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Vietnam: Hanoi to Saigon in two weeks

My fascination with Vietnam goes back decades, to when I was a young geography and history student, studying the wars of Indo China. I write this blog with a sense of excitement and an appreciation of what this small but powerful country has achieved during the last century. One cannot visit this relatively small, densly populated country with little or no knowledge of it's turbulent past, and really do it justice. It took until I was aged 39 for me to reach this thriving nation but as a part of a wider trip round Southeast Asia in 2012. I got my big chance to travel a fairly well trodden path from north to south lasting 2 weeks. The long and wiry 'S' shape of Vietnam lends itself perfectly well to a lineal journey up or down its coast. In two weeks I was little bit rushed, and ideally I would have loved a whole month here, but in the short time I had, I still managed to learn loads about the old and new dimensions of life here.

My point of entry was the Ca River Valley in the northwest. Immediately I was struck by the unusually tall terraced houses painted in pretty bright colours. Each town I passed through had a Communist Party building, a reminder that the country was in fact still non-democratic. Feeling pretty jaded after a 27 hour journey all the way from Luang Prabang in Laos, I arrived in the capital city of Hanoi. What more refreshing way to start my adventure here than in the Old Quarter of the city, sipping cheap beer at Beer Hoi corner, watching the world go by. The place is packed with locals and tourists, sipping a locally brewed ale for around 10 cents a glass. It tastes pretty good for what you pay too!

A day of site seeing around Hanoi is quite straight forward with most of the sites in and around the Old Quarter. It worth a stroll around the pleasant Hoan Kiem Lake, where legend has it a golden tortoise took the sword from a 15th century emperor and has never been seen since. It's a pleasant place just to relax and have lunch or dinner with plenty of inexpensive cafes serving you an array of local dishes, such as the local Kho, which is a sweet/savoury dish of fish mixed with a caramel sauce. Vietnamese dishes tend to have less chili than neighbouring Thailand.

The city of Hanoi with its mix of small tight alleys and wider boulevards has been very respectably rebuilt following the decades of war which devastated the country. There are several reminders though that Vietnam suffered one of most brutal of wars, if you take a visit to the Vietnam Military History Museum. On show are a few dozen relics of what locals rightly call the 'American War'. After years of reading up on the war and watching endless movies, I got my photo next to a American Huey helicopter, the iconic work horse that got soldiers in and out of battle locations across the country.

As I wandered around the War museum, and read the placards about the war, you get the feel of how Vietnam itself feels about the war. For the people of North Vietnam at least, you sense it was a war of re-unification and not one of Cold War ideology, which it was for the US. After seeing so many movies and reading so many history books before coming here, I found it refreshing to see the history of the Vietnam War from the local perspective. The US lost 59,000 lives, over the course of their 8 year entanglement from 1965 to 1973. I have met several veterans from the US who fought over there and their trauma was truly life changing. The war touched an entire generation of Americans in so many ways and extremes. It has altered American Foreign policy and created some form of limitation on their authority around the world, though some would argue against that with more recent military involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When you visit Vietnam and learn of the fact the people here lost well over two million men, women and children, most of which were actually civilians, you gain a different harrowing perspective. For the people of Vietnam today, they have rebuilt their nation astonishingly well, but you are reminded that their past was one of the greatest suffering in modern times. There are still vast numbers of people suffering here from the use of Agent Orange, which was used by American military to defoliate the forests of Vietnam. During the war, 4 million people were exposed to this defoliant chemical, and even today, 1 million people suffer from the effects, ranging from blindness to cancer. After visiting the war museum I crossed the road and saw the mausoleum of their Communist father behind their big fight for re-unification - Ho Chi Minh. He is revered in the same way Chairman Mao is in neighbouring China.

I must admit I enjoyed the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and its little alleyways, shops and cafes. The people I found to be friendly. I spent a couple of hours chatting away to a young married couple in their early 20s who wanted to practice their English. They were cheerful and so bright in their outlook on life. They insisted they got their photo with me next to one of Hanoi's big lakes, called Truc Bac. They had the same aspirations as any European couple, wanted to work, travel and eventually have a family. The couple were rightly proud of Hanoi and its heritage.

After leaving Hanoi, I desperately wanted to visit the famous Halong Bay which was roughly four hours drive out east. I signed up with a company to take me on a two day, one night sail around the world famous bay. If you go to Hanoi then you should definitely find the time to head out to Halong Bay, which consist of hundreds of islands and limestone karsts. It's worth shopping around the tour agencies of Hanoi to get a tour you're happy with which will take you on a Chinese style 'junk' boat. They are well kitted out with bedrooms and serve up fairly tasty food. You will get the chance to kayak around the islands and visit a couple of caves. A two day trip tends to cost between $80-100 per person. I am not denying the trip is very 'touristy' but it's must do for anyone visiting this neck of the woods.

Having a paddle around Halong Bay around the time of sunset was an unforgettable experience. You almost forget that this place is not just a tourist playground but locals do actually live out among these islands. Undoubtedly, they can benefit from selling to hungry and thirsty tourists too. For those of you who have been big fans of the old BBC Top Gear programmes, you'll recall Halong Bay as the final location of the Vietnam Special episode, then Clarkson, Hammond and May made their own motorbike-boats. For me, it still stands as one of the funniest episodes they ever made.

As well as glorious sundown over the sea, you have a big banquet meal on board the boat, followed by a few beers and a bit Kareoke. Yes it's cheesy but you have to get a little in the spirit of a tour style trip occasionally. A further highlight of Halong Bay for me was visiting the magnificent caverns inside of the limestone islands. They are well lit and feature some pretty strange and some phallic looking rock formations!

After a night back in Hanoi, it was time to make the move further down the coast to Central Vietnam. I caught an overnight train which I must say was pretty comfortable, though I wouldn't say that cheap at around $40USD for the 20 hour journey. As most of the journey was overnight I missed a fair chunk of seeing the countryside, though the next morning you arrived at what used to be the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone, where North and South Vietnam was separated from 1954 to 1975. This dividing line, a.k.a the 17th parallel was the scene of massive hostilities, particularly around the Ben Hai river. Towards the Laos border is the old base of Khe Sanh, which was under heavy siege and although not lost by the Americans initially, they had to back out eventually after constant heavy bombardment from the NVA.

At lunchtime I arrived in the city of Hue in Central Vietnam. This was once the old imperial capital city of Vietnam. It is worth a couple of days staying here. You can visit the old citadel beside the Perfume River. This was built in the early 1800s and resembles the Forbidden City of Beijing in its layout, though not as audacious. It is worth a wander around it for a couple of hours to marvel at the architecture both in and outside.

The Hue Citadel was to factor in the Tet Offensive of 1968, in which during the holiday period of the Chinese New Year, the North Vietnamese inflicted a massive assault on the South. They controlled the citadel for nearly 4 weeks and inflicted heavy casualties numbering some 10,000. The Americans admitted in order to save the city, they ironically had to destroy it, sometimes even using napalm. On my second day in Hue, I cycled along the Perfume River and came across the peaceful Thien Mu Pagoda, which was 20 metres high and octagonal, dating back to the 1840s.

I very much enjoyed my time in and around Hue. It marks the perfect halfway point down the vast 1000 mile long length of Vietnam. The next stop would be a short two hour bus journey to the quaint town of Hoi An. I had not really heard of this town until watching the Top Gear Vietnam Special episode, as already mentioned. The famous trio of Clarkson, Hammond and May rocked up there to buy some ridiculously colourful traditional silk suits to much amusement. If you have not seen the BBC Top Gear Vietnam Special then I can especially advise you do so for a more tongue in cheek view of travel up through Vietnam. Although it is jokey in content, they show the beauty and friendly elements to the country.

Hoi An is very touristy but I would not have missed it for the world. I loved its little alleyways of yellow plastered buildings. It had some nice bars and restaurants down by the river front too.

As lovely as I found Hoi An, the highlight of this region was actually to be had from a fairly daring motorcycle ride I took from Hoi An, back north to bustling city of Da Nang, and then beyond over the famous Hai Van pass. This coastal road was made pretty famous once again by the Top Gear Vietnam Special programme when the presenters drove their mopeds over the mountain pass. I felt compelled to emulate their journey and I was so glad I did as the road trip was stunningly scenic. If you can hack the chaos of driving in and around Danang city first, I guarantee you won't be disappointed!

Here I am by the beach just north of Danang, a city of almost 1 million, the third biggest in Vietnam. It was here that in 1965 that the first American Marines landed ashore. Just behind me is the mountain road, known as Hai Van pass. Just follow this road up and over the other side to be spell bound by spectacular coastal views.

The above view is from the summit of Hai Van looking back north towards Hue.

I thoroughly enjoyed my outing up the Hai Van pass so much so that I rented a moped the next day too and ventured in land to some ancient ruins called My Son. Along the way, I felt quite thirsty and stopped off in a remote village for a drink. There was no shop there as such but a lovely Vietnamese family invited me into their house for an hour where they gave me a bottle of coke. They spoke no English but the husband spoke a little French and German which could just about converse in so we could at least chat a tiny bit.

The local family seemed really proud to have entertained a foreigner and said they don't get many passing this way. They gave me directions to the My Son temples and I was soon on my way once more through the paddy fields of Central Vietnam.

Vietnam is not particularly famed for ancient ruins like the Khmer ones of Cambodia but I was happy to have found some ancient relics of Vietnam, though several of them had got damaged during the war. My Son goes back to the 4th century of the Champa people, who practiced Hinduism. There were 68 structures but today only 20 survive. I found some huge craters around the grounds from heavy bombs dropped by American B52s in the 1960s. Reminders of the war are never far away in this fascinating country. I drove on back to Hoi An and then booked my next leg south which was to Nha Trang, now three quarters of the way down the country.

I arrived into Nha Trang at dawn and got a lovely view over the South China Sea from my hotel room. The main draw of Nha Trang is simply the opportunity to have a complete relax after doing the more hectic site seeing further north. The lovely white sandy beach is classed as the best municipal beach in the whole of the country. It gets quite busy with locals, but there is still miles of space to kick back and chill. The good news is that with it being quite a touristy town you can pick up a fairly cheap 3 star rating hotel in the region of $20USD.

So if you want a couple of days of relaxing then I can definitely recommend Nha Trang. In addition to affordable hotels, there's a whole bunch of cafes and restaurants to choose from. In the last decade, the town has also become a haven for adventure sports, anything from diving to white water rafting in the near by hills. After topping up my tan, I took a 6 hour train ride south to Vietnam's second major city of Ho Chi Minh City. |t's quite scenic journey along the way with beautiful wooded hills, with the villages and temples tucked away. Some people break the journey up by stopping in the Central Highlands and particularly, the town of Dalat.

Ho Chi Minh City is a different style of city to Hanoi. Some people still like to call it Saigon which was it's pre-war name until 1975. It's a buzzing and thriving commercial city which has a massive population of over 7 million people. It's got a few relics of the past but it has a huge amount of new build too.

The above photo was taken close to the Pham Ngu Lao area, or District 1. Many travellers, choose to stay here, as it's nice and central for site seeing. I went and visited the War Remnants Museum which has a whole host of weapons and transport from the war with America. There are a couple interesting floors worth spending time on in which you can learn about the war and it's effects on the country. I had a fantastic morning tour out on the fringes of Saigon at Cu Chi. This is where you can experience the tunnel network as used by the Viet Cong in war. The success of North Vietnam in conquering the south was in large part down to the help of the guerilla movement, the Viet Cong who were able to stealthily infiltrate the southern towns and cities.

I found it quite a squeeze actually getting into the entrance way of one of the Cu Chi tunnels. These tunnels at one stage went from the edge of Saigon all the way to the Cambodia border. It was massively successful in enabling the North Vietnamese to smuggle vital weapons and manpower to the edge of Saigon. You get to go further underground to see inside the tunnels, but they have been widened especially large western tourists to go down in them. It's worth doing the Cu Chi trip on an organised tour as it is difficult to find your own way out on the labyrinth of country roads on the outskirts of Saigon.

A second worthwhile organised trip you can do from Saigon is down to the Mekong Delta. This fertile flood plain of river tributaries is known as the 'rice bowl' of Vietnam. The locals call it River of Nine Dragons, in reference to the major tributaries which feed it all the way from its source in Tibet. I did this journey as a mini day tour as I didn't want to chance getting lost on the myriad of roads from Saigon. You get to canoe around a couple of islands and sample a bit of the rural life here. The area was originally part of the Khmer kingdom of Cambodia many centuries back. Indeed, the Khmer Rouge attack the area in 1978, only to come off worst and get invaded by Vietnam. Deforestation up in Cambodia in recent decades has resulted in the Mekong Delta flooding more than normal in recent times.

My two weeks in Vietnam was finally up after my visit to the Mekong Delta. I was captivated by the whole experience, with the wonderful landscapes, the culture and the incredible war history of the 20th centuries wars. If you go to Vietnam, I really do recommend you do some quality war history research in order to get the maximum out of you travels there. I've watched each and every Vietnam war movie available too. I'd recommend We Were Soldiers as probably one of the best of all, starring Mel Gibson. This movie features the first battle of the 'American War' in late 1965, when the US got the shock of their lives fighting an NVA battalion in the Ia Drang valley of the Central Highlands. What I like about the film is that it gives some perspective from North Vietnam's point of view. Also the director, Randall Wallace, has tried to give attention to detail in terms of the social effects on the wives and families of American soldiers left at home. Finally, We Were Soldiers, addresses the true horror of war, and pulls no punches.

However, if want to be really diligent on the history of the Vietnam War then I recommend you watch the 10 part documentary simply entitled The Vietnam War, often available on Netflix. This is the most thorough war documentary I've every seen and took years to make. They feature the build up and the entire war, interviewing dozens of soldiers and civilians who survived the war. One last film I'd highly recommend watching is Good Morning Vietnam which was perhaps the genius late Robin Williams finest couple of hours on the big screen. Even though there are vast amounts of comedy in this film, in which Williams plays the DJ Adrian Cronauer, the film has some incredible poignant aspects to it. For instance Cronauer befriends a Vietnamese boy, who turns out to be a Viet Cong member. This highlighted just what the Americans were up against in Vietnam, in that they didn't even know who there enemy were, a problem they would once again encounter in the likes of Afghanistan. War is no longer fought on a front line, but on multiple muddled lines, including gorilla warfare, where the enemy is hidden in disguise.

Thanks you for reading my blog on Vietnam. If you wish to see more photos from my other website please click here. Next week, I am reviewing my travels through the final country of my travels in Southeast Asia, Cambodia, including the spectacular Angkor Wat!

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