Holidays and Other Excursions

Tag: Hanoi

Homeward Bound

Day 21 Monday 5 January 2015 arriving Tuesday 6 January 2015

Collection is not until 5pm so we have most of a day to kill before transferring to HCM airport; local flight to Hanoi and then onto London Gatwick.  The only excitement is that since we arrived in Hanoi three weeks earlier they have opened the new International terminal and so we are bussed between the domestic and international terminals.  I assume in the longer term this will be a little better organised as they were not really able to explain what was happening (and clearly no-one has planned a proper shuttle between the two).

From hotel door to our front door is getting close to 24 hours, especially as the incompetence of FGW to run a proper service locally means we have to go to Wokingham and use the new lifts and come back again.  This line needs electrification and a proper “Southern” regular interval service – two slow trains and a fast each hour and it might be approaching the standards of Sir Herbert Walker.

Time for some summaries:

VJV – they normally operate this tour in the reverse direction but the date we wanted was not available, so my experiences are slightly non-standard. However the tour content was first class; the arrangements all worked and we have thanked them for their efforts.
Asian Trails provided the guides and drivers except when we were on the Mekong Prestige II and all went well with them – helpful and willing and able to make variations as we wished – adding the tour in Hanoi and changing the itinerary at Cai Be was not a problem at all.
Rivages du Monde are responsible for the Mekong Prestige II.  Their Cambodian guide for the English group was not great and definitely fell a notch below the skills seen elsewhere.  OTOH everything on the cruiser and on the shore visits went well.  Matthias was their on board representative and I owe him an apology for a being a little short on arrival – his efforts during the rest of the week were outstanding and I hope he enjoyed the trip.

A wonderful selection – Movenpick in Hanoi, Palais Juliana in Luang Prabang, Grand in HCM being outstanding.  Tara Angkor in Siem Reap and the eco-friendly hotel in Cai Be fell short of the levels achieved in the other three.  At Cai Be the main problem, inevitable due to local recruitment, was poor English and in my view inadequate staff training.  A lovely location. The Tara Angkor seemed a little odd – I have detailed our problems in our time at Siem Reap.  I am hopeful that it was one of those where once it went wrong, it just kept going wrong for us and other visitors may have a perfect visit.  Revision of the breakfast offering (no bacon two days, no meats) for western tastes would help a lot (as would solid whites as well as solid yolks on hard boiled eggs).

Everything we saw felt worthwhile and made for a wonderful holiday.  There are no doubt many other sites worth seeing and places worth visiting in this part of the world – but to get a real feel of the countries we felt that we had a great time and those following the photos the wife was posting have agreed.

Physically there was only one “hard” bit – ascending Phousi Hill in Luang Praabang – and frankly that is down to this traveller being out of condition.  We did not visit the upper cave for similar reasons.  Otherwise the walking was easy and the temperatures were decent (a lot warmer in the south).

Grand Summary
In case you have not already guessed we had a great time and would recommend this trip to anyone.  We might not have got answers to all the questions on events over the last 30 years – but the internet can provide those answers!

Finally this blog will be back with further travels.  A grand trip across large parts of Canada is booked along with a visit to Sicily.  If you have read it, then thank you very much.  I will be tarting up and improving the blog as time allows (and if anyone spots any errors I will be putting them right as well).

Be back soon.

Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Daisim

Day 20 Sunday 4 January 2015

An early start as we travelling north today to see the preserved parts of the Cu Chi tunnels which formed a part of the Ho Chi Minh trails used to supply the fighters in south Vietnam during the wars against the French and later the Americans.

The tunnels were extensive around Cu Chi and ran at several levels.  First a metre underground allowed the guerillas to move around to confront ground troops, whilst a lower level permitted protection from falling bombs.  Within the tunnels there were other facilities to provide for some hospitals, areas to protect women and children, cooking and dining  facilities as well preparing weapons.

And the album of photographs:

The average Vietnamese at the time of the wars was between 120cm and 150cm tall and this meant that the tunnels could be fairly small and easily excavated in the soil around the Saigon river as there were no rocks or other impediments to the tunnelling.  The tunnels were originally commenced simply as undergound bunkers during the French war of independence to provide safety and protection and over a period of time they were linked together to provide something entirely more functional and useful.  These tunnels were built by local people who were working with the North Vietnamese and essentially were not directly part of any north Vietnamese army.  They wanted communism and were therefore fighting the war, supported by supplies from the north.

In one direction they also allowed access to the river bank and up into the country into deep forest.  They had very small access points which could easily be hidden with dry leaves to allow the guerillas to confront a force of ground troops and also to appear behind them easily.

Foreign news correspondents captured some evidence on film of the tunnels and this is played to us together with an explanation of the size of the tunnels and their usage before we inspect the physical remains.  Some of the pictures demonstrate the tunnels and also some of the traps which were used against the ground forces.  Typically the traps were developed by the villagers for use against animals and vermin and then scaled up to be used against the army.  Some of them look pretty painful and were no doubt effective.

When it comes to entering the tunnel I can get down to the first level but looking down I can see that the only way I could progress would be on my hands and knees and even then it would probably not help my back when I came to climb out the far end.  I therefore retreat before I get stuck.  After all Winnie-the-Pooh had to give up hunny for days before he could be freed from being stuck in Rabbit’s hole.  I might miss the plane home!

The underground fires for cooking had their own tunnels so that the smoke would issue at a distance and even if spotted an attack would not be on the kitchen itself.

Quite often the US troops would abandon armaments and these would be carefully stripped to remove explosives so that they could be re-used in weapons against the Americans.  Shoewear (sandals) were made by deconstructing rubber tyres and re-using them.  This practice was also adopted by the Khmer Rouge in Campuchea.

I believe in total there was over 1000 km of tunnels and whilst the US brought in extra heavy tanks to effectively compress them, this only worked on those immediately under the surface and not those at a lower level.  And of course B52 bombing had some impact – but not enough to stop the supplies coming through.

We head away from the tunnel area and further away from HCM City to Tay Ninh where the master Cao Dai temple is located.  We arrive just before 12:00 in time for the chanting ceremony (which happens in total 4 times per day).  Visitors are allowed to observe from the rear of the temple and some photographs were taken.  In decoration the temple is very similar to the one already seen in Sa Dec but much larger.  It is a physically impressive building with the same use of bright colours.

As we do not understand the chanting a fifteen minute observation is adequate and we repair to a local restaurant in the town nearby (along with, I note, many of the other tourists seen earlier!).  This time we do not quite get all of the meal at once (it is a fixed menu) and the soup arrives first; then just about everything else, apart from the rice which turns up a determined ten minutes later just as most of what had arrived before had been consumed.  Not too spicy and all very fresh – both in terms of the ingredients and obviously the cooking!

It is quite a long journey back to our hotel but we are dropped off outside the Notre Dame cathedral and opposite the Post Office.  These are two of the buildings which have survived and not been redeveloped.  Both attractive in their own ways, although we do not enter either.  We then have a nice wander back to our hotel observing at least one bride being photographed with the cathedral as a backdrop,

Dinner is on the 20th floor of the Grand Hotel where we consume a modest pizza and caesar salad, both well prepared and enjoy the view over the harbour and of the surrounding neighbourhood.  Our sightseeing is over.

Ho Chi Minh City and Port

Day 19 Saturday 3 January 2015

This morning commences with a trip to what is now known as the “Re-Unification Palace” but was originally the Preseidential Palace from the time of construction in the early 1960’s until the end of South Vietnam in 1975.

For a period post 1975 some of the contents were sold and so some aspects of the private quarters are reconstructions.  The main presidential offices however are as they were at the time of the later Presidents whilst South Vietnam existed.  The President’s office and the main meeting rooms are as they were then – and how they were used to greet visitors – domestic and international.

In an interesting echo of our visit nearly three weeks ago to the Ho Chi Minh residence and adjacent bunker used during the war periods when bombs were being dropped on Hanoi, there is a similarly well defended area under the Re-unification Palace for the South Vietnamese President.  There is a direct route from the President’s office to the underground bunker – which has two levels and the level one metre underground has been opened to visitors.  There is a command room, a president’s room (and bedroom) and a security and communication rooms.  There was also a deeper level which was believed could not be reached by exploding bombs but this has not been opened up.

The photographs can be found here:

Looking at the building externally the architecture is clearly of that era and given the nature of the concrete I hope that it will be maintained for the future.  Therer are maps both in the security council room above ground and in the command bunker below showing the battle areas and reminding us of the Ho Chi Minh trails which led from north to south.  Peak US soldier deployment was 1969/70, at which point the army losses were so heavy and the US forces decided to adopt a new approach – described by one of the senior officers that they intended to bomb North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age”.

Our next visit is to the musem which is now called “War Remnants” which earlier had the name “War Crimes” and the thrust of the place really reflects the latter approach.  It lays out the story of US involvement – which started far sooner than I realised – in Vietnam from the late Forties through to 1975.

For those as ignorant as myself it turns out that the Americans were largely funding the activities of the French in seeking to restore colonial power after the declaration on independence as the Americans were at the time dependent on supplies of Tin and Tungsten from the area.  Once the French had failed at Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva convention separated the country into two, ostensibly for a short period.  In that period those in charge in the South became heavily influenced by the Americans and so the planned elections and re-unification never happened.

The War Remnants Museum mainly exposes the illegal activities of the US forces, their brutality and of course the application of napalm and agent orange for the defoliation of the forested areas.  There are tributes to the reporters who covered the conflict and many of the telling photographs which made an impression then are visible.  This includes the famous print of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked girl running from a napalm attack.

There is an entire room dedicated to the after effects of the use of agent orange (dioxin) and the impact on subsequent generations, causing numerous deformities and other defects in those descended from people who suffered exposure.  Room is also given to the work undertaken post war by Vietnamese to recover and identify their lost compatriots.

When I was taught history I was told that the winners always write the history books and this museum is a perfect representation of that theory.  The guerilla war had already been lost by the French in 1953 and consequently the Americans were (in hindsight) on a hiding to nothing throughout the sixties and seventies (a theory made stronger by what we are told at the Cu Chi tunnels – see tomorrow).

By way of providing some balance the land mines laid by the Vietnamese in Laos to protect the northern part of the trail which are still there and are not identified is not mentioned and yet it is one of the highest concentrations of land mines in the world.

We have time for a brief visit to the Central Market and this is even more packed than some of the others we have visited.  Were I still working as this is one of those places that reckons they can make a suit in 24 hours I would have done so.  Looking at the fabrics the quality seemed good and it was one of those things that I simply wanted to try.  But now I might wear a suit once a month and probably the ones I have will last a lifetime.  After some hunting around the wife buys some hazelnut coffee, neither of us fancy the squirrel or weasel coffee.  And some further hunting produces a “Mont Blanc” bag with a zip along the top for me and a new baseball style “Vietnam” cap as the old one is filthy.  It will be interesting to see how long the real leather bag lasts.  The sales woman proved it was real leather by use of a lighter – so at least she has confidence in her products.  I doubt it is real “Mont Blanc” however.

In the evening we have a great time.  We board a boat of fun to go around the Saigon river and there is lots of good food being cooked and a real mix of entertainment.  The band playing are very competent and the singers perform well – upbeat and far more fun than the singers on Xmas Eve,  There are also dancers who not only do a local dance but also belly dancing and lead a conga around the ship!  A magician appears at our table – wearing a short sleeved shirt, so there is clearly nothing hidden up his sleeves – and he is able, under our noses to make pieces of string change length become interlocked, and then revert to single pieces and makes little balls vanish and re-appear.   Whilst all basic staples of the close up magician his misdirection and skill mean that there is not the faintest clue as to how it is all done.  And for some of the tricks it is the second time we have seen them this week.  Amazing skills.  We really feel that this evening was a great entertainment and it certainly put a smile on our faces.

From the river we could also see the other boats and some of the waterfront and sadly the pictures cannot do that justice but the buildings which have been developed in recent years certainly give the City a status and whilst perhaps not quite as clean as Hanoi, it is certainly a very modern city.

Vietnam (north) – another day

Day 3 Thursday 18 December 2014

Good and varied breakfast in the Movenpick, but avoiding the local delicacies on offer we stick to a continental breakfast as we have a busy day in Hanoi.    Our first planned stop is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but on seeing numerous school children in long lines our guide aborts this visit and we head off to the Temple of Literature.  Originally constructed as a school for Royal children, it was later extended to become the first University and major place of learning where in the fifteenth to seventeeth centuries the people who learnt here were very important with examination success being recorded on impressive stone tablets.  The teachings of Confucius (of whom there is a statue) and the three Kings responsible for extending education are honoured in the Temple.  Whilst some aspects of the teachings of Confucius might not match modern life they formed the bedrock of society here for a long time.  Despite the bustle outside it is a quiet and peaceful area.

Today’s photographs are at

We then return to the Mausoleum where we can see the body of Ho Chi Minh, although poorly – first tip here is that if you have reactolite glasses they look like sun glasses so the (armed) guards politely and silently request removal.  Not a problem unless like my wife and I you can see not a lot!  Surreptiously putting them back on and off and not missing a step (you need to keep in step you know) as you pass the great man is quite a struggle for both of us.

Back in the open air we rejoin our guide and enter the remaining complex where we are outside the French colonial head quarters built for the Governor of French Indo-China.  The whole of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand were controlled from here and indeed the country boundaries were redrawn by the French which has ed to many significant changes in the separate countries as becomes clear in Cambodia later in our journey.

We hear more detail of the French colonial period which was effectively ended by Ho Chi Minh.  The French were in control from the middle of the nineteenth century until the Japanese took control.  At the end of the war in 1945 Vietnam declared independence but the French returned seeking to take back control.  They built  a massive garrison at Dien Bien Phu in a deep wooded valley from which to control the Vietnamese.  However the guerilla tactics adopted by the Vietnamese – building narrow paths to the top of the surrounding hills under cover of mists prevented French aerial visibility and the narrow valley enabled supply lines to be cut easily.  Eventually the French suffered a massive defeat and as a result of a peace treaty Vietnam was divided into North, controlled by Ho Chi Minh and South Vietnam which was still linked with the French.

At one point Ho Chi Minh sought assistance from the USA but in that period it was isolationist and would not assist, so not surprisingly help was sought from the Russians.  It makes you wonder how different history would have been in this part of the world if the USA had helped?

Ho Chi Minh would not take up residence in the fine ex-French colonial headquarters preferring a much simpler house nearby which we can see from the outside.  This was temporary but the replacement house on stilts, which of course is common in Vietnam, was no more luxurious.  A man of and with the people who did believe “that we are all in this together” had very modest accommodation.  Adjacent was the effective “cabinet room” alongside a massive bunker which could be used when bombs were being dropped by the Americans from South Vietnamese airbases as the “war against communism” developed in the late sixties and early seventies.

This is however all in a beautiful parkland setting (or at least it is now) with a lake, trees and now well maintained grass.

In 1989 we may recall the fall of the Berlin Wall.  What I did not know was that in the same year (when we married – so I do have a wife on these travels) was that Communism was being reformed in Vietnam and Laos.  The new communism may not entirely match our political choice, but individuals have far more freedom and can travel abroad freely.  They buy and build businesses and land and we are struck everywhere in Vietnam (and later Laos) that there seem to be plentiful supplies of food and clothing.  Hanoi may be much different to the countryside, and I will write about Laos later, but certainly in the capital there seemed to be no shortages on anything.  And my wife (well she deserves a comment) notes how clean it is all seems compared to our trip last year to India.  Here streets are tidy and clean and unemployment is very low, with people no doubt employed to maintain this state of affairs.

Leaving this central area we go the Museum of Ethnology where the 54 different ethnic groupings within Vietnam are represented.  They have many different languages and backgrounds as they reflect moving populations, invasions and economic and social changes and the museum seeks to reflect this.

However in the grounds of the Museum is a small restaurant which works in the same way as “Jamie’s Fifteen”.  It takes youngsters and trains them in cooking, waiting and management skills and we have a very tasty lunch – more Hanoi soup first.

There are settings conveying the different living and working practices of the different ethnic groups.  Outside the main museum there are samples of various buildings from around Vietnam showing different types of construction – one of wood, one of bamboo, one with a thaatched type roof, some on the ground and others on stilts from those living on or close flood plains (perhaps we should adopt this in the UK!).  We did not take photos in this area but I can refer you to .  Strongly recommended for a visit.

We return to the City Centre for a light hearted trip (after the sight seeing) in a tuc tuc – man powered, not motorised – around the Old Quarter which is essentially a huge market.  The streets are teeming with food suppliers, clothing, shoes, jewellery, cafes etc.  Equally interesting was the street traffic.  Mopeds loaded up with boxes, goods for delivery or families (4 on a single moped was the largest number I saw.  Managed a photo of three.  Walking around there are still many ladies delivering in traditional style with a pole and baskets on each end and a pointed straw hat, although the numbers are declining as the population modernises.

Finally time for dinner and a huge step change tonight.  “San Ho” is an expensive fish restaurant which is almost opposite our hotel.  So no major exercise.  Food very good, but expensive by comparison with anything else and yet nothing to make us go “wow”.  Our choice but might have done better to go back to the same place as the night before!

Vietnam (north)

Day 2 Wednesday 17 December 2014

We are awoken (well we were not asleep) in what are theoretically the early hours but it is only 21:00 back in the UK.  Vietnam has a 7 hour time difference and following a not bad breakfast we are on descent into Hanoi.

First annoying experience, despite the cases being given priority stickers at Gatwick we endure a longish wait before they emerge.  Meanwhile we are entertained by four boxes apparently containing Johnnie Walker whisky going around and around on the carousel!

Exit with nothing to declare we are met by a young guide and meeting the two other ladies on this tour (whose bags had been first to emerge so had also had a long wait), we head to the hotel and get our first taste of the Hanoi rush hour.  Public transport seems a little lacking – as far as I can see they have built a new airport terminal to cope with growing traffic but there is no rail connection to the airport!  There is heavy use of mopeds / motorbikes with this being a very heavily used mode of transport.

Our first stop is a coffee and the Museum of History which enables our guide to give a run down of Vietnamese history over the last 2000 years.  Controlled by China until approx 1000AD, Hanoi was formed and became the capital of an independent country in 1004 AD.  Much of the next 400 years or so was to be subject to continued invasions from China until the Vietnamese under resourceful leaders seduced the Chinese navy into the mouth of the river where stakes had been buried which, as the tide dropped, trapped the invaders and enabled the Vietnamese troops to inflict a heavy defeat.  The tactic was so good that it was used a second time, the Chinese having apparently forgotten the history in the meantime.

This period ended when the French came and Hanoi became the headquarters for French Indo-China in the nineteenth century.  That initially ended with the Japanese invasion and so in 1945 with the Japanese withdrawal Vietnam became independent and certainly our guide considered this an important date.  Led by Ho Chi Minh the French returned with the intention of recovering Indo-China and the Vietnamese guerillas were born.

The French built a huge garrison at Dien Bien Phu in the north of the country in a deeply wooded valley.  As we acknowledged the mists hang around in the morning in winter and under this cover from aircraft the Vietnamese were able to construct narrow paths through the woods to the top of the surrounding hillsides and were able cut the land supply lines to the garrison and also to rain down firepower from the hillsides inflicting a heavy defeat.  The French surrendered the North and the country became divided into two – North and South Vietnam.
This album records our two days in Hanoi and are now in the order they were taken I think, so should match this blog a little more closely.

Hanoi has recently celebrated 1000 years of existence and has created a giant mural covering some 4 km along the major city road, parts of which we saw and appear in the photos.  We then drove around part of the city seeing the Lake of Restored sword and the temple at Quan Thanh temple which was at the north gate of the original city.

Following on from sleep in the afternoon we wandered around the corner from the Movenpick hotel with the intention of sampling some Vietnamese food.  Quan Ngon restaurant is an obviously popular place; after a false start a waitress with some English (and English is a much taught language in Vietnam we found) helped us through the menu and we ordered far too much.  Hanoi soup to start is an absolute must.  Either beef or chicken noodle – but good and refreshing.  The highlight was a shrimp speciality in a pancake.  But then we were also given rice paper and a variety of herbs and so with the shrimp pancake, herbs and lettuce and then roll up within the rice paper so that it is a little like we would eat crispy duck and pancake in the UK but also resembling a rice paper pring roll.  Crowned the best course however was a beef dish on various greens which was very tasty.  Plus some rice and other bits and pieces.

Time for bed.