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    Highlights of Vietnam

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    I visited Vietnam for two weeks in December of 2004.   With such a short time in the country I had to choose which parts of the country I would visit and which I wouldn't.   I originally planned to arrive in Saigon, head up north to Hanoi by means I hadn't determined, and then backtrack to Saigon and fly back to the United States from there.

    Happily I had the good sense to change this plan at the last minute so that I arrived in Hanoi, flew first from Hanoi down to Danang and then from Danang to Cam Ranh, and then drove down to Saigon and a flight out of the country from there.

    For a communist country Vietnam is very straightforward to visit and travel through, certainly much better than Russia, which still has ridiculous communist-era regulations like being sponsored for a visa by a local organization and registering with the police when you travel.

    Entry into Vietnam and travel around the country was much more straightforward, and there were several surprises like a shop in Hanoi specializing in Christmas decorations - Vietnam has a significant catholic minority, but it's still an eye-opener in a country which many westerners perceive as one of the last holdouts of old-style "godless" communism.   Nor did I experience any hostility about the war anywhere during my trip. 

    I did have several touristic encounters with Vietnam's communist heritage.   I visited Ho Chi Minh's tomb in Hanoi, which was almost as ugly and block-like as Lenin's tomb in Moscow.   I also visited the army museum and air force museum in Hanoi, as well as a collection of military memorabilia which I stumbled across in Saigon, near the zoo.   When I went down to Danang I had the great good fortune (for an aviation enthusiast) to photograph vintage MiG-21 jet fighters of the Vietnamese air force in action.   This was perhaps running a bit more risk than I should have, but I didn't get into any trouble and the photos were published in several British aviation magazines.

    Another location in Hanoi which should be on the visiting list for people interested in this period of history is the Hoa Lo prison, known by American airmen as the "Hanoi Hilton".   Ironically, a large part of the prison grounds has now been redeveloped and occupied by a multi-storey western hotel, which is surprising, considering that the French used the prison for many years to hold Vietnamese communists, a number of whom were executed by guillotine.   I expected that the current government would have wanted the whole place preserved for its propoganda value, but apparently mammon over-rode those considerations.   However, a few of the buildings are still preserved, with some laughable communist propaganda of the time which describes how well American prisoners were treated.   One especially intriguing exhibit is the flight suit and other personal articles of modern-day US senator John McCain.

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    I wasn't sure what to expect of Hanoi, but it turned out to be my favorite Vietnamese city - not that I can claim to be an expert about Vietnamese cities!   I thought that Hanoi might have been bombed to oblivion during the war, but happily this turned out to be incorrect, and there were plenty of attractions to keep a person fully occupied for three or four days.

    There are many lakes scattered around the city, making a welcome change from the bustle and grime of the city's buildings and traffic.   At the eastern side of Ho Tay ( west lake) you can find Tran Quoc pagoda on Golden Fish Islet.   It's one of the oldest pagodas in the country, with a stele describing how it was built near the Red River in the 6th century, and then moved to this location in the 17th century when its original location was crumbling into the water.   A bodhi tree in the enclosure is said to have been grown from a cutting of the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment.

    Marketplaces anywhere in Asia are interesting places to visit, and Hanoi was no disappointment, with live fish and frogs on display alongside many tropical fruits which are virtually unknown in the west.   It's also well worthwhile walking randomly around the streets of the old quarter to see the different stores, usually grouped together according to the product on sale, including grave markers made right on the spot.   Dozens of the streets in this part of town are named after the product sold by the street's merchants.

    There are quite a few buddhist temples and pagodas in the city, many of which are more interesting than the acclaimed temples in Saigon.   You can find small temples down narrow neighborhood streets, and there are many scattered around the neighboring countryside.   They often feature statues, carvings and paintings of ghastly looking deities, and the buildings themselves are decorated with small carvings of dragons and other creatures both real and mythical, often colorfully painted or embellished with glazed ceramics.

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    Perhaps the most interesting site in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature, which was founded in 1070 as a Confucian temple and in 1076 became Vietnam's first university, continuing to train Vietnamese mandarins until 1779.

    The five large courtyards contain nice gardens and lily ponds, Chinese style gates and Confucian temple buildings which house colorful carvings of venerated teachers and gods, as well as photogenic bronze statues of cranes, and other artifacts.

    The temple is a good illustration of Chinese influence on Vietnam.   It has always been a difficult relationship, with the Vietnamese both adopting large elements of Chinese culture and also resisting Chinese rule.

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    And you thought you had a bad job!

    The streets of Hanoi are a great place for people watching, you'll see people carrying all sorts of loads on motorcycles, from sheets of glass to huge sacks and boxes.

    Some chickens get their first and probably last ride around town!

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    Hanoi makes an excellent jumping-off point for exploring some of the surrounding area.

    The travel guides say that it can get quite cold at this time of year, but I was lucky enough to have very pleasant temperatures.   Other tourists who had been up into the hill country of northern Vietnam said that it was even pleasant up there once the night-time chill had departed, with flowers and butterflies in the sunshine.

    I ended up not going to any of the highland areas, either around Hanoi or in the central region, but I did make a few trips out of the city.

    Halong Bay is a must-visit place for people who come to this part of the country for more than a few days.   The bay contains 3000 or so strangely shaped limestone islets, as well as larger islands with small towns, and a large part of the bay has been designated as a World Heritage site by the United Nations.

    Vietnam is quite poor, but this area is poor even by Vietnamese standards, which is one reason why so many of the Vietnamese "boat people" refugees came from this area.

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    Cat Ba island is the largest in the entire bay, dominating the southern end and providing a home to many local people, including the shrimp and pearl farmers you see here.   There's even a town of 8,000 people.

    About half of Cat Ba is a national park protecting many different species of animals, including some endangered mammals endemic to the island.

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    Surprisingly, there are caves with very large chambers on some of the islands, some of which have been illuminated and laid out for people to visit.

    Although it's possible to do day trips, it's much better to stay one or more nights on a boat.

    The whole area is very photogenic, and also a good place to see marine birds like the fish eagles which constantly cruise around.

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    This is Surprise Cave, within the same islet as the previous photo.

    On the right-hand side you can see some of the interesting rock formations in the cave, which include the usual phallic stalagmites which have amused generations of people all around the world for thousands of years.

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    Titop island is close to Surprise Cave, it has a nice beach to swim on and a path so you can climb to the top.

    I was waiting to get some nice sunset photos from here, but the sun vanished into a thick layer of haze long before it reached the hilltops, let alone the horizon.

    But as any resident of Los Angeles can tell you, pollution does make for great sunsets, and I was able to get this photo while the sun was still fairly high.   This photo is natural, I didn't have to do any processing to get this extraordinary golden color.

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    Back on land, there are plenty of day trip possibilities around Hanoi, such as the Perfume Pagoda, which involves a rowboat ride along a river, and then if you're interested a long climb up a rocky path to a somewhat uninspiring buddhist sanctuary inside a cave.

    A cable-car is being built here so in the future you won't even have to put up with the walk to the top, or the vendors along the way, which are actually an interesting part of the whole experience.

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    Of course it's nice to get out into the fresh air, and the boat ride is a good way to see some of the local bird life such as kingfishers, and there are all sorts of attractive butterflies and other insects along the path up the hill.

    You can also see the local people going about their everyday lives.

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    I paid for a car and driver to take me around Hanoi, and then for a few days into the area around Hanoi.   This cost little more than renting a car on its own, though I also had to pay for the same very budget accomodation for him that I was using.

    He didn't speak more than a few words of English but it was a great help to have someone with me who knew how to navigate around the city.

    Things weren't so ideal when we got outside the city, he got lost and we had to get directions from the locals.   But even that was a pleasant experience, as we saw more of the countryside and village life, like these workers cycling home in the evening.

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    The town of Tam Coc is said to be "Halong Bay with rice paddies" because it has the same strangely shaped limestone "Kharst" landscape as the bay itself.

    From here you can take a leisurely boat trip along a slow-flowing river and through three low-roofed caves which straddle the river.

    Be prepared to be offered the chance to do some rowing yourself and to buy fruit, drinks or snacks from boat-borne vendors, or t-shirts from your own guides.

    There's a lot of interesting scenery all over Vietnam, if you can see through the haze!

    This is a rural scene on the way to Cuc Phuong national park, where I spent a night and photographed quite a bit of interesting wildlife.

    Amazingly, Cuc Phuong was opened as Vietnam's first national park by Ho Chi Minh himself during the American war, as the Vietnamese call it (the better to distinguish it from the French war fought earlier, and the Cambodian war and Chinese war fought later!).

    It's said that he open the park with a speech in which he said "The forest is gold.   If we know how to conserve it well then it will be very precious.   Destruction of the forest will lead to serious effects on both life and productivity."

    Unfortunately, his words haven't been heeded, and over 80% of Vietnam's forests were cut down after the American war ended.   With its own resources depleted, Vietnam then helped deforest Cambodia.

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    One of the great centers of Vietnamese architecture is the old imperial city of Hue, about half way between Hanoi and Saigon.   The emperors built a large walled city here called the Citadel, modelled on the Forbidden City in Beijing.   Within Vietnam's Citadel was the Forbidden Purple City, which was the imperial enclosure.

    When the country was partitioned Hue ended up just within the borders of South Vietnam.   During the Tet offensive in 1968 the communists took over the city and committed a brutal massacre of government officials and their supporters.   Initially the South Vietnamese army and their American allies held off from recapturing the Citadel because they were concerned about the damage which would inevitably be caused, but eventually they mounted a full-scale bombing and artillery assault and most of the area was destroyed.

    Most of the area within the Citadel is now empty because of the destruction wreaked during the war, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much did survive and how much has been restored, such as the main gate which you see here, called the Ngo Mon gate.   The center passageway through the gate was reserved for the use of the emperor, everyone else had to enter through the two side passageways.   This is also the reason the center section of the roof is painted in imperial yellow and the side roofs are green.

    It was here in 1945 that emperor Bao Dai abdicated at the prompting of Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary government, which took over after the Japanese surrendered.

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    There are also numerous secondary gates within the complex, separating courtyards and pavilions from each other.

    These gates are richly decorated, and their appearance is made even more interesting by the associated statuary like the grinning lions (or whatever they are) that you see here.

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    Here's a closeup of some of that decoration, with an interesting looking monster of some sort and a pair of elephants next to what looks like a banana tree.

    This decoration is very Chinese in style.   A lot of it isn't custom made but consists of broken crockery which was brought as ballast in Chinese trading ships.   This is a common feature of this type of ornamentation, you can see it again in some of the temples in Bangkok.

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    Many of the best aspects of the imperial city are the small details, like this drainpipe on one of the buildings.

    The most interesting buildings still standing are the Dien Tho Residence of the Nguyen dynasty's queen mothers, the emperor's library and this theater.

    Hue only became the imperial capital in 1802, when Nguyen Phuc Anh gained control over the whole country.   As mentioned before, it continued as capital until 1945, when emperor Bao Dai abdicated and the communists set up shop in Hanoi.

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    There are various other interesting things to see around Hue, including the Thien Mu pagoda, which is the symbol's city.   It houses an Austin motorcar which was used to transport the monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon, where he famously incinerated himself in order to protest against president Diem's favoring of Catholics over Buddhists.

    At least that's the story; personally, having owned a British car myself, I can attest that there were many times when I would gladly have burned myself to death rather than suffer its mechanical obstinacies any more.

    And before I forget to mention it, the center of the universe is just outside Hue.   Or at least the Nam Giao esplanade is there, which represents the center of the universe.   It has three levels, a square one representing earth, another representing man and a very large circular platform on top representing heaven.   The emperor would perform very elaborate and expensive rituals here to maintain harmony between heaven, earth and man.   The structure is very wide but not very high, less than 5 meters, so to get a worthwhile photo you'd have to be flying above it.

    Here's another example of Chinese style decoration, a horse at the small but attractive Tu Hieu pagoda outside Hue.

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    The imperial tombs along the Perfume River outside Hue are largely intact, though neglect has taken its toll, in part because of the communists' disdain for the feudal imperial government.

    Now, with the growing importance of tourism the neglect is being reversed and restoration is well underway.   Roof decorations like these at the tomb of Minh Mang are very common throughout Vietnam.

    Although Minh Mang had numerous successes both at war and in reorganization of Vietnam itself, his steadfast Confucian conservatism eventually led to the French colonisation of Vietnam.   He started by ejecting and persecuting Catholic missionaries, and then decided to follow Japan's isolationist policies by keeping almost all foreigners out of the country.   Fatally, he rejected most technological advances made in the west, which rendered his military increasingly ineffective.

    The French had already decided that establishing colonies in Asia would be a good way to challenge the power of the British and Dutch in that region.   France was initially distracted by the wars going on within Europe, but eventually Minh Mang's suppression of the missionaries provided the excuse they needed to begin to move in, soon after his death.

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    The weather while I was in Vietnam was fairly good, but it drizzled most of the time I was in Hue and the surrounding area, as you can see from this photo at the tomb of Emperor Minh Mang.

    Because of the angle of the nearby coast, Hue is one of the wettest cities in the whole of Asia, with about 3 meters of rain a year, mostly falling between September and December.

    The whole of Vietnam is within the tropics, but Hue is near the climactic boundary between the south where temperatures average about 30 degrees celcius all year around, and the north which is more temperate and has a real winter.

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    Several of the Nguyen emperors' tombs are worth visiting, one of the largest and most ornate is the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, whose Xung Khiem pavilion you see here.

    Tu Duc was the last Vietnamese emperor to remain independent, although he ceded large areas of the country to the French even while he was alive.

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    The town of Hoi An is another architectural treasure.   Centuries ago it was a major trading post on the banks the Thu Bon river not far south of Hue.

    The buildings here are not as spectacular as the large imperial structures at Hue, but the magic of Hoi An is that it's like a small slice of history which has been perfectly preserved, without war damage or modern development.

    Walking the streets makes it easy to imagine life a hundred years ago or more, with old style merchants' homes and stores crowded shoulder-to-shoulder, and many temples and community meeting halls built by the various Chinese ethnic groups who lived here and continue to live here.

    These temples and halls were better than any that I saw in Hanoi or Saigon.   A covered bridge built hundreds of years ago by members of the Japanese community adds to the feel of the town, which literally became a backwater when the river silted up.

    If you have enough time then it would be very worthwhile to spend a few days here, but even if you only stay a short time you'll soon understand why this is a World Heritage site.

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    From Danang I flew down to another old American military base at Cam Ranh, and then up to the area around Nha Trang.

    This guy is a fisherman paddling along the Cai River, which flows through Nha Trang.

    He's standing in a type of boat called a Chung-Thai which is very similar to the coracles used in the ancient British Isles as well as other parts of Asia like Tibet, and even by some North American Indians.

    This Vietnamese example seems to be woven like matting, but those in other parts of the world were made from animal skins stretched over a wooden framework.   Regardless of the construction, they're all usually light enough to be carried by one person, which greatly adds to their usefulness.

    The way this fisherman is paddling is also unusual, he's sweeping from side to side, rather than using a typical backwards-and-forwards rowing pattern.   The Vietnamese do row using two oars, but even there they bring a twist to the technique, by moving the oars with their feet while they sit facing forwards!

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    The Cham towers are a little known aspect of Vietnamese architecture.   The Cham Kingdom of south-central Vietnam had a Hindu culture like that of Angkor Wat across the border in present-day Cambodia, however they were long-time rivals of the Cambodians, and the two countries often invaded each other (most recently in 1979, when the Cambodians threw the Khmer Rouge government out of power).

    The Cham kings never erected the huge stone monuments of the Khmer kings, instead they constructed tall masonry and brick complexes.   Several of these survive in the area around Nha Trang, such as the Po Nagar towers which are beside the Cai river right in the middle of the city.   It's decorated with various dancing Hindu deities and is still a venerated site for locals.

    The Po Klaung Garai towers which you see here are some distance further south, near the start of the road leading inland to the mountain resort town of Dalat.   These towers are in particularly good condition, and their hilltop location makes a great photo.

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    Here's another view of the towers from close up.

    On the left of the photo you can see a stele describing the history of the site.   There might have been a temple here at an earlier date, but the tower you see today is believed to have been built at the end of the 13th century AD.

    The tower is named after a legendary king called Po Klaung Garai, who defeated the Khmer by challenging them to a tower building contest, which he won.   After seeing the Khmer monuments, I'm not sure how he could have won; it all sounds suspiciously like tower envy to me!

    The main tower houses a linga which is still worshipped today, and the middle structure is thought to be dedicated to the god of fire.

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    Here's the view further along the road to Dalat which I took while traveling south from Nha Trang to Cat Tien.

    Some of the beaches and offshore islands around Nha Trang are said to be very attractive, however it was the rainy season when I visited, so the water wasn't crystal clear.   I did stay at the Jungle Beach resort north of Nha Trang, but the beach there isn't particularly scenic.

    I planned to stop at a number of the waterfalls around Dalat, but in the end I ran out of time and had to pass straight through - in fact, I wouldn't have got to Cat Tien that night if I hadn't explained to the driver that I wanted to wander around in the jungle at night!

    The national parks that I visited weren't particularly scenic, mostly because the trees block most of the views.

    Cat Tien national park is between Saigon and Dalat and has a river and Crocodile Lake, which I never got to.   The river has a small set of rapids, but the whole area is fairly flat, and the river is brown with sediment, so again it doesn't make for a great photo.