 72, but neither sewage nor waste-disposal facilities have been developed sufficiently to support them and organised crime is moving in to target tourists. Over the next three days, it became increasingly clear to all of us that the rapid growth of tourism will need to lead to a fundamental rethink about how people are enabled to visit the temples and in particular whether it is necessary to restrict physical access to the monuments. In the meantime, we were able to enjoy unlimited access to these great treasures.
We were met at the airport by local guide Roeum Rith, a young man with an infectious humour and an endless collection of stories. During the Cambodian civil war, his father was forced to serve in General Lol Non's army for three months. During the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, as a child he witnessed his teacher - who had expressed some criticism of the regime - being brutally beaten up in front of his pupils before being taken away and killed. Rith had been forced to climb trees and hack down fruit with a knife, several time slashing his own legs which are still badly scarred.
By 10 am, we were at our hotel on the outskrts of town: the Lotus Angkor Hotel [click here]. There was no programme for today, so Roger & Vee caught up on some lost sleep, before taking a tuk-tuk to the covered Central Market. This had an abundance of local handicraft on sale but, in early afternoon, the temperature was punishing and, in the absence of other tourists, the attempts at selling were very persisent.
Saturday at 8 am and the programme recommenced with two days of visits to the wonders of the Angkor empire. The local province contains no less than 292 temples, but we would just see four of them - the most famous. Angkor [click here] – 3.5 miles (6 km) north-east of Siem Reap - was the capital of the Khmer Empire from 800-1400 and was abandoned in 1431 following the conquest of the Khmer kingdom. The golden age of this kingdom was the 12th century when a series of 70 stunning structures were created. Today the whole site is run by the specially-created Aspara Authority [click here]. Entrance is only possible with the Angkor Pass with a photograph and, at the time of our trip, the rates were US$ 20 for one day/US$ 40 for three days/US$ 60 for one week.
Our first visit was to the fortified city of Angkor Thom [click here]. This was started in 1181 by King Jayavarman VII who reigned from 1181-1220. It is a massive walled city, rectangular in form and 30 square kilometres in area, which was once the capital of a metropolis believed to comprise up to a million people over an area the size of London constructed around a complex and sophisticated system of water management. There are five main gates and at its heart is the Bayon, the last great temple built at Angkor. The Bayon is surrounded by 49 small towers and then a moat. The whole structure is a strange example of anthromorphic architecture with a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu symbolism.
We entered by the South Gate which was originally for use by the commoners. At first, the ruins were a little disappointing and somewhat overwhelmed by Japanese tourists but, once we reached the third level of the Bayon [click here], it became really impressive with the huge four-faced towers creating a sense of awe and mystery. From the Bayon, we progresed to the Elephant Terrace and then the Royal Palace [click here]. Our guide Rith was extremely knowledgable and keen to tell us the various myths and legends inspiring the carvings and tableaux, including the churning of the milk story [for an explanation click here]. However, as the morning progressed, it became very hot and very humid. Rith took pity on us announcing eventually: "The weather becomes hotter and hotter, so the history becomes shorter and shorter".
Indeed the middle of the day is so hot that sensibly we were taken back to the hotel for 12.30 pm and given until 3 pm for rest and refreshment and revival. Then, back on the road, we went to see the world-famous Angkor Wat [click here]. This the best preserved and best known of the Angkor structures and it is a temple complex built at the beginning of the 12th century by King Suryavarman II who reigned from 1113-1150 and died just as it was completed. It took 25,000 workers over 37 years to complete the construction but, after the sacking of the city by the Siamese in 1432, the king moved to Phnom Penh and over time the temples were deserted. The complex remained unknown to the outside world, only glimpsed by westerners in the late 16th century and only fully rediscovered in 1860 when a French botanist named Henri Mouhot stumbled across it deep in the jungle. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is one of the largest religious monuments in the world.
'Angkor' means holy city and 'Wat' of course means temple. Constructed on a series of colonnaded platforms, it takes the form of a tall central tower (representing the holy Hindu Mount Meru) 213 feet (65 m) high, surrounded by four smaller towers, all five towers shaped like lotus buds, and it was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. The walls form a rectangle of 4,275 by 4,905 feet (1,303 by 1,495 metres) and the whole structure is surrounded by a lake-like moat 625 feet (190 metres) wide and about four miles long.
Since the temple faces west (the only one in the complex to do so) towards the setting sun, a symbol of death, entrance is from the west across a wide causeway which leads to the first of the structure's three inner enclosures. Indeed the whole structure is aligned with the sun and moon so that, at the spring equinox, the sun rises over the exact centre of the central sanctuary. Once across the causeway, balustrades in the form of nagas (seven-headed serpents) border the whole the temple.
Angkor Wat is covered with 13,000 sq ft (1,200 sq m) of intricately carved scenes depicting Khmer myths, Ankorian warfare, and tales from the great Hindu epics the “Ramayana” [click here] and the “Mahabharata” [click here]. Then there are 1,739 apsaras (Sanskrit for celestial dancer) who are naked except for ornate jewellery and and elaborate head-dresses.
The group spent the best part of three hours at Angkor Wat and, as the crowds eased and the sky darkened, it became more and more magical. The Principal Sanctuary on the third level can be ascended by one of four of the steepest stone steps you have ever encountered. Climbing up requires some bravado but getting down is even scarier - Roger managed it though.
In the evening, every member of the group took up the option of visiting a perforance of tradional Cambodian dances staged, while partaking of a buffet dinner, at a place called "Chao Pra Ya". The costumes, headgear and face masks were immensely colourful and the finger movements by the apsaras dancers were so graceful and expressive.
It was the last day of the holiday (Sunday) and it started early. The next-door wedding celebrations that went on until late in the evening started up again at 4.15 am to greet the dawn and our group left the hotel at 7.50 am to beat the tourist crowds at the temple of Banteay Srei [click here]. This was built by the Brahmin tutor to King Rajendravarmen in 967. The name means 'Citadel of Women' and was given to it relatively recently as a result of the intricate apsara carvings that adorn its interior. The temple is considerd by many historians to be the highest achievement of art from the Angkor period and it is distinguished by its beautiful colour – a glorious pink sandstone. An entrance path leads to the three main pyramidal towers.
Members of the VJV group were impressed when eagled-eyed Trev Jessop spotted a suspicous-looking man secretly phographing each member of the group leaving our coach. Until then, we had not realised the totalitarian state of present Cambodia and decided that Trev should offer his services to MI5. However, the paranoid spell was broken when we returned to our coach after looking round the temple and were offered for purchase souvenir plates with our photographs in the centre. Not so much espionage then as enterprise.
The fourth and last of the monuments that we would visit in the Angkor region was the temple of Ta Prohm [click here]. This temple town was built in 1186 on the orders of King Jayavarman VII in honour of his mother. The name means 'royal monastery' and the town originally accommodated some 12,000 citizens. The emblem of the town is the gigantic human face and it is believed that originally there were 54 of them. Archaeologists made a deliberate decision to leave the temple as they found it, so the structure is embraced by the roots of enormous silk cotton trees and the aptly named strangler fig trees which were the atmospheric background to Angelina Jolie in the movie "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" [for review click here].
Although the place was full of Koreans noisely photographing themselves with every strangler tree, many of us found this particular temple the most moving of them all. It seemed more authentic and more magical because nature still had the relics so much in its tentacle-like grip.
As yesterday, we sheltered from the hottest of the day by returning to our hotel from 12 noon - 3 pm. Then we set off for a fascinating visit to the Tonle Lake. Cambodia's Tonle Sap (Great Lake) is one of the unique geographical wonders of the world. On the banks of this mighty lake and the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers, Khmers have celebrated for over two hundred years the changing of the river's flow. During the rainy season the Tonle Sap River reverses direction, flooding the lake, increasing its size almost tenfold, making it the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia. Year-round, some one million people depend on the lake for water and livelihood.
We spent an hour and a half on the lake which is home to seven floating villages. Most homes have aerials because the residents have battery-powered television sets. We passed a floating school, a floating church, a floating restaurant, even a floating police station - it seemed as if all aspects of human life were represented on the water. We stopped at a fish farm where we observed a dozen lively crocodiles as well as plentiful catfish.
In the evening, Roger & Vee and Trev & Tess ventured down the road from the hotel for our 'last supper'. The place was called the "Green Mango Restaurant" [click here]. We found that we were the only customers, half the menu was not available, and desserts did not exist - plus we had to ask them to change the taped music from western to Cambodian.
It was Monday morning and at 10.45 am we would be leaving for the airport to fly home. However, Roger had spotted on a map a reference to a Killing Fields Memorial. He wanted to visit it, but Vee was not keen. Tess Jessop wanted to see it too, but her husband Trev took Vee's view. So Roger & Tess hired a tuk-tuk and made the short journey to the memorial. The location is deliberate: this was the site of torture cells (now student accommodation) and the burial grounds for many victims. A plain white stupa has been erected with a glass-sided centre holding hundreds of human bones topped by dozens of bleached skulls.
It was a tragic sight, but relieved somewhat by the discovery that this location is now home to a very basic school which we visited. It is called the Wat Thmei Language School and is supported by an American organisation called Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC). A Japanese group has donated some benches and JWOC has given four second-hand computers, but otherwise the facilities are very simple. We talked to a young teacher Chham Sela and to a young monk Suy Vuth. Roger & Tess were so pleased to have made this visit and very moved by the experience.
Malaysia may be geographically close to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but it is in a totally different place economically and politically. It has enjoyed rapid economic growth and is making a big effort to move into the information technology arena, with the aim of being the first developed Muslim country in the world by 2020. Meanwhile politically it is stable if not wholly democratic. It has a population of 26M.
Link: BBC country profile click here
On the way out to Indochina, we had broken our journey at Kuala Lumpur before going on to Ho Chi Minh City but the break was only two hours. On the return trip, we set off from Siem Reap, stopped for a while in Phnom Penh, and then went on to Kuala Lumpur where we were due to wait over six hours before catching our connection to London (in fact, due to a delay, it was more like nine hours). So some of us decided to use the opportunity to make a quick foray into Kuala Lumpur - a bustling capital city of 1.5 million (Roger had in fact spent a week there in January 1998).
Roger & Vee teamed up with Trev & Tess Jessop and Paul & Jen Vincent for an expedition that proved remarkably easy to execute. There was no need for a visa (as there was in Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia). We simply took the KLIA Express train from the airport to KL Sentral and then the metro to KLCC (Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre). No sooner had we left the metro than we had the amazing sight of the Petronas Twin Towers. The two towers reach 88 storeys high to a level of 1,506 feet (452 metres) with a skybridge linking the two at a height of 567 feet (170 metres). The towers are said to be the tallest buildings in the world [for an explanation click here]. Surprisingly public access to the towers is closed on Monday but, in any event, it would have been too late in the day to gain access.
Nevertheless we wandered into and around the huge, ultra-modern shopping complex at the base of the towers. This is called Suria KLCC and contains almost 300 shops, but we only had time to dwell at "The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf cafe" [click here]. Once we had all ordered our coffees and cakes, we found that we did not have enough of the local currency, but amazingly an 11 year old girl behind us insisted on paying the difference. As we left the complex, it was dark and it looked even more stunning - like something out of the old black & white film "Metropolis", although the film that really comes to mind is "Entrapment" [for review click here]. These few hours in KL were the cherry on the cake of our wonderful trip.
Back at KL airport, it was not until 1.40 am on Tuesday morning that we finally took off for a flight that lasted almost 13 hours. Door to door, the journey from hotel to home took almost 26 hours. In Siem Reap, it had been 37C; in London, it was 2C. But, through the jetlag and the cold, we had so many marvellous memories ...
Although Vietnamese (unlike Laotian and Cambodian) uses the Roman alphabet, it is an unbelievably difficult langauge for westerners. This is because (like Chinese) it is a tonal language: it has six tones (even the Chinese 'only' have four). This means that a simple 'word' like 'ma' can have six totally different meanings because of the six tones as follows: ma (ghost), mà (but), mấ (mother), mạ (rice seedling), mã (horse), mả (grave).
Simply addressing people in Vietnam is a complicated business because there are seven forms of address for men and seven for women depending on the age of the person being addressed relative to the person doing the addressing. This means that, whereas in the west it is often thought rude to enquire of someone's age, in Vietnam it is perfectly normal because this information is necessary in order to use the correct form of address.
So much else is so different from the West. If Vietnamese people see a funeral, they are pleased because it means that ancestors are going to look after them. On the other hand, a wedding is regarded as bad fortune because it is assumed that the couple will be overly concerned with each other. In the west, we hide graves out of the way in cemeteries, whereas the Vietnamese peasants ensure than their ancestors' remains are with them in the paddy fields where they work everyday. Whereas so many of us in the west want a tan, young Vietnamese (especially women) wear hats and face masks in the open in order not to become dark-skinned like the peasants. In Cambodia, we were told that people there admire the tallness and the pointed noses of westerners.
It is so easy in such a different part of the world to misread the symbolism. For instance, in Luang Prabang in Laos, we saw caged little finches for sale and assumed that this was cynical ploy to extract money from soft-hearted foreigners. In fact, freeing birds is a traditional way of obtaining boun or merit.
Although communist, Vietnam harbours many superstitions. Odd numbers are considered lucky and 9 is the luckiest of all. 126 is a good number because the individual numbers add up to 9.
In Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, communist parties have been powerful influences for change, both creative and destructive. Vietnam remains an overtly communist nation with hammer and sickle flags evident everywhere, propaganda posters all over the place, and 3 million members of the Party (they are called "Dang vien"). Each house has a passport, each person has an identity card, internal travel is controlled, and external travel very limited. As a result of the Vietnam war, Vietnam is perceived in the west as the David to the USA's Goliath but, in the region today, Vietnam is a major power and still exerts considerable infuence (often resented locally) in Laos and Cambodia (where hostility to neighbouring Thailand is at least as strong).
Absolutely everywhere one goes in Indochina, people - frequently very young children - want to sell you something, usually for one dollar, or to beg money from you, again in the first instance one dollar. America may have well and truly lost the Vietnam and related wars, but economicaly its dollar is dominant.
The basic facts of this wonderful holiday: 4 countries, 6 guides, 8 hotels, 12 flights, 856 photographs (using a new digital camera). So a really active and busy two and a half weeks but utterly fascinating with so many wonderful images and memories.
In each of the cases of Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia, a visa is required for entry and a departure tax is levied on leaving (a whopping $25 in the case of Cambodia). A decade ago, tourism was virtually unknown in these three countries; in another decade, the experience will be so different as the number of tourists explodes and these countries increasingly adopt western characteristics. It was a great time to visit such breathtaking locations.