19 Nights in Nam

The next stop in our tour of Indochina was Vietnam. This is what I saw…

Saigon Scooters

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With 35 million scooters in Nam, you can forget what the green-cross-code-man told you. You’ll be there all day. They come at you from all directions, so my advice would be – just walk… If evolution’s true the Vietnamese will have eyes in the back of their heads one day.

Friend or Pho

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Tucking into man’s best friend might be seen as non-starter for most of us, but in Nam it’s normal. They’re quite happy to have dogs as pets, then when they get old (or ill), stick ’em on the barbie (or flog ’em to a restaurant).

It’s a delicacy that’s steeped in tradition, and eaten on certain days (in the lunar calendar) can bring good luck. A local told me it’s an aphrodisiac too – guaranteed to get your sap rising (apparently)… Not having a problem in that area, I didn’t try.

Uncle Ho

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The face of Ho Chi Minh is all over Nam, he’s a bit of a national hero. They’ve even built a large communist style concrete coffin to showcase his reconditioned remains (…despite his wishes to be cremated). We went in for a look. No photos allowed, but I can tell you that he’s still in pretty good nick for a bloke that’s been dead 45 years – a bit pale, but you’d expect that.

In all the museums we visited “Uncle Ho” comes out smelling of roses, which left me thinking the old propaganda machine must still be working. A quick scan of Wikipedia revealed his communist regime had plenty of people killed in the 1950s (inc. the execution of 150,000 landlords)… There are 3 sides of every story.

That War

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In the run up to our arrival it dawned on me that my only knowledge of Nam was war related; Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Paul Hardcastle’s song 19 (1985), had told me everything I knew.

Obviously there’s a western bias to my sources, so it was interesting to hear it from the other side. The War Remnants Museum* (in Saigon) and the Hoa Lo Prison (in Hanoi) gave me the Vietnamese viewpoint, albeit in a very one-sided manner (the atrocities of the Viet Cong were not mentioned).

The thing that stayed with me the most was the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons by the US – the effects of agent orange, napalm etc. are still evident today – I’m sure the fact that I saw more deformity in South Vietnam than anywhere else was no coincidence.

*The words ‘US’ and ‘War Crimes’ have been dropped from the name of the museum, but knowing that gives you an idea of the propaganda and one-sidedness within.

H is for Heritage

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Nam is another place that’s got itself on UNESCO’s World Heritage bandwagon, 3 of the places we visited were on the list – Hue, Hoi An, and Halong Bay.

Hue didn’t impress me – temples and palaces aren’t my bag (and the rain didn’t help). Hoi An was nice – a relaxing town with plenty of character. But the pick of the bunch was Halong Bay – a natural wonder of 1,600 Islands (most of which are uninhabited)… The only downside with these tourist traps is being made to feel like a walking wallet, but you have to take the rough with the smooth round this way.

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Vietnam (like Cambodia) is a place living in the shadows of yesterday, maybe that’s what makes it so interesting. However, it was a country that I just didn’t warm to, the average person seemed a bit downbeat. There weren’t the shiny happy people that you get in Thailand. And if the tourist return rates are anything to go by, I’m not the only one that thinks that. Only 5% of tourists return to Vietnam, whereas for Thailand the figure is 50% …That trend won’t be changing on my account, I’m heading back to Thailand (for the 3rd time).

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