Not so long ago – OK – it was half a lifetime ago – I was a soldier in the Australian Army. Her Britannic Majesty had decided that she needed me and all other Australian men born on 12 April that year to serve her, the greater glory of god, and the indomitable spirit of my country as we went “All the way with LBJ” to defeat the Communists storming down the Vietnamese countryside waving the wonderful French baguettes found in Hanoi.
For a year or so in the 1970s I learned how to drive a bayonet into an enemy soldier, how to twist it and pull it out, how to withstand sensory deprivation at the hands of the Viet Cong if captured, and how to say in Vietnamese “That’s fine, thanks, but could I please have another helping of fried dog with my rice?”
I have friends who did fight in Vietnam – in perhaps one of the most pointless wars ever battled – friends who were wounded, and friends who survived … and to them and all the others and to all those who did not return I pay great respect … but by the time the Australian government had finished spending a vast amount of money turning me into a lean mean killing machine (OK – we did learn how to light a cigar in the Officers’ Mess, and how to tie a perfect bow tie in thirty-two seconds) a change of government decided to send no more Australian troops to Vietnam.
And that was a good thing as I imagine that had I gone to that country as a soldier it would have been a case of
- Good morning Vietnam!
- Bye-bye Vietnam
Despite intervention by Australian and USA troops and soldiers from other countries, the Communists won in Vietnam. Despite many turbulent years today the unified country seems to be a well-governed, peaceful place enjoying significant economic growth. Of course, a casual visitor who does not speak the local language can only gain a superficial impression and who knows what lies beneath the surface for the people of this country?
Again, who knows what was going through the mind of the man about my age, wearing some sort of USA-military cap, I saw standing deep in thought on Hanoi’s Long Biên Bridge over the Red River? During the American War this bridge was repeatedly bombed by the USA and repeatedly rebuilt by Prisoners of War. Was this man one of the bombers … or one of the prisoners who repaired it and rebuilt it every time it was damaged?
Some time ago I wrote about HCMC – Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it used to be – so I will not spend much time on that wonderful, chaotic, sprawling, busy place, other than to say it is a sort of a brash Sydney compared to Hanoi’s more elegant Melbourne. In USA terms it might be New York to Boston, but it is an exciting city to visit – even if only to take cocktails on a riverside rooftop bar, or to go to the Saigon Opera House.
In HCMC I usually stay either at the lovely old Colonial Continental Hotel next to the Opera House, or the equally charming Majestic Hotel. Each of these hotels was popular with British writer Graham Greene, and each features in the superb film based on his novel The Quiet American. Greene stayed in the Continental’s Room 208 at one stage and the film with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser was filmed outside my “opera view suite” … but not while I was there.
I had a closer touch of instant fame in Hanoi.
Outside Hanoi’s lovely Opera House I recently spotted an elderly English chap in linen suit and scarlet foulard being crazily and dangerously transported in a cycle rickshaw. I could not see who was at the business end of the machine, but cameras and sound booms suggested that it was part of a film. I later learned that the linen-clad chap was British writer, theatrical producer and talent agent Michael Whitehall … and that the maniac who was nominally in charge of the three-wheeled death machine was Jack Whitehall, his son, an English comedian.
If you can see Netflix have a look at Travels with my Father at the website www.netflix.com/title/80186848 as it will give you more information – and many good laughs. The sequence I watched being shot is now featured at the start of the comic series.
Vive la France?
Despite the rout of the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1953-54, Hanoi is still very French in so many ways. When I recently checked into the De Syloia Hotel (www.desyloia.com) the doorman greeted me in French (although he was carrying and studying a huge English-language dictionary), and Hanoi’s bakery products are some of the best in Asia – although Cambodia’s bakeries are also pretty good.
Many restaurants feature menus in French and Vietnamese with traditional French dishes scattered through a more Asian-style of food. Traditional Vietnames spring rolls feature on just about every menu. A French wine list is, of course, de rigeur. Flying in the face of tradition, one wine shop I visited offered a bottle of the excellent Australian Penfold’s St Henri Shiraz at 3.8 million Vietnamese Dong – or about US$170.00. In Australia, depending on the vintage, the same wine is usually about US$65.00 – US$100.00.
At one place, however, no matter how Francophile its management may have been, the waitresses were all clad in the beautiful and traditional áo dài – a long, body-hugging silk coat worn over floppy trousers. (See featured image and below)
Street names all over the country often reflect what most of the shops in those streets sell – so there are silk streets and rubber streets and paper streets. Their colonial names were usually in French – but these have now almost all become Vietnamese. For example Rue Catinat in HCMC is now Dong Khoi.
From the water puppet shows presented at several theatres and hotels in Hanoi and HCMC, to Miss Saigon songs at the HCMC Opera House (nice sense of irony here), entertainment of some sort is not far away. There are street musicians on the promenade around Hanoi’s superb Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (Hoan Kiem Lake) where you will also find Tai Chi classes, joggers, families and lovers taking the afternoon air. There are bicycle vendors with ear-shattering portable public address systems. And an occasional man just sitting there, thinking.
Art galleries abound in Hanoi near the Opera House and the six-kilometre mosaic wall by one of the city’s dykes is a stunning splash of colour featuring work by local and international ceramic mosaic artists.
During the American War, Australian and USA troops used the beachside towns of Da Nang and Vung Tau as R&R (Rest and Recreation) centres and while each has some charm today, neither compares well with the stunning Hội An.
I am told Hué is a must-see place but I have yet to get there – perhaps next time – but Hội An on the central coast is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-visit destination.
Its Old Town represents a vibrant picture of an Asian trading port. The city, its narrow shop houses, historic bridges over canals, fishermen somehow managing to control round fishing coracles, streets lit with tens of thousands of paper lanterns, and scores of wonderful Colonial buildings all make this an exciting and enjoyable place to spend a few days … unless you lose your motorbike keys.
I do not know why I ever hire motorcycles or scooters, as they do not agree with me. I either fall off them, they break down or they get flat tyres. Or all three. They have even been known to secretly eject their ignition keys while I was driving along.
I did not know that this had happened one day in Hội An until a combination of a flat tyre and almost running out of petrol made me pull into a road-side lean-to to effect repairs. As the keys were gone I could not turn the bike off. We repaired the tyre with the engine still running and the petrol still getting lowers, and I retraced my route, despairing of ever finding a single motorcycle key in the twenty or so kilometres of muddy roads I had travelled.
There must be a god of lost motorcycle key, Daphne, as I frantically scanned the mud, knowing I was wasting my time … but then …
- A glimpse of pink!
- No No – it cannot be!
But yes, my one tiny key was attached for reasons best known to the hire company to a small pink plastic lobster claw … and there the claw was, half-submerged in the slush, but with a tiny bit of pink gallantly waving its tiny pink lobster fingers at me!
I vowed never to hire a motorcycle again and to pay more attention to travelling times … at least until I arrived in the far NE of the country.
The NE Coast
I spent a couple of days at the stunning Ha Long Bay – another UNESCO World Heritage Site – and an ocean dotted with thousands of huge limestone karsts and the thousands of tourist boats and junks and ferries that enable the many thousands of tourists to explore this wonderful region.
When it was time to return to Hanoi I carefully checked my travelling times to ensure I could get to the local airport on time.
- Yes – flight leaves at 1530
- OK – so, half past five departure means I should leave the hotel no later than about half past four.
En route I realised my stupidity and got to the airport about two hours late for my flight … which unfortunately had not been delayed by mechanical failure or plagues of locusts … and I booked a flight the following day and checked into the airport hotel which was an … interesting … experience.
I have visited Vietnam six or seven times – but as many of the visits were business-related I kept returning to HCMC and Hanoi and only occasionally escaped further afield.
I want to ride the Unification Express train from HCMC to Hanoi. I want to go up into the mountains to visit Sapa, Cao Bang and Ha Giang … and to round off the coastal places. There is still Hué of course but I have heard Mũi Né is delightful … Ah – so many places … and so little time!
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2018
Whitehall photograph from the Internet
Various journeys in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2015 and 2017
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship