June 01, 2010

From dawn to dusk, Vietnam thrums with an intoxicating energy

According to some pundits, the balance of wealth and power is going to shift to the east in the next few decades. Spend a couple of weeks in the dynamic nexus of activity which is Vietnam and most people would start thinking the same way in double quick time.

Central post office in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam

We started a three week tour of the country in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the largest city in Vietnam and one which many Vietnamese still refer to as Saigon, the title it held before the country's reunification in 1975. The Saigon river it was founded on is still a major transport artery and, over breakfast from the rooftop balcony of our hotel, we watched the waterway come alive each morning with hundreds of boats bearing consumer goods, building materials and people into the city's frantic heart.

All big conurbations are busy but the constant horns of the millions of scooters combined with the restless chatter of the street stallholders give HCMC a crackling, non-stop buzz. Perhaps because all this activity takes place in a hot, fecund atmosphere of incense, drains and street food, HCMC feels more visceral than sanitised cities such as New York or London.

Cu Chi tunnel, Vietnam

While the new high rises and recently opened international luxury brand outlets might point to Vietnam's possible future, old Saigon and the past are never far away. The Vietnamese refer to the conflict fought between 1964-75 as the American War and many of HCMC's most popular attractions are linked to those events. The War Remnants Museum is a sobering and gruesomely graphic testament to the inhuman carnage of the war while, an hour or so outside the city, the Cu Chi tunnels, an underground wartime stronghold, offer very definite clues as to why the Vietcong were the eventual victors.

Any people who are prepared to live and fight in a maze of tight, booby-trapped tunnels for 20 years have a level of determination and tenacity which counts for far more than sheer firepower.

After crawling through a sweaty, airless, 20-metre section of the tunnels, which had been especially widened for westerners, I had had enough. At its peak, the sprawling subterranean complex may have sported hospitals, dormitories and even dance floors but living there is almost unimaginable.

Hoan Kiem lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

About 700 miles north of Saigon, the capital Hanoi is more elegant than its thrusting southern counterpart but it is still a long way from sedate. Once colonial France's administrative centre in Vietnam, parts of Hanoi boast boulevards and yellow painted townhouses and look as though they have been dropped in from Paris. Although Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, where the Vietnamese queue for hours to see the embalmed remains of their former leader, owes more to Moscow's Red Square than the Champs Élysée.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is more fun to be had in the 36 Streets area of the old quarter. Dating back to the 13th century, this warren of streets was the focus for the city's trades and merchants and each street had its own speciality. Even today, there are entire streets dedicated to selling padlocks or towels or mysterious dried roots.

We perched on little stools at a crossroads pavement bar in the old quarter and supped 15p glasses of draught beer while snacking on dried squid heated over a charcoal brazier. Every now and then the police would come along and order all the stools to be moved off the road. Naturally, as soon as they were gone, all the stools moved back into the road with predictably chaotic consequences for the streams of mopeds passing through.

Even at 6am, Hanoi has a bit of pace to it. In the centre of the city is the Hoan Kiem Lake, home to a mythical turtle. By night, the lake is ringed with young, courting couples. Not long after daybreak, it is surrounded by folk doing Tai Chi, playing badminton or keepie-up with a shuttlecock in the city's cool morning air.

H’Mong ethnic girl in Sapa, Vietnam

Outwith the cities, the pace slows even if the day still tends to start early. From Hanoi, we took the sleeper train to Sapa, an old hill station close to the Chinese border. Sapa is an increasingly popular base for trekking in the surrounding mountains. It is also close to the tiny town of Bac Ha, which is notable for its Sunday market.

A social affair as much as a chance to trade, it attracts tribes such as the Black H'mong and Red Tsao from all over the surrounding countryside. Many of the women still wear traditional dress. We pitched up about 7am, around the same time that the locally distilled rice spirit starts being decanted from its five-gallon containers. As well as offering the chance to catch up with neighbours from across the valley, the market is like Tesco's, B&Q and a grooming parlour all rolled into one for the locals.

Everything is for sale at Bac Ha, from ploughs to ponies via python fat which looks like clusters of fat broad beans and is, apparently, good for skin burns. Locally grown tobacco sits in mounds along with pipes for customers who want to try before buying. Piglets are pulled squealing out of sacks. Water buffalo are prodded and haggled over while dogs are on offer as both pets and for the pot. In one corner, four or five barbers had hung their mirrors on a wall and customers were having al fresco haircuts. My beard was a prime target which, happily, I managed to keep intact.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

If the mountains of the north-west are an anthropological gold mine then the beaches of Vietnam are, for the most part, virgin territory for tourism. With over 1,000 miles of coastline, Vietnam has some stunning beaches, most yet to see the glint of a developer's eye. Yet its most valuable maritime asset for tourism is not a beach but the stunning Halong Bay.

A Unesco world heritage site, it consists of 3,000 limestone islets in the Gulf of Tonkin. Covered in dense green vegetation, they soar up out of the sea in fairy-tale clusters. They are riddled with caves and also play host to a floating village of fishing families, complete with a floating bank and school. Of course, even several miles out to sea, Uncle Ho is still around in the form of a picture which beams down at the schoolchildren from above the classroom blackboard. We did an overnight trip around Halong Bay on a beautifully fitted out junk.

After a seafood dinner, we fished for squid using a lamp and watched the moon cast a glow over the islands. Gently bobbing on the waves, hundreds of miles from the honking motos of the mainland, it was our most peaceful night in Vietnam.

Such tranquillity couldn't last. I woke the next morning and looked out of the porthole onto a flotilla of row boats all manned by women eager to sell their first tourist souvenir of the day. No matter what time of day or where you are in Vietnam, it is always open for business.

Source: The Scotsman - by Jonathan Trew

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