Sunday, 6 October 2013

Good Morning Vietnam!

Believe it or not I watched the movie 'Good Morning Vietnam' for only the first time whilst I was in Zambia earlier this year.  It was one of the many films Mum had recorded off the TV and sent to me to while away the evenings in Lusaka when the electricity cut out.  I don't think Robin William's catch phrase will ever leave me after watching the film and I'm sure this country has left a similar print on my consciousness after having travelled it's length over the past 2 weeks.


The noise and frenetic energy of Vietnam hit me the minute I landed in Hanoi.  I was met at the airport quite late at night.  The sky was ink black yet there were lights everywhere as Vietnam's famous motorbikes and cyclos whizzed around, carrying whole families, pigs, numerous bags of rice, window frames and many more things.  Given the darkness I was a little nervous riding solo in car with a man I had never met and more importantly couldn't communicate with.  However, as he whisked me through the winding streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter, streets from my photocopied Rough Guide map started to appear and I was quickly checked into my hotel, the Little Hanoi Diamond, in the heart Hanoi's old town.  The owner, Mr Zoom (you gotta love that name) could not have been more hospitable and friendly and he quickly had me checked into the biggest room of my trip so far.  It was a veritable 5th floor palace and even came with a large throne like chair, complete with red velvet cushion, and 2 gigantic double beds.  I made the decision to venture out and try and get my bearings but to be honest I didn't succeed and was quickly lost amongst the winding backstreet alleys.  There were so many things to look at and smell on the streets I was mesmerised.  Thankfully a local lady showed me the way back and it turned out I was only 2 streets away from the hotel, having walked in a vague circle!

I was woken early the next morning with rain thundering down on the hotel roof with the monsoon seasons very much in full swing.  This did not deter a keen backpacker like myself though and I ventured out to explore Hanoi, starting with the Ho Chi Minh (HCM) complex on the city's western side, just outside the Citadel wall.  The mausoleum was closed as HCM's body was in Russia being 'refreshed' however a number of other places in the complex were open.  The HCM museum was particularly interesting.  I'd done very little pre-reading before arriving in Vietnam and had, I guess, naively thought the main commentary would be related to the USA's actions in Vietnam.  However, it quickly became clear that the Vietnamese had a far greater issue with the French than the Americans.  The museum was very anti-French and went to great lengths to highlight the French oppression in the country's history.  The other focus of the museum was Vietnam's strong links and 'friendship' with the Russians, indeed the whole first floor of the museum was dedicated to this.  The HCM mausoleum itself has a very soviet design and there is even a park, Lenin Park, in the south of Hanoi dedicated to Russia's famous leader and supporter of communist Vietnam.  Indeed, my guide claimed that Ho Chi Minh had asked for his body to be cremated after his death but such was Russia's influence that this was ignored with the Russians funding the building of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.

In an attempt to dry out a little and taste some of the local food I then headed to KOTO which is cafe run by an Australian charity, opposite the Temple of Literature.  KOTO is a not-for-profit restaurant and vocational training program where the staff consist primarily of former street children who have received training in catering through KOTO itself or other similar charities.The organisation was started in 1996 by an Australian of Korean-Vietnamese origin Jimmy Pham. He asked street children what they needed to make a start in life and their answer was "we need skills so we can find stable jobs". The name of the organisation comes from the phrase "Know One, Teach One", part of a quote by its founder:

"The greatest accomplishment for the person who has helped you, is to see you stand on your own two feet and then in turn help someone else that reminds you of yourself, because if you Know One, then you should Teach One."

I tried KOTO's Bún chả. Bún chả is a Vietnamese dish of grilled pork & noodle, which is thought to have originated from Hanoi. Bun cha is served with grilled fatty pork (chả) over a plate of white rice noodle (bún) and herbs with a side dish of dipping sauce. The dish was described in 1959 by Vietnamese food writer Vu Bang (1913–1984) who described Hanoi as a town "transfixed by bún chả." Hanoi’s first bún chả restaurant was on Gia Ngư, Hoàn Kiếm District, in Hanoi's Old Quarter.  You see cafes selling it literally everywhere but I would highly recommend the dish and indeed KOTO as a great place to have a lazy lunch.

After lunch I set about exploring the Old Quarter environ in which my hotel was located.  The Old Quarters is said to have 36 main streets with each selling a different ware.  Historically, the streets were part of mini compounds where merchant families focusing on a single trade would live and trade.  Alot of these 'compounds' also have their own temples.  The focus of trade has definitely changed over the years as I found entire streets focused on selling sellotape and zips but the setup really does make it easy to shop.  The street that stood out however, was one selling toys/masks/games.  The country was soon to celebrate Children's Day and so this street was alive with al sort of small gifts and toys to make children smile.  There were masks, hats and most importantly funky plastic spectacles.  I bought a pair designed around a bicycle with the eye holes as wheels - very cool.

There were many other things I saw in Hanoi however, the thing I remember most is my Spa days.  I checked myself into a lovely looking place on Ma May street 2 days on the trot and let the ladies do their work.  On the first day I had a spa pedicure and manicure where my feet were placed in a wooden bowl of cinnamon & rose petals to soften them up.  This was followed by a rough coffee scrub and 30min leg massage.  It was divine but also sometimes mildly painful as she squeezed and moved my tired muscles.  Finally, she filed my fingernails and toenails and painted them a wonderful rich red colour.  I now felt I fitted in in glamorous Hanoi.  The second day I had a hot stone massage lasting 90 minutes.   At times this involved the petite Vietnamese masseuse literally climbing onto my spine and moving her knees along its length.  It was actually very good.  She heated up the hot stones in a wooden bucket next to me and you could hear the stones fizzing in the hot water as they absorbed the heat.  She then massaged and pummeled me with the boiling stones for an hour, leaving the hot stones on areas of my boy, under towels, once that area had been massaged to keep the muscles loose, it was simple divine.  I swear I was half asleep when she finished and I found myself very reluctant to get up at the end :)


After being in Hanoi for 3 days I took a journey out to Halong Bay.  Halong Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site with thousands of limestone karst islands rising from the Gulf of Tonkin.  I arrived in the late morning but you could see the attraction of the islands here which are dotted with beaches and grottoes generated by wind and waves.  I took an overnight boat cruise amongst the islands and passed some wonderful hours sunbathing on the deckchairs on deck and kayaking in and out of the islands.  We also got off the boat to explore some giant cave structures that had formed within the karst islands over time.  The roof height within the caves was very low but nothing like as low as the Cu Chi tunnels I visited later in the trip!!

The boat crew cooked up and amazing seafood dinner for us including whole crabs, gigantic prawns, fresh mussels and fish. The fish was served under an orange net carved from carrot.  It wasn't 'glued' together but a single piece of carved vegetable of approximate dimensions 5mm x 25cm x 10cm.  I asked the chef to show me how it was made as it was so delicate and intricate.  You will have to wait until I'm home and I host an Asian dinner party to find out if the chef's tips worked and I am able to recreate that splendor.


After an overnight journey on the Reunification Express train, which was very similar to a Chinese Soft Sleeper experience, I arrived in Hue. Huế is the capital city of Thừa Thiên–Huế Province. Between 1802 and 1945, it was the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty.  Huế originally rose to prominence as the capital of the Nguyễn Lords, a feudal dynasty which dominated much of southern Vietnam from the 17th to the 19th century. In 1775 when Trịnh Sâm captured it, it was known as Phú Xuân. In 1802, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh (later Emperor Gia Long) succeeded in establishing his control over the whole of Vietnam, thereby making Huế the national capital.

During the Vietnam War, Huế’s central location very near the border between the North and South put it in a vulnerable position. In the Tết Offensive of 1968, during the Battle of Huế, the city suffered considerable damage not only to its physical features, but its reputation as well, most of it from American firepower and bombings on the historical buildings as well as the massacre at Huế committed by the communist forces. After the war’s conclusion, many of the historic features of Huế were neglected because they were seen by the victorious regime and some other Vietnamese as "relics from the feudal regime" however many historical areas of the city are now being restored.

I arrived in Hue to heavy rains as a typhoon was on its way.  Some carriages on the overnight train had flooded as there'd been so much rain overnight but mine, thankfully, remained dry.  As further rainfall was expected, with consequent increases in the depth of the Perfume river, I had to go straight from the train to my boat trip.  It was a very close call at some points as the boat had, I'd guess, only about 50cm of clearance under the bridges due to rising water levels. 

The boat trip took me to Thien Mu Pagoda which is known as an icon of modern Vietnam and as potent a symbol of Hue as the Citadel.  During the summer of 1963, Thien Mu Pagoda, like many in South Vietnam, became a hotbed of anti-government protest. South Vietnam's Buddhist majority had long been discontented with the rule of President Ngo Dinh Diem since his rise to power in 1955. Diem had shown strong favouritism towards Catholics and discrimination against Buddhists in the army, public service and distribution of government aid.  However, the pagoda gained particular notoriety in 1963 when Thich Quang Duc, a monk from the pagoda, drove an Austin motor vehicle to Saigon and conducted self-immolation in protest to against the Diem regime. Thien Mu Pagoda still houses the powder blue Auston car in memory of this action. This was the first of a series of self-immolations by members of the Buddhist clergy, which brought the plight of Buddhists to the attention of the international community. 

Hue, due to its role as the old capital of Vietnam, is home to many emperor's tombs and Vietnam's main Citadel.  I visited the Tomb of Tu Duc.  He designed it for himself for use before & after his death.  It was very expensive to build & he used forced labour to construct it.  The use of such labour spawned a coup plot that was discovered & suppressed in 1866.  In general, Tu Duc lived life of luxury & carnal excesses with 104 wives but no offspring; such was his paranoia about being assassinated that he had his harem checked for weapons before entering his bedroom.  The water around the tomb is called Luu Khiem Lake and Tu Duc had an island built in the lake for game hunting. The Xung Khiem pavillion on site used to be used for poetry recitals by his concubines for the emperors pleasure and the honour courtyard was where he was worshipped - you had to pass a guard of elephants and horses to get to it.

The day I visited this tomb coincided with the arrival of a typhoon in Hue so it was a very very wet and windy day.  To say I got soaked is an understatement.  It was a pretty scary day all in all as the streets outside / around the hotel were seriously flooded.  The locals carried on as normal but you could see many concerned western faces about town.

The storm passed without too much damage and the following day was alot brighter.  This was very good fortune as it was the start of Mid-Autumn festivities in the Chinese calendar.  The streets were alive all days with drumming and young people conducting Dragon dances in the street, causing multiple road blocks :)  If  you were willing to pay a small fee the dancers would come into your property and bless it for the coming year.  My hotel participated in this as the lobby area was jam packed with festival goers and gyrating dragons - quite a sight.  It was nice to feel we were blessed...maybe this would stop any future storms?!

That same day I paid to go on a 'Countryside' tour.  The guide referred to himself as Mr Happy and he certainly lived up to his name.  We visited an old amphitheatre where the King and his subjects used to watch fights between Tigers and Elephants.  Mr Happy did a wonderful impression of an Elephant picking up a Tiger with his trunk, resting it on its back and then reversing into the wall to kill it.  It was like watching a slapstick Hunchback of Notre Dam and had us all completely captivated.  

We also visited a local village and saw more Mid Autumn festivities in the form of Dragon Boat racing in the local river.  The participants, in teams of 6, had to row up the river to a marked bamboo stick and back again, trying to beat each other.  When they crossed the finishing line, first of last, two old ladies in a dugout canoe would splash them with water and chuckle to themselves, it was very entertaining.  Despite Vietnam's belief that a woman's role is in the home (many a local guide emphasised this and highlighted the pinka dn blue jobs!) I was pleased to see female teams in the race - progress indeed!  The day finished with a dinner at a local home.  The highlights were: Pumpkin Soup, Chicken & Lemongrass in Claypot and Stir Fried Green Jackfruit although everything was delicious.  The Pumpkin Soup was buy far the best dish I have tasted on my travels so far and was a wonderful, creamy blend of peanuts, pumpkin and coconut.  I am on the hunt for the recipe, if anyone can help.


Next stop on Vietnamese adventure was Hoi An.  I travelled there via the Hải Vân Pass which is approximately 21km long.  The road traverses a spur of the Annamite mountain range which juts into the South China Sea, on the border of Đà Nẵng and Thừa Thiên–Huế Province. Its local name, Ocean Cloud Pass, refers to the mists that rises from the sea, reducing visibility. Historically, the pass was a physical division between the kingdoms of Champa and Dai Viet. The road twists and turns through the mountain and looked like quite a challenge to drive.  The midway stopping point near the crest of the mountain gave beautiful vistas of both the South China sea and Danang city. 

After traversing the mountain we stopped in Danang to visit the Cham Museum, dedicated to artifacts of the Champa kingdom.  This was fascinating as it was like stepping into another country.  The Champa kingdom was a Hindu kingdom that controlled what is today central Vietnam from approximately the 7th century through to 1832, before being conquered and annexed by the Vietnamese people. The museum held thousands of archeological finds from temples in the area and so had lots of Dvarapala (or temple guardian) and Shiva stone carvings.  You really got the sense of the difference between the North & Central Vietnam regions by visiting this museum.  Later I saw such artefacts on a larger scale at the My Son temple complex, just outside Hoi An.  Unfortunately it was heavily destroyed during the Vietnam war but you could appreciate the old power of the kingdom when you saw this complex of c.150 Cham temples.

After Danang, I headed to Hoi An, my base for the next 3 nights.  Hoi An was one of Southeast Asia's major international ports and it is a charming little town with lots of narrow trading streets, many these days selling tailoring services, a renowned skill in the region.  The town is also famous for its covered bridge in the centre of town which was built by the Japanese when they occupied the area.  

I opted out of having tailored clothes made and instead took a dawn boat trip out to a local fishing village.  The boat left at 5am from a pier near my hotel; it was quite tricky finding the pier and the right boat in the dark as the streets were very much like those in Zambia as they had no street lights.  Anyway, I found the boat and we kicked off from shore, the captain steering our little fishing boat out in the dark waters.  It was a fabulous sight seeing the sunrise, the sky first went shades of grey-y black and then gradually went into deep reds and oranges, it was perfect for testing my amateur photography skills.  We passed many local couples (husband and wife teams) sailing in their boats, dropping new fishing nets or hauling in their catches from the previous night.  As dawn arrived we reached our fishing village and jumped ashore.

The 'professional' fishermen are all male and the tradition is that they bring their hauls ashore and the ladies of the town take over, weighing and sorting the fish / shellfish and trading them in the local market.  Needless to say the men were busy drinking coffee (or often something alot stronger) whilst playing cards / board games as this was going on! It was quite amazing to see, not only the clear segregation of duties within the community but also the processes taking place.  At first sight it looked mildly chaotic with fish/shellfish flapping about in bamboo baskets all over the floor but if you watched carefully it did have its own kind of order.  

Also in the village, along the harbour front, you found local craftsmen, many building or repairing the boats for fishermen.  They were very carefully woven constructs, from bamboo I think, and I have a wonderful photograph (to be uploaded later I hope) of a very old gentleman, cigarette dangling from his lips mending a old conacle boat.   On the return to Hoi An town we passed many older ladies in these little conacles, weaving in and out of the reeds checking their fish traps.  These weren't professionals but local people just fishing for their own sustinance.  There were many fish net/trap designs along river, many made from bamboo.  Our captain says they tended not to contain bait but instead relied on basic intrigue with fish swimming into the maze of bamboo and getting lost and therefore trapped - very clever, I thought!

Also whilst in Hoi An I took a Vietnamese cookery lesson at The Little Menu restaurant.  In my opinion, it was more of a demonstration than a lesson as it took place in the restaurant's working kitchen and we only did some minor cookery ourselves.  However, I learnt alot of good techniques and recipes and am dying to try them at home.  It's a well known joke that I don't eat salad (possible, one of the few women who doesn't!) but it is testament to the chef's excellent cookery skills that I he got me eating plates and plates of the Green Papaya salad.  It was divine, yes Mum, you read that correctly!  I also learnt how to cook tuna in banana leaf.  The tuna was so fresh and the marinade ingredients so fragrant and pure that we got to try the mixture raw before streaming it in the banana leaf - it was top class and I almost preferred it raw :)  I also learnt how to make Vietnamese spring rolls, and they're very very different from the Chinese ones I made in Beijing - who'd have thought it.  The spring rolls in Vietnam and commonly made with a lattice kind of pancake made from a rice flour / water mixture and felt lighter to taste than their Chinese counterparts. My backpack is regretting it now, as its weight has increased, but I bought a pack of the spring roll wrappers and a nifty little gadget to make the Papaya Salad.



My penultimate stop in Vietnam was the Mekong Delta.  Right at the southern tip of Vietnam the Mekong Delta is Vietnam's rice basket and it produces 3 rice harvests a year relative to the 1 or 2 in other areas of the country.  It is a lush watery landscape of green fields and sleepy villages intersected by canals fed from the mighty Mekong River.  In one direction the Mekong River goes to Saigon, the other to Cambodia. The river bank is lined with lush rice paddies, fish farms and brick factories which use a byproduct of rice production, the rice husks, as their fuel. For many, including myself, the delta's attraction is the river life of colourful floating markets and home cooked delicacies.

I took an overnight trip into the delta which started at the floating markets.  Basically, each boat in the market advertises its wares by tying a sample at the top of a large bamboo pole on their boat.  It's a bit like a 'food flag' to show what they are selling hence there were pineapples, turnips, potatoes flying high in the wind as we approached the market.  In general families harvest their crops and then sail to the market area, living on their boat with the produce for 2-3 days or until all theirs wares are sold.  Unfortunately the markets are dwindling now the supermarkets and grocers shops are being built on the islands but there were still a good two dozen boats out selling when I visited. 

My next stop in the delta was a kind of local 'food factory.  They specialised in making the local delicacies of: Coconut Candy, Popped Rice and Snake Wine.  The Popped Rice process was the most impressive to me.  It began with burning rice husks to heat a pot of black sand until it was smoking hot.  Then, rice was added to the sand and paddled by hand until the rice 'popped' and created a huge pot of gigantic rice krispies.  The mixture was then sieved, over the original pot, so as to isolate the popped rice but not waste the valuable black sand.  Next in another pot, also heated by rice husks, a sort of coconut caramel was created from palm sugar and coconut milk.  The cooled rice krispies were then added to the caramel and paddled to coat them in the caramel before being pressed into moulds and cut into bite sized sugary morsels - yum yum.  Needless to say I steered well clear of the Snake Wine having seen enough snakes to last me a lifetime in Africa!!

I spent the night in the delta staying with a local family on one of the delta's many islands.  The rooms were basic with thin mattresses on top of raised tables under a mosquito net but they had fantastic hammocks on the property' deck which you could swing in whilst chilling and watching local boats paddle up the creek.  They even let me help with preparation of the evening meal, cooking over a wood burning stove.  There was a feast of Taro rolls, steamed fish in lemongrass to self wrap in rice papers, freshly caught prawns and claypot chicken :)

My stay in the delta concluded the following morning with a row up the local canals, watching the world go by and generally having a nosy into the local peoples' daily routine / housing arrangements.  Needless to say I was neither strong enough or willing enough to row myself through the narrow creeks so a local lady did the job for me.  Despite her petite stature she had the boat whizzing along.  The boats are rowed forwards with the oars woman at the back of boat standing, moving the arms in a circular motion.  It wasn't at all how I expected as I thought it'd be like punting in Cambridge - he he.



The final treat in Vietnam was Saigon or Ho Chi Minh (HCM) City as its more formally titled.  Again, this wasn't at all as I expected.  There was alot more of the French influence here than in Hanoi with the main city's distrct, District 1, full of wide boulevards and flashy shops.  My hotel for example, at a cost of only 30 GBP a night, was situated next to Gucci - rock on! 

I spent many happy days in Saigon meandering around the shops and cafes and generally taking some time to relax after my whirlwind North-South Vietnam extravaganza.  Of course I visited the standard Reunification Palace (strong Soviet influence here!) and War Remnants Museum however my favourite 'find' from this time was the HCM Fine Arts Museum.  

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts is the major art museum of HCM City and covers three floors which house huge collections of Vietnamese art works in sculpture, oil, silk painting and lacquer painting, as well as traditional styles including woodcut paintings in the Hàng Trống, Đông Hồ, and Kim Hoàng styles.  The building itself is a stunner; its a classical yello/white colonial building with an inner courtyard and open balconies on the upper levels, over looking this space.  The floors in each room, and even the corridor, are beautifully pieces of tiling artwork.  I'd found this more often than I expected and I was surprised 'tiles' weren't more prominently advertised in Vietnamese art.

The oil paintings pertaining to the Vietnam were particularly poignant and striking and they were displayed in a very neutral way, allowing you to interpret and reflect on them yourself, unlike some of works in the War Remnants Museum which were unfortunately presented in a very one-sided manner.  Also, of note were the laquerware paintings.  I had seen laquerware all over Asia and Vietnam but it had always in the form of objects such as boxes / vases etc so I was surprised to see paintings of scale c. 5m x 2m hanging on the walls.  They were so captivating in their detail and skill, I sat gazing at them for longer than I remember.  Finally, I am sure many people oversee them but the courtyard outside the second gallery and indeed the inner courtyard of the museum contained a collection of modern stone sculptures, again an artform I had not expected in this region.  They had some poignant sculptures pertaining to the war but also some slightly comedic pieces relating to local customs and life.  It was unexpected find / treat.   

Also whilst in Saigon, I took a trip out to the Cu Chi tunnels.  The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Saigon and were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War.  They also formed the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The Viet Cong soldiers used to use them as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped to counter the growing American military effort.

The tunnels blew my mind with over 250 km of tunnels in 4 levels under the ground.  I'm not sure of the original tunnel dimensions as they'd been 'widened' for tourists but the one I went down seemed less than a 1m diameter and an extremely tight fit for someone of my build. I managed to go down the first level but I simply couldn't contort my body small enough to pass through the tunnel to the second level down, it was that tight.  I don't get claustrophobic normally but that place was making me feel uncomfortable - Dad I think you'd have freaked out at the first bend!

Another highlight of the Cu Chi museum was the demonstration of the ways in which the Viet Cong used ingenious ways to trick the opposition using simple tools and equipment.  For example, they used to collect the tyres from abandoned US trucks and use the rubber to make sandals for the troops.  However, the trick comes in the sandal design.  They used to design the sole of the sandals back to front with the heel print at the front and the toe print at the front, despite them being worn in the normal way.  This way, when the soldiers walked they left a footprint trail indicating the soldier had walked in the opposite direction - genius hey!   

As you can probably tell, they're oodles more I could write about my time in Vietnam and all the quirky, interesting characters I met and foods I tried.  I haven't even started to tell you about all the wonderful foods I tried (Che desserts are to die for!) but for now that will have to suffice as I have Thailand to explore and enjoy.

Adios amigos :)


  1. The Cu Chi tunnels would be a definite no-no for me as the tunnel under the English Channel is too small for me, even in the train!
    Looking forward to trying all the various dishes you describe. Lets hope you can source all the ingredients you need.
    I have seen the photo of Noah wearing the bicycle spectacles. He looks real cool dude! Not long now until you can see him and encounter his 'raspberry blowing' skills. XOXO

  2. PS The kitchen wall , shelves and postcard-holder are fully covered now. Good job you are coming home soon!